Sarah Sands: Cook more, eat slowly, be happy

The gap between rich and poor is the divide between thin and fat
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The Independent Online

When I was editing a Conservative newspaper, I had the idea for a campaign for slow food. Follow the numbers. It was about more than turning down the oven. It evoked family values, local communities, the terroir. It answered a great sob of dissatisfaction about modern life and it was gathering enormous support. My slow food idea fell victim to a fast turnover of editors. I was fired in less time than it takes to soak pulses. Which meant that I rediscovered the joy of a family evening meal. As I said, slow cooking is about a reconsideration of values. Childhood obesity, our fastest growing national disease, is caused by the abandonment of the home and the hearth. Chips are a substitute for love.

To the big business-loving, bonus-worshipping, Eighties-entrenched voices who hold sway at the Telegraph, David Cameron's support for slow food, in the same week that he ditched a CBI invitation, is evidence that he is a leftie poof. To the sort of Conservative commentator who never shies away from hysterical cliché, lentils = liberals and Cameron is a traitor to his party. Yet slow food is so obviously the first principle of Conservatism. The interesting thing about Cameron is that he is an instinctive, tribal Conservative rather than an ideological convert. And slow food is, literally, in the bones.

It is nostalgic and country-based and quaint. The movement originated 20 years ago in Italy, with an Italian food-and-drink journalist called Carlo Petrini (presumably a spiritual relative of Private Eye's Lunchtime O'Booze) and is spreading. Britain comes second in the league of subscribers. Towns such as Ludlow in Shropshire and Diss in Norfolk are global centres of slow food. It stands for local ingredients and stands against fast food.

In England, we now have more fancy restaurants than France. A new one, St Alban in Piccadilly, central London, opened last week. But this is about business networking rather than the pleasure of eating. Outside fashionable restaurant postcodes, Britain is a land of sluggishness and obesity.

Cameron is an old-fashioned one-nation Tory. You do not have to be Polly Toynbee to notice that the widening gap between the rich and the poor is visibly the divide between the thin and the fat. When we think of world poverty, we think of the starving, we think of Africa.

What we have in Britain is a poverty of spirit, illustrated by porpoise children. The image of mothers poking chips through the school gates to keep up the diabetes levels of blubbery children who felt tyrannised by Jamie Oliver was shameful. It was a cautionary tale by Belloc.

What were these mothers thinking? That indulgence equals kindness? It is the same stupidity and hopelessness that produces obese pets - great wheezing, dying Labradors, hideous, six-bellied cats. We have lost the virtues of discipline, of effort and of formality. Where is our Matthew Arnold or John Ruskin? The phrase beloved of media companies that I have come to dread is "the Martini principle". People must be satisfied any time, anywhere. This is fine when it is about technological distribution - news on your mobile, TV on your computer - but it is has wider cultural dangers.

Call me Cameronesque, but I hate eating in the streets. The one service I beg on bended knees from local councils is to clear the litter from the roads. I used to live next to Chelsea football ground and loathed the oceans of hot-dog wrappers that followed each match. Litter-strewn streets are now a general feature of London, as much as the trickles of urine at bus stops and on door steps. Could they not have waited?

Of course, the Conservatives were horribly to blame for removing school playing fields. The sell-off played into the hands of teachers' unions and health and safety administrators. There was an excuse to keep children indoors. It was the end of team games and the education of boys. Unbelievable damage has been done in the name of sitting still. We are a country of sport spectators, but there is no connection with physical fitness.

If you see a television advertisement showing extreme fitness, it is probably for a video game. As the father of the murdered lawyer Tom ap Rhys Price said last week, we have to find a way of channelling the aggression of youth away from street violence and into playing - rather than watching - sport. What has become of us? Even the Army cannot recruit from the vats of lard that turn up at the barracks. There are children who cannot last a mile without collapsing. I took a whey-faced local delinquent for a walk round Windsor Park, and he lost his breath at the first hill.

It is not nannying to observe that we are in a national state of emergency. We have lost fundamental control over our appetites and self- pride. Fat children are a sign of grotesque parental neglect.

Conservative traditionalists point out that the rise of fast food has coincided with working mothers. The sight of a woman spending time in the kitchen is rare. It is why Nigella Lawson is such a potent male fantasy. More poignantly, I bet she is also a children's fantasy. I remember a teenager from a care home saying that her life's aspiration was to return home from school and be kissed by a mother in the kitchen. It is an agonising and often impossible choice for working women, but we need to weigh carefully the sacrifices that we - and more important, our children - are making.

Even if the weekday evening meal has largely vanished, we should stake everything, as The Independent on Sunday has, on Sunday lunch. We choose how we prioritise time. The wonderful thing about cooking is that it is at the heart of the home. We cook for the pleasure of family life. We could cook more, if we watched television less.

As Nigella Lawson says, cooking soothes emotional turmoil and opens up family life. The slower you cook, the happier you are. Cameron is not demonstrating banality by supporting slow cooking, he is showing his profound understanding of the mechanism of the home. This could be the campaign of the century.