The Food Interview: Ed Balls

“George Osborne is welcome to try my pork dish”

Portrait by Muir Vidler for NewStatesman

You’re known to be a good cook. How did you learn, and what’s your secret?
My mum taught me. She’s a good cook and always keen to try new things. And I’ve been practising ever since.

Do you have a signature dish?
Probably my 14-hour pulled pork barbecue – pork shoulder, rubbed in brown sugar and spices, cooked indirectly in hickory-infused smoke, served in a white bun with a vinegar-based pouring sauce and home-made coleslaw, sweet beans and watermelon on the side.

Who does more of the cooking at home –you or Yvette [Cooper, Balls’s wife]?
Definitely me, though Yvette does an excellent risotto every now and then.

What’s her favourite dish of yours?
A south-east Asian chicken noodle soup. The flavour comes from roasted garlic and tamarind.

What do you think of her cooking?
She’s very good . . . but out of practice!

What is the real story behind “Lasagne-gate”? [Balls and Cooper were accused of plotting to overthrow the Labour leadership over a dinner of lasagne at their home.]
Last summer, I cooked dinner one evening for all my shadow Treasury team members, plus partners. After the reshuffle, we decided to repeat it – for my new team and also for Yvette’s new shadow Home Office team. I cooked las­agne and Eton mess for 45.

Meals often play a part in political intrigue, the Granita dinner between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in 1994 being the obvious example. What’s the most politically intriguing meal you’ve been party to?
Well, I was there for the Granita starter but felt like a bit of a lemon, so I scarpered.

Pasty-gate was the latest in a long line of political food stories [Brown and the Hobnobs, Edwina Currie and the eggs]. What has been your worst food-related gaffe?
It wasn’t a problem but my biggest scare was when [I was] promoting free school meals at the Labour party conference. Alan Johnson and I visited a primary school for lunch with a reception class of five-year-olds. As we sat down to eat, on camera, we both spontaneously lifted our glasses of water and said “cheers”. We then looked at each other with fear in our eyes as we realised our mistake.

What has been the worst ever political food gaffe, in your view?
It would have to be John Selwyn Gummer feeding his daughter a burger on TV during the mad cow disease scare. It breaks all the rules.

Why does food have such potency in politics?
I guess it is the Last Supper symbolism of “the breaking of bread”.

Do you agree with Jamie Oliver’s recentattack on the government for allowing a return of vending machines and unhealthy meals to schools?
Yes, certainly. This is an area where “nudge” doesn’t work.

What, more broadly, do you make of the government’s food policies and plans to tackle obesity?
Michael Gove ridiculed my efforts to get all children to learn simple, healthy recipes in school. Says it all, really.

What do you think of your children’s school meals?
Good – they’ve got better. But the chairs are very small.

Are you concerned that the cuts will lead to families saving on food budgets and children going hungry?
It is already happening – inevitably. Despite the Tory propaganda that it all goes on “fags and booze”, research shows that mums actually spent tax credits on food and shoes for their kids. So cuts to tax credits will lead to many children going without or eating less healthily.

Would you ever sit down to dinner, one on one, with George Osborne?
Sure. We had a drink together at a conference a few years back but never dinner.

If you had to cook Osborne dinner, what would you make?
I have said before that he is welcome to try my pulled pork dish. But maybe now I’d have to bake him a pasty, since he doesn’t remember when he last ate one.

Have you ever had a leader of the Labour Party over for dinner?
Not when they were leader – but I have cooked for a number of Labour politicians who then became the leader.

Have you ever given anyone food poisoning?
Not to my knowledge!

If you had to choose, what would be your last meal?
I really hope I never have to make that choice.

Is there a culinary experience that you’d like to forget?
Children’s birthday cakes are a bit of a speciality. I do a good pirate ship but “a Coke can with straw” proved to be an ask too far . . .