The Week In Radio: Stir childhood memories and allow to simmer


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The Independent Culture

Food is wasted on the radio. If cooking on television is the equivalent of being invited to dine at the chef's table, only to watch with distress as the dishes are taken elsewhere, doing it on the radio is like being denied entry to the restaurant altogether and, deranged with hunger, listening to the sound of chewing through the door. This is why every time they bring out the mixing bowl on Woman's Hour, a little part of me dies. Do I want to hear Jane Garvey swooning over Yotam Ottolenghi's baba ganoush? Unless said chef is prepared to courier a sample to my house, I do not. Would I like Mary Berry's top tips on making the perfect roulade? I'd rather deep-fry my own eyeballs.

Happily, however, there is one programme that is quietly helping to raise culinary standards. Food For Thought, which returned in daily instalments this week, had as its first guest the American writer and comedian David Sedaris. He was there ostensibly to showcase one of his signature dishes, scallop sashimi, though within 30 seconds all pretence of food preparation had been abandoned in favour of amusing recollections from his childhood, such as the time his father, a compulsive food hoarder, filled his pockets with bread at a smart restaurant so he could toast it for breakfast in the morning.

Sedaris had his own food-related neurosis, namely that he could never have enough of it, a situation that reached its apogee in his pot-smoking days when he would have dinner twice and, when all the food had run out, begin feasting on the condiments. To compensate, he once went on a diet so fierce that when he went home his family thought he had cancer.

Being one of six children, he remarked that he had never shaken off the anxiety that he might not get his fair share. "I'd rather have a big plate of mediocre food than a little plate of fancy food," he said sadly. I think I actually heard him shrug.

Food, like music, has a way of unearthing long-buried memories. It's like a portal to the past. Yesterday, it was condensed milk that sent SAS operative-turned-best-selling writer Andy McNab hurtling down memory lane, coming to a halt at his council estate home when, as a 13-year-old with a 36-inch waist, he would eat bread dipped in canned milk warmed over an electric heater. He was no gourmet, as his misty-eyed appreciation of spam, a staple of his army ration packs, attested. Asked by the presenter Nina Myskow what was the worst thing he had eaten, he replied, "my own faeces". This wasn't quite the answer anyone was expecting although it was delivered in an upbeat tone which suggested that being forced to literally eat crap as a prisoner during the Gulf War had been scrupulously covered in basic training, along with frying spam using a Zippo lighter in the middle of a sandstorm.

Of course, Food For Thought isn't about food at all. It's about getting people to open up without appearing to pry. Ask a famous person about their childhood and they are apt to clam up; enquire about their grandmother's legendary spaghetti meatballs and they are putty in your hands. If you want cosy kitchen memories and chocolate roulade recipes, you're better off sticking with Woman's Hour. But for Dickensian poverty, torture in Iraqi interrogation centres, and tales of smoking so much pot that a jar of English mustard starts to look like a strawberry pavlova, then it's transfixing. Just don't expect any cooking.