With provenance to guide us

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Something Tikka Masala

Another week, another we’re-not-eating-quite-what-we-thought-we-were story. This time, it’s the news that 24 of 60 takeaway meals sampled by Which? contained meat other than the advertised lamb.

Of these, twelve included cheaper meats in addition to lamb; seven contained no lamb whatsoever; and five had been so heavily processed that the scientists were unable to identify what meat(s) they contained. In other words, we can decipher the human genome, but not the doner kebab.

Granted, none of this is very pleasant. It’s undoubtedly fraudulent. Depending on what the mystery meat turns out to be, it could be stomach-turning. (The Mail, with characteristic restraint, took the discovery of the “UNIDENTIFIED” meat as its cue to ask, “Is there rat in your kebab?”)

But is it surprising? Hardly.

As long as there are humans, there will be fraud. And while we tend to think of fraud in purely financial terms, it occurs in relation to any tradeable commodity, from fine art to fishcakes. As such, every government devotes resources to combating it.

But not every form of fraud is pursued with equal vigour, or with equal success. Tax fraud might cost the UK 16 times as much as benefit fraud, but you’d hardly know it from reading the papers or listening to Government ministers. And food fraud, no matter that it has existed for as long as food trading, barely enters our consciousness until a particular scandal happens to capture the attention of the media and the public.

The inevitable consequence of such a scandal is that we get terribly worked up about one particular symptom, with no great attention paid to the others (let alone their causes). Such was the backlash to last year’s revelations, it’s unlikely we’ll find much horse in our burgers for the foreseeable future. But that’s no indication that the fraudsters have gone straight. And as public investment in food safety analysis continues to be cut, we’d be impossibly naïve to imagine that the situation is destined to improve.

But then, we are impossibly naïve; and what’s more, it suits us to remain that way, because our chief expectations around food are fundamentally incompatible.

We expect to take pleasure from the food we eat; but at the same time, we expect to pay as little as possible for the privilege. And achieving both of those things at once depends to a great extent on the questions we choose not to ask, and the truths we don’t much care to think about.

When we eat a £1.99 portion of fried chicken and chips, it doesn’t suit us to consider the conditions in which the birds lived, or the drugs with which they were pumped in order to survive them. Deep down, we might have a fair idea of the grim reality; but at the moment of consumption, the truth would impinge unacceptably on the pleasure.

So it is with our “lamb” curry. We choose to believe it’s full of good-quality diced lamb, of the kind we see in our local butcher’s or supermarket – though when we compare the price of fresh lamb with that of the curry, it’s hard to see where the takeaway is making its money. But anyway, the meat looks like lamb – though admittedly it’s taken on the colour of its surroundings – and even though its flavour is overwhelmed by the curry spices, we’re still reasonably certain it tastes like lamb. But as a few of the Guardian’s writers recently discovered, our palates and expectations frequently conspire to hoodwink us. And so the opportunities for substitution and dishonesty are far greater than we’d care to admit.

What allows us consistently to enjoy the cheap food we eat is the same thing that lets us engage with a far-fetched book or film: our capacity to suspend disbelief. Our empathy with the heroic space warrior, taking down alien after alien with his trusty plasma gun, is contingent on our suppressing what we know perfectly well: that the entire scenario is utterly implausible.

This suspension of disbelief doesn’t only apply to the ethics of the fried chicken meal or the authenticity of the lamb curry; it applies to every aspect of food processing, from farm, to factory, to retailer, to restaurant. Every time our food passes through a different pair of hands, another opportunity arises for fraud, adulteration or corner-cutting to take place. And at every stage, we take great pains not to think about it.

Even when the “fraud” is entirely inconsequential, we choose to pretend it doesn’t happen, then become indignant when confronted with the reality. Anything that compromises our fantasy of what goes on in a professional kitchen – for instance, the common and harmless practice of food being prepared off-site and heated up on the premises – is sufficient to provoke our largely directionless outrage.

This is ludicrous. Face it: everyone involved in your food’s journey from origin to plate needs to make a living, legitimately or otherwise. And the more steps this journey involves, the more people need to get paid. Even if the final product seems remarkably cheap, they all have to make their money somehow. So the only way you’ll make actual rather than perceived savings, while reassuring yourself that nothing untoward has gone on, is by taking the various jobs on yourself.

The trouble is, not many of us are in a position to grow our own vegetables, catch our own fish, raise our own animals or even cook all of our own meals. So what are the alternatives?

At one extreme, we have the option of saying “sod it”. Buy whatever’s cheap and tasty, and simply accept the fact that we could be eating almost anything. To a large extent, this is what most of us do already; but when we do, we should at least have the balls to admit it, and not get affronted when we find out that our 3am kebab might contain something other than prime lamb.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can go all out to establish the provenance of our food – if we have the time and money. The simplest way to do this is to go organic: not particularly because of any inherent superiority, but because organic producers are required to submit to a regime of scrutiny, testing and animal welfare that goes way beyond any Government-imposed standards. (Tacitly, we appear to believe organic food to be more trustworthy, judging by the way we feed our children: organic produce accounts for only around 2% of overall UK food and drink sales, but the figure for baby food is a startling 54%.)

Between these two extremes, of course, there’s a substantial middle ground: it isn’t a straight choice between doing everything or nothing.

