Why make such a meal of trivial cooking?

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WHEN, IN a memorable phrase, a person called Michel Roux recently confessed that the great army of TV celebrity chefs "hurt me below the belt", I felt a rare sense of kinship with the man. At last, someone had dared to speak out about the proliferation of prats with frying-pans and woks who now litter the airwaves with their garlic and quenelles and their knobs of butter.

Chirpy cockney chefs, faux-Etonian chefs, black, white and yellow chefs, chefs with silly hair-dos, fat, thin but always loud chefs: they are everywhere, simmering and marinating and lightly boiling, particularly during the daytime, when any sensible viewer would prefer to see some minor soap celebrity being interviewed, or members of the underclass being harangued about their private lives by a studio audience.

But here was a shock. The man with the pained nether regions, who turns out to be some sort of super-chef himself, was not saying that the 45 food shows currently on air represented a grotesque exaggeration of the importance of food. Far from it: the celebrity chefs were, he said, not taking their subject seriously enough. They were making giggly jokes. "The way these people handle food is a crime."

In other words, far from identifying a cultural scandal, he was part of it. As if it were not bad enough having to put up with an invasion of white-hatted fools making dishes that no one can smell, eat or even cook for themselves (I refuse to believe that anyone is sad enough to be sitting at home making recipe notes), we now had to listen to a pompous Frenchman who treated scoffing as if it were some kind of religious sacrament, and the rough handling of a leg of lamb the moral equivalent of public sex abuse.

Of all the weird obsessions of the Nineties, this surely is the strangest. The British are as commendably bad at cooking as they ever were, yet suddenly they seem genuinely interested in the marginal, ephemeral matter of what we eat. Not only do they tolerate, possibly even enjoy, identical TV food shows, but they throng the most mediocre of restaurants.

They eat carefully and fastidiously, solemnly discussing their food before, during and after its consumption. On a bog-standard meal for two with an ordinary wine, the ingestion of matter which will be flushed down a lavatory pan the next morning, these people are paying out money that could be spent on, say, new hardback fiction from Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Jane Smiley and Paul Bailey, or a boxed set of the complete set of Willie Nelson's classic tracks, or tickets for three cracking Premiership League football games.

Naturally, the new self-indulgence has its intellectuals. Promoting her now book How to Eat, Nigella Lawson, who had always seemed such a sane person, has solemnly asked: "Is the cookbook the new novel?" Could be, she seemed to think. She had once dreamt of writing fiction, but instead she had written this work of evocation, attempting "the portrayal of a life, a world, a series of values", which was pretty much what a novel did. As if to confirm the argument, Salman Rushdie popped up as a reviewer to praise his friend's cookbook/novel with gushing reverence of which even Michel Roux would have approved.

There will, I suppose, be those who would regard any criticism of our new oral fixation as prim and puritanical. Cooking is life, they will say: the person who appreciates the subtleties of different virgin oils is more truly appreciative of the earth's bounty than someone who will throw together a quick sausage and mash before hurrying back to the new Philip Roth. But, for heaven's sake, it's just food.

There's something reduced and decadent about a society which, in between news bulletins showing pot-bellied, starving children staring in blank despair at the camera, spends hours watching a fake meal being prepared by some joker in a TV studio - a world where the bestseller lists are dominated either by books to make you eat, or books to make you thin. If thousands of teenagers grow up anxious and confused about food and self- image, it is not junkie models who are to blame, but celebrity chefs or the pompous restaurateurs.

Is it not possible that historians will look back at this last gasp of the 20th century and shake their heads with wonder? Nineties men and women suffered a bit of a brainstorm about relationships and sex, they will conclude. They became deeply confused about children. Millions went clean round the bend in pursuit of New Age nonsense, from feng shui to astrology. But the weirdest sickness of all, the ultimate idiocy, lay in their wallowing, crazed obsession with what they put in their mouths.