Dear Jamie Oliver, poverty isn't picturesque by the Mediterranean either

The TV chef's remarks that "You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money" reveals a startling ignorance about what life is really like in Italy or Spain for those without much money.

In the middle of promoting his new television series millionaire television personality Jamie Oliver has gained a lot of publicity and caused controversy by expressing his frustration at the poor and their eating habits. He said: “I meet people who say, 'You don’t understand what it’s like.' I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We’ve missed out on that in Britain, somehow.”

This vision of the Mediterranean poor, making delicious soup, salads and desserts with left over bread and eating simple cheap fresh food is deeply engrained in the Anglo food fan's mind. The desirability of cocina povera, authentic peasant food made by poor people who show great ingenuity with access to not very much but are able to create delicious meals out of three cheap ingredients has spawned a multi-million pound UK and US industry of "authentic" Spanish and Italian food books, TV programmes and chains of restaurants. They offer the food of the deserving poor, the ones who manage well on very little. They have very little but look how desirable their lifestyle is, the story goes, we middle classes want to be them, what has happened to our poor? Why can't they be more like, say, the Spanish?

The poor are already being far more like the Spanish than we realise. In 2010 in the province of Barcelona, an area with a population of less than five million, more than 100,000 people were forced to use food banks for basics like rice, oil, tins of tomatoes, baby milk and other staples from one of three charitable food bank groups.

To get to the Spanish 2010 level of food bank use, we'd need to have three times more users than we have at the moment, at least one million more working poor would need to access food banks to make us more like Spain. Recent reports of an ever increasing in the use of food banks may enable us to get those extra million users.

Churches and civic centres have also opened "social dining rooms" to give people in their neighbourhoods the chance of a hot meal at lunchtime. People who can't afford to heat food, or have had their electricity and gas cut off as they haven't been able to pay their bills turn up between 12 and 2pm to eat the only hot meal they will get that day. In 2012 380,737 meals were served to 10,423 users in Barcelona, a city with a population of 3 million.

In my London neighbourhood of Walthamstow Frank Charles and Gary Nash set up Eat or Heat. As well as a food bank they try and draw attention to the plight of many in E17 who have to choose between heating themselves or their food in winter as they cannot afford the bill for both. Walthamstow also has a group running cooking classes, in a similar vein to ones run in Spain, to teach people how to cook simple cheap food using as little expensive electricity or gas as possible.

In 2011 a group of the best known chefs in Barcelona joined forces with a total of 48 restaurants to donate 50 cents of each tapa sold to a charity working with the newly poor in Barcelona. The project was headed up by El Bulli's Ferran Adria and his brother Albert, with major names like Sergi Arola, Carme Ruscellada and Carles Gaig taking the front stage. They have also released a book of recipes with all the funds going to the same charities.

Chefs in Spain are far more revered by the general public than here in the UK. They are seen as figures of great cultural importance and their co-operation with both charities and organisations promoting healthy eating is well known. The united front presented by these famous chefs would be the equivalent of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Nigella Lawson and the Hairy Bikers being on the same platform, using their time free of charge to promote a project with the aim of raising funds for the increasing numbers of working poor in the UK.

There would be no TV series, book tie in, restaurant or cooking school promotion opportunity. Some of the above celebrities would even send some members of their team to quietly, without press attention, help at social kitchens or food banks or classes while being on the celeb's payroll. They may even do it themselves. The help they gave to these charities would be ongoing, last far longer than their latest television series and be something that not very many people knew about outside of those directly working within the organisations. No chain of restaurants, magazines or expensive tomato plants would be sold on the back of the publicity that these "good works" would generate, as there would be next to none for any one individual.

The question, "why aren't they more like the Spanish?" is something I regularly ask people in the UK. I just ask it about different people than Jamie.

Jamie Oliver. Photo: Getty
Hulu
Show Hide image

Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

0800 7318496