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Will Self: In defence of jam, that gooey ambrosia

Jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news.

“Jam,” my late mother was fond of saying, “is not a food.” This is just one example of what we, as children, viewed as her risible sen­tentiousness; another of her equally weighty pronouncements – and this was in the 1970s – was: “Don’t waste water.” While in the case of the latter Mum has been proved prophetic, not pathetic, when it comes to jam she was, is and forever shall be wrong. Of course jam is not a food – it is the food and no survey of the true eating habits of our commonwealth would be complete without spreading this good news. We may be lashed by wind and rain, but so long as the distribution chain remains unbroken and the supermarkets’ relentless price-cutting drive to the bottom of im­miserated Britons’ pockets continues, there seems no reason why we shouldn’t have jam today and jam tomorrow and even retrospectively dollop days gone by with the gooey ambrosia.

I usually start my day with a couple of pieces of toast smeared with jam. I say smeared, but trowelled would be closer to the truth; indeed, if I thought I could get away with it, I’d keep a plasterer’s hawk and trowel to hand in the cutlery drawer so I could apply the stuff more effectively, my aim being to create a sort of table mountain of confiture. Why, I hear you ask (all that sugar can get a man pretty high), don’t you simply dispense with the toast altogether? Well, sometimes I do. Creeping into the kitchen late at night, I’ll go for it armed only with a spoon – but this is shameless and decadent behaviour. Jam is certainly a food in its own right but it’s one of those – like caviar or foie gras – that requires another comestible pretext.

The analogy with these cruel and unsustainable snacks is not lightly made; for is not the widespread access we have to jam as much of a social safety net as the NHS or unemployment benefit? You may think it offensive and patronising, but let me tell you: when I offer the beggars round my way a jar of Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade rather than a couple of quid towards their next can of extra-strength lager, they often weep hot tears of gratitude.

There is in jam such implicit largesse – such natural beneficence – that I find it simply astonishing that anyone should want to keep it to themselves. And yet they do: once upon a time, children, you could go to a tea shop, or plonk yourself down at the breakfast table of a B&B, and presently a small aluminium dish of jam would be plonked down in front of you. Those days are long gone and we’re condemned to live out the balance of our days in a purgatorial scraping of jammy bits from the curved corners of plastic containers.

But I say: what sort of individual could possibly survive on such short commons? Not me – not you, not anyone. Even the dear little upmarket jam pots punted by the likes of Tiptree are still woefully inadequate and I often find myself creeping from table to table in quite august establishments collecting up enough jam to make a glistening fist of it.

Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms by Bono for filching several teensy pots of apricot conserve from the tables occupied by representatives from sub-Saharan African countries. “How,” he inveighed, “can we expect to end world poverty while you’re behaving in this hateful, selfish fashion!”

I gave as good as he did: “Stick to dog food, Bonio,” I told him as I feverishly delved and smeared. “Anyway, what can you possibly know of hardship? It’s probably in your concert riders that you be permanently supplied with a dedicated conserve chef.” He looked a little uncomfortable at this – so I could tell I’d hit the mark.

Still, I wouldn’t leave the toast lying face-down on the floor of the debating chamber and kept on: “Besides, these chaps are all Wabenzi who’re probably skimming the collective jam pot for their own pockets. If you want to do some real good in this world, instead of hobnobbing with the rich and powerful you should load your private jet with Robertson’s finest and deliver it straight to the refugee camps.” They were strong words, but utter nonsense, of course. Food aid is a terrible blight and a corrupting influence and so – as my mother would doubtless have pointed out – is jam aid.

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 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser