The Guardian’s Elaine Glaser writes about the supposed Food Revolution, asking whether it is a big fat lie. She criticizes the television cooking shows most of all (emphasis mine):
Reality, normality, hard-working families: this is the mantra of the multimillionaire celebrity chef. But the recipes have trouble sticking to it because, despite the homely trappings, they are essentially restaurant food. Take Nigella Express, the book of the TV show promising “fabulous fast food and incredible short cuts”. The recipes are quick to make, it’s true, but look at the ingredients: mirin, poussin, pomegranate juice, quail, harissa, sake, garlic oil. It would take an afternoon to track them down. I have for many years wrestled with the matter of fresh herbs. They improve simple dishes no end: most of Jamie [Oliver]‘s 30-Minute Meals rely on them. But I always find myself rummaging impatiently through a supermarket’s highly selective herb selection to find the one I need.
Yes, yes, yes. Cooking shows might be fun to watch, but your average working person does not have the time or the money to cook like that. Even if one lives near the market and has the time to buy fresh ingredients each day, what is supposed to be done with all of the leftovers? I don’t want to keep several shelves and drawers full of condiments and spices that I will rarely use. Heck, I just bought sesame oil and haven’t figured out what to do with it, since none of the recipes I generally make call for it. I don’t have time to look around for new recipes either—I stick with what is easy for me and what I am fairly sure that (most) of my family will eat.
Finally, cooking shows do not show any of the prep time. The ingredients are washed, peeled and chopped, just waiting in small bowls for their 15 seconds of fame.
I agree with Glaser that fresh herbs are a relatively easy way to enhance your food. But why stick to what the recipe calls for? My balcony garden boasts some hardy plants like mint and chives. Still, my experience is similar to Glaser’s, whose herbs died after a few weeks. So I’ll get a big bunch of parsley or dill and keep using it in various soups, main dishes and salads until it’s gone. Or I’ll preserve it—more on that in a future post.
Glaser criticizes Oliver as well. He is best known for his efforts to improve school lunches.
. . . My problem is our refusal to admit that reality is obscured by illusory ideals. It’s not only that Jamie employs around 5,000 staff and is reportedly worth £65m, it’s that he foregrounds his lovely-jubbly persona and rapport with dinner ladies. TV executives try to get around these contradictions with the help of that weasel word “aspirational”. But it just doesn’t wash. This is not just food. This is 100% mock-authentic, mock-egalitarian class hierarchy. Supermarket labels such as “organic”, “finest” and “taste the difference”, or “economy”, “basics” and “everyday”, are euphemisms for food apartheid.
“Food apartheid!” I love it. There is something to this.
Glaser also writes about not finding “seasonal” vegetables or even knowing which ones they are, in today’s urban supermarkets. Her solution: ”But if the other [cooking celebrities] really wanted to come up with a quick and easy cookbook for “hard-working families”, they’d write one that used only the kind of ingredients I can buy at my local Costcutter: potatoes, tomatoes, onions and carrots.”
I don’t live in England, but I suspect that most of the year there are a few other options. Perhaps look out for the less extravagant ones—like squash, fennel, turnips, spinach, broccoli, cabbage or beets—when they appear, and experiment. The trick is not to be afraid of an unfamiliar vegetable.
I’ve always felt that the American approach of planning a menu by starting with a recipe–whether from a cooking show, website, or cookbook–is misguided. One should always start with what is in the house, and move on to what is fresh and reasonably priced in the grocery store. Then it becomes a matter of figuring out how to cook it and making the adjustments to match your skills, ingredients, equipment and time limitations. One can easily find information about cooking techniques for virtually every ingredient through a Google search.
Practical, quick and frugal home meals prepared each day by busy adults each day are simply not exciting enough for a cooking show. The vegetable-washing and chopping that takes up the bulk of the work will never make good television.
But I can’t help wonder what the “Cooking Manager” reality TV show would look like. Hmmm. . .