Making a meal of it

When it comes to eating badly, we Brits are truly democratic

In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote: "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." Shaw was of course referring to speech, but I've often wondered if the same applies to what British people put in their mouths. There is a common view, perhaps best exemplified by Jilly Cooper's 1979 book Class, that every aspect of British behaviour, including eating habits, can be neatly shovelled into class boxes. If you're upper middle class you eat grilled peppers for "supper"; if you're lower middle class you eat chicken Kiev for "dinner". And so on, both up and down the ladder.

But I doubt very much whether this has ever really been the case. When it comes to the food they eat, the British are in fact scrupulously democratic: all of us eat rubbish food, and revel in doing so. Whether you're the son of an earl or the son of a lorry driver, it is probable that, following a night on the lash, you will stop off for a kebab or a Big Mac. The greasy breakfast, the bacon sarnie, the pork pie, the chicken tikka masala - all of us take equal pleasure in such delicacies.

But the matter doesn't stop there. Most people would instinctively say that there is some connection between class and food in Britain, even if they can't quite put their finger on what it is. I would suggest that there are two main ways in which they are linked, although both have more to do with perception than with fact.

First, discussions of food - particularly when linked to health - are often a way of surreptitiously bashing the poor. The most obvious example of this is in talking about obesity. The assumption behind all the headlines about oversized children, turkey twizzlers and the like has been that obesity is something which happens to people who shop at Iceland or Kwik Save rather than Waitrose or Sainsbury's, and who live in areas where parents aren't enlightened enough to ensure that their children get the requisite five portions of fruit and veg a day.

The second way in which class and food are connected is in the widely held belief that good food must also be posh food. In most European countries, this isn't the case. Small towns have excellent markets and specialist food shops that are frequented by people of all social classes. In Britain, by contrast, it is assumed that only a middle-class person is likely to visit a "deli" - and the way such shops market themselves often actively encourages this perception. The result is that, in Britain, taking an interest in food cannot be anything other than a sort of aspirational statement: "Look at me - I'm a foodie, so I must be middle class!"

All this has caused a stereotype to emerge of Britain as a two-tier nation with the proles gorging themselves on fried chicken and the middle classes shopping at farmers' markets. It doesn't matter that this picture only vaguely relates to reality; in some sense, increasingly, it's what we believe.