It’s Friday night and we have people coming round for dinner to celebrate my fiancée’s birthday. I cook roast chicken legs with clementines and arak, roasted sweet potatoes with fresh figs and caramelised balsamic vinegar, aubergine baked in spices and served with bulgur wheat, yogurt and fresh mint, okra, pepper and tomatoes, a salad, asparagus simply in lemon juice and spring greens in a yogurt and tahini sauce with pine nuts. For dessert I make a strawberry and mascarpone tart on an almond biscuit base, crushing the biscuits between my fingers lest the food mixer leave them too fine. I get in from work at six and serve just after eight. Everyone enjoys the food and, despite the mountain on the table, there’s hardly anything left. I’m offered compliments which are gratefully received, but there’s a bit of me which is surprised that anyone is impressed. I don’t find cooking difficult. To me, it’s straightforward: just following recipes in a book, a bit of project management in ordering the tasks, being able to keep several processes running in your head at the same time and the occasional moment of inventiveness if something isn’t quite right. Maybe it’s the complexity of the dishes and while it was a special occasion, it’s been a long time since I served up anything as routine as spaghetti bolognaise.
It never used to be like this.
Writing in the Guardian magazine a few weeks ago, the novelist Joshua Ferris lamented his wheat intolerance which meant he was prevented from eating all the wonderful foods he’d discovered as an adult. Ferris wrote of his childhood meals consisting of lumpen, mystery grey meat supposedly vaguely related to beef, wilted salad and mounds of fried potatoes. Plentiful food and perfectly fine in its way, but devoid of excitement. An ITV sitcom of a diet.
His story sounds familiar. Growing up we always had nice, healthy food. Lots and lots of fresh vegetables, salads in the summer, much of it grown from the garden. The meat and fish were of a good quality; there were no chips to be had in our house. But, like much of the country’s food in the eighties, it was quite safe. It hadn’t been introduced to garlic or rapeseed oil or paprika. Unlike Ferris I don’t see this as a failing, but just what was available in the suburbs during Thatcher’s decade.
As a teenager I started to experience more diverse cuisine through curry houses and Chinese take-aways as occasional treats, but even by the time I went to university in the mid-nineties, I was still a stranger to the kitchen. The only cooking I’d done was on a camping stove with scouts.
If there’s one thing which has changed in British society drastically over the past twenty years, leaving it almost unrecognisable from what was there before, it has been the rise of food. From my own first, incompetent attempts at spaghetti carbonara (served with boiled vegetables on the side) to more recent efforts the transformation has been outstanding. And it’s happened everywhere. Even penniless undergraduate students wax lyrical out artesian pizza, artichokes and fresh avocados while sucking on tea, the leaves for which have been gently, individually folded and the water sweated to a pitch just shy of boiling by the strength of the sun alone. Broadsheet newspapers ooze food columns, professional cooks and amateur contributors sallying forth with their solution to the perfect croissant. Local markets, farmer or otherwise, are increasingly more about the experience and the purchasing of obscure products – unusual cuts of meat, veg last commercially grown in the fifteenth century which were recently introduced to someone’s Kentish orchard, coffee that’s harvested from raincloud refreshed hillsides and then triple filtered. Taste, colour and invention coming at you like a screaming express train. All so moreish, all so exciting, all so, too much.
I find myself wondering whether enough’s enough. Yes, meat which hasn’t been inflated with water and forced to survive by eating its cousin’s eyeballs is going to taste better. Yes, vegetables which haven’t been bred to meet supermarket aesthetic tests and still has the odd bit of dirt clinging to it is vastly superior, but it’s all going too far, isn’t it?
Pizza, burgers, pulled frickin’ pork: the conversion of rudimentary foodstuffs into something gourmet, turning the basics, even fast-food, into a gastronomical experience sustaining an industry of bloggers, writers and people with cute beards and no discernible profession.
We went for pizza not so long ago in Honor Oak Park, at the newish place where the tired Italian Restaurant used to be. I say newish because getting in has been nigh on impossible, with tables booked for weeks in advance so it’s been open for months. It was nice. I mean, it was a really good pizza in a charming environment, backed up with friendly staff (even with the beards, skinny jeans and fake glasses) and a slick business model which meant everything was fresh and quick. But at the same time we were treated to an exposition on every product – from the plate of olives comprising three varieties chosen from hundreds across Spain and imported exclusively to the rocket grown on a city farm over towards Hackney marshes and cycled daily down to the SE23 to keep the carbon footprint low. All very admirable, but at the end of the day it was some olives, some salad and a circle of dough with melted cheese on it, even if that cheese had been plucked from between an ancient Italian farmer’s toes using a satanic ritual.
I started to teach myself to cook at university. Thanks to the advice of a couple of female housemates, I began to understand how it all worked. By the time I moved to London I was vaguely competent, if somewhat over-reliant on pasta, chilli, Angliacised curries and bangers n mash. It wasn’t until around 2003, my disposable income fully established and the food fetish really kicking off the capital that I took each meal so seriously.
When my fiancée was still my girlfriend and we first moved in together, I pulled out all the stops on the cooking front. I’d made dinner for her several times over the previous year and I knew that she liked my food, but I headed off down a dead-end of trying to never make the same thing twice, of winding myself up in an arsenal race of bigger, better, bolder, flashier food every weekday night. Patties, soups, broths, cassoulets, skillets, grills, baked, fried, raw, shaken and sweated.
I enjoy cooking for her and she, I think, enjoys eating, but my point is this: by the exceptional becoming the everyday what do we have to look forward to? Foodies are everywhere. It’s like a national religion whereby declaring you just fancy a tuna and mayo sandwich is tantamount to heresy and punishable by social crucifixion. Ignoring for a moment the equal rising in diabetes and obesity which is surely just as aligned with excessive cream, butter and cheese as it is fried chicken, coke and a lack of exercise – food is not holy. It’s a trend, and the problem with trends is that things tend to whiplash back in the opposite direction.
Take cider. The addition of cider to the trendsetter’s palate in recent years has seen quality stuff, like Thatcher’s and Aspall’s amongst others, become readily available over things like Woodpecker. There are all sorts of lovely ciders, using different wood on the barrel to infuse interesting flavours, creating a smokey hue, a sharp cutting tang, rescuing poor old Perry from perpetual obscurity, but it’s also seen every commercial brewer get on the act producing unending dross. Craft beer will be next as even McEwans and Newcastle Brown Ale seek start farting out overly flavoured piss to cash in on the market while proper breweries who have been carefully producing amazing beer for centuries without the need for hipster endorsement will be left by the wayside as the cool kids flee back the safety of Carling and Castlemaine four-x. It’s ironic, obvs.
Food shouldn’t be a religious experience, it shouldn’t be a sensation, it shouldn’t be cool and fashionable and people shouldn’t hang around in the street on wet Peckham evenings waiting for a table at a place serving, essentially, overpriced beef patties in a bun with some salad, heavily fried potatoes and beer with an over-inflated sense of its own importance. Food just should be. Then it might escape the backlash.
Doesn’t mean you can get away with cooking it badly, mind.