The way we eat now: What will future food historians make of our curious eating habits?
From freekeh to fish fingers, Britain’s in the middle of a gastronomic revolution.
If you immerse yourself as thoroughly as I do in today's food writing – from the food mags like Olive and Delicious and the cookery pages of supplements such as this one, to the niche publications designed for the true food porn consumer and a teetering mountain of cookery books – you could be forgiven for thinking we're a nation of passionate home cooks and allotment-botherers, busy smoking our own fish, churning our own ice-cream and slow-cooking our rare breed meats for days on end.
All our produce will be organic, bought from a local speciality store or farm shops. Or if you're hardcore, from the producers themselves. If even Gwyneth Paltrow is proselytising about the joys of making delicious pizzas by first building "a wood burning oven in the back yard", then we're obviously all at it, right?
Some of us might be. But the reality is that everywhere you turn you bang your head up against the Big Four, the hegemony of supermarket giants who virtually dictate what goes down our necks to the tune of some 76 per cent of all the food we buy.
"There does seem to be a gap between the way we hope to eat and the way we actually do" James Winter, author of 'Yes, Chef!'
Yes, James Winter is right – we're all time-starved. The supermarkets deliver and they all have nice big car parks and well, they are so much cheaper. Sure, we can buy dragon fruit and lemongrass (but not British heirloom tomatoes, strangely enough) and there's that lovely points card that gives you free stuff – so what if it's used to filch all our details for even more sophisticated marketing and targeting? But it turns out we're not even all that happy with the big supermarkets: a recent customer satisfaction survey from Which? discovered that in fact they make us pretty miserable. Perhaps not unhappy enough to embark on violent protests as they did at the opening of a new Tesco Metro in Bristol, but grumpy none the less.
So the supermarkets make us miserable and destroy local high streets, trampling down the butcher, baker and candlestick maker like so many barcoded Godzillas. We feed them with all our hard-earned, don't we? Well, not so much. We spend less of our disposable income on food than any other country in Europe (while, incidentally, being fatter than any other country in Europe. Coincidence? I don't think so). And if we're not vacantly cruising the aisles, we're clicking maniacally on our "favourites" – we are the largest user of online shopping facilities in Europe, Italy being the lowest. Draw your own conclusions.
"The way we eat is increasingly becoming a status symbol for the affluent and a deadly poison for those who allow food no cultural significance or value" Trish Deseine, food writer and goddess of chocolate
We're obsessed with cheapness. We've been conditioned into thinking it's OK to spend next to nothing on feeding ourselves. I've just looked on a supermarket's website, selling fish fingers at 60p for 10. Will you be excited by the price, or by how packed with fresh fish they are? I'm not about to go into the politics of it all (for that, I'd refer you to Oxfam's recent, terrifying report, "Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World"). But seriously, how can this be defined as good food?
"Families are busier than ever in the 21st century and want ever more convenient ways of getting food into their fridges and cupboards. As of January this year, 12 per cent of Ocado's total sales were being generated through devices like the iPhone and iPad – hard-working parents are choosing to food shop at the school gates, on the commute home" Ben Lovett, Ocado spokesperson
Achieving the rose-tinted vision of a family life where Ma, Pa and the nippers sit down every evening to a home-cooked meal of quality ingredients is about as realistic as my dreams of being Mrs Jon Hamm. In fact, in recent historical terms it has always been a chimera, a Dickensian invention: families have always eaten food at different times, saving the get-together for the Sunday roast, much as we do now. The only thing that's different is that now it's likely to be Pa at the stove, showing off his prowess as only a chap can, while Ma's department is the monotony of weekday children's meals, largely composed of convenience ingredients. The whole extended family, Aga-cooked meals round battered kitchen table fantasy is, in any case, the preserve of the older foodie; today's young guns are more likely to tumesce over pigs' blood cakes from a Taipan night market. We can blame our parents. Their generation lost their way, dazzled by new convenience foods and "time-saving" kitchen gadgets.
