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Harvester: Countrified calories for inhabitants of the doughnut city

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

So, I load da inner-city ghetto boyz up in the gun wagon and we head south in a swampy summer rainstorm. “Where’re we going, Dad?” they chorus but I keep it zipped and maintain my course. The ’burbs get leafier, the hills steeper – and the folk wandering the sides of the roads are sporting psychic straw hats and ghostly bib’n’brace dungarees. “I don’t like it way out here in the sticks, Dad,” says the youngest. “Yeah,” affirms the middle boy through gritted teeth, while the eldest simply hums the “Duelling Banjos” theme from Deliverance. Spotting the homely sign – three fat and golden ears of biblical wheat – we pull off the main road and into the car park of a Harvester restaurant. I can understand da boyz’ consternation. There are 200-plus Harvesters in Britain, one of the most urbanised countries in the world. What they represent is a rearguard action by Big Food: an attempt to convince punters that they are entering a prelapsarian rural idyll; one in which they will be served their burger under the hay wain and wash it down with cider toted by the breast-augmented Rosie.

Harvesters are often big on clapboard wood exteriors – and, for that matter, interiors. Their walls are adorned with sepia photographs and duff, crafty pictures of cow parsley umbels. There are dried gourds on shelves. I must have driven past Harvesters thousands of times in my lifetime but it had never occurred to me to eat in one. You may call this snobbery if you choose – I think of it as self-preservation. Anyway, the point is, it would never have occurred to me, either, that these faux-barns could be so . . . popular.

Yet here we are on a rainy Thursday evening and this Harvester is . . . heaving. The waiting captain wields a clipboard and informs us that there’s a 25-minute wait for a table. Jiminy Cricket! We adjourn to the bar, where da boyz and I are served Cokes and a pint of Kronenbourg in a stemmed goldfish bowl. There’s thumping, piped pop in the busy Harvester bar and also astonishing stools for the clientele to sit on – their padded seats are at least two feet six inches square and their steel legs are attached with reinforced bolts. These are stools fit for the morbidly obese and they suggest worrying things about Harvester cuisine that, in the fullness of 25 minutes, are answered. True, the diners aren’t all porky – but there’s a certain corpulence; and the eldest boy points out that every item on the menu is accompanied by a note of its calorific value.

All the scarily fattening dishes are in the “Hall of Flame” section of the menu and these include Budweiser Mega Ribs (“Big dish, big flavour. A full rack of ribs coated in Budweiser BBQ sauce, served with seasoned fries, corn on the cob and our Classic Ranchslaw. 1449 kcal”). Now, the average person needs about 2,250 calories a day to maintain their weight, so this single dish, costing only about a tenner, will provide a punter with the vast majority of the food energy he or she requires for a long hard day of graft. I shudder to think what the impact of the Budweiser Mega Ribs might be on your average Briton, who spends their waking hours playing FarmVille rather than actively . . . farming.

Yet Harvester’s nutritional policy is a model of good practice: on its website, it has copious dietary notes; information about food allergens, and so on. The overall impression is of a folie à deux with customers who are pretty much determined to overeat.

I ordered a rump steak with chips and peas; da boyz had burgers of various sorts. I availed myself of the free salad bar – da boyz didn’t. The food was . . . so-so. My steak had the consistency of multi-density fibreboard – but what did I expect? With additional side dishes of deep-fried scampi, onion rings and garlic chilli dough balls and including the drinks, the bill for four Big City slickers – including a 20 per cent tip for the elderly and overworked waitress – was still only 60 shitters.

Oh, and one last thing: before I pile my streetwise brood back in the jam jar and drive them home to the safety of their ’hood, I feel compelled to point out this interesting sociotopographic fact: at least 70 per cent of the Harvester’s clientele (and staff) seem of either Afro-Caribbean or African ethnicity. Out in the southern wilds of Upper Norwood, the doughnut city the coalition’s policies will inevitably produce is already a fact on the ground: there’s no affordable housing in central London any more and precious little affordable restaurant food, either.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians