Friday, 29 October 2010

In danger in the devil's garden

Taking Wednesday off work, I journeyed into deepest, darkest Surrey – and all by a spanky new train service – to visit my parents.

It was an odd sort of a day; mentally exhausting. No rows or disagreements, but it was such an effort to make any conversation at times, with both of them dozing off at different moments while I wondered what subject could safely be used to fill in the silence.

And then there is also the matter of my mother’s cooking. For our evening meal, she took some chicken breast, diced it and cooked it in the oven in a dish with some broccoli and a ready-made sauce. I saw the empty jar but not the label and, to be honest, I couldn’t tell what the sauce really was – if it was anything much more than the sort of ‘white sauce’ she’d once have served with cauliflower.

On the side were some new potatoes, scrubbed and picked over with a knife for the smallest imperfection. It was bland but inoffensive.

Yet it took her around two hours to prepare. She doesn’t have a chair in the tiny kitchen, so she wasn’t exactly sitting down and secretly quaffing sherry. But every meal, no matter how easy, takes her such a long time.

I keep out of the way, while my father asks me, as though I can explain, why it always takes her so long.

Well, to start with, she’s no youngster any more. She’s slowed down a lot. But perhaps as obvious to me is that cooking has always been a chore for her – never a pleasure.

Oh, she took great care to ensure that her family were fed properly, with a varied diet, but I don’t think that it was ever really a pleasure. Then again, considering her oft-stated belief that: “We eat to live – we don’t live to eat”, this shouldn’t be much of a revelation.

I did manage, between both train journeys and then sitting in bed at night with a soothing cup of camomile tea, to finish reading Stewart Lee Allen’s In the Devil’s Garden: a sinful history of forbidden food, which may sound rather po-faced, but is actually very entertaining and informative.

Talking of the Victorians and their attitude to childhood – they were the first people to view children as inherently different to adults – and of Pye Henry Chavasse, a 19th century Dr Spock who penned that handy 1844 tome, Advice to Mothers on the Management of Their Offspring, Allen notes that the blandest of food was recommended for children.

Developing the theme, he goes on: “This sadistic approach to child nutrition was a perfect match for the theories of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who believed children were ‘natural atheists’ because they enjoyed nature instead of God.

“He recommended bringing this under control by reminding them that ‘they are more ignorant and wicked than they could possibly believe,’ and breaking their spirit at every turn.

“Withholding pleasant food was considered a particularly plum way to do this, because it trained them out of the expectation of ‘natural’ pleasure at the table.”

Now, as readers may know, my father is a (retired) Methodist clergyman – and from the particularly fundamentalist, evangelical end of Methodism (although he’s mellowed over the years). He even claims that, in the early days of his ministry, the aforementioned Mr Wesley appeared to him and gave him some advice on preaching.

My parents were never as intent on delivering a totally pleasure-free a culinary existence for their children as Chavasse or Wesley might have recommended.

Looking back, it was as though they obviously didn’t believe in eating the worst imaginable foodstuffs themselves or foisting such on their children, but it was as though there was a constant battle not to enjoy food ‘too much’.

Clearly, if one follows the logic of Chavasse or Wesley, the highest compliment available to one’s mother, after dinner, would be: ‘Yuk. That was bland and boring’.

Although perhaps that explains partly why my mother has, by and large, eschewed spices in her cookery and food – apart from Christmas cake, mince pies, Christmas pudding and hot cross buns? Although it’s equally true that, in the post-WWII years, British cooking in general was notoriously bland.

But what a way to spend one’s life – waging a perpetual war against experiencing ‘too much’ pleasure. It makes me think of the oh-so-religious guests in Gabriel Axel's film, Babette's Feast, determined to simply eat but not enjoy the feast that Babette cooks for them as a thank you. And how do you define what’s an acceptable level of pleasure and what steps across the culinary rubicon?

Personally, I find the following description by Allen of the Marquis de Sade’s perfect breakfast to be far more up my street: “The marquis recommends a simple breakfast: a plain omelet, served piping hot on the buttocks of a naked woman, and eaten with ‘an exceedingly sharp fork’.”

As I noted, this is a very enjoyable and fascinating book – but it’s also very moving in places, as in Allen’s descriptions of the food aspects of the US state’s genocide against the Native American peoples. After massive attacks on their diet, both in almost entirely wiping out the buffalo and in the onslaught against corn, a government-approved corn was allowed to be grown in the south west. It gave diabetes to a people who had no history of that disease.

His overall conclusion though, is interesting, as he suggests that the current situation in many Western countries, where food taboos have almost entirely died out, is not necessarily a good thing; that our obsession with unrestricted pleasure is not necessarily healthy.

Yet I suspect that there was an element here of trying to find something controversial to say at the end – of playing devil's advocate.

He had already discussed fast food, the culture of not cooking, of not sitting down to eat as a family, of TV dinners etc, and decided that such behaviours are not about pleasure, but quite the reverse, and are essentially part of a massive con by big business. One could argue that the ‘taboo’ for many of these people these days is the idea of spending time cooking and shopping more than once a week at the supermarket to stock the freezer. Such a ‘taboo’ can surely be seen to be not entirely disconnected from the taboo of taking too much pleasure in food?

Further, many people eat constant take-aways in front of the TV etc as a direct consequence of not taking real pleasure in food: the pleasures gained are often the 'artificial' ones of too much salt and sugar, which are added to compensate for poor flavour etc.

But even for real foodies these days, there are plenty of new ‘taboos’ – one might suggest eating fast food, for instance, is a taboo for many foodies.

For the environmentally concerned, there are questions of the carbon footprint of a foodstuff and whether it’s organic or not.

For many others, there is the issue of fair trade – of the actual producers being paid a decent amount and not being ripped off.

And indeed, for many foodies, these ‘taboos’ are also linked directly to greater pleasure: for instance, seasonal food is environmentally sound – but it also tends to be when the ingredients are actually at their best, when they haven’t been flown 6,000 miles between continents.

So it’s rather odd to imply that we have no food taboos any more. We simply have different ones. And as always, these vary according to what group we put ourselves in.

And for many groups who foist taboos onto other groups, they see themselves as above such rules. Class is a perfect illustration as, time and again, Allen reveals how, for instance, the upper classes fretted about what the lower classes ate and whether it would render them either slothful and indolent or overly aggressive. Yet of course they rarely felt inclined to worry about the same matters for themselves.

Now, it could be argued that a certain 'elite' attacks what are often working-class food choices for creating obesity etc.

But all in all, a cracking good read – and dangerously pleasurable.


  1. Excellent post, Syb!

    You are missed.

  2. Thank you Revised – good to hear from you.

    To be honest, I've cut back on a lot of online activities – partly because I'm pretty busy at present and also because I want to make sure that if anything suffers, it isn't the blog.