Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Food as fuel – and a Yorkshire pudding challenge

Now that's what a proper Yorkie pudding looks like
The subject of food seems to bring out some very strange attitudes in people – and it’s no different when the context is television and food.

As the finals week began on Monday, the Telegraph managed to publish three articles on the subject of Masterchef The Professionals, all with the chance for readers to comment.

Some of the comments were quite absurd, but also rather revealing.

“There should be less of this daft adulation of chefs, women or men. Period,” stated one reader emphatically.

“It makes me laugh. All they do is cook food and you would somehow think they were performing open heart surgery such is the importance they place on themselves,” said another.

“What amazes me is that people actually watch these programmes ........ it’s only food, and it’s always been perfectly obvious, the more you do to it the less appetising it becomes, and the more expensive!”

“Food as God, another form of self-worship!”

As a little experiment, just try to imagine any of these comments being about, say, art and artists or composers and music. You can’t really, can you?

Equally, can you imagine those comments being made in France?

Masterchef The Professionals remains one of the least dumbed-down programmes on TV; one that celebrates and showcases serious skills, and encourages those on it, without being shouty – and yet some people actually object to that because it’s related to food.

The “adulation” comment received 11 likes: “all they do is cook food” received six.

“… the more you do to it the less appetising it becomes, and the more expensive!” suggests that somebody doesn’t understand what can go on in some high-end restaurants and probably hasn’t actually eaten in one either – certainly none of the ones I’ve had the fortune to dine in.

But “it’s only food” and “all they do is cook food” suggest people who really don’t get the pleasure of good food – or perhaps they merely don’t approve of it. It’s the food-as-fuel argument all over again.

In recent years, new-build flats in the UK have sometimes been designed and built with no kitchen, but just the space for a microwave. The assumption is that people don’t want to cook properly, but only consume ‘ping’ food or eat out.

Also in the UK, sales of dining tables have declined.

As Joanna Blythman noted in Bad Food Britain, when one developer built some holiday homes, they had a problem once visitors from abroad started staying – those visitors wanted and expected rather more than a microwave with which to cook, so the developer had to start installing proper kitchens.

In terms of Europe at least, this attitude to food seems to be a particularly British thing, although it’s changing elsewhere too, with France, for instance, seeing an increase in some people working and eating lunches at desks and increasingly eating junk food.

The root of all this is the attitude toward food that views it simply as fuel, to which can be added a rather puritan distrust of taking pleasure in what you eat, as though this is something inherently bad – or even immoral.

It reminds me of my own mother intoning: “We don’t live to eat; we eat to live” as a warning against too much pleasure in what was on your plate. And equally, her attitude toward teaching me and my sister any cooking skills or any recipes, which boiled down to: ‘you’ll learn when you have to do it’.

It’s a quite extraordinary attitude that pretends there is little or no skill involved in the kitchen, and that there is no reason to spend time learning about it.

It’s an incredibly basic life skill, yet so many leave it to chance.

My mother also pulled me out of any cooking classes at school fairly rapidly, having decided that it was a waste of money.

Perhaps that’s why so many cookery books are sold in the UK each year – because nobody has a clue what they’re doing in the kitchen and they end up trying to use such tomes to fill that gap?

I was in exactly that category myself when I started living on my own. But however well you can read a recipe, if you don’t have those basic skills, you’ll come unstuck.

It’s all very well, for instance, to say: ‘brown the meat’, but how much is right? How hot do you need the fat first? What fat works best? And so on.

My mother’s approach was hardly unique. Survey after survey has shown that cooking skills are low in the UK – few people, for instance, can cook more than three meals without having a recipe in front of them.

A few years ago, Tesco – with no apparent understanding of its own role in this – published a survey that showed that only elderly people really know what to do with different cuts of meat and how to make traditional dishes such as Lancashire hot pot.

People in middle age know less and such knowledge declined even more in still younger people.

It’s as though our parents decided to stop cooking properly the moment that they could grab ready meals from the rapidly expanding supermarkets and with the advent of the microwave.

And this lack of knowledge seems to be repeated in other countries – New Zealand has similar survey results, for example. And these are also countries, like the UK, that have rising obesity.

But there’s not just the health implication – there’s a cultural one too. Do we really care so little about our culinary heritage that we don’t mind if that hot pot dies out altogether, as Tesco suggested could happen when it published that survey?

There are people who claim that British food has nothing to recommend it, but that’s nonsense.

There are plenty of classic British dishes that, cooked well, are superb. That hot pot is just one – it merits an individual entry in Larousse Gastronomique – but what about Yorkshire pudding as another example?

