A Sassenach Soliloquy

Friday, September 10

Food matters

Flicking through the paper today I came across a couple of articles about food, and they reminded me how much I'm looking forward to cooking in my own flat again. Although, obviously, I cooked in Verona, I only had two hobs and the variety of produce available in Italy is not good, even if the quality is excellent. A good greengrocer and fishmonger near to my future home in Edinburgh, and a proper kitchen, will go a long way to making me happy.

I've asked my parents why they insist on buying supermarket food, and, like most, they trot out the convenience argument. Then, reading those articles today, I was reminded how difficult it can be in this country to be serious about food. Friends call me fussy when I'm prepared to criticise a restaurant; others call me a food snob when I say I can't cook anything decent if you buy all your 'fresh' ingredients from the supermarket. The only conclusions I can draw from this is that most people really can't taste the difference (Sorry for nicking your phrase Sainsbury's; what's worse is that I usually can taste the difference, and your stuff normally fares worse).

But an individual is, obviously, free not to take their food seriously if they wish. What angers me is the abuse one gets for doing so: 'pretentious', 'fussy', 'ponce', 'snob', just to pick a few. This is wrong. If a Spaniard, say, (and I'm deliberately not picking France or Italy - where food is taken even more seriously - for this example) were to approach the fishmonger in their local supermarket with a question, they'd walk out if fishmonger couldn't answer. But here on our island we choose not to demand proper food but instead packaging that tells us what's good. And rather than expecting proper service we bashfully accept some spotty A-level student who doesn't know what cleaning a fish actually is, let alone how you do it. But what's worse is that trying to buck that trend results in abuse: don't rock the boat Thom, we're customers and you'll upset the restauranteurs. The logic is backwards.

These thoughts chipped away in my mind, and began to echo something I was ranting to friends about recently: we - the British - don't value intelectuallism. We prefer our pragmatic common sense and trusting our instincts. This certainly has its merits - it's a major reason why we've never been swamped by isms - but need it come at the expense of ideas? Articulate informed rants are normally greeted with "In your opinion", swiftly followed by that great excuse for intellectual laziness: "Everybody's entitled to their opinion". But it's not good enough to just sit on your 'opinions'. C'mon, I think: tell me why I'm wrong. Unfortunately trying to raise the level of conversation will, in most circles, result in derisory calls of 'pretentious' or, maybe, 'ponce'. Sound familiar?

Does this refusal to engage with depth in the most important facets of human life - food, drink (that food paragraph could easily have been written about wine too), ideas - go further? Politics? Possibly, and if so we have a chilling view of where that leads: in the US politics today personality is, nakedly, a far more important quality than a coherent ideological vision. Many here think we're increasingly going down that road too. Yet an electorate that chooses not to engage seriously with the subject matter but instead to trust its instincts gets the politicians it deserves; similarly a populace that chooses not to take food seriously gets the diet it deserves; and a society that spurns intellectualism gets the base media it deserves. Thus increasingly, and with regret, I wonder if here - Great Britain - is not my natural home. Edinburgh may be my last hurrah.


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