The more we cook for ourselves using fresh, unprocessed (or, at least, less processed) ingredients, the less risk we run of eating something unsafe or unexpected. The broader the range of foods we learn to cook, the better placed we are to eat with the seasons, enjoying ingredients when they’re plentiful and inexpensive (ironically enough, lamb is cheap as chips at the moment…).

The more we learn to use up spare or leftover food creatively, the less food and money we waste, allowing us to spend the savings on better quality ingredients.

And the more pressure we put on our politicians to invest in food testing and supply chain monitoring, the more chance we have of actually finding lamb in our lamb curry.

 

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Why I won’t be entering the Nigel Slater food photo competition

What are you going to cook tonight?

Working out the answer to this question is one of the things I look forward to each day, whether I’m planning to shop for the ingredients (I don’t yet know what, of course), improvise a meal from what’s already in my fridge and cupboards, or some combination of the two.

What I’m assuredly not going to do is go shopping for a prescribed combination of ingredients, assemble them to somebody else’s specification, then take a photograph of the results and send it to a national paper on the off-chance of winning a cookbook.

But plenty of people are, courtesy of this competition from the Guardian. Cook your favourite Nigel Slater dish, send in your photo, and you might just win a signed copy of his new book.

Looking purely at the ratio of required effort to potential rewards, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket (and I’m not going to do that either).

But this competition has next to nothing to do with what the entrants might win, and almost everything to do with the kudos of seeing their “creations” appearing in the pages of the Guardian, Observer Food Monthly or wherever.

It’s designed to appeal to the people who habitually photograph their meals and post the pictures on Facebook or Instagram, most probably accompanied by the caption “NOM NOM!”.

The fundamental pointlessness of this is generally well understood, at least by the silent majority who don’t do it. I suppose it’s just about forgivable – apart from the “nom nom” bit, obviously – if you’re posting a snap of a meal you’ve created yourself, perhaps accompanied by some insight into how you made it.

But when the height of your ambition is dutiful emulation, the act of photographing your dinner reaches a new level of ridiculousness. Undertake a household task, take a photo of the results and send it off into the ether. You might as well post a picture of your completed washing up.

In fact, I think I will.

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(My washing up. Today.)

Or, if replication is now perceived as an art form in itself, why not have a competition to find the reader who can produce the most accurate reproduction of the Mona Lisa? It would be utterly futile, of course. But is it really that much dafter than the contest they’re running at the moment?

None of this is intended as a dig at Nigel Slater himself. I like his writing, and I’ve no idea whether he had anything to do with devising this spectacularly silly competition. But what it represents – a perfect storm of obedience and vanity – sums up the flawed relationship we’ve developed with food and cooking.

Years of watching cookery programmes on telly – and, in particular, shows such as Masterchef or The Great British Bake-Off, where cooking meets reality TV – have fundamentally affected our perceptions and priorities.

It’s an inevitable consequence of a visual medium: we can’t taste the food that the chefs or contestants produce, so we become obsessed with its appearance. Even where actual sampling is involved, we can never be the ones to do it, so the analysis of the food becomes secondary to what we can see; except perhaps when things go hideously wrong, and Gregg Wallace and friends get the enjoyable opportunity to dust off some of their more colourful figures of speech. In other words, what food programming isn’t about, and arguably can never be about, is the most important thing of all: the taste.

And yet, rather than allow our own palates, judgements and preferences to guide us, we persist in trying to replicate other people’s creations, whether we’ve Sky-plussed them from the TV or, more likely, read them from a cookbook, newspaper or website. We’ve never tasted these people’s cooking, and we never will; yet we follow them nonetheless, in what amounts to an act of blind faith. And if the end result fails to inspire, we don’t question the merits of the recipe; instead, we presume we must have done something wrong, and vow to do a better copying job the next time. As behaviours go, it’s bizarre to the point of masochistic.

Add to this the many other factors that militate against a recipe-driven approach to cooking – the drudgery, the inherent deference, the potential for wastefulness – and the arguments for an alternative methodology become compelling.

Elsewhere in the Guardian’s pages, you can read the work of a different kind of food writer: the newly ubiquitous Jack Monroe, whose rapid journey from impoverished single mother to successful blogger and Labour Party campaigner has earned her the coveted accolade of being smeared by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. (I can’t bring myself to link to the odious Littlejohn’s original piece, but Monroe’s eloquently indignant riposte is well worth a read.)

Her articles include recipes, naturally – newspaper food editors aren’t ready to let go of that particular comfort blanket just yet – but they also explore more interesting and relevant issues around resourcefulness, inventiveness and cost. In short, she writes about a subject that’s long since gone out of fashion, but remains as relevant as it has ever been: home economics.

While the term itself isn’t exactly alluring, taking your lead from home economics doesn’t mean that cooking becomes boring: quite the reverse. Even if you’re relatively well off, there’s immense satisfaction to be gained from finding value, making use of what you have, avoiding waste and turning the proverbial sow’s ear into an equally proverbial silk purse. And as with any creative process, the act of invention can bring enormous pleasure in itself.

The end results may or may not be worth photographing. That doesn’t matter – and anyway, you don’t want your dinner to go cold while you’re getting that perfect shot. What matters is that the food is nourishing, satisfying and tasty.

Mind you, if the Guardian were to run an alternative competition, inviting readers to photograph and describe the best meals they’ve ever made for a quid a head, that would be a hell of a lot more interesting, and infinitely more meaningful.

In fact, I might even enter it myself.