Wild palates: the Mitchell Cotts family in The Kitchen
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Eat, pray, love: Britain’s seriously loopy eating habits

Do people really do this stuff? Apparently, they do. 

The Kitchen

The Kitchen is Gogglebox with added turmeric. Here are people, from all sorts of places and backgrounds, in their homes, cooking and eating. I read somewhere that hidden cameras had been used in its making, and thought fearfully of all the spoons I was about to see being clandestinely licked. In truth, it’s far worse than this. The cameras, it appears, are very much on view, with the result that its participants comprise all the usual show-offs and eccentrics (you might say borderline weirdos). Only this time around they come with George Foreman-style grills, “anti-cellulite” shakes, pheasant curries, “chorizio” (sic) and freezers that were last defrosted in 1973. If you’re thinking of tuning in, you will certainly want to order in the Pepto-Bismol first.

Naturally, the series works hard to reinforce our prejudices when it comes to dinner (or tea, a little reinforcing of my own). The well-off middle classes tend to cook – they may even, dammit, gut the fish they caught earlier – and the poor raid their freezers in search of breadcrumb-based foodstuffs. So far, so predictable. Beyond this, though, The Kitchen serves up some seriously loopy eating habits. Do people really do this stuff? Apparently, they do.

In Birmingham, for instance, the Evans family eats a huge cooked breakfast – burgers, sausages, potato waffles, eggs, beans – three times a week, a feast they bless with grace: “Dear God, thank you for this amazing variety.” Aware that this isn’t the healthiest way to live, they compensate – or the womenfolk do – in two ways. First, they concentrate very hard indeed on the sight of the fat pouring over the sides of their electric grill and into a tray below – a greasy evacuation they have invested with an almost quasi-religious significance, like tears leaking from the Madonna’s eyes. Second, lunch consists of a diet shake. The household’s arteries may well be furred but bottoms are holding steady at a regular size.

Odder still are the Bradshaws, a couple with Lancashire vowels who have retired to Devon. Mrs Bradshaw’s repertoire consists solely of pies and pasties, which she bakes in quantity and then dutifully feeds to her husband, the only concession to his heart condition being that she now serves them with mash rather than chips. The couple like mostly off-white food – even their mushy peas looked grey – and take their own meals away on holiday, so as not to be any “trouble” to anyone. We meet them on the way to Aberystwyth, a seaside town that presumably has a ready supply of mince-inspired goodies. But once bitten, twice shy: in a previous life, they made the mistake of visiting Italy, where “it was all pasta and pizza”. Only the bread rolls saved them from certain starvation! Their suitcase was the size of a small ranch.

For badly behaved children, we moved up the social ladder to Cheltenham, where a girl called Daphne was feeding her trout with tarragon to her ferrets, in order to avoid its reappearance on her plate the next day. Luckily, Mummy and Daddy, well oiled with Chardonnay, tend to see the funny side. Also, to Suffolk, where we were introduced to the Mitchell Cotts children, who are named after plants (Valerian and Campion among them) but behave like wild animals. Daddy has a baronet for a brother, but the household food budget is limited enough to need to be supplemented with road kill and onions (according to him, they fall from the local lorries like conkers from the trees). I think he was boasting about the road kill; perhaps he has seen one too many programmes starring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Flattened bunny or no flattened bunny, at least he wasn’t about to serve bottled pasta sauce or turkey mince, both of which appeared elsewhere and sit high on my list of Things I Don’t Understand (And Am Vaguely Disgusted By). It is thanks to opinions like this that – nausea aside – I am an ideal viewer of this series. Like Gogglebox, The Kitchen slyly invites its audience to put aside its flashy liberal views and thence to feel free, just for an hour or so, to make all sorts of mean-minded judgements. You have mine. Now do enjoy coming up with your own. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood