A Point of View: The never-ending culinary merry-go-round
- 28 December 2012
- From the section Magazine
With the Christmas dinner done, writer Will Self says that the UK's collective new year resolution should be to bring an end to the national obsession with food.
Are you full yet? Stuffed? Fit to burst? I do hope so. After all, no-one but a Scrooge with an eating disorder would wish people to stint themselves over the festive season.
So, I hope you carved the turkey and cut the cake, crunched the roasties and smeared the brandy butter. And as you sat late into the night, unable to rise from the sofa so replete were you, I sincerely trust that you found a free gastric chink into which you could hammer that penultimate wafer-thin mint - the essential sugaring, I always think, for the bitter pill of the Christmas television schedules.
Why am I so keen on your performance as good, honest British trenchermen and women over the past few days? Because I'm going to ask you to consider a major lifestyle change in the year to come, and it's only by having got it into your system that I imagine you'll be able to countenance getting it resolutely out.
For what I think we require, as a society, is some sort of collective vomitorium. Not, you appreciate, that I expect you - like those mythical Roman patricians - to void the contents of your stomachs then limp groaning back to the dinner table.
No, what I think we should all do is throw up our very obsession with food itself, and enter the new year purged and able to forge a new relationship with whatever we happen to find on our plates.
It is, surely, undeniable that in the past 30 years we have, as a nation, been transformed from a culinary backwater - a stagnant reach in which floated the occasional soggy meat pie or waterlogged cabbage - into a foodie's paradise.
Once upon a time our High Streets were perhaps home to a chippie, a Chinese and an Indian. And this exemplification of the comic law of threes perfectly encapsulated the truth about our eating habits - they were a joke. But now, even the most desultory and cloned shopping zone in the most provincial of towns will boast five, 10 or 15 eateries, all jostling for business with their exotic offerings.
And it's not just restaurants. The shelves of our supermarkets are stacked high with specialist foods and piquant ready meals, while for those minded to abandon the flock, there are organic butchers aplenty, delicatessens and farmers' markets.
This astonishing variety and abundance of provender where previously there was only a dull sufficiency would be remarkable enough, but it hasn't come about as a result of some popular refinement of the collective palate, oh no. Rather, our current status as the most food-obsessed nation in Europe - if not the world - is an ideological transformation on a par with the creation of the welfare state.
Indeed, it is arguably gastronomy that has replaced social democracy as the prevailing credo of our era. But whereas in the case of the National Health Service and state education it was politicians, social activists and campaigners who forged the new consensus, the vanguard of this chomping revolution was constituted by restaurateurs, television producers and celebrity chefs.
You can judge the completeness of a regime change by its capture of the commanding heights of the economy. In recent years we have, indeed, spent more on food and eating out than ever before in our history, although there's been something of a deflating burp since 2008.
Equally important is mastery of the mass media. In contemporary Britain you cannot open a newspaper, click on a web page, or especially turn on a television, without being assaulted by images of succulence. Succulence often ushered into being by truculent former-footballers-turned-latter-day-Escoffiers.
The thorough infusion of this oleaginous ideology into our collective psyche is best exemplified by those television programmes in which wildly enthusiastic amateurs attempt to bake, baste and flambe their way into 15 minutes of perfectly cooked fame.
That these tempura tournaments should've become prime-time viewing, and the sort of entertainment to be chewed over exhaustively by the commentariat, indicates the real social function of our foodieism - because it's not just about anything as prosaic as having nice things to eat.
You've only to consider the time frame within which this transformation occurred, and the other changes that paralleled it, in order to appreciate that food has become the defining attribute of both class and culture in 21st Century Britain.
It began as long ago as the 1950s, when a soupcon of prescient sandwichistas - Terence Conran and Elizabeth David spring to mind - began to educate the benighted Britons in the wonders of what heretofore had been viewed as foreign muck. To begin with, their cadres were drawn exclusively from the bourgeoisie - the idea that workers might like to crush garlic rather than capitalism itself was obviously absurd.
But all this began to change in the 1980s, as the traditional nourishment of the proletariat - the manufacturing industry - began to go off. Throughout that decade, and with an accelerating tempo in the 90s, more and more swallowed the idea that you are, indeed, what you eat, and that therefore the best way to become truly middle class, was to eat what the middle classes did.
As for the traditional middle classes, they jettisoned the troublesome business of acquiring culture by any other means than orally.
Under the new dispensation, it was no longer necessary to read Boccaccio, only munch on focaccia, just as you needn't trouble yourself with listening to Saint Saens when it was so much easier to drink Cote de Beaune.
Even diehard nationalists, who wished to cleave to a distinctively British culture, could be appeased by a truckle of highly palatable Dorset Blue Vinny, in lieu of folios full of indigestible Warwickshire Shakespeare.
Now we find ourselves in a society in which the majority of people identify themselves as being middle class, but this ascription owes more to digestion than it does to acculturation, let alone occupation. Surely, much of the managerial work undertaken by these new middle classes consists in the running of those self-same food outlets where they too chow down.
Once the working classes were in chains, now they're in chain restaurants.
Of course, with well-masticated food playing the role of social glue, it's absolutely essential that everyone clear their plate. Sod the starving kiddies in Africa - it's the overfed ones here we need to worry about. Because if they don't carry on eating, the entire house of chocolate chip and macadamia cookies will crumble away.
So, in order to titivate palates not simply jaded but well-nigh worn away, it's vital that we come up with more and more exciting new dishes, more and more unusual foodstuffs, fancier and more exorbitant restaurants. Oh, and while we're at it, let's watch some almost famous people on television eating insects for cash prizes - that'll make us more grateful for the too much that we receive.
Then there's the plethora of new dietary fads and so-called "intolerances" that beset us - and which we enthusiastically embrace, for it is only by artificially restricting our intake that we can simulate that long-forgotten state known as "hunger". Because, as anyone unfortunate enough not to be middle-sized and middle class might tell you, when you're hungry, any old food will taste as good as the most astonishing molecular cuisine fashioned by Heston Blumenthal in his laboratory-cum-kitchen.
And it just so happens that we have a cohort readily to hand, should we wish to survey what this fabled "hunger" is really like. The Trussell Trust, a charity that specialises in a different sort of gastronomy, provided food aid to more than 100,000 British people last year, and their current aim is to open a food bank in every town in the country, such is the anticipated demand.
In the old days we had have-nots, now we merely have eat-nots. There, I've chewed the matter over and spat out my opinion. We Radio 4 types really could do with paying a bit less attention to what's on the end of our forks, and a bit more to what's at the end of our roads.
Put you off that final wafer-thin mint, have I?