"In the West we are fed – and happily buy into – a concept that we should never feel hungry" Scottee, performance artist and creator of 'fat people's beauty pageant', Burger Queen
So now we sit watching Nigella do vaguely obscene things to wooden spoons while eating our four-minute "Thai" green curries. Who even makes the food we eat? We decant it, complete with its emulsifiers and stabilisers and sodium diphosphates from its containers on to large white plates – with perhaps a sprig of watercress? – without a thought to who even cooks it. The middle classes, who normally put ready meals into their jute shoppers with as much furtive shame as the weaseliest porn purchaser, seem to see Marks & Spencer or Waitrose on the packet as some kind of badge of acceptability. But the dishes are likely to be made by companies with definitively non-household names: Greencore and Northern Foods and Noon Products and Uniq Foods. Not that we care: ready-meal sales are back at pre-recessionary levels – about £1.6 billion – so we've clearly got the money to microwave.
"We are undoubtedly spending less and less time in the kitchen but we are also more concerned about what we are feeding ourselves" Thomasina Miers, TV chef and owner of Wahaca
And if we're going to actually cook, we don't just want it cheap, we want it fast. As recently as 1980, the average meal took an hour to prepare; now "scratch" cooking rarely takes more than 15 minutes, the time it takes to unbag a salad, open a container of "fresh" pasta and stir in the sauce. Then there's St Jamie promising to have us all knocking up three courses in 30 minutes. The most egregiously macho type of food TV is all about speed and pressure – "cooking doesn't get any tougher than this". Food writer Debora Robertson says: "I really don't give a damn how quickly you can make an omelette, but I do care, quite a lot, how delicious it is". So of course, what we really need is Trudie Styler and her new range of ready meals, sorry, "Lake House Table Kitchen Suppers" ready in 10 minutes. "Kitchen Suppers"? Please do feel free to kill me now.
Bizarrely, given the straitened financial times, restaurants appear to be doing reasonably well. Even though London must be considered something of a bubble environment, I currently have well over a hundred new or newish restaurants on my radar.
But food we eat at restaurants may still be pre-prepared. Those Brakes trucks that you see trundling around: they're full of things that end up being served in your local gastropub or mid-market casual restaurant. You think the surly youths in the kitchen are knocking up your smoked haddock kedgeree, or caramelised onion and camembert soufflé tarts, or fragrant Thai mussels? Not likely. Because even in commercial kitchens, we can't cook.
Despite all this, one of today's more persistent trends is the nouveau artisan. There are a lot of second-careerers out there, ex-City boys, marketing creatives and ad-men, whose thoughts are turning to our stomachs. This new breed may be a little self-conscious – look at me, I'm a horny-handed artisan – but their hearts are firmly in the right place. They look likely to flourish as organically as their sourdough starters, most notably because the internet is removing the barriers to the marketplace that previously existed. Then there are the foragers: it's astonishing that nobody in a waxed Barbour wielding a Carluccio's mushroom brush has yet to be felled by mistaking a death cap for a chanterelle, or choking on a stringy alexander. The "World's Best Restaurant" Noma's maverick chef René Redzepi is king of the foragers, but when Waitrose is planning to stock sea aster on their fish counters, and bartenders are whipping up nettletinis, it looks like the trend has gone less rock'n'roll and more easy listening. And kind of missed the point in the process.
So where are all the cool foodie kids? On the internet, of course, especially Twitter. The bloggers got weary of talking to each other and realised that the formerly unassuming site is now a behemoth that can help them broadcast, broadcast, broadcast. Wordpress, Tumblr and Posterous have turned even the most determined Luddites into net whizzes, posting recipes that would have once been closely-guarded secrets, or telling the world about their dinners, all dreaming they're going to grow up and turn into Gizzi Erskine or even – bloke blog nirvana – Anthony Bourdain.
Some are well on their way: publishers monitor the internet closely, and as a result we've now got a rash of blogger-penned cookery books.
"We've become a much more discerning bunch; a nation of pseudo-critics" Ben McCormack, editor, Square Meal
There are restaurateurs who work the twittersphere like puppet masters, like Russell Norman of London's wildly successful Polpo. His Twitter followers verge on the fanatical and he plays the game like a pro.
When Russell Norman's latest outpost, Da Polpo, recently opened in Covent Garden, I got an e-mail from an industry insider which read: "Surrounded by early-adopting foodie bloggers, Canon EoS 500s, people tweeting so hard their fingers are bleeding. Aaaaaaaaargh". I constantly wonder how these twentysomethings afford their restaurant habits (the answer to "What do you do?" often seems to be "Something in IT"). Or whether they ever have sex. Factor into the equation the location-based network Foursquare which allows you to "check in" at an increasing number of urban hangouts, and the vaguely toxic combo means you need never have an unexamined, solitary meal again.
"There seems to be a split in the food world: one side is going further and further down the scientific route, frankly outside the possibilities and budget of the home cook. On the other hand we are seeing a folksy revival of learning to cook from scratch: a return to the roots, almost literally, with a renewed interest in foraging" Kerstin Rodgers aka the blogger Ms Marmitelover, The Underground Restaurant
While the kids are showing off, the older brigade are getting intellectual. The new cerebrality, as exemplified by ex ad-man Tim Hayward's Fire & Knives quarterly, is sneaking out more than the odd tentacle. Look at the inspired loopiness of The Experimental Food Society. Members include Bompas and Parr: from burger-filled Krispy Kremes to happenings like Scratch'n'Sniff Cinema and Alcoholic Architecture – whole rooms suffused with inhaleable gin and tonic – everything they touch is a happening. Who says we aren't thinking about our food?
"When I first arrived in England in 1973, I remember being quite shocked by how bad the food was" Anissa Helou, food writer and broadcaster
Take two of the highest-profile recent restaurant openings (I make no apology for them both being in London; high-profile restaurant openings tend to be in London): Marcus Wareing's The Gilbert Scott and Heston Blumenthal's Dinner. Thoughtful in the extreme, both purport to put dishes of historical resonance on the table, but where in actual real life can you find "Dorset jugged steak" (The Gilbert Scott) or "powdered duck" (Dinner)? This isn't heritage British food at all, but the creation of clever chefs: it's theme-park Britain for the rich or tourists, who don't need to know that the vast majority aren't sitting down to "rice and flesh", but to Wall's rusk-tastic sausages anointed with Bisto.
And if we're not eating pease pudding, we're in pop-ups from groovy young chefs, or supper clubs, ad-hoc restaurants in the sitting rooms of enthusiastic amateurs. Recessions are notorious for skewing and subverting the way we eat; the last one gave us the gastropub, this one offers the opportunity to gawp at the neighbours' knick-knacks while weighing up how much to "voluntarily contribute" to cooking of varying levels of competency. If you're lucky, there may be a drag queen or two thrown in.
"Bollocks to how immaculate a 15-course tortured series of dishes can be. Give me a perfect chip any day!" Mark Manson, owner of award-winning Y Polyn restaurant
At least, I thought, eating might be getting a lot more fun for us beleaguered Brits than it used to be. And then I remembered my friend Sasha, for whom every mouthful is fraught with fear and guilt. She's not alone. Katherine May, author of the new book on relationships, The 52 Seductions, and a blog about food and relationships called Spooning, says: "Whenever I eat, I feel like I'm juggling a hundred pieces of information about the nutritional/ethical/calorific content of that food. It's impossible to eat a meal without feeling guilty somehow."
Is our fish sustainable? Is our meat free-range? What have our vegetables been sprayed with? Shopping for food can leave us as paralysed with indecision as a rabbit trapped in headlamps. Not farmed rabbit, of course. We've the foodie Cassandras to thank for that: Morgan Spurlock, Felicity Lawrence, Michael Pollan; Joanna Blythman's new book is called Fraught: What Not to Eat. Feeding off the fact that everyone was getting fatter and climate change was becoming something tangible and impossible to ignore, they took to the bookshelves with principles and brave hearts ablaze. Sadly, reading even a couple of them renders you incapable of ingesting as much as a pilchard without agonies of conscience.
Marketeers feed on our fears: even KFC is currently running a soft-focus new campaign that looks as though it's advertising Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil. If we buy frozen food, we feel bad. If we buy fresh food, we end up throwing it away, £23 billion's worth annually, according to lovefoodhatewaste.com.
"The way we eat today? Quickly, standing up, tweeting, with our cock in a prozzy and our lawyer on speed dial for the superinjunction" Giles Coren, TV presenter and restaurant critic
So we're photographing our food, tweeting and blogging it, trying to find out where it lived and what its name was before it was slaughtered, and yet the ready-meals market sector is blooming like fungus. We're obsessed with healthy eating and we're fatter than ever. We're wafting through rooms that allow you to inhale gin and tonic mist while buying fish fingers that retail at 6p each. We're espousing the Slow Food movement while eating more fast food than ever – and trying to cut our cooking times down to less than it would take to prepare a Pot Noodle.