It’s difficult to imagine anything much easier: all you need is to mix together some plain flour, milk, water, an egg, then heat some fat in your oven, pour the batter into a dish and Bob’s your uncle, yet people spend far more than that little lot costs on frozen ones or even on a mix, the latter of which includes stacks of additives.

Here’s the ingredient list for Auntie Bessie’s Yorkie mix – 79p at Ocado for 128g, which makes 12:

“Wheatflour, Dried Egg, Skimmed Milk Powder, Raising Agents (Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Aluminium Phosphate), Salt, Sugar, Potato Starch, Emulsifiers (Mono- and Di-Glycerides of Fatty Acids, Lacto Glycerides, Propylene Glycol Esters of Fatty Acids), Dried Glucose Syrup, Maltodextrin, Stabiliser (Diphosphates)”

The marketing spiel says: “I’ve used only the best ingredients to create my perfect Yorkshire pudding mix. Now it’s over to you! Just add water and whisk to create a smooth batter and bake in the oven for irresistible Yorkshire puddings just the way you like them!”

Now there’s a challenge, Auntie.

Let’s try Delia’s recipe and using some seriously high-quality ingredients.

This is what we need and the prices are via Ocado (so essentially what I would have in and use):

1.5kg plain organic flour – £1.89;

Organic full-fat milk – £1.85 for 2 litres;

Organic, free range eggs £2.18 per 6;

Dripping – 72p for 500g.

For Delia’s measures, therefore:

75g plain flour – just under 10p;

1 egg – 36p;

75ml milk – so just over 7p;

Two tablespoons beef dripping – at 0.13g per spoon, that’s 0.26g of fat, coming in at 19.2p;

Water and seasoning – let’s assume you’ve got these in. You still need the former for the packet mix, but what would you realistically add for the best-quality salt and pepper? It’d still only be a penny at the most.

So that’s a total of 72.2p. In other words, using the really best, readily-available ingredients, it’s still cheaper than a box of pre-mixed powder.

There’s a lot more weight for your money too – 150g as opposed 128g, and that’s without adding the egg and water, which suggests that the 12 that the packet says it will make will be substantial enough for the feast in a doll’s house.

So even with top-quality ingredients, it’s cheaper to make your own Yorkshire pudding mix than buy it, and you also avoid additives.

You’ve still got to whisk up the packet mix, and measure the water out, so it’s hardly as though the packet mix it’s a whopping big time saver – and don’t tell me that measuring the flour and milk is staggeringly onerous, because it’s not.

People have been conned – utterly conned. And if you’re thinking that my example was only a difference of a few pennies, remember that for the sake of this post, it was all top-end ingredients, and remember that those pennies can mean a great deal in a climate where food costs are rising and wage are not.

But how much of this is down to a lack of basic cooking skills and a lack of confidence in the kitchen?

Nobody’s going to watch Masterchef The Professionals to learn cookery from scratch. But the idea that a serious celebration of culinary skills is over the top, and that cooking is “only food” are an indicator of the parlous state of affairs that exists in many British kitchens – and that’s not good for health or pockets.

And if we could only stop thinking of food as fuel, and learn to enjoy it – and why not, since we have to eat? – then how much would that improve the nation's health and wellbeing too?

* If you’re in the Wigan area and would like to learn more about cooking, and about food on a budget, Shirley Southworth at Food Positive can help.

In Liverpool, Can Cook and Happy Go Cooking can help.

In Cardiff, Communities First is involved in schemes to help people learn to cook – Bill King, who I interviewed in the summer, is involved in that scheme.


  1. Hi Amanda

    Couldn’t agree more with your post. So many simple, delicious and cheap things to make if you know how. Here in NZ ready-meals seem less of a thing but takeaways are even more popular than in the UK. That might partly be down to the relatively high cost of groceries (especially in supermarkets) compared to the cost of takeaways. Even the posh chippy sells fish of the day at $5 – 2.50UKP - and that is usually a large piece of hoki (shark) which is actually really good. Takeaway portions are all huge here too, I hear the govt brought in some kind of portion control for chips as an attempt at improving public health, but a portion is still way more than I can eat.

    Hope Unison is treating you well and you’re still getting to Broadway market – I miss it!


    1. Hi!

      That's interesting. One of the reports of surveys I came across was specifically from NZ. We've currently got adverts on TV telling us cooking is too hard and we should just order a takeaway.

      And I'm fine, thank you. Hope you are too. :-)