Joan Smith: The food revolution we still await

For all that Rose Gray did, much of what people eat is pre-cooked rubbish

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I would like to think that Rose Gray, who died at the weekend, was one of the most influential chefs in Britain. She founded the River Café with my friend Ruthie Rogers, and some of my favourite recipes come from the series of hugely successful cook books named after their restaurant in west London.

Gray and Rogers transformed Italian cooking, breaking with the bowdlerised versions of great Italian dishes which used to be served alongside straw-wrapped Chianti bottles. The two women pioneered the use of authentic ingredients, and I don't doubt for one moment that Rose Gray deserved the affectionate tributes paid to her in the last couple of days.

But the fact remains that most people in this country are overweight or obese, much of what they eat is pre-cooked rubbish, and Tesco has had more influence on their eating habits than the River Café.

I'm sorry about this, loathing Tesco as I do, and I wish the general public paid more attention to the good guys of the food business. But the River Café is expensive and cheap food is regarded as a human right these days; burger chains compete to advertise price cuts on bus shelters as though nothing else actually matters. Jamie Oliver, who once worked at the River Cafe, has hectored and cajoled the inhabitants of South Yorkshire without managing to achieve a lasting change in their eating habits. Fried chicken, meat pies and curries dripping with clarified butter still reign supreme.

This unhealthy approach to eating has had dreadful effects on the way animals are reared, and Oliver is one of several well-known chefs who have campaigned for more humane treatment of farm animals.

For middle-class foodies, the two arguments naturally go together: they want to eat high-quality meat which has been reared in conditions that cause the least possible suffering to animals. Gray and Rogers have been credited with renewed interest in traditional cuts of meat such as lamb shanks which had disappeared from supermarket shelves, only to reappear at farmers' markets.

Now a new book, Eating Animals, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer, is creating shock waves among some meat-eaters. Safran Foer says he didn't explicitly set out to turn his readers into vegetarians but he seems almost as dismayed by organic farming as he is by factory farming methods. His challenge to the philosophical arguments for eating meat is receiving a great deal of attention, even though sceptical readers wonder why he was prompted to write the book by the prospect of becoming a father. There is no ethical distinction between eating animals yourself and feeding them to someone else, and I'm always suspicious of anyone who experiences such epiphanic moments with parenthood.

I wish people would eat less meat, for all sorts of reasons, but what's needed here is less sentimentality and more politics. The public has become disconnected from what it eats, not just the fact that meat is the flesh of dead animals but the whole notion of what food is and where it comes from. Children need to be taught about food preparation and cooking at school, from an early age. And that's a more realistic project to pursue than a mass conversion to vegetarianism.

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