Listen to this article
Twenty years ago I was hanging around a friend’s kitchen as dinnertime approached. “Let me cook for you,” he offered. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble,” I said. “No trouble at all,” he replied, and in one graceful movement he leaned back in his chair, lifted a tin of baked beans from the shelf above his head, emptied them into a saucepan and turned on the gas. That was dinner.
To grasp how daily life in most western countries has improved in recent decades, food is the perfect case study. True, we have all got fatter. True, we eat too much processed stuff. True, with food prices rising and incomes falling since 2007, poor people can barely afford enough to eat. And yet for most westerners, tastier food now provides everyday happiness to a degree unimaginable when I was growing up.
Back then, most Europeans and North Americans ate bland food daily. Going to a restaurant was a rare treat. There was little ethnic food around – certainly no sushi in the supermarket. A friend of mine raised in a small Dutch town in the 1970s recalls that whereas all their neighbours ate meat and potatoes every evening, his family were considered snobs because they ate meat and rice.
A few mothers and grandmothers produced wonderful home cooking, the stuff of nostalgia today. But most northern European children grew up regarding meals as something to endure. To quote the hysterical English schoolmaster in Pink Floyd’s album The Wall (1979): “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”
In those postwar decades, attitudes to most goods were utilitarian: nobody needed sensory pleasures. A woman from Gillingham, in Kent, told me that her childhood was made less happy by the ugly surroundings. Tedious eating had the same effect.
Food was possibly even dourer in communist Europe. The summer after the Berlin Wall fell, I lodged with a family in an east German village. Every evening we had pork, potatoes and beer. It got boring within a week – let alone a lifetime.
No wonder East Germans craved the exotic. In 1966 Rolf Anschütz, a restaurateur in a small Thuringian town who had never been to Japan, began serving Japanese food. (You’d have thought that East Germany lagged in exotic cuisine but, in fact, London in 1966 had zero Japanese or Thai restaurants.) By 1989, when the Wall fell, several hundred thousand East Germans had eaten Anschütz’s Japanese meals.
The fall of the Wall accelerated globalisation, and globalisation tends to improve cooking. Our food has kept getting more exotic. The number of Indian restaurants in Britain, for instance, has gone from 1,200 in 1970 to about 9,000 today. (Indian food, incidentally, epitomises globalisation: chilli reached India from Portugal, tandoori from west Asia, and curry powder, bizarrely, from England, writes Amartya Sen.) Gradually, more westerners came to regard food as more than just fuel. On April 14 1999, Jamie Oliver presented his first cookery show on BBC television. A new generation of “foodies” was born.
The word conjures up images of bearded Brooklynites queueing at food trucks. The “food renaissance” is indeed linked to class, and therefore encourages status displays: the fastest-growing demographic category from Britain to China today is “cheese bores”.
However, tastier eating isn’t only an elite phenomenon. Enjoying food doesn’t have to mean buying £25 chickens or banging on about Amazonian vegetables. Great masses of people now watch cookery shows on TV. They don’t all then cook the dishes but they must be influenced. Often they consume the foods in simplified or snack forms: in coffee shops, or as ready-made supermarket meals. There’s even a “fresh fast food” phenomenon. Recent TV commercials for Taco Bell in the US, for instance, feature the celebrity chef Lorena Garcia rhapsodising about “beautiful ingredients” while preparing a “burrito bowl” in her kitchen. This sort of thing is easy to mock but these foods are probably tastier than, say, the Wonder Bread that used to be an American staple.
Immigration is bringing good ethnic foods even to poorer neighbourhoods. And until the current spike in prices, food had been getting cheaper for decades. Americans on average now spend just a 10th of their disposable income on food, says the US Department of Agriculture. That is around the lowest level in human history. Most westerners can now afford to think about food as a source of everyday happiness.
I live in Paris, where this attitude has been taken for granted for centuries. Every lunchtime I toddle to one of dozens of restaurants around my work-flat, and sit down alone to a two-course meal. Often it’s the highlight of my day. Once, over dinner with expat friends, we debated the question: would we stay in Paris if the food was bad? Nah, we concluded. I may never leave this city, so the quest for happiness through food has shaped my life.
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published