Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Rich Bloke Bewildered by the Poor

Jamie Oliver has attracted criticism for bemoaning the tendency of the British poor to spend their money on big TVs rather than fresh produce. The remarks were made while promoting his new TV show, so they can be dismissed as Clarksonesque provocation for the purposes of publicity, but the words of the mockney meal-merchant are interesting nonetheless, though more for their style than their substance (not unlike some of his dishes).

The cherubic chef paints a picture: "You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV. It just didn't weigh up". Leaving aside the jarring use of "weigh" rather than "add", which I'll assume is some sort of cook's demotic, the fact that his source for this anecdata is his own TV show, which will have selected that particular emblematic shot with care, means that his critique is akin to Hitler citing Mein Kampf as a source for his evidence of the evil of the Jews. When you further consider that to benefit from his new series, Jamie's Money Saving Meals, the paups will need access to a TV, then he is either a hypocrite or appalled simply by the size of their choice - a "massive fucking" set, as opposed to a more modest one suitable to their circumstances (though drizzled olive oil looks so much better in high definition). Many of his target audience (this is a no-holds-barred interview with The Radio Times) will be shocked/thrilled by the gratuitous swearing. Personally, I'm struck by the symbolism of Styrofoam: evil petrochemical products and a contempt for crockery.

He continues: "I meet people who say, 'You don't understand what it's like.' I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We've missed out on that in Britain, somehow". Try buying that list of ingredients for 60p in Sainsbury's (who paid him over a million a year during his advertising stint with them), and you'll start to appreciate why his bafflement is misguided. What caught my eye is the desire to "teleport" these random peeps. What's wrong with just "transporting" them? The teleporter implies a fleeting visit, rather than the full cultural immersion of a month-long villa holiday. You may look, but you may not touch.

To be fair to the geezer, Oliver has more recently been a critic of supermarkets (having finished the Sainsbury's gig) and an advocate for local markets, which are cheaper, but he remains inside a middle-class bubble if he thinks that this is a viable alternative for most people. He also ignores the reality that "buying on the day" is itself characteristic either of a time-rich lifestyle or the recent spread of (relatively expensive) convenience stores. "If you're going past a market, you can just grab 10 mange tout for dinner that night, and you don't waste anything". Why only 10 mange tout? That's hardly a meal for a family of five. The reality envisaged by the Essex chubster is a young professional popping into a Sainsbury's Local on the way home from work to pick up something "fresh".

A more profound explanation for the poor diet of the British working class over the last two centuries is industrialisation, both in terms of the constraints on access to fresh food in cities and the application of industrial practices and commoditisation to agriculture. In this historic context, those nasty big supermarkets actually helped improve the quality and variety of food over the last 50 years, though that in turn was dependent on the introduction of affordable fridges and freezers. Buying on the day was a necessity when you couldn't store perishable food, and was only possible because so many women were housewives and singletons still lived with their parents. White goods freed up women to work, and the demands of work led to the development of the weekly shop and the big store.

In contrast, Italy and Spain remain more rural today because they had more limited and later industrial development, though crap food is now plentiful in urban areas (breakfasting on Nutella and Lipton's tea is not uncommon). The irony is that the vibrant culinary tradition of the Mediterranean is a legacy of rural poverty. The salient point about the Sicilian street cleaner is not their exquisite taste, but that they only have 60p to spend on a meal. Similarly, the long-standing British fondness for fast food is the legacy of urban poverty and limited choice. Long before Styrofoam blighted our lives, we were indulging our love of carbs, fat and protein with fish and chips and pie and mash.

The different attitude and circumstances of the poor in Britain and Italy should be enough to suggest that sweeping judgements are dangerous, and that environment plays a larger part than individual moral worth, but Oliver's unthinking comments have been catnip to the media during the dog days, a time when journos are still rhapsodising over that wonderful rustic pizzeria they chanced upon in Emilia Romagna. The subtext is not merely that the British poor are feckless and make bad decisions, but that they lack taste, unlike the cultured poor of Italy, presumably. The implication is that the massive TV is tuned to sport or The X Factor rather than BBC4 or The Great British Bake Off, and has probably been paid for with benefits. Meanwhile, the poor of Italy hand-roll their pasta as they watch one of Berlusconi's tit-and-bum shows on an ageing black and white box. So charming, so authentic. Just like a D&G advert.

And finally: "The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods". I have no idea where the stat comes from, but it is obviously nonsense. The "most expensive way" to feed your family would be to take them to a restaurant, or buy Duchy Originals in Waitrose, not buy frozen pizzas in Iceland. The reality for many is the "reduced to clear" shelf at the supermarket and the growing number of foodbanks. When you're poor, you eat what you can get, and you prioritise the filling and "tasty" over the nutritious.

Oliver is not merely indulging in victim-blaming, he is stereotyping the poor, both in Britain and in Italy, on the basis of dubious anecdotes. Just as not every Sicilian knows how to cook, so not every British pauper has a massive TV and a total ignorance of the value of polenta. I suspect the target demographic for the new show may not be the poor but the smug.

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