In this week's New Statesman: The Food Special

How halal meat became the most reviled food in Britain | Our changing tastes, from WWII to today | E

Ed Balls: "George Osborne is welcome to try my pork dish"

In a unique interview for this special Food issue of the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan talks to the accomplished chef and shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, about political gaffes involving food, how tax credit cuts will hit children’s health, and what he would serve to George Osborne for dinner:

I have said before that he is welcome to try my pulled pork dish [Balls’s signature ‘14-hour pulled pork barbecue’]. But maybe now I’d have to bake him a pasty, since he doesn’t remember when he last ate one.

Although Balls’s wife, Yvette Cooper, cooks “an excellent risotto every now and then”, he feels that his culinary skills are superior. “She’s very good,” he concedes, “. . . but out of practice!” And asked why he thinks food has such potency in politics, Balls says: 

I guess it is the Last Supper symbolism of ‘the breaking of bread’.

The shadow chancellor discusses two meals in recent years that have made for great intrigue. Legend has it that, in 1994, following the death of the Labour Party leader John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made a pact at the since-closed Granita restaurant over who would succeed him. Balls tells Hasan that he was present at the meal: “I was there for the Granita starter but felt like a bit of a lemon, so I scarpered.”

Another private discussion about the Labour leadership – also widely reported and much speculated on – had a culinary dimension: Balls and Cooper were accused of plotting with friends, over a dinner of lasagne in January, to seize control of the party. In this interview, Balls tells the true story behind “Lasagne-gate”.

Morality of meat: Mehdi Hasan on halal

Elsewhere in the Food special, Mehdi Hasan explores the highly charged debate in Britain over meat, animal cruelty and Islamic ritual slaughter. Hasan questions how many opponents of halal know what producing it involves, and wonders whether criticism of halal is ever a proxy for deeper fears about Muslims.

Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell University, who leads the university’s Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, tells Hasan that the scientific evidence against halal slaughter “has often been done poorly with an agenda driving a desired outcome”. Furthermore, Regenstein says:

Many of those attacking religious slaughter have no clue as to what is happening. It is more of an Islamophobic issue, not an animal well-being issue.

Also in the Food special, Helen Lewis travels to Paris in search of the secret behind Michelin stars, Nina Caplan reflects on the impact of Jewish cuisine on England and Sophie Elmhirst compares the “ONS shopping baskets” of 1947 and today to chart Britain’s changing tastes. 

An exclusive still life, shot by the photographer Stephen Lenthall, accompanies Elmhirst’s article, “We are what we eat”.

Russell Kane: "The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals"

In the NS Interview, the comedian and debut author Russell Kane talks to Samira Shackle about winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award, using his family for material and his regret that he voted Lib Dem. Kane tells Shackle that, to him, growing up in the Nineties, writing a novel was a pie-in-the-sky dream:

I wasn’t brought up to think that dreams are achievable. The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals. So I was fucked, packed off to a comprehensive along with all the other bright working-class kids, to be watered down and then shipped out to Asda.

Kane further attacks the British schools system, which he says is more inverted now than it was 50 years ago:

What we should’ve done in the Sixties is fixed the secondary moderns; we made an intellectual error. Bright working-class kids now go to a comprehensive . . . If you’re born in a council flat now to a single mum, you have less chance of getting to Magdalene College than you did in the Sixties. That’s fucking awful; that’s unacceptable.

In the Critics

John Gray reviews What Money Can’t Buy, a landmark book by the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. “In a culture mesmerised by the market,” Gray writes, “Sandel’s is the indispensable voice of reason . . . He shows that the limits of markets cannot be decided by economic reasoning.”

Our Critic at Large this week is Bryan Appleyard, who marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of Apple’s iPhone. In 2007, the then chief executive of Apple, Steve Jobs, declared that his company was going to “reinvent the phone”. “Jobs was right,” Appleyard writes; “he . . . reinvented the phone – not as a phone, but as a near-universal machine.” However, there remains an unresolved question: do we really want everything that this remarkable invention gives us? And yet, as Appleyard writes, “Mobile connectivity perpetually seduces us with the call of elsewhere. It takes us out of the moment.”

Elsewhere in the magazine

  • In Observations, Andrew Hussey, Denis MacShane and Daniel Trilling consider what message the elections in France and Greece hold for Europe.
  • In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr wonders if only the “quad” still believe in the coalition.
  • Nicholas Wapshott charts the re-emergence of Barack Obama the candidate in a Letter from America.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue