Food and Drink: Not with a bang but a Wimpy

I was astonished to read in the newspapers recently that by 2000, 85 per cent of all meals will be eaten outside the home. Although no provenance was offered for this statistic, I fear that it will become part of the background nonsense of the time which, like all millennial ages, is much given to apocalyptic messages. The only difference I can see in this regard between 994 and 1994 is that we once took our intellectual quick fixes from God, and now take them from the 'science' of statistics.

As I was travelling to the Canadian Far West when I read of the purported demise of food in the home, I set about counting the countries without a cuisine of their own. (In Vancouver, for instance, the seafood is exceptionally fine, and the game plentiful; one eats well, but without any recognisable sense of place.) My idea was to create a suitable statistic, such as '85 per cent of the world's nations have no recognisable cuisine of their own' - something neither really true nor really important. It is all a matter of how you define a recognisable cuisine: is Venezuelan cooking not Ecuadorian, and vice versa? Or are both merely off-shoots of Spanish cuisine?

My own view is that a statistic ('every cigarette takes seven minutes off your life', or 'one in three women will have experienced rape') is pretty nearly useless unless it tallies with common sense. And as I know no one who has eaten 85 per cent of his or her meals out of the house (at least not yet, but we still have six years to go), I remain dubious.

Assuming we eat about 21 meals a week, that would mean eating at home only thrice. If you are reduced to that, then you really do not need a kitchen, a fridge, plates, knives, forks or anything like. Tea-bags and a kettle, a packet of chocolate biscuits, and you are off. I assume that most people are not on a perpetual round of business trips to Angola and Kuala Lumpur, or on holiday on the Costa del Sol. Right? Prima facie, this statistic is absurd.

There are other reasons for doubt. My rule of thumb is that food eaten out (except for a person eating alone) is about two-and- a-half times as expensive as the same food at home, not to mention booze. So it requires a fair amount of lolly to eat 85 per cent of meals away from home.

Then there is the question of availability. I can see that the centrally located urban dweller might make out all right, if he had the loot. But restaurants tend to concentrate themselves in defined areas; the suburban areas of our cities do not abound in them. And the country-dweller's only recourse is to take to his car and drive to the nearest bright lights.

You have to add to these inconveniences and unlikelihoods some of the obvious consequences of eating out that much - the solitary waiter you get to know too well, the drunken cook in the neighbourhood caff, the overbearing proprietor, the unvarying menu . . . this is a recipe for madness. Although for Americans food is an all-day affair (in the office over which I preside there is seldom a moment in which someone is not eating a doughnut, a peanut-butter-and- cheese cracker, or something), one still presumes that, at the end of the working day as at the beginning, something home-made has passed into their digestive systems.

The only possible explanation for this statistic lies in China; and, being numerous, the Chinese could well skew the figures. Few Chinese seem to have homes in which they could eat, should they wish to;thus they tend to congregate at the food stalls - which number about 10 per block.

Nevertheless, what finally gives the lie to all this 85 per cent nonsense is that there is no good reason at all to eat out with any frequency. I do not care how indolent you are, how despairing after the failure of your latest affaire d'amour, how pressed and depressed, eating out consistently is a loveless affair. Simenon's victims, serial killers, yuppies, unattached entertainment lawyers, may all eat out more frequently than the rest of us. But that is because they have few friends and no real lives of their own.

How many of us are actually so solitary for so much of our lives that we take only three meals a week, including breakfasts, at home? Even P G Wodehouse's ethereal creatures, harried by their aunts and their creditors, absorbed by their newts, and between visits to Blandings Castle where they were pursued by healthy young American women, managed to be served at home in some style.

No, that 85 per cent is a chimera. Whoever invented it clearly wants us to think the world is coming to an end. True, as families shrink, we do eat less at home; you can tell that by the diminishing centrality of the kitchen. But while they shrink, there are still families: the most obvious argument against the 85 per cent theory is that no one in their right mind dines out with kids.

When we reach 85 per cent, I will just step off the edge, thank you very much. I will know that the world is indeed gone. In heaven, they have home cooking. Hell is populated by restaurateurs, their clients and their reviewers.

Life and Style
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