Modern life on a plate

Politicians are all eating wood-smoked duck in public and ready- made lasagne in private
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The Independent Culture
DO YOU ever worry, as you sit of an evening with your microwave meal resting on your copy of The Sugar Club Cookbook watching Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey, that you're letting yourself down?

Do you ever feel that while you've bought radicchio perhaps half-a-dozen times since you first heard of it in the late Eighties, it could be a personal failing that each time you've managed to get some home from the supermarket, it has eventually (actually shockingly quickly) turned to slime in the "crisper" compartment of your fridge?

Does it ever bother you that although you'd like the children to eat more healthily, a la Nigella Lawson (bless her), that in the end it feels better to serve them frozen pizza, which they eat, instead of fresh vegetable crostini, which they don't?

If you've answered yes to these three questions, then welcome. You are a fully paid up member of the Nineties aspirational-lifestyle-con club, perching right on the knife-edge of our confusions about public and private lives, and you are a person who has many, many friends.

Imagine you'd left Britain 20 years ago. You said goodbye to a country in which roast beef with Yorkshire pudding was the internationally scorned but much-loved family meal on a Sunday, where the occasional meal out meant prawn cocktail Marie Rose, steak and chips, then Black Forest gateau, and where a greengrocer's offering apples, oranges, pears, grapes and bananas all at the same time was considered to be the dernier cri.

Now imagine you've just come back here. Everything is different, as a trip to Sainsbury's to pick up some starfruit, a plantain or two and a packet of Chinese gooseberries will immediately confirm. Judging by the recipe books groaning on the kitchen shelves of all your chums, you could be in for seared fresh tuna for Sunday dinner, although even that doesn't quite hit the mark because your hosts are the lucky winners of yet another eat-for-80-at-a- tenner offer at the Conran restaurant of your choice.

Open any Saturday or Sunday newspaper, and you will find large tranches of full-colour newsprint dedicated to bringing you stories of the latest antics of the latest celebrity chefs, printing their recipes, previewing their television programmes, reviewing their restaurants and detailing their cooking implements and kitchen layouts. If that's not enough for you, then take your pick of luscious, glossy periodicals dedicated to food and drink.

Now, you could be forgiven for imagining that this may just mean something, the something being that Britons are cooking more, eating better, and leading healthier lives. That would be an understandable though silly assumption. That would suggest that consumers consumed, when actually consumers simply purchase.

It's been 20 years since the French philosopher Guy de Bord predicted the "society of the spectacle", in which people would become observers of a world summoned up by the media, but it's certainly well and truly with us now. And the single example of our fractured, voyeuristic relationship with ourselves that says more than any other is the example set by the gulf between the food we aspire to and the food we eat.

This week's Mintel British Lifestyles 1999 Survey, informed us yet again that the biggest growth in food spending was in the convenience foods sector - which now accounts for 23 per cent of all the food we eat - while our overall spending on food to eat in the home has declined. Some of this, you may be forgiven for assuming, is because we're all eating out a great deal more. But actually, only around a fifth of us hit a restaurant twice a week or more, while another fifth eat out "only occasionally".

As for cooking, fewer and fewer people are doing it, with large swathes of the population considering reheating a packet of frozen chicken Kievs actually to be cooking. As for the traditional Sunday dinner, it's now a tradition that fewer and fewer of us observe.

While some of the burgeoning army of food celebrities, led by Delia Smith with her latest offering, How To Cook, are attempting to address this very basic lack of knowledge and skill, some arresting sales of specialist pans doesn't necessarily mean that we're getting back in the kitchen. These sales, like the sales of the books themselves, are indications only of our heartfelt - but somehow thwarted - desire to do so.

And far from living healthier lifestyles, we are becoming less healthy at a quite alarming rate. Obesity and digestive difficulties plague us, while our children have become so sedentary and so addicted to junk food that even though we actually eat less than we used to, we weigh more.

Across the board our fat to muscle ratio is moving ever towards lardiness, bringing with it the astonishing fact that our children will grow up with the lowest life expectancies in living memory. And if the fat doesn't get them then the food itself might, for food poisoning of every kind is on the increase. Even more depressing, in Britain today more than four million children are estimated to be suffering from malnutrition.

But this isn't simply a rerun of the old situation in which a cultural elite's living habits gain huge, unchallenged currency. Certainly there are some privileged "foodies" around who really live in the River Cafe society (hey, like General Pinochet and Tony Blair), but there are plenty of ordinary people who ardently aspire to it.

All of the major soap operas now have their local restaurant as well as their local pub. Even in the land that time forgot, Coronation Street, Natalie is introducing ciabatta and deep-fried potato-skins to the Rover's Return, in an as-yet unheard of challenge to the ancient hegemony of Betty Turpin's hotpot. Across the road Roy's Rolls is in the midst of a makeover which will make it Weatherfield's answer to the River Cafe itself.

The truth is that British eating habits have developed a sophisticated and aspirational public face, while in private we cling to comfort and convenience. An unsympathetic critic might encapsulate this phenomenon within the dread phrase "style over substance", but this is too glib and rather underplays the significance of our schizophrenic attitudes to our public and private lives, and not only as far as food is concerned.

Our obsession with this new wave of fancy foodism began in the Eighties along with yuppies and property-owning democracies. It was initially distrusted and satirised, particularly by the left, as being a symptom of that greedy decade. But this new decade, the Nineties, far from developing its own discrete character, has been marked by the process of normalisation whereby the excesses of one decade have become the facts of life in the next. And if the personal is political, then food and power are inextricably entwined.

So it's perfectly fitting that the seal was set on the New Labour leadership with a dinner at the fashionable Islington restaurant Granita, while its greatest crisis was precipitated by a man who wished to project a certain lifestyle but didn't want anyone to know he couldn't pay for it.

If only this was merely a matter of style over substance. Instead it's a question of public affluence masking private poverty. Which is why politicians are so keen to protect their privacy while seeing no contradiction in wishing to project their image and why they no longer seem able to judge what behaviour is appropriate for public life. They're all eating wood- smoked duck in public and ready-made lasagne (the most popular chilled meal in Britain) in private.

We really are what we eat. And what we are is sophisticated, aspirational, poised and capable in public; overstretched, confused, tired and unable to meet our commitments at home. Let's hope that Delia can tell us How To Cook as quickly as she can, and then that Nigella can tell us How To Eat.

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