Michael Ratcliffe explores the nature of our passion
A friend suffering from advanced orgy-withdrawal said that food was the new obsession because it is the

last safe pleasure left -

we can't have promiscuous sex, she said, we're not allowed to smoke and we're not supposed to take drugs. So we eat.

She managed to make it sound like much the least rewarding option of the four, and, of course, it's never been entirely safe; but the fact is that at a moment of cultural uncertainty and a growing, inter-generational stand-off, food has come to be relied on as the one thing getting better all the time.

Food is the new alchemy, the new pornography, the new church. Publishers search for the philosopher's stone of the ultimate, error-free cookbook that will zap all earlier guides. Food stylists fill magazines with meticulously lit and composed photographs that transmute edible matter into the promise of a more lasting investment: pumpkin becomes amber; the partridge is glazed like a lacquer box; the fennel gleams like jade. We celebrate the cult with Delia the priest and Conran the prophet, and today's text is: if we get the meal right, it will, like religion, not only give us pleasure but do us spiritual good.

At this time of year, there's a feeling of firelight and candles and sex just off camera, but it's never going to be, or look, like that on the night; and however much you pay for it, it won't last long. The great unspoken truth behind the new culture of shopping and stuffing in Britain is that food is a transient pleasure and that what goes in must come out. We think we know better than the French and the Italians, for whom such self-evident truths are not even worth addressing as they immemorially cook, gather and eat. We are going for the permanent orgasm that makes food last forever. To do this, we have become food-voyeurs. We shoot ice- cream across bellies and drizzle the extra virgin, as slowly as possible, on to the starter as the guests sit down. Everybody is watching.

We have imposed a further series of oblique takes on food to place it way beyond mere eating. It has become a new literature, a new museum, a new movie. The well-written recipe is a short story, with characters, plot, and a happy ending. You can read one before going to sleep at night, with a little light cultural garni if you're lucky enough to have picked up a Jane Grigson or a Claudia Roden; and you don't even have to cook it. There are lashings of food - recipes, even - in contemporary anglophone fiction, where novelists are praised as much for the way they describe Malvern pudding and stuffed camel as for their sensitivity and wit. Anthologies abound.

On holiday, we spend as much time gawping at the great markets of China and Paris as we do with the terracotta warriors or in the Louvre. And the traffic is two-way: food becomes art, and historians magick Old Master paintings to produce food. Van Dyck's wonderful portrait of the nabob William Fielding in the National Gallery has yielded My Lord of Denbigh's Almond Marchpane, and the National has just published it. No wonder the buttons are popping on his cinnamon silk pyjamas.

The 19 hours of food programmes on television each week - serious cooking, poncey cooking, lecherous cooking, slapstick cooking - are all finite performances, with the added excitement that the chef might blow up the studio or at least spray the audience with the lentil and chorizo stew. Noble Johnnie Cradock, loyal slave to the tyrannous Fanny, his wife, lies deep in the folk-memory of anyone over 50 for his weekly humiliations in the BBC studio kitchen and for having once torched the Cradock galley, to intense media interest, on the Costa del Sol.

Fanny looked like a cross between a drag queen and Lucille Ball, if that isn't a tautology. She knew she was in showbiz, and most television chefs today offer the assurance of entertainment-stereotypes, as they play a twelve-month panto with an all-star cast - Prince Charming: Delia Smith; Dandini: Oz hunk Jonathan Heath from Light Lunch; Ugly Sisters: the Fat Ladies; their mother: Chinese chopper Nancy Lam. Buttons: Gary Rhodes. Brokers' Men: Kevin ("Can't cewk, won't cewk!") Woodford and naughty Ainsley Harriott. Fairy Godmother: the deceptively flapping Fern Britton from Ready, Steady, Cook (in fact, she's running the show); Dame: Dale Winton from Supermarket Sweep, the programme where, like sea lions, the competitors applaud themselves ("Oh poppet! Give me a cuddle!"). Some failed punter will have to play Cinders: it's a role unlikely to attract the media star chefs of today: they're all at the ball.

Delia apart - at nearly 10 million copies sold she is hors concours - is anyone really cooking more adventurously as a result of all this? Prue Leith says that few people send in for the recipes on most programmes. In the case of Kev's vodka spaghetti or Jennifer's stuffed tomatoes, this is perhaps not surprising, but the ads that support them on three and four ram the message home: enjoy the show, then do what you've always done. They tell you that if you want to cook like la nonna cooked, open a jar and slosh on the Dolmio; that New Man, backed by Tammy Wynette, looks after baby and serves working wife with "Posh Mince: Great Food Made Simple"; that Old Man, to the sound of Africans singing as they return from a day's work in the fields, comes home to the loving, laddish certainties of wife, child, football in the passage, and Heinz Tomato Soup.

