Dome cooking

Food - Bee Wilson isn't hungry, thanks

An old man and an old woman, wearing matching gaberdine coats, are standing near the Body Zone. Glumly, but resolutely, they are licking the last goodness out of a pair of McDonald's ice-cream cones. Later, they arrive at some machines telling them about a healthy, balanced diet. They press a button. A fruit machine whirrs. It stops at three different icons: broccoli, dairy produce and pasta; a blue light saying WIN flashes on. The old woman peers through her specs, looking for the money. None comes.

Wherever you look, there is food and reminders of food. It is a Babel of edibles, ranging from grim sausage rolls to nigiri sushi on conveyor belts. But scarcely a crumb merits eating. The odour of McDonald's soybean oil wafts from zone to zone, one mood-altering smell among many, such as the sickly grass perfume in the forest of Learning, which suppresses rather than stimulates your appetite for anything, most of all lunch.

Sometimes it seems as if nothing unites the many different munchers. The oyster-slurpers in the Sea Bar and the fish-and-chippers at Harry Ramsden's, so far from coming together in a single human experience, are reconfirmed in their distance from each other. The haves drink Aroma hot chocolate and eat expensive bagel sandwiches; the have-nots grumble at the £2 cost of even the lowliest egg mayonnaise at the Baker's Oven. Gradually, though, a common flavour emerges - the bitter taste of commercial rip-off, coupled with the saccharine tingle of advertising.

"Ice cream . . . Solero-Mango" reads a note nestling in the shrine to Post-Its at the scandalously didactic Work Zone. Conveniently enough, you can buy Solero at the Wall's stand as you emerge. In the Self Portrait Zone, a Mrs Faulkner choses her favourite thing about Britain. Not Baxter's soup, as nominated by Colin Campbell, or Marmite, cited by Tim Leakey, but "Marks and Spencer ready-made meals. Great value, great taste. Where would us busy mums be without them in this century or the next?" The zone is sponsored by . . . Marks & Spencer.

The rhetoric of the Dome is teeming with references to the "new" Britain which eats chicken tikka masala as often as Worcestershire sauce, Chinese takeaways as much as pork pies. Never mind quality, that watchword of the elitists, when there's fake diversity.

This rhetoric comes to its grisly climax in Acclaim! - a restaurant "showcasing the best foods from Britain produced by the country's leading chefs". Quite who these "leading chefs" are is unclear: not Roux or White, Ladenis or Koffman, but young henchmen of Granada, as in the motorway cafes, who think that "jus of Scrumpy" is better than just gravy.

A waiter unfurls napkins over your lap with intrusive enthusiasm. Perhaps his care for the cleanliness of your clothes is spurred by a fear you may find the food so unpleasant that you will use your own person as a spittoon. I only had this unseemly thought after I tasted the "savoy dumpling" that came with "hot smoked venison" and "parsnip brulee"; the unspeakable mouth-feeling of rancid meat fat emanating from this highly-groomed ball of suet made me gag. "Salmon fish and chips, mushy pea and mint relish" was so flabbily farmed and so undercooked as to be inedible. And the prices: £18 for two courses, £22 for three. For shame.

As the racket of bagpipes and unmelodious tunes blared in our ears, and pictures of baked beans and Liquorice Allsorts blared in our eyes, I was reminded of the old joke about school dinners: they taste horrible, they're overcooked and, worst of all, the portions are small. Acclaim! makes a mockery of British cuisine (the "terrine of brawn, hot black pudding salad, piccalilli" would have Eliza Acton turning in her grave) and does so without humour. It serves insipid, eclectic, pretentious food in horrid surroundings. But worst of all, it's priced out of the range of the Play Zone masses.

You see families looking in disappointment at the exclusive menu they can't afford, little knowing that they're better off with their Big Macs. Were all our millions not enough to finance a little taste of something delicious and free? Sloganise all you like, the Dome is social exclusion on a stick.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing