In the pot, nine days old
CONSUMING PASSIONS: FOOD IN THE AGE OF ANXIETY edited by Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace Mandolin, £9.50, pp. 208 Do you remember the English curry? It was made on Wednesday with the last remains of Sunday's already overcooked, grey and dry roast lamb. The meat was fried in lamb fat with an onion and a spoonful of `curry powder' which had lived for a couple of years in the larder and was stale. It had too much fenugreek in it. Then lots of water was added and sultanas, apples, bananas and anything else rotting in the larder, some cold potatoes, some soggy, cooked cabbage and the kitchen sink. The lot was then boiled. Do you remember the stench of the stale but still acrid, badly proportioned spices with the cloying sweetness of the fruit?
The editor and several contributors to Consuming Passions rightly point out that many disciplines have something to con- tribute to the study of food. Unfortunately, when they are thrown in as haphazardly as this collection of articles, already published in the THES, what you get is English curly. In the pot, stirred together, are a study of psychotherapy and eating problems, another of Roman cooking, one of food in films, another of obesity, another of cannibalism. There seems no clear principle of selection or order.
A few hang together. The curry powder of the collection, whose smell and flavour are used to mask the inappropriate mix of the other ingredients, are a few articles on food scares and regulations. These, written by authors who have been prominent in the calls for more regulation and a state food body, are themselves as stale as the curry powder. Such calls have been made for some 20 years. During those years their critics have raised difficulties over more regulation. Hugh Pennington implicitly favours the precautionary principle in food control. His report called for the licensing of butchers. Does he know what more reg- ulation did to slaughter-houses? It closed them. Will his precautionary principle and regulation close the local small butcher? The matter is not addressed.
Tim Lang sings his tired refrain about representing the consumer interest, 'the public good', in food. Has he listened to those who point out that different con- sumers have different and opposing tastes and interests, or those who warn that con- sumer bodies and spokesmen often are self-appointed and speak only for activists and nutters? Neither are required to agree with their critics. It is that they take no notice at all. Their arguments don't advance. Nor does Philip James's for a Food Standards Agency. If these people want to be taken seriously they should con- sider the disadvantages, costs and possible perverse effects of their proposals.
The idea of these people being in charge of my dinner and the nation's food worries me too for another reason. In their articles and many of the chapters in the book, there is something missing. It is the love of food. Of course, one expects the music crit- ic or the art critic to be knowledgeable in his field, but one also expects a love of the thing studied. Indeed that love is part of wisdom, as distinct from expertise. To be fair, some contributors do show evidence of this love. Prue Leith does in her chapter urging the teaching of cooking to children, though on closer inspection the love looks a bit sloppy, all fun and creativity. Cooking is about discipline and habit too.
But most of the food-scare people just do not see food in the way most ordinary people, the people whose diet and 'good' they would engineer, do: as a source of enjoyment. Some of the authors contribute a favourite recipe after their chapter. What does Mr Lang choose? Will it be a cas- soulet of confit d'oie with Toulouse sausage, mutton, goose fat, beans and gar- lic with a crust of breadcrumbs on top or a simple rare steak with frites cooked in beef dripping? No, it's porridge, just oats and water, no sugar, not even a pinch of salt — it 'is undesirable for the heart'. Oh, you may have a 'drop', just a drop, of milk, skimmed of course.
The English curry was not just a mish- mash, it was rnistitled. So is this book. What `passion'?