William Skidelsky longs for a culinary thrill

Is eating Black Forest gateau the way we mourn lost culinary innocence? Asks William Skidelsky

In recent years, a fashion has developed for revisiting the classic foods of the 1960s and 1970s - dishes such as prawn cocktail, steak and chips and Black Forest gateau, which once appeared the height of sophistication but now seem irredeemably naff. The equivalent of dancing rapturously to Abba, or wearing flared jeans, this food trend is essentially nostalgic: a way for baby-boomers to relive their childhoods, while appearing to be ironic and postmodern.

I wonder, however, if there might not be more to it than that. In recent weeks, for some reason (perhaps because of the mounting evidence that I am no longer in the first flush of youth), I have become increasingly aware that my own reactions to food have changed over time. Basically, I used to get tremendously excited about things I now find only moderately interesting or, in some cases, positively unpleasant. I vividly remember, for instance, the first time I had a meal in a Chinese restaurant. The magic of smearing plum sauce across those nifty little pancakes, loading them with cucumber, spring onion and duck, and popping them in my mouth. The fun of the wheel in the centre of the table, to be rotated as you pleased, in order to summon just the dish you wanted. Today, by contrast, the dismal aspects of a meal in a Chinese restaurant are all too apparent: the MSG-laden sauces, the harried and impatient waiters. Similarly, I remember the thrill I felt when I first had one of those hot cheese-filled croissants from Victoria station, or sampled a Pret A Manger sandwich (yes, honestly, even that once seemed novel), whereas now I am eager to avoid both. And the list doesn't stop there: Harrods Food Hall, Fortnum & Mason, Chez Gerard, even Michelin-starred restaurants - many things no longer get me going.

Partly, such changes are a natural result of becoming an adult. But I also fear they are signs of a growing culinary ennui. For there is such a thing as innocence when it comes to food, and the loss of it - whether it's an individual losing it or a whole culture - is not necessarily a good thing. The story of British food in recent decades is arguably one of spectacular loss of innocence. Once, we got by on stodgy home-grown dishes, with a smattering of borrowings from France. Then Elizabeth David introduced us to the delights of the Mediterranean, and it has been a free-for-all ever since, with all the foods of the world becoming, in a way, our own. But if everything is available, don't people lose the ability to feel genuinely excited? Doesn't the thrill of discovery give way to a sense that nothing really counts? And perhaps that is why we have started embracing the foods of our childhoods: not simply out of a desire to relive them, but because, in a broader sense, we regret growing up.

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