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November 03, 2006

Foodies, Faddies, Fogeys and Fanatics: Lincoln Allison responds to The English at Table and argues that Digby Anderson is (partially) wrong about English food

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Social Affairs Unit has just published Digby Anderson's The English at Table - which argues that English food is awful and getting worse. Here Lincoln Allison responds to Digby Anderson and argues he is (partially) wrong about English food. There is of course only one way of deciding if Digby Anderson or Lincoln Allison are right - buy the book.

Digby Anderson's The English at Table is a splendid polemic, which purrs along like an aggressively driven Ferrari, powered by high-octane scorn. Its thesis, briefly stated, is that, despite protestations to the contrary, the English still eat very badly because they know nothing about food and have largely discarded what was good about their national tradition (such as "proper" breakfast) while acquiring a good deal of ill-informed pretension. It can be extremely funny: I particularly enjoyed the reporting of an English family on the beach getting themselves into a bitterly contested argument about whether they had already lunched or not and therefore whether they could have ice creams (pp. 124-6).

It was easy for me to enjoy because I share most of Digby's prejudices. I too would like to rid the world of Dutch tomatoes, "iceberg" lettuce, Australian wine, celebrity chefs, health fads . . . and most restaurants. Why is it that restaurants in England are not very good and not much fun? It is because we have had no real culture of food for a long time and because we now think we ought to. So we go to our over-priced restaurants to eat dishes that were concocted or learned in cookery schools in a doubly nervous condition. We are worried equally about the absurd prices and about making some ghastly error, muttering boldly about being allowed to drink any wine with any food whilst knowing in our hearts that it can't possibly be true. Restaurant food is "innovative" precisely because it isn't rooted in the way we live.

I can even go most of the way with the author's analysis of society (p. 144):

So busy are its members chasing higher incomes and each other's partners, conspicuously consuming and satisfying their individual "rights" and tastes that meals are not cooked or eaten together.
Apart from some doubt about whether one can either consume or satisfy a right, Here Here; this is a rare sentiment which would unite my church-going, socialistic wife and my irreligious, conservative self. I am pleased to say that our family eats round a table and argues together very regularly. I would also agree that the obstacles to enjoying good food include (also p. 144):
. . . vegetarians who reject whole classes of food that wiser civilisations have produced and valued, healthists who reduce food to a mere tool in the manic pursuit of another few years of miserable life on earth, environmentalists who subject good eating to their dotty political cause, health-safety lobbyists who stifle good food in their regulations.
I agree entirely with Digby about how we (including the supposed poor) ignore the abundance of good food which is free or very cheap. How can you not eat liver? How can you not pick the cherries, brambles, damsons, walnuts, apples et al. which grow abundantly even in the parks where I live. This year, for once, the chestnuts were superb. Yet 95% of all this just rots away. (It is the subject of amazing ignorance. A woman in the Daily Telegraph, writing on food - and being paid - actually said that brambles, which she called "blackberries", were difficult to find these days. This is not so much someone who should get out more as someone who has never been out at all. Anywhere! Ever!)

There is a brilliant summary of how, in an unculinary culture, we do everything the wrong way round (pp. 55-56):

Most English cooks shop like Communists. Communists sit in central bureaux and plan what the real and diverse world should look like, then try to force it into their preconceived plan. English cooks, thinking about their coming dinner party, sit at home selecting plans from their cookery books. The ingredients for the recipe are then copied onto a shopping list or committed to memory. The cook sets off to the shops to "fulfil the plan". She is instantly stalled by reality.
Whereas in dealing with a subject-matter which they cared about and felt confident about, they would browse and shop around.

Having given credit where it is due, it is now time to point out that a great deal of Digby's argument is sweetbreads, to use a culinary term. It reminds me of Nick Hornby on football: style excellent, content daft. There are several fundamental flaws in the argument: First, he's a foodie; he takes food seriously in a culture which doesn't. You can argue that food is more than an optional hobby because we all have to eat. But we don't all have to treat it equally importantly. We all have to look at buildings, but only a small proportion of us are likely to be upset by a cast iron railing where wrought iron should be. And we might all perceive that the sixties plateglass school, like the industrial pie, is not as good as it should be, but there's no point in being a bore and a misery about it all. One is entitled not to give a damn.

There is something totalitarian about insisting, as this author wants to insist, that we all eat well-flavoured food all the time. We eat what we do for lots of reasons, including convenience, health and comfort. Just as I watch Neighbours most days and see Shakespeare only when the RSC puts on a new production so I'm going to eat a lot more potato pies with luminous green "mushies" than game pie.

Digby is against a "treats" culture in which eating well is occasional and exceptional. I don't think his argument makes any sense: food is usually incidental, sometimes central. Good food tastes better when you usually eat mediocre stuff. There is a particular application of this argument, emphasised in this book, with respect to the English breakfast. I love pretty well everything which might appear on the menu, but especially kippers and black pudding (not together, I must add!).

But there are lots of good reasons why one should only eat it occasionally. We don't have the time or staff to cook it, for a start. And it isn't very healthy if you eat it often: reducing it is the main reason why the incidence of heart disease has gone down. It tastes much better if you only eat it occasionally and you must modify your desire to the occasion: muesli is better if you have to sit in a meeting all morning, but if you are between a morning dip and a long walk it has to be the Monty. I note, by the way, that there are still many places where you can get a good breakfast, though also some expensive hotels where it's rubbish.

In short, Digby is part of the problem he seeks to attack, his own foodiness as much a product of an unculinary culture as is Delia Smith or an industrial pie. And he makes me as nervous as many people obviously are in "posh" restaurants. Imagine having him round to dinner!

Reverting to old academic marking terminology The English at Table lacks a developed comparative perspective. Or, to put it more bluntly, he misunderstands the identity of his subject-matter. He thinks he is writing about England and the English, but actually everything he talks about is a good deal worse elsewhere, especially in the United States, the home not only of junk food, artificially ripened and tasteless vegetables, food-faddery, Frasieresque pretension and obesity, but also of sheer bloody ignorance. Last week I heard a woman in an Italian restaurant announce boldly:

Of course, a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that risotto is made of rice, when actually it's very small pasta.
She was, of course, American as were the companions who listened to her, apparently impressed by someone who can never have cooked nor even looked very closely at supermarket shelves. France is increasingly like America, living off the industrial meats and cheeses of the hypermarche and almost entirely lacking the good, cheap restaurants which used to be its pride.

And as I'm fresh off the plane from Venice, let me comment on that city. True, there are still around 20% of restaurants where you can still get fresh vongole pasta, misto mare and fegato alla Veneziana and that's as many as you need, but the rest are peddling menu turistico and pizza. Pizza, for heavens sake, which respectable Italians used to regard as beneath contempt. Not even Neapolitan pizza, but the gunge-on-cardboard American stuff. Live and let live, I suppose, but the English shouldn't beat themselves up especially hard. I admit that, as I have previously remarked, distinctive, fresh, local food is still the norm in provincial Spain, but how long will that continue?

Lastly, most importantly, this is, to put it politely, a polemic. Less politely, it is unbalanced and, frankly, it's wrong. There are many ways, mostly little known to London food critics, in which English food has improved enormously. Compare what was in the greengrocers thirty years ago with what is there now. Or the supermarket: you could only get pre-grated parmesan and pre-ground pepper. Lots more people can cook well now, even if fewer can cook competently. I would guess that my maternal grandmother, born in 1887, would have cooked in ways approved by Digby - lots of different creatures and body parts, interesting herbs from the garden. Sometimes half the house was crawling with crabs because "Captain Billy", my grandfather, had supposedly saved the life of a fisherman. But two of my sons are shaping up to be excellent cooks as well. Somewhere in between there were a lot of tins and frozen veg.

There isn't an exact equivalent of CAMRA for food, but there is an equivalent movement. It is now possible to get excellent pies, sausages and English cheese almost everywhere. Thirty years ago you could only get the industrial substitute (in the case of sausages taken as a symbol of the state of English society in the 1930s by George Orwell in Coming up for Air). Not everybody eats them, but for a non-totalitarian the point is that they are there if you want them. They owe their existence partly to the package of policies introduced in 1984 to move English farming away from bulk subsidy-driven production and onto higher quality. These changes are much underestimated (and not mentioned by Digby). The quality of fish has even improved as white vans from the coast knock up the houses in residential areas with the catch of the day. Our man is Dave from South Shields.

I could go on, but instead I will describe the main evening meal which was part of the celebration of my 60th birthday. I asked the chef to produce a Lancastrian meal (the restaurant in question was The Spread Eagle in Sawley, Lancs. - Digby would surely approve of his refusal to name the fish course until he had seen what was available in Fleetwood that week: in the end it was a shellfish and white fish cocktail. The meat course was a hotpot made with neck of Bowland lamb. The five Lancashire cheeses were served with crisp apples and celery and fruit chutneys. Beer brewed in the village was available, along with a Sussex white and a Bordeaux. I find it difficult to restrain my satisfaction in thinking about it. They liked it! They raved about it! Even the side dish of roast beetroot attracted superlatives. I detected in my guests' enthusiasm some excitement that it was possible to put on a regional meal of this quality in England. It is bad that it should be so unusual, but good that it can now be done. Things are looking up.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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What's wrong with Australian Wines?

Posted by: Peter L at November 6, 2006 04:04 AM
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