Monday, 20 April 2009

Not quite 'average'

I'm feeling rather pleased with myself – well, sort of. I'm not "average", you see! It's also a tad depressing though. Apparently, the "average" Briton can cook 10 dishes by heart, without recourse to a cookery book.

The same "average" Brit owns an "average" of five cookery books.

The survey, for UKTV Food (a food channel and website) revealed that people make an average of four home-cooked meals per week.

Only 16% of those aged under 25 cook every day. while 45% of those aged 56 and over did so.

And on the basis of what people claim to be able to cook without using a recipe, it would seem that our favourite dishes are:

  • Spaghetti bolognese

  • Roast dinner

  • Chilli con carne

  • Lasagne

  • Cottage or shepherd's pie

  • Meat or fish stir fry

  • Beef casserole

  • Macaroni cheese

  • Toad in the hole

  • Meat, fish or vegetable curry

It's really not a very pretty picture. You could be forgiven, for instance, for not realising that we're actually an island nation, surrounded by incredibly productive seas, filled with an extraordinary variety of wonderful seafood. The only fish on there is apparently thrown into stir fries or curries. Whatever happened to that British classic, the fish pie? Never mind using fish really simply. At this time of year, you don't need to do much at all with it – how about poaching a little bit of salmon in some cider with green peppercorns or capers? You could even use cider and the capers for a sauce if you wanted (and that would easily comply with the survey's criteria of four individual ingredients in order to qualify).

And what about other British classics such as Lancashire hot pot? Or pea and ham soup (there are versions of this wonderful warmer all over northern Europe)? And where are the salads, for goodness sake?

And one of the comments from readers of the article was most revealing: "Those surveyed admitted they made an average of just four home-cooked meals per week." Just?! Er, people have lives. We don't all have the time to cook from scratch every night of the week."

You have to eat – many, many dishes can be made in 30 minutes or less (so the same sort of time that it'll take to put a ready meal into the oven to warm through). From scratch. From fresh ingredients. But the reason that people don't is through both an ignorance of the subject (the basic skills and knowledge required) and a lack of interest in food – a belief that food is simply fuel, to be bought as cheaply as possible and prepared with as little effort as possible, and often shovelled down while watching the telly.

What an utterly deformed and deprived idea – not just because it misses the sheer pleasure of food, but because it removes the social engagement that comes with eating. Is a family that sits in front of the box while they eat really getting the same out of life as a family that sits around a table and takes meal times as an opportunity to talk, to share, to laugh?

Why has this culture developed? It isn't the fault of supermarket chains – they've merely profited from it, as Brits have realised that they could pile the car up with food, once a week, stick it in the freezer and fridge, and just whack it in the oven when they got home in an evening.

And that's without even mentioning the health benefits of freshly prepared food over microwaved or take-away stuff, at a time when obesity has become such a national obsession that it's virtually legitimised bullying.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with recipe books. I confess to having rather more than five of them myself. And there are many things that I can cook without recourse to a book except to check the oven temperature. The only one I can ever remember is for Lancashire hot pot, because my Lancashire cookery book just has the irritatingly imprecise "moderate oven".

I use cookery books all the time – not just for precise recipes, but also as inspiration. Thus I can cook and prepare food that I've never even seen a recipe for – or eaten before, because you start to learn; to pick up ideas so that you formulate your own ideas. And there are writers like Elizabeth David, whose work crosses the boundaries of food writing and travel writing – and goodness knows what else – but you read such writers not simply to learn, but for the pleasure of the reading itself.

We've come a long way since the redoubtable Ms David started writing – a time when you could only buy olive oil at the chemist and the mere thought of garlic would make many Britons recoil – but with the advent of the microwave and the boom in ready meals and a take-away culture, it seems that we've taken a huge step back. When I think about it, it's really rather a shame that I'm not indicative of the "average".


  1. I grew up with a British step-ma who would toss a cow's tongue (or a pound of tripe) into a pot of boiling water with an onion or so and say "dinner's on". And that's what I'd see - and smell - when I came home from school. When I married, my sister gave me a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and at some point I went out and bought an Adelle Davis for myself. Now that I'm single I like to bring something home from the health-food store and say to myself: "Dinner's on."

  2. Nice story, Still.

    To be honest, my mother strove to feed us well, but she's never enjoyed cooking or food, I don't think.