Sunday, 20 February 2011

The pleasure principle

With The Other Half traveling to northern climes for more rugby league yesterday, I did a few bits and pieces in the kitchen in the afternoon and then I sat down, with camomile tea and chocolates, to watch Julie & Julia.

Nora Ephron’s 2009 film weaves together the story of Julie Powell’s blog project to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a single year, with dramatisations of Child’s own life in France in the 1950s, where she studied French cooking, through to the publication of her book.

Child was to US cooking what Elizabeth David was to the UK.

I searched for YouTube for footage of the woman herself, just to verify that Meryl Streep’s performance wasn’t completely over the top. It wasn’t.

Setting aside how irritating one would find the fluting loudness of her voice and an almost boyish physical clumsiness, it’s a charming film that, at it’s heart, celebrates the pleasures of life: not just food, but also sex – both couples seem to have plenty of that as well as good food.

This relaxing viewing came at the end of the week in which Oliver Thring’s article on lard appeared online at the Guardian and triggered not only a wave of nostalgia, but also the arrival of another of the food fundamentalist brigade, shrilling that we should all stop eating all fats – there are enough in vegetables and fruit to keep us healthy (no mention of happy); olive oil is processed/refined, and potatoes can be cooked and eaten without any fat involved, so bid farewell to mash with cream/milk and butter.

“You get used to it” apparently – which begs the question of why you’d want to. Health is what is always cited.

Child herself lived to 91. She never skimped on the cream or butter. Her husband lived to 92.

Eleswhere, an article on the paucity of good food programming on British TV mentioned the execrable Man vs Food, where the presenter travels around the US taking on eating ‘challenges’ to see just how much he can stuff into his face in a single sitting in places that specialise in massive portions.

It’s on the Good Food Channel, despite pretty much being the antithesis of good food – indeed, it could be seen as the other side of the coin that produces the streak of food puritanism that, on Facebook, saw me effectively branded a murderer because I am not a vegan.

Is this an indicator of dumbed-down education, the ‘nanny state’ or an illustration of how, with the decline of conventional, mainstream religious observance in the UK and the failure and/or apparent abandonment of left-wing political alternatives to what seems to be the current political and economic orthodoxy, a void has been left?

A void that, in so many situations, seems now to be being filled with a variety of extremisms, from fundamentalist versions of traditional religions to other sorts of ‘faith’, but all sharing a complete moral certainty, an evangelical fervour and pretty much total contempt for anyone who dares to disagree.

The Facebook incident was amusing in some ways: it was on a page for a campaign against plans for a dairy factory farm in the UK. I 'liked' it some time ago and have signed the odd petition and whatever else. But at the news that the application for planning permission by the 'farmers' appears to have been dropped, the vegan fundamentalists were out, having a go at those who, unlike them, are not vegan.

I pointed out – entirely politely – that we're not vegetarians, but omnivores. I don't remotely have an issue with veggies and vegans – just don't lecture me about how I should become one.

I also gave an illustration of the advantages of meat for me personally (not even mentioning the pleasure). This involved a portion of liver or kidney solving occasional bouts of monthly anemia. Iron tablets bring me out in a rash. I was told off and informed that I obviously 'hadn't tried hard enough' to find an alternative – Guinness works, apparently – to murdering animals.

Yet this was from a supporter of the same campaign! They don't seem to realise that, were it not for human consumers of dairy and meat products, there wouldn't be any cute animals in fields for them to get pseudo-religious about – never mind being able to cope with the fact that many meat and dairy eaters actually care about husbandry and animal welfare.

One of the things that Thring’s article notes – and he also mentions Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes, which is currently sitting in my kitchen waiting to be read – is that a lot of myths have been spun and fat in food – yes, even saturated fat. Indeed, the rise in obesity has come as we eat less saturated fats in the form of butter (replaced by the dreadful margarine) and, of course, lard.

We take less time over food, considering it instead to be primarily a fuel, the preparation and consumption of which merely interferes with other things. This isn’t unique to the UK’s food culture, but it is a reality. And yet as this happens, the weight is packed on.

Is this, as some people have suggested, beneficial to the extreme ends of neo-liberal economic set ups? Is that why such an approach to food has become so prevalent in the UK and US? It's certainly something that Stewart Lee Allen posits in the enjoyable and informative In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food.

