The last two decades has been a dizzy whirl of mispronounced culinaria. Photo: Getty
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How we get a taste for things and then forget how that happened

You are inclined to think that polenta and gnocchi, blinis and burritos have always been with us. But they are not part of our collective conscience as they would be for the people who grew up eating them.

There is a phrase Irish mothers are particularly fond of and which in recent decades they have had increasing call to utter on a regular basis – “’Twas far from that you were reared”. The “that” is often replaced by the name of some new-fangled exotic comestible or other such consumer item that their offspring have taken to extolling the merits of. One week it might be a piña colada, the next a panini (sic); it could just as easily be a 4K flatscreen TV or an Iranian art house film. The range of things that were once beyond the purview of the younger generation but which are now their bread and butter encompasses fancy coffees served up by tattooed baristi on first-name terms with everyone who orders off them, pulled-pork sandwiches and arcane Andean grains comprised mostly of vowels. It’s not that the Irish mammy disapproves of such novelties – she is wont to try them herself given the chance – it’s just her way of reminding the youngsters where they came from and of continuing to valorise the culinary and social culture which she had fostered around them.

Matthew Arnold, a man given to the certitudes of his time and class, defined Culture (note the big “c”) in 1869 as “the best that has been thought and said”. It’s highly unlikely Arnold was ignorant of the agronomical origin of the word but his own definition has been largely superseded by one that is a great deal closer to the sense of husbandry. No matter how snotty one might be towards the culture of certain social classes or sub-groups, few people dispute that they are “cultures”. Of course, “Culture” still has its vaunted and virtuous connotations, however unwarranted, which generally run in tandem with social progress, but culture is accepted by most as being everywhere. It is, in the first instance, what you are exposed to at an early age. For most people in these islands over the age of 35, the palette of that early culture was a relatively narrow one, regardless of whether you played rugby or football growing up, or whether you were into Leo Sayer or The Sex Pistols.

What exotic food there was in our childhoods was largely confined to Chinese, Indian, Italian, or, on special occasions, French. And even then, it was often of a version bowdlerised to make it safe for the northern European palate. More worldly fare crept up on us over the years – along came Italianate coffees, tarted-up tapas, Thai curries (who knew they had curry there too?), Lebanese mezzes fragrant with herbs and spices one previously knew only from mentions in colonial novels. Foreign travel became cheaper and the lower tourist classes ventured away from the sun hotspots of the Mediterranean and into the squares and alleys of old town centres; satellite TV made continental football, once glimpsed in brief snatches on foggy Wednesday nights, a staple entertainment. In retrospect, it actually all happened very quickly – the last two decades has been a dizzy whirl of mispronounced culinaria, Ryanair destinations bearing place-names topped with carons and umlauts, and frothy beers with old-fashioned labels which, until the Reinheitsgebot was explained to us, were assumed to be cheap muck. ’Twas far from all that we were reared, but we are fairly fluent in it now.

So ubiquitous are all these things now, we forget the process of acculturation we underwent to become familiar with them. Maybe it is because, for once, consumer culture brought them to us, rather than in the past when they were acquired by the more pro-active, and the wealthier. You are inclined to think that polenta and gnocchi, blinis and burritos have always been with us. But they are not part of our collective conscience as they would be for the people who grew up eating them. We don’t know the familiar warmth of eating your mother’s or grandmother’s version of a famous national dish, made the same way each time. We ate too, of course, and at times very well, but the cuisines of northern European countries are more fractured and sporadic and certainly less canonical than those of their southern neighbours; two Bosnians might be able strike up a conversation on the merits of the burek they used to eat for breakfast as a child, as might a Roman about their beloved cacio e pepe, further north the repertoire is a great deal more constrained. Asia and its richness of cuisine is another world entirely. The relative weakness of their culinary traditions has allowed Britain, Ireland and Scandinavian countries to be more inventive and more open to outside influences than countries with more robust food cultures, such as France, Italy, China, India and even the likes of Spain and Portugal, all of which have been slower on the uptake of foreign cuisines. It is also why vegetarianism has a much stronger hold in English-speaking countries and Scandinavia than in “strong” food cultures – it’s not that people in these other countries are less humane, the cultural force of traditional food is just too strong. And no matter how good the food might be in parts of London, Dublin or Copenhagen, the thinness of the tradition becomes more obvious in smaller towns, which are usually found lacking compared to provincial centres in say, France or Italy. Venture into the kitchen of a French or Italian home and the cultural difference becomes even starker again.

