How I was radicalised by Delia Smith into caring more about the planet

Two years ago, I got an email from a commissioning editor asking if I felt like working my way through Delia’s How to Cook and writing about the results. 

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What are the warning signs of radicalisation? The government guidelines for children are clear: isolating themselves from family and friends; speaking as if from a scripted speech; an unwillingness or inability to discuss their views; a sudden disrespectful attitude towards others; increased levels of anger; and increased secretiveness, especially around internet use. Quite how this can be differentiated from the onset of puberty is anyone’s guess, but I’m sympathetic to the clumsiness of the definition. Radicalisation can take many forms and its sources are not always clear.

And I should know: this year, I was radicalised by a cookery book.

It happened by accident. Two years ago, I got an email from a newspaper commissioning editor asking if I felt like working my way through Delia Smith’s How to Cook and writing about the results. It would be like the Julia Childs-inspired blog that led to Julie and Julia, albeit without the lucrative cinematic tie-in starring Meryl Streep. (I’m still hoping for a BBC miniseries starring that guy off The IT Crowd.)

I was, at the time, a functional cook. I did the overwhelming majority of the cooking at home, but I don’t think I can credibly claim to have mastered more than a handful of recipes: a decent ragù, a passable risotto, a good roast, a side of fish. My year with Delia changed my culinary habits for the better and my figure for the worse: by the end of it, I had picked up an easy familiarity with the essentials of cooking and a hunger to try different things.

Delia is an excellent starting point for any budding cook. Now I am more experienced I find her obsession with rules, her painstakingly accurate measurements, and her tendency to add too much salt to everything slightly irksome, but at the start Delia’s strict instructions provided me with a great set of training rails. I still try at least one new recipe every week, although sadly no one pays me to do it these days.

So how did my radicalisation start? As I started to care more about what I cooked, I became someone who cared more about what I cooked with: someone who took care to buy the correct cut of meat, and had strong opinions about whether things should be grilled, steamed, boiled or roasted.

The trouble with taking an interest in ingredients is that the answers to “where does my food come from?” are almost invariably bad ones. Just as you can be oblivious to the sound of annoying music from next door until someone points it out, it was only when I started to find out about how modern intensive farming methods affect insect numbers that I noticed how many fewer insects there are in my life today than there were in my childhood – and I say that not as someone who swapped the quiet countryside for the big city but as someone who has moved no further than four miles from north-east London my entire life. Remember that old joke about how you can tell a happy cyclist – by the insects in their teeth? It simply doesn’t apply any more.

I have never been someone who is particularly concerned about animal life in general, and I am still not. Octopuses are intelligent enough to bear grudges, so I have always thought it was good sense to avoid eating them, and I wouldn’t eat another ape for the same reason. But I’m afraid I have no real sense of compassion for a chicken, or indeed most family pets, although I will of course sympathetically mumble if someone’s cat or dog dies.

So I’m not going to pretend that learning more about the process that makes a cut of Wagyu beef so delicious has given me any more sympathy for the plight of the cow, or that I am particularly moved by the fate of an individual bumblebee. But one thing you can’t escape when reading about how your steak gets to your plate is the absolute certainty that we cannot go on consuming that much energy and killing off quite so much insect life in the production of our food – unless we want to spend the 2080s living on rafts and subsisting off kelp. Not least because I’ve tried kelp and I didn’t enjoy the experience.

For that reason, I have started to follow a “more and less” policy as far as meat is concerned: I aim to eat less meat and to spend more money on it when I do, and I now eat seasonally and organically produced vegetables as a matter of course in order to help preserve biodiversity. 

I don’t think I will ever become a proper vegetarian. I am not at all convinced that there is anything wrong with humanely killing bugs and animals. However, I am convinced by the environmental and ecological case for cutting down on the number of animals we kill. And what started on my plate hasn’t ended there: I am trying to cut down on the amount of needless waste I generate more widely.

So what does my green turn tell us about politics? I didn’t become more environmentally friendly because of a leaflet or a hardworking local campaigner. It wasn’t even down to the number of times that climate change came up in my day job: I’m ashamed to admit that until recently I felt so depressed about the whole subject that I had a “why ruin my day by getting into this?” attitude to environmental stories.

As well as my radicalising, Delia-gleaned knowledge, what changed my mind was money. I became affluent enough to spend more on food. And caring about where my food came from changed me into the kind of person who gives money to green charities and gets annoyed when people use excessive amounts of water.

The grim truth of post-crash politics is that if you feel financially insecure, you are less likely to feel altruistic. As Britain wrestles with Brexit, we would do well to remember that.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special