As celebrity chefs go, there are few more popular in my house than Jamie Oliver. Without his sunny chav schtick, my son would have never become engaged with cooking as he did. Jamie made cooking muscular, fun, an unstructured riff. My son was transported right into the waiting arms of a chefs apprenticeship. He’s still working in the game, long after the gloss has worn off. His purpose and direction are something for which I feel I owe Jamie Oliver a huge debt of thanks.
It’s not just his enthusiasm for cooking that appeals. We all cheered the new tranch of trainees when he opened Fifteen; I rejoiced when he made it a personal mission to bring back a decent school lunch across Britain and educate governments and entire communities in the process.
However, overnight, the gloss has tarnished somewhat, with a barely disguised judgey McJudgey comment on the diets of the British working poor emblazoned across the major dailies. In the short space of 24 hours, he has morphed from golden child to big mouthed twat and very unedifying it is to read.
At the heart of the matter is the glaring disconnect between his heavy footed trudge through povo areas dispensing thinly-disguised despair at the way the Other Half lives and the stark reality for more than 13 million Britons who face a grinding existence under new Austerity Measures and dramatically reduced pensions.
We’re talking about something far weightier than menu plans and cooking with seasonal produce. If it really was that simple, Jamie Oliver and dozens of other celebrity chefs would be lauded for their budget friendly meals when they have been universally derided for being hopelessly out of touch. We’re talking food budgets of £20 a week or less and food banks, not markets and peasant food.
Trimming your wallet for a couple of weeks to pay off the winter heating bill is one thing, but entrenched poverty for anything more than a few months enforces a brutal lifestyle firmly styled around the word No. After a few years, poverty consciousness isn’t a choice, it’s a default setting. You lose so much, the entire notion that you might have any choice at all becomes almost self defeating. Why get your hopes up? It will never happen.
The reality is this: The poorest people in our communities are in urban areas, but with little if any infrastructure. Public transport is parlously unavailable; where it does exist it will take you to the nearest large shopping centre where your options are (in this country at least) one of two corporate giants whose entire reason for existing seems to be to rip off farmer and small producer and the local community alike. Want some bread and milk? Try and get it without spending $25 dollars on other items first.
The poorest people in our communities are so defeated by the battle to simply get through another day that creativity or enthusiasm is all but excised. Combined with a lack of classroom cooking lessons while growing up – I’ll leave that egregious clusterfuck for discussion another day – and the reality of living in a cheap rental with a small kitchen where only a microwave and a two ring stove top exists and suddenly the frozen meal section – generic brands of course – starts to look very attractive.
It’s all very well for Jamie Oliver to bang on about local markets and it is here that I must also look to my own enthusiasm when I encourage people to go along. Local markets are frequently not local at all. They require an effort to find and drive to and then you need to negotiate prices that are at times more expensive than the big two supermarkets, those very ones you are trying to avoid. You could grow your own – assuming of course you have secure housing and an understanding landlord who doesn’t mind if you dig up the garden, but again, effort, creativity, natch.
Somewhere in Jamie Oliver’s efforts to bring the community to the table, they lost their confidence. Instead of being one of Us, he became one of Them. Naturally, I have some advice for Mr. O.
Instead of teaching a community, especially one entrenched with the self perpetuating despair of poverty, to cook, first you must bring them to the table and teach them how to eat. And that means setting time aside, away from the TV news and squabbles and daily trials and actually making a meal time a reason to clear the table of unpaid bills and set out a knife as well as a fork.
It means recalling, from the darkest recesses of your brain, the requirement to talk. To listen. To engage with others. To remind your wayward son to take his cap off and to remove his earphones.To sit back from your empty plate and listen to your fractious kids who suddenly are laughing at some shared joke. To not be afraid to talk, really talk about your day, your concerns, the fun thing that happened on the way to school. How your homework assignment is due tomorrow, and what do you mean you’ve got a mufti day?
Engaging with our food begins with becoming mindful about the mealtime itself. Don’t believe me? Sit everyone down to pies and oven fries at a table, chat a bit about the footy and see if you don’t get a Thanks Mum at the end of it.
When we eat together, each of us with a place at the table, we can find common ground. We can find a shared idea, a bit of hope, a helpful suggestion. A place where, for a very short time, everyone from the toddler in the high chair to your ornery father in law is quietly chewing in appreciation.
Bringing people to the table is what it’s about Mr Oliver. What one then eats is largely a moot point. The journey to connectedness with our food will have already started, providing the one point in the day when people with very little choice can perhaps choose to try lentils instead of baked beans. Maybe even invite their children to help make the meal. Children who might one day look up from stirring the gravy and announce they want to be a chef.
Over to you Mr O.