Protestantism and the rise of celebrity chefs

Jamie Oliver has courted righteous indignation among the commentariat for his recent interview with the Radio Times about his next TV series, ‘Money Saving Meals’. I have not been able to access the actual interview on the internet, but his eminently quotable quotes have been widely disseminated.

I’m not judgmental, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam container, and behind them is a massive fucking TV… The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods… Some of the most inspirational food in the world comes from areas where people are financially challenged. The flavour comes from a cheap cut of meat, or something that’s slow-cooked, or an amazing texture’s been made out of leftover stale bread… I meet people who say, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We’ve missed out on that in Britain somehow.

Oliver has thus served up his own ready-made headline for lazy journalists to gobble down: millionaire celebrity chef has a go at poor people for watching TV and tells them to eat stale bread. His new programme, which he can now consider to have been duly promoted, is going to extol the merits of local markets over supermarkets, which seems hypocritical given that he acquired his millions thanks largely to the decade he spent promoting Sainsbury’s: although successful artists have always relied on the munificence of plutocrats. Oliver’s professed frustration is, however, justifiable, and his argument basically sound. But he is wrong if he believes this is simply an issue for poorer people, even though the situation is clearly exacerbated by the nutritional deficiencies of the diet prevailing among deprived communities. Gastronomic infantilism is endemic to the national culture.

In the late capitalism of English-speaking countries, the commodification of everything has included a double debasement of food and drink. For the multinational company, the produce of the ground are simply raw materials to be manipulated and adulterated in laboratories and factories only to maximise profits. For the consumer food and drink are just a means for sating appetite, quenching thirst or getting drunk. In this vortex of production and consumption, usually mediated by highly sophisticated marketing techniques, the appreciation of the real qualities of the product itself, and in particular its taste, is all but lost. This loss is then artificially supplemented through things like brand image, the injection of vitamins and/or specious claims to such vitamins,  nutrients or other health-improving qualities, temperature control, texture and flavour-distorting additives especially monosodium glutamate, sugar, salt and hydrogenated fats, convenience and size. This, compounded by increasingly sedentary lifestyles in which walking and other mundane exercise are avoided, has resulted in societies on both sides of the Atlantic where at least half of its population are either overweight or clinically obese.  It has also produced, especially in the UK which labours less under the puritanical urges prevalent in North America, a culture of dumbed-down binge-drinking of super-branded, standardised, lagers, wines, spirits and alcopops whose properties are valued for their image and potential for inducing drunkenness, not for their taste.

Oliver thrives within this philistine mainstream as a representative of one of its numerous counter-movements. These movements variously promote consumption of organic foods, vegetarian- and other dietary-isms, the humane treatment of animals, sustainable agriculture and other enlightened practices. He is a high priest of the cult of the celebrity chef, whose paraphernalia of TV programmes, cookery books, and sponsorship deals are in effect a sort of pornography for the celibate. Britons and Americans generally no longer know how to cook, nor want to cook, but they very much enjoy seeing other people do it between the hard covers of sleek cookery books or on the TV screen. (Oliver’s juxtaposition of the Styrofoam-bearing cheesy chips and the giant flat screen television is therefore very apt.)  Meanwhile, for sustenance most of our fellow citizens in Britain and the United States, typically impatient and conservative, depend on instant ‘meal solutions’, as if hunger in the rich world were still a real problem to be solved every day. These tropes take the form of ready meals, pre-prepared pasta sauces, takeaways, cheap meat from abused cows, pigs and chickens, packets of crisps, white sliced bread, chocolate bars, lurid sweeties and cans of fizzy drinks, and a limited range of standardised fruits. Reverse snobbery, the stock-in-trade of journalists and politicians, is deployed in defence of these habits.

No-one has really explained why our food culture is so weird (though there have been one or two attempts, like Joanna Blythman in Bad Food Britain), hence Jamie’s frustration and the market for his succession of TV projects. I suspect it may be something to do with the Protestant asceticism to which Max Weber ascribed the rise of capitalism.  I do know for sure, however, that I would not have read ‘fucking’ in the pages of the Radio Times, which my family would enthusiastically thumb through, in the sitting room of days of yore.

And I can fully attest to the importance of stale bread in preparing that Tuscan pauper’s classic, La Ribollita. In my kitchen it is the undisputed culinary highlight of the month of January.