The snobs hold their noses

Observations on school dinners. By <strong>Brendan O'Neill</strong>

We've had the cheeky chef Jamie Oliver bemoaning the state of school dinners on Channel 4; Dr Gillian McKeith, back with You Are What You Eat on Channel 4, visiting a different (normally "chav") household each week to let rip on the residents' eating habits; and Morgan Spurlock, who made the film Super Size Me, exposing the mechanised junk that McDonald's sells.

Food manufacturers are thus challenged to become more responsible and governments to pay more attention to what we all consume: Oliver is now meeting Tony Blair to outline his vision for a "fucking better, cooler, healthier nation" through the improvement of school dinners. But behind all this lurks an old snobbery, which lambasts the lower orders for eating "shit".

Oliver visited mostly working-class schools and households for Jamie's School Dinners, and looked down his nose at the food on offer. Nothing new there. As John Carey showed in his landmark study, The Intellectuals and the Masses, poor folk were lectured in similar terms a century ago. What Oliver says about turkey twizzlers today, and what Morgan Spurlock says about McDonald's - that such food is mass-produced and unnatural - was once said about tinned food. As Carey put it: "Tinned food . . . offends against what the intellectual designates as nature: it is mechanical and soulless."

John Betjeman, for example, deplored the appetite of the masses for "tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans". H G Wells wrote of a "ruddily decorated tin of a brightly pink fish-like substance known as Deep-Sea Salmon". Where today's food snobs laugh at the idea that turkey twizzlers have anything to do with turkey, yesterday's ridiculed the fish content of tinned fish. Campaigners today refer to "McDonald's soulless industrialised product"; Carey tells how earlier snobs saw tinned food as "an offence against the sacredness of individuality".

Graham Greene said he would "surreptitiously feed to the dog" the tinned salmon his Nottingham landlady served him at high tea. That at least was more generous than Oliver who, after watching a mother feed her children, said he wouldn't give such food to a dog.

When Oliver says bad school dinners threaten the nation's health, he echoes George Orwell's belief that "in the long run . . . tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun".

Yet in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell wrote of "a communist speaker" incensed by the attempts of the upper classes to "teach the unemployed more about food values". According to Orwell, the communist said that "parties of society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on 30 shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend [it]."

What would this man have made of McKeith, who not only visits homes and bollocks the residents about what they eat and how little exercise they take, but also takes samples of their stools for examination? Despite Orwell's strictures on tinned food in the 1930s, the nation survived the Second World War. Succeeding generations, brought up on rubbish school dinners, flourished later in life. In discussions of "bad" food, fast food and fat mums in clingy leggings who make their kids as fat as they are, one detects a contempt for the working classes, who are presumed to be lazy, feckless, and - the sin to end all sins - unable to make a pasta dish from scratch.

In T W H Crosland's The Suburbans (1905), the masses are depicted as "soulless" and "stingy", as symbolised by their consumption of tinned salmon. On the Channel 4 website, Oliver says that "white trash" are least likely to "have a use for the dinner table in the house, and to use food as a way of celebrating and communicating and being a family". We should learn from the communist Orwell met and tell the modern equivalents of society dames to choke on their food advice.

Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)