Excuses For Eating

“Must the garage have a Nespresso bar? Must the library and the swimming pool do shawarma and chips?”

With Prejudice
Street food success: Eating in public used to be considered vulgar (Miquel Lopez CC BY-SA 2.0)

UK business is “too lazy and too fat,” says Dr Liam Fox. Was that meant to be a metaphor? Or is the rise of “fattism” the natural result of the PC ban on other erstwhile forms of British superiority?

When the Vale of York health authority decided to deny operations to obese patients there was an outcry. The hospital group withdrew the idea after pressure from large groups, so to speak. Fair enough, you may think: our medical procedures should not depend on how much of a patient dangles over the rim of a standard NHS trolley.

Meanwhile, the Women’s Equality Party pressured Sadiq Khan to withdraw funding from London Fashion Week unless designers stopped employing size zero models, on the grounds that their employment contributes to the unrelenting rise in eating disorders.

I wonder whether it wouldn’t be sounder to speak to local councils about granting licences to so many restaurants that our high streets are now café society minus the society. It is a bit bilious-making when one considers the lack of food in two-thirds of the rest of the world. I love seeing the British out at night as much as the next person, and the sound of tinkling laughter under twinkling stars on a narrow pavement in Shepherd Market fills me with awe, but must everything be an excuse for eating? The high streets of most major towns are just wall-to-wall force-feeding joints. We are the Bistro Kids.

Must the garage have a Nespresso bar? Must the library and the swimming pool do shawarma and chips? Must every park offer pizza margarita and every museum have a muffin counter? There are three-foot-long pesto baguettes walking back to work with people who have spent the morning sitting in front of a computer screen. Thai green curry and Diet Coke wobble on trolleys to your train seats.

My local cinema announces “Woody Allen’s Café Society”  below the words “We Do Deliveroo”. Can people really not sit through a two-hour (though it felt like four) film without Polish/Mexican tacos with an avocado/quince coulis?

In 1980, when I moved to Muswell Hill, there was one restaurant; 25 years later, when I left, there were 49. Nowhere to buy a bath-towel or a packet of safety-pins or a bag of loam but you can eat in global fashion till you’re too flabby to get your hernia fixed.

It used to be regarded as vulgar to eat in the street. Even chewing gum was an act of rebellion. In the ’50s, in my stuffed neck of the woods, there was no such thing as going out for a meal. Unheard-of waste! As for dinner parties — if folk came over for “an evening”, they came when they’d had their dinner. Bridge rolls, with chopped hard-boiled eggs, or cream cheese and cucumber, put in an appearance at some point, and tea and home-made cake was served between card games and gender-separated chat, but spending two days planning a dish of sumac and preserved lemons with a bulgur crust, then toiling over a dessert which involves separating 17 yolks from 17 whites followed by a complicated networking placement was as remote as . . . well, as using a remote to change four channels.

TV itself, of course, is peppered with cookery contests, ballroom dancing, home renovation and make and mend. This is what we call progress. “Chef” is top of a mother’s wishlist for their kid’s career, in the way that air hostesses used to be. (Both, of course, are — fashionable or not — sweaty, scary, underpaid and, away from the TV lights, deeply unglamorous.)

So we watch bake-offs, read cookbooks, spend a fortune on ready meals and eat out when we are not fasting as part of our 5:2 regime. Small wonder we swell to mammoth proportions. Or, perversely, get skeletal like the children who don’t want an ounce of flesh to spoil their chances of becoming Cara Delevingne. There is too much emphasis on food. My darling friend Elspeth rarely ate after 3 p.m. save for a single malt at 7 o’clock and she lived to one hundred and three.

Stomach stapling is on the National Health in some areas of the country. It is, I admit, less obvious than sewing up the mouth but it amounts to the same thing. We have no discipline, my generation; we need instant gratification, preferably with whipped cream and salted caramel. We drink coffee twice a day at three quid a paper cup, buy three jumbo-sized bags of crisps because they’re on special offer — and then crunch through them all before The One Show is over. We fall for waffles, muffins, flapjacks, sweet crêpes in the street, and crap street-food in the home.

Restaurants are reviewed with the same vitriol which Nicholas de Jongh once brought to theatre criticism. If you saw A.A. Gill approach the freshly-sanded door of your new restaurant, notebook in hand, would you greet him? Or would you hide in the loo, or chuck up in his cassoulet? Either way, he is going to queer your idealistic pitch to introduce fusion food to the confusion of the foodie. Meanwhile, in the hinterland of social media lurk the online punters who just want revenge for your slow service on the free opening night, the loafers who want to show they can afford to eat out nightly and the “cereal” bloggers, who are trying to get A.A. Gill’s job.

“Ooh, I wish food was just a pill you could take,” my late mother would sigh, as once again nobody offered to help her wash the pots. As I scrape the rust from the state-of-the-art frying pan which cost more than three sessions with a personal trainer, I suddenly know what she meant. Perhaps Dr Liam Fox could give up the day job and invent such a pill?

While I’m at it, may I take issue with the favoured menu-terminology “pan-fried”? I mean, what the hell else do we fry in? A sieve? And why would the chosen vessel of cooking make me hanker for it?  Oh, a pan! A pan? You fried it in a pan? In that case — yes, yes, YES!