Foodie fights back

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Long ago I came across a piece by one Jane Jakeman, in this newspaper, which deserves an answer.

Ms Jakeman's contention was that "the food-writing business would collapse if it didn't cater for fantasies". Her bete noire was Elizabeth David, whom she accused of plagiarism and snobbery; her remit was local, if not xenophobic; and it was her view that there are only two cuisines, the French and the Turkish, "in which every foodstuff is treated in such a way as to bring out its finest qualities" (an assertion that would surprise the Italians and the Chinese). And only in Britain, she wrote, "where food is one of the shibboleths of middle-class snobbism, could food writing become a genre of its own."

Having followed this metier for as long as this newspaper has existed, and having read about food for most of my life, I think I understand what it is that so bothered Ms Jakeman. It is the middle classes, not their food. And if by "fantasy" she meant that food writing is designed to offer imaginative solutions to a domestic problem - what to eat - that is as old as marriage, then yes, I plead guilty. So would Elizabeth David, if she were around to defend herself.

The chief thrust of Ms Jakeman's accusation was that we food writers ignore the everyday in favour of the exotic. We whore after false gods. We neglect parsnips and carrots in favour of "kokkoretsi, carambola, pistou". We "hail from some far-flung shore", and thus address only "a constituency of like-minded gushing pseuds".

There is some truth in this accusation, as there is in her contention that cookery writers treat cooking as an "art". I myself have long railed against the latter: cooking is not an art but a knack (to use Plato's distinction in the Gorgias) available to all. I also think exotic foods are just that: exotic. I dislike the phoney exotic, such as the omnipresent California dried this-and-that, as much as she does. If you must have exotic foods, then eat them in situ, not in Britain.

But from there to saying that Mediterranean food (a target on which Ms Jakeman long dwells) is exotic, is taking things too far. Pizza, for instance, is the world's most important fast food after hamburgers; pasta is eaten, in one form or another, across the globe.

Ms Jakeman errs. All good cooks use what they find locally: if they can. There's the rub, for on the whole ours is not a country that values quality. Over the past decades, our agriculture has become increasingly efficient, consistent and economically viable. But this has a downside: it has also become highly commercialised. Its Garden of Eden is the manageable potato, the standard tomato, the unbruised pear. But this is not due to the pretension of food writers, as Ms Jakeman argues, but, to consumers' lack of imagination and knowledge. And if the quality and availability of food have increased enormously in the past ten years, this is due in part to the unremitting work of good food writers.

It is not Elizabeth David who introduced us to alien corn. What she did, and a noble task it was, was to inform a whole generation of the pleasures of the table, of all the things that we had been missing. I do not know how old Ms Jakeman is, but I suspect she is young enough to have been spared our diet of 50 years ago. Those of us who remember it exult in having been liberated, to learn about garlic (socially undesirable, all those smelly Frenchmen) and rich sauces (rather than brown gravy); to use thyme and rosemary, basil and sage, and not just our universal parsley and mint; to eat liver that isn't beef (stewed) - in short, to widen our perspectives, and not be shocked when we cross the Channel. Why defend reductionism? Why have less, if we can have more?

Though we had excellent meat and fish, fine vegetables and fruit, until good food writing took root we often did not know what to do with them: vegetables meant water and boiling; we ate salads largely undressed. It is only recently that we have come back to appreciating the different varieties of fruit and vegetables, the ways in which meat can be cut, the richness of ways to prepare ingredients.

Of course it is true that the middle classes, whom Ms Jakeman excoriated, were the first to take to new styles of cooking: they had the means - to buy and to entertain and thus become interested in change. But the middle classes have always been the ones to embrace variety: our pre-War aristocracy doted on ugly puddings, boiled meats and leftovers; the poor had to eat what they could afford.

Pseuds do abound. They exist in all fields and sell us all sorts of dreams. But good writers on food are doing the Lord's work. And as for the vegetables of this world, local is always best. Without food writers' promptings, how many cooks would demand, as they now do, that they have taste as well as appearance and size?