"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Ministry of Marketing

I didn't watch the TV show.  It was enough to see Jamie Oliver seated at table underneath big-boned, healthy letters announcing “Ministry of Food” everywhere from bookshops to tram stops.  And beneath his generous helping of roast chicken and veg, this claim:  “Anyone can learn to cook in 24 hours”.  When I first saw the book, I was expecting ellipses after this extraordinary statement, or maybe a “P.T.O.”, and we’d find the rest of the sentence – the proviso – when we opened the book.  But there are no ellipses, there is no proviso.  Anyone can learn to cook in 24 hours, full stop.  Well, actually, there is no full stop, but it’s implied.  And it’s that implied full stop that will make this book a success or failure.

First, let’s define success.  Of course the cookbook will be a publishing success and keep Jamie in Lambrettas until he’s older than Paul Weller, but will it succeed where Jamie says it will?  Because this isn’t yet another cookbook, he says.  Oh, no.  It’s a Movement.  And he needs our help, he says.  Show someone how to cook a recipe, he says, and let them pay it forward by teaching another someone how to cook a recipe.  Let those someones go forth, and so on, and soon there will be a Wembley Stadium-full of people who can cook.  (But presumably not cooking there.  Although wouldn’t all those mortars and pestles pounding away give screaming hordes of Beatlemaniacs a run for their money?)  Before you know it, all of Britain will be well fed and happy!  And look:  there’s even a pledge in the book for you to sign.  But before you think this is all a bit silly, let it be known that the idea for the Movement isn’t new, he says:  it’s what women representatives from the Ministry of Food were doing post-WWII, when after years of rationing the people of Britain had forgotten what food was and how to cook it.  It’s also “a modern-day version of the way people used to pass recipes down through generations when they weren’t all at work”.

So will it work?  No.  Why?  Because Jamie’s Movement needs a stool.

It was from my stool, watching Mamá, that I learned how to cook.  Other cooks came along later who augmented her teaching with advanced technique and wonderful recipes, but they didn’t teach me how to cook.  Because as any good cook will tell you, learning to cook and learning to reproduce recipes are two completely different things.  From my ma I learned everything.  She taught me how dishes begin, and end.  How something should smell when it’s properly seasoned.  How it should feel (and I can therefore guarantee that any exact recipe for potato gnocchi is wrong).  How to look:  watch how the mayonnaise comes together, how the colour of homemade jam is different to the stuff you buy in jars.

As I looked, I also learnt to recognise the attributes of the good cook.  The alchemy that turns plain rice into golden fritters perfumed with parsley and parmesan a couple of days later.  The genius of the dish that can’t ever be repeated because it pulls together whatever happens to be in the fridge that day.  The fearlessness of improvisation.  The husbandry and thrift that allows you to use a glut of anything without the family turning into a Greek chorus of, “Oh, no, not zucchini again.”  Loaves and fishes-type miracles.  Confidence instead of cookbooks.  Assurance in dishing something out knowing that it won’t be measured against some restaurant standard but simply received with thanks.  And the wisdom of knowing when to order take-away, because a family would rather have fish and chips with a relaxed and happy cook than a banquet from some gastronomic martyr.  She is the reason why I can cook, and others like her are the reason why others can cook.  But the race of people who can cook could be rendered extinct by the race of people who can reproduce recipes.  And why not?  Learning to cook isn’t as sexy as watching Nigella fellate her fingers, or as funky as racing slot cars at Jamie’s while the cassoulet bakes, or as illicit as sniggering at Gordon’s naughty swearing.  It can be boring and repetitive, and the cook you’re watching isn’t on show for the camera, so what you see, alas, is what you get.

Is the reason we (or rather, the Brits) don’t cook that no one has had time to show us a recipe?  Because I don’t know what nobility Jamie descends from, but there hasn’t really been a time when the majority of the peoples of the world weren’t all at work.  Any anthropologist will tell you that traditionally, most people everywhere have eaten very simply on a day-to-day basis, just because of the aforementioned work, and saved the elaborate prep, cooking, and presentation for food served on special occasions.  But let’s say he’s right and ignore pesky anthropologists and that nonsense of man having to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow and a woman’s work never being done.  Let’s take it to the authorities:  The Women’s Weekly.  I have here a copy of The Women’s Weekly Busy Woman’s Cookbook, published in 1972.  So let’s assume that women – the traditional home cooks – have only been busy since 1972.  That’s two generations ago.  Has no one bothered passing on a recipe since?  What does the wall of cookbooks in any bookshop, the endless reel of cooking shows on the telly, and the millions of recipes in disposable media and Internet tell you?  Yeah, we’re busy.  But how is one extra recipe from either a Movement or a mate supposed to make a difference?  After Jamie has taught John and Jane how to cook their one dish, who is going to teach them what to do with the stuff they buy from the produce section rather than the frozen meals cabinet? 

The creation of any industry requires us to accept one of a few key messages:  “You can’t do this”, “You don’t have time to do this”, “You shouldn’t do this”, “You need help to do this”, and most insidious of all, “Even if you can find the time to do this without help, it won’t be good enough.”  (For the beauty and weight loss industries, substitute the verb “do” with “be” and you’ll be well on your way to self loathing.)  This is, without a doubt, the convenience food manufacturers, but it’s also every superstar chef who’s made millions out of demonstrating recipes – often unattainable, tyrannical ones, in anything from execution to cost to setting – rather than teaching anyone how to cook.  It’s a way of ensuring repeat custom, see.  Because a person who can actually cook is the superstar chef’s worst nightmare:  independent and self-sufficient.  So I’m sorry, Jamie, but you can’t ever be the solution when you’re actually part of the problem.

The solution – boring and mundane as it is – is found, yet again, in us.  A little less spectating, and a little more learning.  A little less buying, a little more growing.  A little less stressing, a little more enjoyment.  A little less opining, a little more gratitude.  A little less following, a little more experimenting.  And lot more time spent together.  But I wouldn’t hang around waiting for any great leader for this particular movement.  After all, no one ever made any money from telling people to put down the cookbook or turn off the telly and go hang out in the kitchen.

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