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
BBC2

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

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder