In 1983 Robert Freson wrote a book called The Taste of France, capturing moments of culinary pornography: wonderful photos of big ladies holding buttery tarts, and a pork chop and prunes that has been the cause of many a fantasy. Unlike Freson, Martin Parr has travelled the globe to observe its highly processed foods: the sugary table-coverings that could induce black dog at any moment, or a solitary sauce boat with flour-thickened gravy, congealing alone and looking as if its future is not going to improve. In another of his photographs, the gravy has met up with meat and two veg . . . so the original prognosis proves correct. These moments are what seem to excite Martin (so, yes, let’s add the tinned, diced vegetables to our plate).
The day I met Martin was an auspicious one: lunch at St John, my restaurant in Clerkenwell, though I must admit I was glad when he announced that he had not brought his camera.
There is a distinct danger of creating a kind of Prada food: good meat from animals treated well when alive, killed as humanely as possible and then appropriately stored. This goes for fruit and vegetables as well, and all this is good — but it adds up to being expensive. At the same time supermarkets are telling us what to buy: anonymous pink meat in plastic, “fresh” pasta that has a shelf life of two months . . . We are being sold an ersatz view of the culinary world. Surely we can come to some arrangement to avoid this extreme two-tier food situation?
A slice of seed cake at about 11 o’clock in the morning, washed down by a glass of Madeira, is a very civilised thing. It also places me in London, at St John, at 11 o’clock every morning (if anyone wants me). Freson filled the boot of his car with gnarled wooden spoons, pewter plates and marvellous bowls and jugs to give his photographs of culinary France “authenticity”, but I doubt that Martin’s boot is full of the fluorescent — trays that populate his photographs. He would struggle to have constructed such — casual incongruity: his slice of cake sits on a square floral plate on a flowery plastic tray.
Martin and I discuss his childhood in Epsom and speculate over the many ways in which his suburban upbringing has affected the themes of his work. Can we please talk about the pink meringue skinheads with their bling gold necklaces? The one in his photograph has a sugar-icing broken nose and has lost his right eye in some previous struggle. The same effect is felt when Dr Who comes across the Daleks, the ultimate killing machines, lumpen great things whose deadly rays are fired out of a sink plunger and a kitchen whisk — just about as dangerous as this battalion of confections. Imagine an army of pink meringue skinheads heading for you. (Please allow me my fantasies.)
There are some photographs that describe a conflict between the eater and the raw ingredients. A particularly fine example is the pink éclair with its two-tone filling and sugar sprinkles. The creator of this monster must really have hated food to come up with such processed evil. But hang on there, Fergus! Some young person would be delighted to tuck into this instant diabetes. And with the E-number count, that child would probably glow pleasingly in the dark as a byproduct.
A nose-to-tail lunch at St John does not shy away from the nature of meat, but in Martin’s pictures meat is depicted mainly in the safe, processed form of the sausage. Here I am reminded of a story my father told me. While living as a student in Edinburgh, his flatmate had incredibly sexual dreams. These dreams were of such intensity that he took the decision to see a psychiatrist who, after a few weeks, suggested that this chap should paint his dreams rather than recount them for a full hour. So he did and the results weren’t bad: a lot of sausages, doughnuts and pineappley rings. A very delicate matter, and one echoed here: our relationship with meat is safely enclosed in a sausage skin, geometrically reassuring. But then, what about the angry pastrami sandwich and its accompanying proud pickle? Interestingly, when it comes to meat, Martin seems to favour a more extreme light, the better to express “flesh”, rather like Juergen Teller’s fashion photography where everyone is overexposed. (For some reason, when it comes to prawns, lobster and other crustaceans, Martin appears to be kinder and photographs them in a rather gentler light.)
The sausage erotica continues but there is an antidote for anyone who might have been made even faintly warm under the collar by this kind of chat in the form of the torpedo sausages — a glaring example of a poor use of singe, not helped by the blob of cat sick on the side of the plate.
It is impressive how many foodstuffs Martin has managed to find that resemble some sort of vomit, but I think this paragraph has run its course and should be stopped here.
The conversation continues as we await our lunch. Food is meant to lift the spirits and offer steadying sustenance in a delicious fashion. This is not expressed by the plate with two halved slices of luncheon meat and three slices of cucumber, which looks like a primitive version of Matisse’s “The Snail”. Here is a prime expression of slappingly gravity-bound food: it is certainly the most dour plate of stuff I’ve seen in a long time (and I like a dour plate).
Is this food real? Yes, depending on what world you inhabit — perhaps that of the naughty seaside postcard; a world that isn’t concerned with words like “processed” and “refined”. The bread in the photos looks like the pale hands of old men, insubstantial and wrinkling with age. Bread should be our ally, a tool with which to eat. This bread is an imperfect tool — like a plastic knife and fork — a flawed implement, edges curling.
By chance, Martin and I share a passion for the Hebrides. I’m a bit stuck in my ways when it comes to the islands and always stay on the same one, but Martin strikes me as a more adventurous explorer. Real food on a Hebridean island is three tomatoes or one runner bean grown in adverse conditions by crofters who live a holistic life farming the land, tending their sheep and working as BT engineers. In the late afternoon they pick up their lobster pots, but if you ask if they have ever eaten lobster they will reply, “Ooch no, it’s too expensive!”, even though they pluck them out of the sea. This seems like pretty real food to me. Authenticity in food is hard to find.
Returning to the sausage, as this book compels, every butcher should start with making sausages. This way they can read the change of season by what they put in their sausage, which part of the animal they mince for good fat-to-flesh ratio, and which seasoning they use to encourage the flavour of the meat that has just been pulverised by the mincer (an experience that can leave the mince a little shy). When the sausage is finished, the young butcher has a benchmark by which he can judge the world, his sausage touchstone.
(Last mention of sausages, I promise.) I suppose it is quite refreshing that in a day and age when chefs announce that everything they cook is seasonal and local, Martin publishes a book celebrating the opposite. There is a strong spirit of place at work here — not the one I look for, but a different approach: perhaps Martin is pointing out that there is a culinary history running parallel. I am not going to guess, but I do know that this is the power of photographs: after a few days of looking at sugar icing and cucumber abuse, I need a Fernet-Branca.
Essay by Fergus Henderson from ‘Real Food’ by Martin Parr (Phaidon, £14.95)
Photographs: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos