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Last weekend my daughter (age 10) decided she’d like to try her hand at a sewing project. She enjoys craft activities, we have a sewing machine in the house and it was decided that her first project should be a pair of pyjama trousers – which explains how I found myself in John Lewis on a busy Saturday afternoon, a large, bearded bloke in steel-toed boots sticking out in the Haberdashery and Notions department like a grizzly bear at a cat show.
The bill came to £35. On the way out we passed the children’s clothing department where perfectly lovely pyjama trousers, made by experts and sold with a free jacket, cost considerably less. It seemed, suddenly, that I was paying a hefty premium for the privilege of making something ourselves. You have to work pretty hard to argue that the expensive home-made option is functionally better, and exactly the same is true of food.
There are few things in life as pleasurable as assembling the raw ingredients and then spending a happy afternoon crafting and building, say, a lasagne. Factor in, though, the hours spent, the cost overheads of your artisan butcher, your organic veg box supplier, the fuel costs of the dishwasher and the tax-funded truck that takes away the food waste and suddenly the numbers don’t stack up.
We can argue a certain satisfaction in doing it ourselves, perhaps even a moral superiority, but in reality, when we get down to the wire, about as many people care to cook from scratch as want to be seen wearing home-made clothes.
A generation ago, a TV dinner or a tinned stew was a ghastly piece of manufactured garbage but today it is impossible to argue that some pre-prepared foods and ready meals are not as healthy, great tasting and good looking as something you might do yourself. Some, containing carefully measured and prepped ingredients, even allow you the privilege of doing the final stages of the cooking yourself.
You might not consider willingly participating in this sort of thing, but if you eat at large, decent-quality chain restaurants, this is exactly the kind of food you’re being served. Chains maintain their brands by absolute consistency of preparation, cooking and service, and their profits by bulk buying. They use central production kitchens and the latest in storage and supply chain techniques – exactly like a home ready-meal.
Accepting the situation sounds like heresy to a food lover but it is depressingly inevitable and, oddly, we are partially to blame. It’s precisely because of pressure from consumers that supermarkets and manufacturers of processed foods are getting better and better at bringing us good stuff, and they do it with economies of scale that the lone cook will never match. The cost of a single organic chicken to an individual cook is high. Bought in bulk at hard-negotiated prices, transformed by expensive technologies into well-designed “meal solutions” it can meet all the needs of the consumer, create a modest profit for the retailer and still, apparently, drop into your basket costing less.
The food processing industry and supermarkets cannot, even with the collective desire of a million self-appointed foodists, be willed into un-being. We may never return to a utopia where finding and hand-preparing better ingredients will be cheaper or easier than buying “value added” products, so what are we to do?
Well there’s one thing we’re obviously doing already. Better understanding of how our food is processed, allied to a kind of national education in taste, is applying a force to the food business. Quality is rising – so maybe we need to keep on with that. The second thing to do is keep talking. Yes, it seems inevitable that cooking for ourselves will become a pastime for hobbyists – a discretionary source of enjoyment for those who can afford it – but that makes it more vital than ever that food quality remains a part of our national dialogue, so we know what we’re buying and can keep up the pressure.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer