Friday, 30 July 2010

MasterChef, Stein, Foodies and the idea of quality food

If we set up a food taste scale, with one being soil and 100 being manna, a terrible custard might rank as taste 10; inedible as it tastes like dog sick and has mould on it.  An average custard would rank at 65, a work a day custard, custard is delicious anyway. A great custard would rank at 75, slightly more delicious, but only a slight difference from the average custard. Foodie-ism is the incredible bourgeois obsession with the minute taste differences between these slightly different variations of custard.  

Custard A has been made using rinsed Andalusian cream, this custard tastes mildly bland.  Custard B has been made with slightly too much Dominican sugar syrup,  this custard is middlingly plain. Custard C has exactly the right ingredients, in the right combination and quantities, for this particular custard loving judge's entirely subjective taste receptors. The judge is thus able to judge that C is definitely the best custard and, because his entirely subjective senses are thought of as being better at judging the taste of custard than yours or mine, we go along with his decision. 

Sometimes the judge's knowledge is so respected that he gets to bring out his own range of eggy custard tarts.  We eat the over priced tarts with the knowledge that they contain custard sanctioned by a nationally televised custard expert, and feel superior to the other plebeian tart eaters in that they don't have the custard knowledge that we have attained, by proxy, through imbibing the products endorsed, but not made by, the said expert.

Stein - Cold dead eyes
The king of these fuckers is Rick Stein.  A man with barely a sliver of humanity floating on a ocean of vacuity. You can tell Rick Stein is a monster by looking closely at his eyes.  Whenever he stops patronising people with his random inconsequential musings there is a kind of barely concealed anger that begins to creep its way in to his blank face.  An anger and a sadness.  He's constantly on the verge of being short with people.  Telling them what's what, setting the world to rights. Of course he is also famous for getting demonstratively angry at the standard of British cooking; over and over and over again. Episode after episode. Lionising "authentic peasant food" and belittling the lack of British "flair and imagination".  All we need is "authentic British ingredients, simply cooked".

I've got news for Stein and every other patronising cook that considers themselves to be a serious gastronomic ethnographer and an arbiter of British tastes. It's only fucking food.  It functions as a symbol of good taste only because people like you set apart the "good" and "bad", the "quality" and the "trash" with meaningless ad hoc associations.  "Hilariously" prawn cocktail (snigger) and black forest gateaux (snort) were the height of middle class taste in 1977, but we know better now.  Those foodstuffs were eaten by people who didn't understand food the way we do in the sophisticated 21st century.  The best food to eat is obviously LBISC (local British ingredients, simply cooked). 

MasterChef takes the concept of infinitesimally small differences between "good" and "bad" food to it's logical conclusion.  Hundreds and hundreds of slight variations on the same glossy, cloying ingredients, presented to elicit the deliberately pointed responses of two fat faced nobodies, one of whom only got the job because he can distinguish between different types of vegetables. After a while every plate looks the same.  But the opinions of the experts are always consistent in their banality.

Jonty Road: Her tart was delicious, the filling was perfect but the crust didn't have enough salt in it.  
Veg expert: That's the second time she's left an ingredient out that, in my opinion, should be in a meal. She's out of the competition.  

How much difference did that salt make?  We buy into the myth of gastronomic perfection.  That there exists somewhere an uber-tart. The tart that all other tarts that are created have to be measured against. But such a tart doesn't exist.  All tarts are measured against each other on a subjective internal bank of tart memories.  MasterChef is essentially a program about what Veg Man and Jonty Road like eating. It should be called Line Up to Please the Randomly Chosen Men that have something to do with Food.

Keith Floyd had the right idea. Show people a place, show them how to cook a food item, tell them it's easy to do and to enjoy it, eating the food with some delicious wine. End of story.  What's not good is patronisingly lecturing people on what they should be eating, constantly harking back to a non existent British peasant food culture and obsessing about what the average family (for average family read the working classes) cooks for their tea. Chicken nuggets exist and people really really like eating them, it may make you feel slightly queasy, but do you know what? Hard shit.  No matter how many times you call chicken nuggets tasteless cardboard processed rubbish, it won't change the fact that their popularity kind of proves that they taste nice and lots of people prefer eating them to food that you consider to be more worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent essay, sir. I must admit to having never watched a competitive cooking show and now I know I haven't missed much.

    "It's only fucking food" indeed.


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