The recent scare over Sudan 1, the carcinogenic food dye, got us a bit paranoid. The list of products that may have been contaminated was a rogues' gallery of convenience food, ranging from the upscale to the inedible, eg:
- M&S Lime Chicken and Cous Cous for One (from the 'Singleton' range);
- Asda All-purpose Tomato Gloop-in-a-Jar;
- Iceland Microwave-from-frozen Complete Sunday Lunch with Mechanically-recovered Beef-flavour Meat Slices, Reconstituted Potato-style Starch Balls and Chemical Gravy.
The conspiracy is obvious: someone is trying to wipe out the entire population of single people, working parents and chavs. And once again it's been revealed that we in the UK are not foodies - our staple diet is ready meals, stir-in sauces and outright crud.
Really this shouldn't be surprising. It's pretty much accepted that we live in a culture of long working hours. If you get home at 7pm after a stressful day, the last thing you want to do is start peeling vegetables, cubing beef, crushing garlic, etc. Even quick meals like stir frys require a bit of planning, unless your idea of an authentic Chinese sweet and sour meal is HP sauce stirred into some Supernoodles.
What is surprising is how limited our tastes are. If Marie Antoinette told us to eat cake today, we wouldn't storm the Bastille, we'd complain that cake was too tasty and what we really wanted was some Goblin tinned beef burgers. (Factoid
Alert! The 'let them eat cake' story is actually largely fictitious, at least in terms of Marie Antoinette demonstrating such egregious naivete.
The Sudan 1 scare was rapidly followed by criticism of Tesco by the Trading Standards agency for misleading labelling. There were many instances of the supermarket claiming that food was 'healthy', when in fact it contained high levels of sugar and salt. Other findings reinforced the slightly unsavoury nature of modern food:
'Visual examination of the roast chicken found it to be a reformed product, comprising of small pieces of chicken set in comminuted [pulverized] chicken, with chicken emulsion in the shape of roast chicken.'
Yum! Similar reports on other supermarket chains have yet to be made public, but it's unlikely that they will be wildly different, except perhaps in the case of upmarket-but-pricey Waitrose, where it's possible to spend £50 and emerge with just some olives and half a quail.
Meanwhile the excellent show Jamie's School Dinners has caused quite a stir, highlighting the monotonous burger'n'chips fare that is served up by most state schools - not that it's really the schools' faults. Asked what their favourite meal was, kids said things like 'Chips and gravy' or 'Pot Noodle'. Serve some kids with something as accessible as a caesar salad and they'd probably look at you as though you'd given them a live zebra and told them to skin and roast it.
School food has always been rubbish - watery flan, day-glo desserts, glistening slabs of corned beef, etc. The difference now is that kids are given the chance to eat what they want, and what they want is fast food like the stuff they eat outside school. What they end up with is a strange McHybrid meal that is an inferior copy of fast food restaurant crap.
(It's possible that this has something to do with 'outsourcing' school catering to private catering firms. Given the impossibly small budget for school meals, it's amazing that anyone would try to make a profit on it, but there are some desperate companies out there. As Lisa Simpson once commented: 'They saw a crowded market place and said "Me too!"')
Eating habits in 2005 are distinctly grim. But taking a step back from all this, is the hysteria about food just a bit of a tizzy we've worked ourselves up into?
Some of the media hysteria is plain hypocrisy. Journalists love the doomsday scenario of a nation of blob people popping their clogs at 25, but you can bet these same journalists shovel down the same crap as everyone else.
There's also the question of exactly how harmful bad eating habits are. Although we may turn our noses up at processed food, the vast majority of it isn't actually dangerous. The production methods may be venal and unsavoury, but eating too many cheap chicken drumsticks isn't going to cause you to change sex. Not for a while, anyway.
While there are people who seem intent on fucking up their lives by overeating, out-of-control porkers are in the minority. There are plenty of plebs out there who seem to think eating processed food is a way of life, but there are also lots of people going to the gym, going on diets and generally trying to eat some sort of balanced diet - a bit of fruit here, a salad there.
But perhaps most interestingly, there seems to be class hatred underlying concern about food. Maybe it ties in to the fact that we're sick of hearing about the feckless underclass that has too many children, expects the state to pay for them, and are generally about as ambitious as the average bottom feeder.
The people at the bottom of the social scale are the core consumers of rubbish food. That's not to say that other classes all eat healthily - they don't. But the people who eat a monotonous diet of fast food, frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, Pot Noodle, crisps, etc. tend to be the least well-off and the least educated. (A study in the US found that ghetto youngsters were not going hungry, but they were actually suffering from malnutrition thanks to junk food diets.)
Maybe it's not just about food. Maybe what really pisses off the self-bettering working class and the middle-class is the fact that the underclass doesn't seem to want anything better for themselves and their children, and food is no exception.
Maybe we're reading too much into the symbolism of shite food, but when you find yourself in a state of quiet rage while watching You Are What You Eat, thinking 'If you're going to chomp your way into an early grave, at least buy some decent food', then maybe there's a shred of truth in it...