Never have there been more food programmes on television. Never have more cookery books been sold. Never have people spent more on fitted kitchens and kitchen gadgets. Yet fewer people than ever can actually cook.
Cooking skills are no longer handed down from generation to generation. Most of those who do ‘cook’ lack the basic skills but can only follow recipes. They can turn out a passable imitation of a TV recipe but have no idea how to make an omelette.
Traditionally, Britain took a puritanical, protestant attitude to food. It was simple nourishment and nothing more. Most people did not have the disposable income to indulge, yet in practical terms food was a greater preoccupation. It took more of workers’ income to buy and more of women’s time to prepare, since there were no convenience foods or modern kitchen gadgets.
Over the past forty years, the situation has been reversed. Food has become a positional good but people no longer have the time or willingness to cook properly. Cookery is something people experience vicariously via TV food programmes, while they shove a Marks & Spencer’s ready meal in the microwave.
Never have people been more pretentious or neurotic about food. But the advent of supermarkets, chemical preservatives, fridges and freezers means that most middle-class people are eating less fresh, seasonal, organic or locally-produced food than their working-class great-grandparents.
TV producers know this, which is why most food programmes have given up any pretence at instruction. They have become pure entertainment. The worst culprit is the BBC’s MasterChef (“cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this”), which promotes the mistaken idea that, for any domestic cook, nothing less than Michelin-starred restaurant standards will do. It makes people feel ashamed to produce a simple casserole, even though that is much more practical for home entertaining than MasterChef’s labour-intensive, chefy food.
One TV food programme defied the trend and exposed Britain’s dirty secret. The 2009 BBC2 series Economy Gastronomy revealed a nation spending a fortune on takeaways and ready meals, and apparently unable to shop or cook properly.
Delia would doubtless approve, since not all TV cookery programmes come in for her attack:
She admitted to having a soft spot for BBC2’s Hairy Bikers, David Myers and Simon King, who she said made cooking funny but also made viewers think they would like to make the dishes they cooked.Nigel Slater likewise makes cookery accessible rather than intimidating. But ask yourself what most viewers of Nigella Lawson or Paul Hollywood are staring at, and it’s not their shortcrust pastry.