Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Snapshots of a country in a food mess

It was breakfast this morning. For a change, I’d decided to nosh in the canteen, opting for a high-protein plate of sausage and egg, with mushrooms on the side.

So there I was, quietly eating, while the large telly on the wall ran pictures silently to the room.

It was ITV and Good Morning. As I sat down, the item receiving attention was a ‘Hollywood diet competition’. Subtitles (supplemented by a little research later) were enough to reveal that this was all about the newly svelte Kelly Osbourne, who was offering to give three lucky viewers the chance to spend time in LA with her “star-studded fitness team”.

That’s right. A competition. To go on a diet.

The online responses, via Facebook, are tragic. Women – many in their thirties and forties – who are miserable, believing that they can somehow change their life if only they can find the magical way to shift a few pounds.

Many are already dieting and already working out.

So now they’re contemplating entering a competition. To go to LA. To go on a diet and fitness regime recommended by a young woman of under 30 who never has to worry about where the next meal is coming from or how she’s going to pay the bills, never mind where she finds the time to spend hours working out.

I have nothing against Kelly Osbourne or her family: that’s not the point.

Doubtless it will be filmed, to make an entertaining segment on a future programme.

Next up was a brief news item about changes to food labelling – showing a woman and child shopping in a supermarket, and comparing different sized boxes of exactly the same cereal –º as though that’s how you compare foods.

And then, a spot of cooking – with a theme of how to throw together something out of the store cupboard; actually a “Mexican frittata”, because everyone has chorizo in the cupboard.

So, it could be construed that the viewers of Good Morning are mostly women, in middle age; are unhappy with who they are and seek the magic diet that will achieve that, shop for processed food in supermarkets, and don’t know how to cook basic dishes.

Take two.

Fast track back to Saturday evening when, after a day’s work, I was slumped in front of the telly, having opted for the third instalment of the Back to the Future trilogy as light entertainment that wouldn’t actually insult the old grey matter too much.

And then, there was an ad break. I remained slumped – only to be astonished to witness a jolly little affair that explained how complicated and difficult cooking is, and how you should use your local takeaway instead.

No, this is not a piss take. Well, not by me.

Now let's be fair: it was a light-hearted ad. And there's nothing wrong with a takeaway on a Friday night when you've had a few and are relaxing into the weekend.

But that was not the message here: the message was: 'don't worry that you can't cook, buy a takeaway. Not a Friday night thing – far more generally.

The Other Half reminded me that there have been regular adverts recently for the products of the Saucy Fish Co – as he put it: ‘It takes 15 minutes to select your fish, an hour to prepare it, half an hour to make the sauce …’

So what you need is ready-meals of a fishy type.

You can find them here, where the company proclaims that: “We discovered that people love to eat fish but just don't know how to cook it and what to cook it with.

“So, by offering ready-made inspiration with prepared fish fillets or prawns, and chilled restaurant-style sauces, we provide a solution.”

To be fair, their products don’t contain a mass of additives – although having colours added to a smoked haddock dish suggests it’s either not been properly smoked or the company believes its target audience needs the reassurance of a false colour.

Of course, as with so much processed food, there are emulsifiers in most dishes, where home-cooked versions need no such thing.

Take three.

A few weeks ago, I attended a forum that was part of the latest consultation on school dinners.

One of the comments heard from kitchen staff – and met with agreement by all those present – was that it would be nice if children didn’t start school unable to use a knife and fork, leaving kitchen staff to teach them.

Take four.

In the face of all this (and much more) you might expect to see despair – or at least a bit of genuine examination of the situation.

Yet a day or so ago, the BBC came up with the following question: "Is France learning to love British food?"

Apparently food exports to France are up. These include Stilton and real ale. And chicken tikka masala. Which means that everything is fan-dabby-doozy-magnifique.

Now fortunately, the article was quiet calm and sensible – one speculated reason is that many Brits now living in France want the ‘taste of home’ (if I ever get to live in France, I will not be hankering for bloody baked beans).

But the accompanying video report was a joke.

Forget that Stilton and real ale – both of which do have real value gastronomique.

Instead, it seemed as though a camera crew had stopped off to pick up some processed fodder in the shops at St Pancras before getting on the Eurostar to Paris, where they stood outside the Louvre offering innocent passers by such joys as Scotch eggs, cheese and pickle sandwiches (in factory bread) and Bakewell tarts (in foil tins).


It all brought to mind the comments of Joanna Blythman in Bad Food Britainwhere she comments on the desperate attempts by some to pretend that we’re undergoing a food renaissance and can now compete with the finest food cultures on Earth and everything is absolutely hunky dory.

Are we really doomed not to be able to move beyond this state of affairs – with the mass of our citizens proving, in effect, simply profit generators for the vested interests behind food processing?

Four snapshots – and not one of them anything but depressing.

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