I was recently shown a cutting from an Arizona newspaper by a food writer who, having returned from a trip to France, waxed poetic about the experience. Like many of us, he'd been blown away by the quality of food he'd encountered and told us so, in florid prose, for the first 800 words. He then wrapped up by explaining that hopeless, incurably crap food would always remain in his part of the world. It saddened me to see that sort of weak-minded, unthinking dreck coming from an American -- because I'm so used to reading it from English writers.
There are a lot of historical reasons why the English have problems with food. Some blame the industrial revolution, some blame a class system that puts the responsibility for cooking solely into the hands of servants -- these theories are well documented -- but there's something else. There's a powerful strand of middle- and upper-class worship of French cuisine at the expense of English, and it goes back a long way.
The French Cook, a translation of La Varenne's Le Cuisinier François. was a bit of a bestseller in the UK (insofar as a book which could be read by few and afforded by fewer could be considered a bestseller) back in 1653.
In 1747 Hannah Glasse averred that: "If Gentlemen will have French Cooks, they must pay for French Tricks. So much is the blind Folly of this Age, that they would rather be impos'd on by a French Booby, than give Encouragement to a good English Cook!”
Half a century later, Tallyrand was losing his chef -- Careme -- to the Prince Regent, and the British aristocracy were falling over themselves to worship at the feet of any Frenchman in a toque -- and they've never stopped. Things probably reached their most egregious after the war in Elizabeth David's early books, where her breathless worship of everything Mediterranean bordered on the lubricious.
Though St. David is often credited with the regeneration of food appreciation in the UK, the way that she redirected the moneyed classes towards France at the moment the privations of war were over means she could equally well be blamed for keeping English cookery in the dark ages for a further three decades. This is a shame, because by all accounts, by the time she was into her later books, Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen and English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she had matured enough to realize that perhaps all the sun, sea and shagging had turned her head in her early years. She acquired a little historical rigor and began to get really interested in English food. Much to her disgust, of course, it was too late to redirect her myrmidons, who were rushing off, lemming-like, to clog up Provence with their Volvos.
The French, obviously, think their food is the best in the world. It's a fair opinion, but I wonder if, at the peak of their international influence, had the English not agreed with them so very much, that the whole of the English-speaking world might not consider other cuisines just as worthy of attention.
But the idea that French is the ur-cuisine and the only one which matters is just one of the many tired tropes that food writers slide so easily into. It offends me that the French are so unquestioningly worshipped as the best, because the Brits are equally thoughtlessly singled out as the world's worst. Our national attitude towards food has been questionable, but -- for example -- the Dutch, who with a religious predisposition to regard enjoyment of food as actual sin and with almost no culture of dining out or entertaining, are benignly ignored by those who pontificate on culinary matters.
Similarly, though our nation could be characterized as half a dozen foodie hotspots interspersed with a moaning, crud-chewing herd of junk-fuelled semi-morons, one could argue the same for the US and Australia, both regularly praised for their exciting, cutting-edge attitude towards food. Ask any honest Frenchman and he'll tell you how French supermarkets are filling up with packaged rubbish, French farming is going to the dogs and burger bars are despoiling his city. In fact, he'll tell you, it's every bit as easy to eat crap in Paris as in London.
The authentic cuisine of the British Isles has solid, unbroken and documented history as old as the nation itself, and every bit as dignified as the French. If the middle classes hadn't been quite so distracted by the worship of French food, they might well have written about it, instead of allowing recipes to drop off the cultural radar. Now we're starting to rediscover the stews, pies, pasties, cawls, hotpots; the game, the smoked goods, the amazing fish recipes; the superb lamb dishes -- any of which would, in France, have a 'confrerie' founded in its honor, be declared a national treasure and get written up by panting international gourmands. With a bit of luck, our food culture might be extricating itself from generations of neglect and perceived inferiority -- but not unless we can wrestle our concentration back across the Channel and give it a fighting chance.
Now, lest you think I'm just indulging in the olde English sport of baiting the French, let’s drag ourselves back to Arizona. There are several reasons the article pressed my buttons.
First: I’d always assumed that blinkered, romanticized Francophilia was a disease of the English middle class (and, of course, the French), which is why it's shocking to see it trotted out in a country that has no reason, cultural or historical, to bother with it. Second: it's ill-mannered that anyone with a public platform and a desire to communicate about food should attack his own food culture for failing to be French.
But these are minor gripes -- the real problem is much wider. I believe that unthinking reiteration of these tragic old prejudices damages the interests of anyone who loves food.
When I was at art college, I was probably over-influenced by critics like John Berger and Peter Fuller. They argued that what was regarded as "art" in the West fitted into a tradition shaped by imperialist expansion and that the acquisition and collecting habits of the wealthy -- basically, western art starts with the Greeks, and passes through the Italian renaissance and the Dutch masters because Victorian gentlemen nicked or looted so much of it to populate their museums and stately homes. This didn't mean, as some people have interpreted it, that everything from Fra Lippo Lippi to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was unmitigated crap, but it did mean that in order to understand art, it was important to understand its historical and cultural context. Articles that parrot the same old nonsense about French cooking without context show that appreciation of food and cooking today is as developed as art history was in about 1890 -- ill-informed and elitist, and a poor reflection of the intellect of its perpetrators.
Writing that French food is great, that English food is unremittingly awful -- or even that Phoenix lacks decent chefs -- is easy, but without an understanding of the web of national, cultural and class preconceptions behind it, the statement is pointless. Food -- to me -- is one of the most important creative outlets available to human beings. It will never be taken as seriously as it deserves -- as seriously as art, literature or music -- as long as our appreciation of it remains intellectually naive. Maybe the ability to write a pleasant thousand-word, adjective-laden piece on why French food is simply lovely is the very definition of a food writer. I believe firmly to the contrary. In 2006, it displays a complete lack of objective taste, zero knowledge of food history and an almost criminal ignorance of a wider world of food appreciation.
Tim Hayward is a freelance writer living in London, and former host of the UK forum. He publishes the newsletter Fire & Knives. Photo by the author.