Charlotte Raven: In MasterChef Britain, the elevation of food has turned into a sickness

It is a form of psychic escapism. Taste is immaterial to the millions of addicts who are eating to alleviate the pain of existence
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The Independent Online

As a child, I imagined the food of the future would be functional: three-course meals delivered in pill form. By 2010, eating would no longer be necessary for survival.

Some people would still do it – some lower-middle-class show-offs wouldn't give up the dinner party without a fight – but I imagined most Brits would be greatly relieved to be released from the drudgery of ingestion. I couldn't have predicted that my countrymen would suddenly get into food and can't quite believe it, even while it's happening.

We've gone from being a nation reticent about discussing food to one which doesn't talk about anything else. This is thought to be progress. We are no longer repressed but gushingly effusive about food, like the French and Italians.

Something about this performance doesn't quite convince. Jeanette Winterson is the only foodie earnest enough to plausibly espouse the European conviction that "food is life". The rest maintain the British opinion that food is a laugh. The menus at Heston Blumenthal's new restaurant Dinner are ingenious and entertaining rather than delicious.

Recent episodes of Nigella Kitchen would be deeply disturbing to any genuine foodie. Nigella's winks suggest that we should take her claim that a lurid green "grasshopper pie" is "heavenly" with a pinch of salt. Her ironic bearing practically constitutes anti-food propaganda. She may like eating, but she doesn't like food.

"If you're hungry, this is the place to be," they say on MasterChef. It isn't, though. We're so inured to it, we no longer feel weird consuming food in a visual medium.

The new food culture is camply excessive. Like Heston, we favour culinary form over substance. We've got shelves full of recipe books, fridges full of esoteric ingredients, yet more often than not, we fail to deliver on taste.

This isn't surprising. Unlike the French and Italians, we tend not to listen when our mother passes on the method for her signature fish pie. We didn't think it would matter. If the one we've rustled up from Jamie's Thirty-Minute Meals overruns, there's always the gastro pub up the road. In the modern pub, the ashtrays have been replaced by groaning plates of chow. To survive, pubs have had to pitch themselves at food critic Jay Rayner and his like. The air may be clearer but the atmosphere is infinitely worse. While you're stuffing your face with gastropub fayre, you may speak, but not converse. Conversation is one of the major casualties of food culture.

Another casualty is the truth. Writers of recipe books often pretend that their mission is to free the home cook from domestic drudgery. Even the dreaded midweek supper can be a breeze if you follow their simple instructions. "Forgiving" stews and "foolproof" pasta sauces leave you free to get on with the more important things in life.

It'd be easier to take their advice if you didn't suspect that their food addiction had got in the way of their relationships. Nigel Slater's recent book, Tender, chronicles the chef's "relationship" with his vegetable patch. The fetishistic shots of vast broccoli spears caused this reader to question the precise nature of this "relationship".

I understood how he feels though. While breastfeeding, I became obsessed with food for the first time in my life. For a few months, nothing and no one was more important. Unable to read, I salivated over the pictures in the Sunday supplement, cut out restaurant reviews and recorded MasterChef. Someone had clearly decided that the seventh series would focus more on the contestants' characters. What a mistake! I'm not interested in model Alice's strengths and weaknesses, nor do I care how Michael's kid rated his chances of getting through. MasterChef is food porn. We're prepared to sit through all this tedium for the money shot: that image of Gregg Wallace mid-mouthful, chewing sporadically. The twice-divorced presenter conveys the level of "yummyness" using a complex semaphore of facial tics.

The producers and consumers of food porn are orally fixated in response to either childhood neglect or overindulgence. Caught in infancy, they are incapable of maturing. Jay Rayner admits as much in his food porn memoir The Man Who Ate the World.

It's fashionable for writers to tell their life story through the medium of food. It looks like a good idea, yet this strategy often results in anachronisms. In general, Seventies children weren't going into Nigellaish raptures about Marmite on toast. Food was less important then, yet the nostalgists can't be trusted to accurately weigh the significance of what's on the plate. In their falsified "foodie" childhood, playing is merely a way of passing the time between meal events. Their accounts of family holidays prioritise the fish and chips over the moment when the whole family reached the state of intimate relaxation that should have been the point.

I'd have a job telling my life story through the medium of food. I don't remember the flavours of my childhood, just the flavour. Neither bullied nor bereaved, I never sought solace in buttered crumpets and, as a result, I'm rather impatient with the Proustian pretensions of modern foodies. Like most people, I find music more evocative than food. Listening to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan does take me back a sparsely furnished front room where my mother Susan is reading,

Susan cast Captain Bird's Eye as an icon of female liberation. Her reliance on convenience food did free her to focus on more important things. Her familial relationships never struggled, like the foodies', because she wasn't emotionally reliant on our repeated assertions about the yummyness of what was put in front of us. My childhood dinners were less fraught than my children's. I tell myself not to take offence when John and Anna turn up their noses at my yummy shepherd's pie, but seldom manage it.

Ready meals are less emotionally loaded than home-cooked food. When depressed, I appreciate the neutrality of junkies' favourite Dunns River Nurishment. At these times, the contents of my fridge seem alien and unpalatable. I'm rather envious of Nigel Slater's ability to find "bottomless comfort" in a piece of white toast spread with "undulating waves of Dairylea".

The new food culture is a form of psychic escapism. Taste is immaterial to the millions of addicts who are eating to alleviate the pain of existence. The post-partum period when I was "using" was most alarming. Oddly, I felt freer when I was addicted to cigarettes. The smoker's mind is free to think about other things, while the foodie's entire being is focused on obtaining the next fix.

Nigella's husband, Charles Saachi, is also, apparently, a fan of processed cheese triangles, though for him, it's less about comfort than convenience. His claim not to be interested in food gets him off sampling his wife's grasshopper pie. Conveniently, he never has to feign appreciation for a concoction comprising crème de cacao blanc, crème de menthe, mini marshmallows, green food colouring and cream on a bourbon biscuit base.

Perhaps we should follow his lead and think less about food and more about art and women. It feels decadent, in the current climate, to elevate this costly hobby to the status of a quasi- religion. I hope the one good side of a return to Eighties style austerity will be the return of a more functionalist attitude to food.