Hunger pangs

<strong>Bad Food Britain: how a nation ruined its appetite</strong>

Joanna Blythman <em>Fourth Est

Monoglot incuriosity and dumb insularity certainly have their benefits. They allow those who suffer them to enjoy the smug boast that the way things are done in their village, their nation, their faith, is the right way, the proper way. We heal sores with powdered stiv bark; our votive pieces are hewn from tufa. They - the ignorant people across the sound - they make poultices of osk-eel skin! Things are not so different today. We may affect cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. We may inhabit countries that are not those of our parents' birth. We may travel promiscuously and even meet waiters who speak English. But we all too evidently live in atomised capsules that are prophylactics against understanding and empathy.

It is improbable that Joanna Blythman set out in the manner that Peter Nichols did in The National Health or Lindsay Anderson did in Britannia Hospital. She has none the less created, in Bad Food Britain, a potent metaphor for a pecuniarily divided, culturally impoverished, proudly philistine, socially dysfunctional, self-deluding country whose greatest collective gifts are for packaging, spin, PR, merchandising, rebranding, euphemism and, of course, the keen gullibility that such forms of mendacity initially create and subsequently depend upon.

Blythman is depressing and exhilarating. Depressing because the topics she addresses coalesce into a gruesome portrait of national degradation. Exhilarating because she composes this portrait with precision, contempt and a truth- fulness that is recklessly unselfserving. She will be blacklisted by the food-porn magazines that supermarkets publish to claim green cred and gastro correctness. She will be an embarrassment to the vast battalion of Francophobic consumer journalists whose anilingual chumminess with the food industry that bottom-feeds them renders them producer journalists, de facto PRs. Blythman belongs to an honourable school.

So too, no doubt, does Rod Liddle - but that doesn't stop him proffering this moronic gem: "I would argue that in London you will find better Thai, Indian, Chinese, Italian and French cooking than you would in the indigenous countries." Such Little English expressions of laughably deluded complacency constellate Blythman's text. Here is one David Gregory protesting that a shepherd's pie composed of no fewer than 59 ingredients - most of them stabilisers, glutens and colourants - is based on home cooking: "I recently got out an old university cookbook and the list of ingredients hasn't changed a great deal." Gregory is Marks & Spencer's head of food technology, so we can guess at the nature of that cookbook.

Most of the food that Britons consume is prepared in factories to formulas devised by Gregorian chemists: it is dishonestly linked to actual cooking by the photographic presence on the pack- aging of an all-effin', all-blindin' telly chef. An endless galère of these irony- free freaks - making their own small yet sterling contribution to Britain's soaring rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease - is industrially produced by the inde-pendent television company Optomen. Blythman thus links the rarefied milieu of Michelin-starred crazes - the current one is "molecular gastronomy" - across class and income to the debased grot that has caused the average female waist measurement to increase by six inches over the past half-century.

The grot trade, like the tobacco industry it so resembles, possesses a multiplicity of professional lobbyists and academic apologists with so many letters after their names they form an anagram of trahison des clercs. One will tell you that "there are bad diets but there are no 'bad foods'"; a second that "we make treats, a reward at the end of a long day, a pleasure to enjoy in moderation". The reward in question is biscuits, and the berk who thus pronounced is disingenuous if he believes that the British are capable of doing anything in moderation. "Just doing 30 minutes of physical activity a day can keep you fit and burn off calories," says the crisp salesman Gary Lineker, who also counsels moderation.

To "burn off" a Big Mac, medium fries and small vanilla milkshake, you'd have to walk from Marble Arch to Hemel Hempstead. The Savoury Snacks Information Bureau (honestly!) plays the heritage card: "Snacks are indisputably an integral part of the British culture." But so was hunting with dogs: that pursuit, however, was perceived as wickedly elitist by the anti-elitist elite whose cross-party populism obliges them to feed filth burgers to their kiddiz, to brandish tea mugs, to drink beer from the bottle, to proclaim their man-of-the-people appetite for fish and chips - the "national dish" that we're no better at cooking than we are at play-ing the "national game". Egon Ronay describes it as our "most distinctive contribution to world cuisine". He is wrong. It is Sephardic: the first fish and chip shop opened in London's East End in the mid-1850s. A century later Dorothy Hartley, in her exhaustive Food in England, mentions the dish once, and is dismissive of deep-frying. That book shows what we have lost.

This one begins to show why we lost it; why Britain, uniquely in the world, abandoned its own cooking. Some of the causes Blythman advances are audacious, apostatical. She claims the feminist movement of the 1970s characterised cooking as a demeaning chore because, quaintly, it was done to please men. She's probably right: feminism was, after all, a middle- class fashion, and here was a generation of middle-class women rueing the lack of cheap skivs their parents had employed.

She's certainly right to rue the seductive, ultimately baleful influence of Elizabeth David, who followed Norman Douglas, D H Lawrence, Cyril Connolly and any number of painters in sentimentally hymning the Mediterranean. The problem is that, in Britain, southern cooking is climatically inapt, sustainable only by imports, culturally deracinated. And it is acceptable only in a (so to speak) eviscerated or bowdlerised form. The urban and suburban British are pathetically squeamish: they will eat anything if it is disguised, preferably as colourful, orthogonal shapes, but they live in fear of unbattered fish, offal and geometrically delinquent vegetables.

Thus the majority of the population happily conspires with successive governments, believing that natural foods are likely to be dangerous - a notion enthusiastically propagated by health and safety agencies whose operatives, likely as not, live on Wotsits and Big Macs. And this majority is equally passive in accepting governmental sycophancy to supermarkets, equally supine about demanding the dirigism that might positively discriminate in favour of small shops and small producers. It is hardly surprising that such thinkers as Tessa Jowell and Richard Caborn fail to see the grotesque comedy of junk-food producers and corporatist confectioners acting as sports sponsors and exercising their inalienable right to flog their chemicals in schools.

Britain values cheapness over quality. It spends a smaller proportion of its income on food than the inhabitants of any other western European country. It prefers to spend on clothes and cars and gadgets and drink. I'm not sure that a football reporter's unastonishing observation that Wayne Rooney's girlfriend patronises Kwik Save is quite the evidence needed here. And Blythman also lowers her guard when she approves Raymond Blanc's observation that, "In all Latin countries, we drink with food: we hardly ever drink without food. That is an English invention." Blanc's native town of Besançon is hardly Latin. Only a man who has lived all his adult life in Oxfordshire can sentimentally subscribe to the bien-pensant idea of the sober south.

Blythman does not quote Edgar Morin's dictum that "the kernel of every culture is gastronomic". It is, however, peculiarly appropriate to Britain today - though hardly in the way that Morin intended.

Jonathan Meades was restaurant critic of the Times between 1986 and 2001

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