The supermarkets, too, tempt us with independence, then remind us of the time. Shoppers who know their arrabbiata from their amatriciana and their passata from their sugocasa do so because these sauces are ready- made and so cheap they will never need to make their own. They will buy them until they get bored and then move on to the next inexpensive, ready- made thing. Cubed pancetta bacon, on the other hand - very Ruth Rogers, very River Cafe - slipped easily into our Sainsbury's list of top 100 most popular items, well ahead of Morning Star Streaky Strips and Choctastic Pop Tarts, so you just can't tell.

The TV food ad is one of the few places where the classic nuclear family of 2+2 children is still invoked to commercial purpose. Everyone else knows that the celebration of family by shared food at table, once the children are in their teens, has declined. One startling theory suggests that the boom in eating-out, in part arises from the shortage of rental accommodation in the cities, which keeps the waged young at home longer than before, so that they simply have to get out of the house. The point is that the pub, though itself improved out of all recognition, is no longer enough.

One evening recently, I proceeded from a performance of Tennessee Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, an old fruit of a play from the days when people feasted on words because they found them more nourishing than most available food, to supper at Bank, one of London's gigantic new eating malls. Twenty-to-thirtysomethings made up the largest group at each: the play was received with only slightly more enthusiasm than Rupert Everett, on that evening, had displayed in performing it, but in the restaurant the racket of Friday pleasure was deafening and the seared sea-bream going down a treat.

Would anyone remember the food? Not for long, frankly, but they wouldn't forget the scarlet girders, the wide-open kitchen where bank tellers once told, the translucent swathe of suspended glass panels beneath which they had eaten, or the huge blue murals of dreamy boardwalk scenes. (I think we were sailing from Southampton.) Most theatres would die for a design- budget like that. Ditto Conran's earsplitting Quaglino's, where each diner makes an entrance down a Hello, Dolly! staircase. Up the Oxo tower, they say, the view alone is worth the bill, but these metropolitan palaces, much sniffed at by new puritans and glamorous on a scale undreamed of even five years ago, are not typical. Much more significant in the long run, is the irresistible rise of small, chef-led restaurants across the country where regular diners can eat and drink well, gossip and argue and love.

Will the revolution continue? At first sight, the omens are unclear. Some kids now eat with Nan on Sundays while parents stock up for the week, and Nan rapidly learns to be neither too adventurous nor too traditional. Many children resist fresh, unprocessed food, preferring quiche, sausage and fish fingers to plain roast with veg. But "tradition" grows fast as a weed. Quiche is a postwar immigrant, and one Birmingham boy recently complained about changes to the school menu: why couldn't they have good British food, like they used to? Pizza, lasagne and curry. The new comfort foods have a very short pedigree here.

This is wholly cheering. "Cuisine" is only the French for grub done really well, and some of the most delicious cuisines in the world - Moroccan, Hungarian, South Indian, South-Western French - are founded on refinements of peasant comfort food. The nature of this is that you choose where to take your comfort and you stick to it. (Poached eggs and mashed potatoes, since you ask.) From chosen comfort food, you move on to other things.

We've created a kind of new, exclusively importing, version of the British Empire. This time we haven't marched in and imposed our Vita Britannica; we haven't even left home, except to take hols all over Europe and the rest of the world and bring back as treasure a taste for what we discover. A bit like the Japanese economy in the Fifties and Sixties, but that was a perfect replica, and this, when it works, is a glorious remix of what we had forgotten and what we have found out. This is fusion food.

Our local traiteur - herself a neighbourhood pioneer less than five years ago - smiled a little sigh when I mentioned the question of fashions in food. Food should be a given, and an expectation, she said with a pained sweetness, and not a matter of lifestyle. Oh, absolutely, I grovelled, but surely we didn't claim to have got that far? We're still romancing. When we can close a heavenly movie like Big Night with the reconciliation of brothers over an omelette, or, like Eduardo de Filippo, write a great play about humanity and the Neapolitan ragu, we'll have shaken off lifestyle and embraced expectation.

What next? It is a small sign of maturity that the food biz in Britain is beginning to shake free of fashion and has produced its own retro cookbook. The prawn cocktail is back, hosted by Simon Hopkinson; so is bunny (good), and (big cheer) coq au vin. It must be almost safe to make the Athol Brose and chocolate oranges again, but I'll pass, for the moment, on the blue violet salad and the Georgian squirrel pilau.