The process of acculturation is also obscured by age. The longer you stick around on this Earth, and, if you’re lucky, the more you earn, you will acquires taste and habits that you were scarcely aware of when you were younger, without even realising how you got to this point. You may even find that your accent changes, by design or otherwise. For some though more so than others the process is perceptible and it means a self-exile from the environment of one’s early years. In the moving title story of his collection If it is your life, James Kelman portrays a working-class Glaswegian taking the bus home from university south of the border. He is still in his first year, fresh enough to find aspects of his new social circles both fascinating and repelling. But he also feels himself changing, his rapport with his family shifting, much as Marty McFly begins to vanish in the family photographs in Back to the Future films, and, as inexorable as this all seems, he feels guilty:

My life had changed so much. Probably it would be harder to communicate now than it had been at Christmas, and Christmas had not been that easy. But that was life. And my own fault for not coming home before that. Mum was right to be hurt. Dad was hurt too but acted as if he was not. My sister told me. But what was I supposed to do? It was difficult. I would have failed all my essays if I had not worked through the holiday period. I was not brilliant. They thought I was but I knew I was not. Some were. I was not. In school I was but not down there.

The narrator is going through the same pangs of upwardly-mobile socialisation as Pip in Great Expectations, who suffers the slings and arrows of Estella’s snobbishness (Graham Greene was particularly ambivalent about Dickens’ masterpiece, calling it “a snob’s progress” and the discomfort of Joe Gargery when he goes to visit Pip up in London is still as palpable as ever for the modern reader). In our own bildungsromanen of life, there is something at the end that is clearly different from what there was at the beginning, even if one resolutely refuses to forget where one comes from. And even if you manage to keep yourself as “true to your roots” as you can, you can count on your children to finish the job off, symbolically at least. No matter what measures you put in place, your offspring will crush whatever last vestige of your original culture there was in you, with their Oedipal accent drifts, their alien mores and complete lack of interest in everything you held dear. And they will, in their turn, find, much too late, that they have changed too.

Acculturation is not something we see too often on screen or in books, largely because it takes place in the background – there are more egregious examples such as My Fair Lady, of course, but there the acculturation itself is the subject. One of the reasons Breaking Bad is such a powerful show is it offers us a slowly unfolding process of acculturation that is usually either absent from the screen or implicit. Walter White, in the words of the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, goes from being “protagonist to antagonist”. His gradual metamorphosis into a monster, eventually so far from his mumbling mild-mannered science teacher, is necessitated by a series of circumstances and the need to survive. It is also noteworthy for being a portrayal of criminal acculturation. We rarely see criminals or delinquents being “formed” – there are some examples such as Angels with Dirty Faces, Goodfellas or Peter Mullan’s Neds but usually in the movies criminals just are, assumed as an element of back story. They form an immutable alien community, inevitably mined from an underclass that “respectable” people both scorn and fear. Breaking Bad strikes a chord with (mostly middle-class) audiences because it sees one of their own mutate in such a terrifying yet compelling way. It is also a mutation that takes place relatively late in life, much later than the one that makes us more worldly than we started out as. Like so many appalling vistas one beholds in entertainment, it also functions to comfort oneself in the distance between it and one’s own existence. ’Twas far from many things we were reared, indeed, but whatever changes we have undergone we can at least be thankful we haven’t drifted quite so far as Walter White of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.