Bad Food Britain

New Year’s Resolutions. Perhaps because I had just returned from a week celebrating Christmas with my sister’s French future in-laws, I was a receptive to the message of Joanna Blythman’s book Bad Food Britain (Fourth Estate, 2006), a spirited attack on Britain’s food culture.

The author laments the decline of cooking skills among the majority of Britons, for whom boiling some pasta and heating a jar of sauce is considered cooking from scratch. She mourns the death of the mealtime in families, where increasingly each member eats independently, often in front of the television, and where the dining table is an irrelevant waste of space; and among the increasing number of people who live alone, for whom eating alone and in silence can be too depressing.

The story was familiar but the statistics were horrifying. Of all the ready meals, snacks and crisps sold in Europe, Britain eats half. One in three Britons doesn’t eat vegetables because ‘they take too long to prepare’.

She savages the ready meal, and how producers have tried to persuade us to spend ever more by tarting it up with florid descriptions and celebrity chefs. This is not just a ready meal: this is an M&S ready meal, full of fine words and preservatives and costing you twice as much, which you buy because you like the idea of ‘good food’, but since you’ve never eaten the real thing, you have no idea what a poor imitation this is.

Joanna Blythman also attacks the rise of the new foodies, and the journalists and marketing folk that pander to them. A British food renaissance? Don’t believe the hype, she says. This is food as pornography – photos of plump, juicy breasts, melting puddings, creamy sauces, saucy creams … sensual fantasies as remote from real life as any pneumatic centrefold, and dripping with ‘organic’, ‘fresh’ and ‘authentic’ as if they were labels from Chanel or Dior. She reminds us of all those recipes we enthusiastically tear out of the weekend colour supplements and drool over from time to time, but somehow never quite get round to recreating.

And just as you start feeling impossibly smug for subscribing to an organic vegetable box scheme, using your bread-maker, and shopping at farmers’ markets, Blythman brings up the class issue. This is Britain, after all. ‘Normal’ people wouldn’t pay £10 for a chicken if they could get one for £3, goes the argument. To be a foodie is to be posh, pretentious or cranky. Politicians like to show they are ‘ordinary people’ by being photographed eating junk food.

Blythman’s depressing thesis is that most Britons wouldn’t know a good chicken if they tasted one. For all their foodie talk, and their insatiable appetite for cookery programmes, their palates have become desensitised by processed food, and uneducated by the slow death of home cooking. They choose only on price, because that’s the only distinction they remain capable of making between products.

This book has certainly made me question some of my motivations. Am I rejecting supermarket products because I aspire to a higher class status? How much of my conscientious buying is media-driven bourgeois aspirationalism? Do my colleagues think I’m weird because I made rosehip jam? (No argument there: they already thought I was weird).

I shrugged off my pretensions today and bought a tin of soup. It was horrible. I have been making my own soups for the past 18 months. They haven’t always been a success, but I wouldn’t know how to make soup that tasted like this. I tried adding all sorts of things – pepper, sherry, herbs, balsamic vinegar – anything to make it taste less plastic; but in vain. It’s not a question of class, it’s a question of taste.

I wolfed Bad Food Britain down like a late-night kebab, and felt ill afterwards.

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~ by jobes on January 23, 2008.

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