This week the British Medical Journal published a report showing that many of the recipes in television chefs’ cookbooks were less healthy than supermarket ready-meals, when measured against World Health Organisation guidelines. That was the story. The headlines were, predictably, a little more punchy. The only thing the press loves more than a health scare is a celebrity and so the health sections of most of the “qualities” splashed the story – predictably, under a big picture of a TV chef.
The reaction from the chefs themselves, from food writers and anyone involved in the increasingly sprawling food media, was a collective “Huh? How could that be news?”. The idea of a recipe book to be used every day, with recipes that met state guidelines, died a welcome death when we buried rationing. But the report raises an important question. What exactly do we expect from a “celebrity chef”. Is it really their job to educate?
We are an island nation so during any war, food security is a strategic issue. We willingly handed over responsibility for food to our government during both world wars and for many years afterwards. Communicating about food became a matter of education, if not propaganda. Several generations of public cooks and food writers developed a tone of well-meant didacticism and we listened. When Delia Smith made her first TV programmes they were still under the auspices of the BBC’s education department. Food media in fact became almost inextricable from health education. We often remark, not without envy, how other cultures – Italian, Spanish, Jewish, Chinese – “seem to talk about food a lot” because we haven’t done that in Britain for a long time. Food wasn’t a topic for enthusiastic conversation for us but information, possibly even instruction, given to us from above.
But that was then. Now we have Jamie Oliver, who once again looks set to top the charts for book sales at Christmas. He will be all over our screens, frantically cheeky-chappying in the way that so endears him to audiences. His latest TV series, Jamie & Jimmy’s Food Fight Club, sums up his appeal. It is undeniably themed “about” British food but nobody is sitting with pen and paper, hoping to write down anything like a measured recipe for fish and chips. In fact the programme is most reminiscent of Top Gear – the inoffensive, blokeish motoring show from which, we devoutly hope, nobody is taking road safety tips.
Most of us who communicate about food believe fervently that the way to get the population eating healthily is to fight back against the lazy slump we’re in as a nation. We don’t routinely cook at home any more because we’re not enthusiastic about cooking. We lack enthusiasm because for generations we’ve relinquished responsibility for food to government and more recently to supermarkets.
Mr Oliver, as irritating as some may find his mannerisms, is for me the patron saint of our generation of food writers and communicators. He demonstrates brilliantly that getting food back into the national conversation doesn’t really have anything to do with simple recipes for healthy things to do with sprouts but everything to do with getting people more generally enthused.
Women can fancy Mr Oliver or want to mother him, men can see him as a mandate to be involved in food; he transcends class, age and gender. It is almost impossible to dislike him unless you want to get very personal about his accent or the shape of his tongue or you own a business that makes a profit from selling battery-chicken nuggets to school kids.
We are not Delias. It is neither our job nor our desire to teach you how to spend your weekly budget more wisely or to take advantage of a national sprout glut while consuming your recommended daily allowance of dietary fibre. We love food and want to communicate that excitement to you. Our generation does that by treating food as entertainment, not as state-sponsored health education.
Publishers and TV producers have realised that an entirely negligible number of people are actually using the recipes. The book as a gift or the programme as entertainment is the most important thing in a highly commercial environment. Mr Oliver is using the exposure this gives him to bring food back into our national conversation. He deserves both his MBE and, in the fullness of time, canonisation.
I’ve just finished a book including “recipes” for roasting a whole lamb over a fire or making a DIY doner kebab. I haven’t really spent a whole bunch of time worrying about what that involves for the average UK family’s RDA of dietary fibre and I thank the huge mug of St Jamie, grinning from every bookshelf, for making that possible.
Food is fun to cook and talking about it, in any medium, is entertaining. Getting more people enthusiastic about food will empower them to eat in a healthier way. Telling them what’s good for them does not have notably successful precedents.
Crushing the joy out of food, hampering food entertainers with
a health-related boilerplate, would ultimately result in worse health outcomes as the population disengages, deciding that food, after all, is not that interesting . . . it’s just a bunch of people from a ministry somewhere telling us what to eat.
The writer is editor of Fire & Knives, www.fireandknives.com