Book Review: “You Aren’t What You Eat” Stephen Poole

by Jan

YOUARENTWHATYOUEAT_300dpiRemember when you just cooked a meal and ate it? If there was a special occasion you referred to a cookbook. For something really special you could get some ideas from one of a huge number of TV cook shows, or one of Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks for example.

Currently, some TV cooks take beautiful ingredients and turn them into snobbery, fads and platforms for these cooks’ own self-aggrandisement and peddling of a plethora of products.

This, in turn, has kept people ignorant of actual cooking, created a problem of perspective and this has become almost a pathology. This is the premise of Stephen Poole’s book. To quote AA Gill:  “It’s now all lifestyle, soft porn and pouty personality”.

From his book it is very easy to extrapolate a few types:

The cooking gadgeteer – must have every mechanical device seen in the glossy mags, TV shows and websites. The gadget is hardly ever used, but promoted from the back of the cupboard to the bench top at Xmas time.

The food intolerant person [this includes eating disorders] –goes through every menu item with the waiter to find out exactly what’s in everything. They could have phoned the restaurant beforehand [but not in the middle of service] to find out if there are residual crumbs of nuts in the béchamel sauce, and think about how busy the kitchen staff might be. The rest of the table are embarrassed and trying to ignore it all.

The photographer [or artist] – a knife and fork are not quite enough; one must use a camera and get in the waiter’s way while snapping a work of art. The fact that they’re a damn nuisance just doesn’t occur to them. Plates now are just too mundane to serve food on. Boards and slates are de rigueur, and must be foamed, squirted at or dribbled on. Then upload the photo to the blog.  Oh, and it’s good if the dishes have sound effects from nature played while they’re being eaten.

The chef as gardener – this also includes foraging and locavorism which is similar to 19th century gleaning. It’s basically picking weeds and edible plants from the wild, preferably close to home, and putting two leaves on a large slate.

The chef as food historian – this person mostly cooks for pubs and turns old fashioned working class food into posh food for three times the price.

The food prognosticator – this brilliant person knows how to scrutinise a crystal ball and divine what items will be “on trend” next. For 2013, they are Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Peruvian, artisanal goods, food trucks, children’s food for adults, casualization of menus and more share plates. The implication seems to be that if you’re not consuming these foods, you’re a dag.

The foodie adventurer [similar to the party animal] – these are people who default to hamburgers, steak, fish or schnitty and chips. They want to try something new because they love Bali, and everything is so different there. It’s like being in a foreign country without the plane ride. Can be uncomfortable, though, especially when there’s no air-con. And it can be a bit confusing about what sort of meat is in the curry.

What about the chefs and food writers? It’s their job to keep one step ahead of the class, just like school teachers, offering a new TV series, live shows, books, apps and other trends and gizmos. Luckily, this can be quite fun. For example, in the television series The Trip, fashion and menu euphemisms were sent up deservedly- froth, foams and drizzles are part of the culinary zeitgeist. Also, Cleaver Greene started an episode of Rake sending up something pretentious on a menu.

It seems that Stephen Poole, the writer, might have overreached himself. He sometimes dismisses, over simplifies and sneers at all these chefs, consumers and their activities and beliefs. It could be inferred that he feels a bit threatened by someone who can differentiate between a chermoula and a harissa. Or knows in what season peaches ripen.

He implies that Nigella Lawson is almost a gastro porn star, with sexual body language and double entendre. Her vampish performance may be irritating or enticing, but she does understand that the point of food is eating. And not so much art, photography, eating disorders, neuroses, or eco-war.

Poole tries hard to slap off Jamie Oliver, saying that it must be hard for him to keep going on the treadmill of novelty. If the two favourite dishes in Britain are roast chicken and curry, then Oliver combined the two and made Empire roast chicken. Poole wrote this off as gimmickry, whereas it could be viewed as a creative idea, and easy to cook.

Oliver’s school food program is inspiring and would be seen as eminently sensible to most reasonable people.  It’s relevant, popular, important, and implies that parents need to take some responsibility for their kids’ health.

Further on this theme, Michael Pollen’s famous quote is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.  Later in his book, Poole has a sneer at Pollen’s suggestion that people should know where their food comes from and respect it. He seems to imply that being familiar with soil, gardening and the cultivation of vegetables is “foodist rhetoric”, and a tree-hugging hippy fixation.

He does not denigrate vegetarians, for example, but he does denigrate those who make ethical choices which are based on spurious marketing claims rather than substantial ones.  For example, Nigella’s “Meadow on a plate” is pushing credibility a bit.

Poole dismisses antipathy to GM foods, overlooking the undesirable and excessively litigious behaviour of some of its corporate producers.

He oversimplifies locavorism which is related to foraging. It makes sense to eat food produced near home, due to cheaper transport costs, and less fuel pollution. But one needs to consider the side effect that buying vegetables from an African village may just give those villagers the boost they need in self-sufficiency.

Does it really matter if 60 years ago the Soil Association had members who were Fascists? Does it mean they espouse fascist views today? Probably not.

I suspect most people are going to believe the opinions of an experienced soil biologist about how to assess the health of soil, than a chef or a misanthropic food writer.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fergus Henderson seem to do the right thing by the environment and show respect for its products. But Poole still manages to discount their aims with some sort of sneering qualification.

The reader could be forgiven for thinking that Poole is sore about something. Some chefs can do their best for the product, the diner, the environment, and the cookery profession, but it’s still not quite good enough for Poole. I suggest he does a bit of homework; some deeper understanding generally cuts down the urge to sneer.

However, I agree with his desire to puncture pretence, snobbery and narcissistic consumerism. This is a job long overdue; he twists the knife dextrously, and to great satisfaction.