Our snacks of choice are organic seeds and nuts – have you seen those ludicrous Graze boxes? – or Gregg's pasties. The government watches what we eat via bodies funded by Coca Cola and Cadbury's, who are then helpfully allowed to be self-regulating. We're continue to waft around supermarkets, checking our smartphones for info from sites like wheresyoursfrom.com which tells you where the eggs were laid, or fish sustainability iPhone apps. And yet the sugary kormas still find their way into our trolleys.
"Eating in the information age has become a complex business. It seems that everything we put in our mouths comes with an ethical dilemma" Andy Lynes, food writer
The way we eat today? Gimme a break: in Britain 2011, the food scene has never been more fragmented. The good food brigade is, like it or not, largely middle class. Fi Bird, a writer whose Stirrin' Stuff initiative specialises in teaching children about food, tells of visiting an inner-city school where the pupils had no idea that peas came from pods. How can we pretend we're a nation of locavore foragers when the spend on fast food is higher than ever?
"I can be sniffy about the lack of pomegranate seeds on a complex restaurant dish one day, while thoroughly enjoying Heinz Cream of Tomato the next. We make choices based on context, because now we can" Tracey MacLeod, 'The Independent' restaurant critic
Last night I ate octopus cleverly teased to look like risotto and a playful riff on the Full English Breakfast in an ambitious new restaurant that's had the blogosphere a-gibber. Tonight, I've fed the children on Waitrose pesto and frozen petit pois and I'm off to watch Come Dine With Me, while trying to work out if I can afford to fork out 300 quid for Nathan Myhrvold's cooking tome, Modernist Cuisine and munching on toast and Marmite. Artisan sourdough with goat's butter, naturally.
Taste of 2011
The grainy choice of the foodie cognoscenti knocks quinoa off the menu. Freekeh is young wheat roasted over straw to give it a smoky flavour. Abido freekeh, £3.50, melburyandappleton.co.uk
Olive oil is so last century – try UK rapeseed instead. It's low in saturated fat and a source of omega oils. Yorkshire's rapeseed oil, £3.99, tesco.com
This popular Middle Eastern spice is ground from a red berry, and lends a fruity flavour to dishes. Organic ground sumac, £2.26, steenbergs.co.uk
A reduction of the fruit into a syrup, pomegranate molasses can be used as a marinade for meat and fish. Pomegranate Molasses, £2.49, sainsburys.co.uk
Larger and richer than hens' eggs, they're on the menu at the smartest dinner parties. 6 organic ducks' eggs, £3.69, abelandcole.co.uk
Aka kalonji or black onion seeds, nigella seeds are crucial in Indian cookery. Bart Spices kalonji, £1.69, waitrose.com
Less processed and with more flavour, raw choc is now the foodie's choice. Conscious plain bar, £3, therawchocolateshop.com
This vivid yellow beet is a traditional heritage variety, and makes a brightly coloured addition to salads and savoury dishes. Golden beetroot, £5.45, finefoodspecialist.co.uk
This light and tangy soft cheese can be used to top off desserts and savouries. Neal's Yard Creamery goat's curd, £22.75 per 2kg, nealsyarddairyshop.co.uk
Monkfish, pig, ox or cod – it doesn't matter, as long as it's a cheek. Usually thrown away by butchers and fishmongers, they are delicious and cheap. Pig's cheek, £2.95, allensofmayfair.co.uk
Life & Style blogs
Plus London's buy-to-let hotspots and a new property portal
Guest post by Richard Sexton, business development director of e.surv chartered surveyors
Plus lateral thinking and living on London's waterways
The ten best home phones
Facial hair: Cat beards and the purrrsuit of excellence
Microsoft's Xbox One: Have the price (£399) and release date (30 November) been leaked by online retailer Zavvi?
Xbox One vs PlayStation 4: Why Microsoft's console name game just doesn't add up
The 10 Best salt and pepper sets
- 1 Pope Francis: Being an atheist is alright as long as you do good
- 2 'He was always smiling': Lee Rigby named as Woolwich victim
- 3 'Something passed underneath us, quite close': Airbus A320 has close encounter with UFO
- 4 Lord of the Sings: Sir Christopher Lee, 91, to release heavy metal album
- 5 Two bailed after arrest over Woolwich attack Twitter comments
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.