Wild palates: the Mitchell Cotts family in The Kitchen
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496