In a climate where instant and repeated consumerist gratification is essential to an economy that has become hugely reliant on retail, to the extent that, in recent years, quarterly retail figures have become a regular and important part of news programmes, isn't it better that we spend our time and money in the shops or buying online – and, indeed, grabbing a bite at our desks in work rather than going out for a proper lunch. Further, if we do the latter, do we not also fill space in an outlet that sells food than if we merely walked in, bought something and took it back to our desks?

There's a Pret a Manger near where I work. It's certainly better than the 'deli' at work itself, but it's far from cheap. A sandwich or salad and soup will set you back well over a fiver. On the other hand, if you take the time to make a lunch, you can eat better and far, far cheaper (and this is partly a recurring memo to myself). And of course you get to control what you eat.

One of the things that I discovered a few years ago, in the years immediately following my own decision to give up the cycle of dieting and putting more weight on, was that one thing that saturated fat does is comfort and sate us. And it does so far more quickly than, say, a plate of complex carbohydrates – pasta, for instance. And in substituting the latter for the former, we can end up consuming more calories in order to reach a point of being sated.

A few weeks ago, I bough lamb chops and grilled them. For some time, I haven’t been able to eat crackling, but that evening, I could. The chops had a thick layer of fat, which crisped up, beautiful and golden.

It was a divine taste. And, by the time I’d eaten that, I felt almost full – and also utterly satisfied by the taste experience.

Personally, the older I get, the less certain I am about so many things. With the exception, perhaps, of food and even of life: enjoy it. There’s no second chance. And life is really far too short to eat mashed potatoes with no butter.

What's wrong with pleasure? Outside of religious extremists, when did we start to see pleasure in food as something 'wrong'?


  1. Come off it. You know that life expectancy and health statistics can't be reduced to two examples of some people who lived a long time as a case for avoiding eating more healthily (no matter how much comfort it might give you personally). You really do your argument no good at all pursuing that line. Stick with the taste/pleasure angle, don't blur things with nonsense.

  2. Hello Anon,

    First, thanks for posting.

    Second, it's an example. But I could mention the 'French Paradox'. I could mention friends of mine who regularly stay for weeks at a time in the south west of France in a flat that one of their mothers has owned for some decades, who study the obituaries (in French) locally and are stunned at how old those dying seem to be.

    Third, I'm not suggesting consuming a bucket of lard or butter or cream a day. But is it really a coincidence that, from around the same time that we started demonising these things obesity has soared? And on the other side of the coin, and to create a question from something that I've mentioned previously, is it a coincidence that, since giving up dieting (and the concomitant terror of all fats) I have started to slowly lose weight – in other words, sustainably? Now that of course is anecdotal, but it's none the less true – and, I think, fits into a certain pattern of information that, while it isn't fashionable, keeps cropping up.

    Fourth (and finally!), as to "comfort": I made a decision, 11 years ago, to give up the dieting that I had subjected myself to for 26 years. At that point, I was nobody's 'foody'. I could barely cook – and hardly at all with fresh ingredients. But I knew that all the dieting had only resulted in my getting bigger and bigger – and more and more miserable

    I remember being somewhere with my mother (church, actually, after the last service I heard my father preach), and she asked me when I was going to diet again. I hadn't thought about it that way – not concretely. But I told her that I wasn't. And I added that, even if it cut five or 10 years off my life, it had dawned on me to ask why I'd want to have that extra time alive if only to be constantly miserable and hungry and full of self loathing.

    I didn't expect to lose weight as a result of stopping dieting (I'm not sure what I expected, but it wasn't that). But I have. I've dropped close to two clothes sizes – thus far – in the last four or five years. In other words, after a period when my weight finally stabilised.

    The point, ultimately, is that I do not see eating 'healthily' as meaning that you need to write off certain entire food groups altogether. The best diet is almost certainly a varied one. But it needs to be sustainable and, for instance, removing all fats – or even all saturated fats – from a diet, does not lend itself to pleasure. And, without pleasure, then eating becomes simply another industrialised occurance ... but maybe that's food for another post ...

    Thank you again for posting.

  3. Thank you for replying, but do stop digging! I think you've rather made my point. Random examples do not constitute proper supporting evidence. My uncle smoked heavily from the age of 15 to the age of 86 (and died after a fall from a bus). It is only evidence that one person did not conform to the overwhelming evidence of the risks of smoking. As ancient wisdom might have had it 'one swallow does not a summer make'. I really have no problem at all with you letting taste and pleasure be your guide. They've always been mine.