Looking for meaning in food
A recent documentary by Stefan Gates, Calf’s Head and Coffee, fell short of offering the ‘big idea’ it claimed, but it did illustrate the strange desire to find our cultural roots in food.
Britain has rarely been seen as having a sophisticated food culture of its own. But we do seem utterly obsessed with food today. Forget god - it is food programmes and books that seem to be omnipresent.
Just looking at the TV listings for today, I can check out Junior Masterchef and Masterchef: The Professionals, Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals and Come Dine With Me. A bit more digging turns up Man vs Food: The Carnivore Chronicles and Masterchef Australia. That’s not to mention any actual food channels.
A quick glance at Amazon UK’s best sellers list includes a lot of pre-Christmas celebrity biographies, a couple of children’s books and lots of cookbooks. The Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals book is there, along with Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson, Paul Hollywood from The Great British Bake-Off, and the Hairy Bikers transformed into the Hairy Dieters. The biggest selling book of all time in the UK, after the Bible and the Harry Potter novels, is Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals (renamed Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes in the US probably because nobody has ever been able to cook any of the meals in 30 minutes). In terms of cookbooks and cooking programmes, Britain is the food-culture equivalent of Monty Python’s Mr Creosote: just one more ‘waffer-thin’ recipe collection and we’ll explode.
One of the most engaging TV personalities around food is Stefan Gates, normally to be seen either showing weird food to kids in shows like Gastronuts or showing us how our various processed foods get made in Food Factory. But last week, Gates offered us a little slice of history, arguing that there is an underappreciated period of British cuisine - roughly the second half of the seventeenth century - that deserves more interest.
In Calf’s Head and Coffee, Gates argued that it was this revolutionary period - we had just chopped off the king’s head, he notes - was a time when a whole bunch of new ways of doing things came about. While we owe something to the Romans, the Normans and Tudors for parts of our cuisine, it was that social turmoil, combined with the opening up of trade and the expansion of wealth in the merchant classes, that inspired new thinking about what went on to our plates.
And, as a TV chef of sorts, Gates not only talked about these new foods but tried cooking them, too. So from Roman times, he offered us oysters in what was basically brown sauce. More importantly, from the Restoration era, he showed us such delights as stuffed calf’s head. This involved peeling the skin off the skull, then stuffing the leathery skin with the head meat and various other ingredients and baking the whole thing. The result was a kind of gorno Beef Wellington, though Gates assured us it tasted a lot better than it looked.
Such bonkers cooking was inspired by the combination of a few new things. First, new kinds of food, either arriving in the country - like the now humble but once-exotic pineapple - or being produced through the innovation of market gardening. Second, the nouveaux riches were showing off their wealth by eating weird and wonderful dishes presented in theatrical fashion. Even green tea became tied up with all sorts of rituals to allow the ladies of the time to show off just how dainty and ladylike they were, while all sorts of ideas and initiatives were being bandied about in London’s coffee shops, which became a new pole of influence away from the king’s court.
The programme’s central message was that our contemporary food culture is, to a surprisingly degree, derived from this period. But I think that claim was rather overcooked here. Most of the food shown was for the well-to-do, not the average person. Closer to the mark would be that the Industrial Revolution, by uprooting country folk and depositing them in cities with little choice of food, rather killed off a lot of what was distinctive about British food culture. We learned to cook meat and stodge really well, because that was what was available in the industrial towns.
To the extent that we are seeing interest in past methods and styles of cooking, the motivation is partly looking for forgotten ideas and sources of inspiration, but mostly a search for authenticity, to find our roots in the face of the mongrel - but very varied - food culture we have developed. There’s something kind of tragic about looking for existential meaning on the market stall or in the kitchen.
But are the ideas we find in the past - like ‘nose to tail’ eating - really how people are cooking today? I doubt it. While there is certainly more interest in what Anthony Bourdain calls ‘the nasty bits’ and food history is being taken more seriously as a discipline, the idea does little to illuminate how we eat now. We’re really eating a mixture of ready meals, takeaways, and fairly simple recipes from Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and the rest. We want something interesting and tasty, but we want it quick. We want to look like smart arses who have made something clever, but we don’t want to spend hours doing it. But mostly, we just want to get our kicks watching other people do it. All those TV shows and cookbooks really are food porn, blended - in the case of shows like Masterchef - with the trite narrative of ‘personal journeys’.