Tuesday 26 October 2010

A Taste Of Fanny

"As the nation declines in power and wealth, a universal pessimism gradually pervades the people, and itself hastens the decline. There is nothing succeeds like success, and, in the Ages of Conquest and Commerce, the nation was carried triumphantly onwards on the wave of its own self-confidence. Republican Rome was repeatedly on the verge of extinction—in 390 B.C. when the Gauls sacked the city and in 216 B.C. after the Battle of Cannae. But no disasters could shake the resolution of the early Romans. Yet, in the later stages of Roman decline, the whole empire was deeply pessimistic, thereby sapping its own resolution. Frivolity is the frequent companion of pessimism. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The resemblance between various declining nations in this respect is truly surprising. The Roman mob, we have seen, demanded free meals and public games. Gladiatorial shows, chariot races and athletic events were their passion. In the Byzantine Empire the rivalries of the Greens and the Blues in the hippodrome attained the importance of a major crisis.

Judging by the time and space allotted to them in the Press and television, football and baseball are the activities which today chiefly interest the public in Britain and the United States respectively. The heroes of declining nations are always the same - the athlete, the singer or the actor."

Sir John Glubb - "The Fate Of Empires" (Blackwell, 1978)

Of course, Sir John’s pantheon of the heroes of a declining nation should also include chefs, whose celebrity incarnations have spread like a plague across the nation’s television scheduling hours since the beginning of the Blair era. Although the 1970’s are frequently considered to be an era of decline for Britain in particular, there is much evidence to suggest that in many ways the country still possessed a formidable fortitude and virility. This was not least manifested in its dire cuisine, prudishly coy "sex industry" and dilapidated sports stadia, all of which suggested that the British public were a long way from being the passive spectators of spectacle and addicts to instant gratification that Neoliberalism demands.

British food in the 1970’s was heroically Spartan, with the meat-and-two-veg wartime/austerity culture still lingering two decades after it had become redundant, and combining with industrially derived "instant" foods such as Cadbury’s Smash and Angel Delight. With its powdered vegetables, powdered desserts and substitute fruit juices, the average British family ate like NATO soldiers on exercises or Soviet Cosmonauts. The late ‘50’s had nevertheless seen the appearance of the first real celebrity chef in the bizarre Norma Desmond figure of Fanny Cradock, a viciously snobbish petit-bourgeois matriarch with pisshole-in-the-snow eyes and a back story out of a Catherine Cookson novel. Although Cradock’s menus appear rather modest by today’s standards, at the time they were considered to be almost impossibly grand and pretentious. Nobody who watched her show was remotely interested in emulating her cookery - the main sources of entertainment were her waspish asides to her dipsomaniac husband Johnnie, who would wander haphazardly around the rear of the set, bottle in hand, pausing only to get in his wife’s way.

There was always something poignant and sympathetic about the Cradocks, however. They were the kind of archetypal couple that don’t exist anymore - the type that stayed married for reasons of business respectability, regardless of how incompatible they might be. Fanny’s ruthless social climbing was of the desperate kind that had to derive from real experience of poverty, and her underlying insecurity was always bound to lead to disaster sooner or later. Nemesis was to occur in 1976 when she verbally flayed amateur cook Gwen Troake on BBC’s "The Big Time", an incident that so appalled the public that it effectively finished her television career.

Fanny’s position as the Nation’s most recognised cook was taken by the Gwen Troake-like Delia Smith, an innocuous working-class girl who created the kind of pleasant, unpretentious recipes that met the overwhelming approval of the British public, who still very sensibly confined oral gratification to the margins of their culture. It couldn’t last however, and a combination of the instinctive cultural cringe towards the "food culture" of the Continent, American standards of big-portion gluttony, and the vast loosening of credit standards following "The Big Bang" allowed an entire collection of wide-boy entrepreneurs and metropolitan food-snobs to open ever more exotic restaurants and otherwise dine in them. The end result is a gruesomely disgusting food-fetishism in which a whole slew of vulgar public schoolboys can appear on our televisions flambé-ing veal steaks with arc-welding kits on improvised sets in the open countryside.

The deeper tragedy of course is that the public of the 1970's would have been far more fit to face the austere future we are being promised following the collapse of Neoliberalism. When future generations get to laugh at our decline, you can forget about news reports about George Osborne. It’ll be footage like this that will be the focus of their derision:


Baron d'Ormesan said...

In what way is it sensible to confine "oral gratification" - which presumably means food tasting nice - to the margins of culture?

Phil Knight said...

Well, I don't think that oral gratification strictly relates to "food tasting nice" - I think it relates to a fetishisation of food i.e. the huge amount of broadcasting hours that are now dedicated to it.

A better example is the clip below of The Hairy Bikers creating a "monster" doner kebab. It's a classic case of weirdo celebrity chefs preparing a somewhat grotesque meal under the cover of an under-examined criteria of "quality". It's got nothing to do with "tasting nice" - it's the kind of pure self-indulgence that used to be marginalised.

Honestly, if you think this kind of thing is good, then you ought to tell us why.


Dust said...

This post is a real case of that good old british attitude "somebody is having fun and they ought to be stopped".

I'm no Ramsay fan but that was a fairly straightforward example of food as high culture, not very elaborate but demanding skilled preparation to produce a fairly restrained but no doubt very tasty result. Delia Smith on the other hand is cooking for dummies of the "how to boil water" school, mostly dull and unimaginative stodge.

Why do Brits have such a problem enjoying the obvious things in life like food, why is poor quality lauded as a virtue, why does it all get tangled up in class hatred, snobbery and inverse snobbery, pretentious superiority and pretentious vulgarism?

Phil Knight said...

Well, I think you're missing a certain amount of the tongue-in-cheek element of the post. Funnily enough, in a previous life I was involved in a business lobby group that used to lobby the EU on various regulatory issues. Part of this meant that I was wined and dined in various haute cuisine restaurants on the continent.

I remember one conference where I was "treated" over three nights to meals at three different Michelin-starred restaurants in Bologna. I have to say I thought the whole experience, with its ridiculously exquisitely prepared food, was slightly absurd. Another thing that I noted was how "entertaining" was an important part of the corruption process. It's amazing how obligated you feel towards someone after they've spent a couple of hundred quid feeding you.

Again, I don't think a fetishising of food is simply about a neutral sense of "enjoying" - if that was the case then food generally would be better, and we wouldn't need wall-to-wall TV cheffery at all. I think what we see on TV now does mark a societal shift to a kind of "because I'm worth it" narcissism.