A short ranty blog post about food

Jamie Oliver has a new book out. About how to save money on your food shopping. Invariably the media has been full of it this week. And Oliver is incredibly savvy when it comes to publicity – he’s given a copy to every library in the country for a start – so there’s really been no avoiding it.

Now, I should state that I don’t dislike Jamie Oliver. I have a couple of his books, I like the thing he does with the young people in his restaurants, I thought the school dinners thing was good. His heart’s clearly in the right place. My problem is with the media types who’ve been commenting on the new book this week.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the phrase “imagine what a Sicilian peasant could do with that…” while discussing the food budget of a typical poor family. This makes me so cross I don’t even know where to start. Well I do.

First of all, can anyone explain why we should be glorifying the poor in another country? It’s patronising and serves no purpose except to demean people. It’s also reminiscent of those ridiculous scenes in Titanic where the Irish working class are having a great time in steerage while the posh types upstairs are stultifyingly dull. “They may be poor, downtrodden and about to be banned from all the lifeboats, but boy can they party…” Well this is the equivalent. “They might be dirt poor and stuck on this island for the rest of their lives but their bean soup, my it’s delicious!”

I have no idea when the last time was that anyone was taught proper useful day to day cooking at school but it didn’t happen when I was a scholar and that was a while ago. And we’re hardly renowned worldwide for our sensible, nutritious and delicious approach to food so many people aren’t going to have been as lucky as me and have family to pass on recipes and cooking techniques. The culture here isn’t one of making the best of what there is in the cupboard and that kind of thing doesn’t change overnight for all the efforts of celebrity chefs. The media fuss over a Girl Called Jack a few weeks ago shows that making do on a tiny budget is not what we do well in this country.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we’ve been making some cuts to our household budget including food. So far we’ve stuck to it and all’s well. But in order to come in under the mark, we’ve cut one of my favourite rituals – Friday night crap night – where we had a end of the week takeaway/ pizza/ Chinese ready meal or something. Because it was expensive. Takeaways are expensive compared to the amount of nutrition and other food you can get with the same money. But do I feel virtuous? Do I feel happier that I’m not wasting our cash on bad unhealthy food and may lose a spot of weight in the meantime? Do I hell. I want a pizza, dammit. I want a spring roll. I don’t want another helping of fish pie or chick pea stew or vegetable pasta.

Demonising the poor has become more prevalent with the current government, but I’m not sure if this attitude of patronising them isn’t worse. Looking down on people because they don’t meet a certain moral code. If they smoke, they’re not really poor. If they eat takeaways in front of the TV. If they drink. If they do none of those things, well only then are they “allowed” to call themselves poor; anything else, they’re just not trying. A few years ago when satellite TV took off you heard a lot of comments about people who lived in crappy council housing but all had satellite dishes on the front as proof that they weren’t really poor. As if saving the £30 a month would make a radical difference to their housing conditions, especially in London.

Come in at the end of a week where you’ve worked three part time physically demanding, emotionally and intellectually unedifying jobs and tell me you don’t just want to put the TV on and eat something that tastes nice. (Because, don’t forget, all fast food tastes nice – otherwise people wouldn’t eat it would they?) For all you know, that’s what the Sicilian peasants are doing too – a bloody great flat screen TV and a bucket of KFC.

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