Cooking for one, as the last few years have taught me, is not a great deal of fun. For starters it’s nearly impossible to cook the right portion if you require, say, ‘some aubergine’ and some things, like roasted butternut squash or any large cuts of meat, aren’t really scaleable. Of course it’s perfectly possible to eat a lovely, nutritious and varied diet for one and there are some advantages (never having to hold back on the chilli, being able to eat burger sauce on toast for tea if you really want) but when I was cooking for just myself, an indulgence felt more like a guilty binge than a luscious meal.
Cookery shows have clocked this- the presence of either a pseudo (or literal) restuarant setup on chef shows or the implication that there’s a family or friends ready to drop by and eat everything on cook shows, coupled with semi- magazine programs like Saturday Kitchen and the inevitable interaction between chef and audience (Nigella is cooking for you) gives a sense of performance to the creation that mitigates the gluttonous aspect.
But what if, like me, you seek the gluttonous aspect? I don’t watch cookery shows as a technical manual or as a form of self-flagellation that my dresses are not nearly so swishy and my hair not nearly so neat as yr latest ladycook magazine special, I watch them because I want to see some pleasant things to put in my mouth. I’m an average-to-decent cook and not all that bothered about being let in on the fannydangly secrets of Jamie Oliver’s fish pie but (especially as my partner isn’t all that interested in food) I am certainly looking for other openly drooling chums.
I don’t mean the pseudo-drooling of Gizzi et al on Cook Yourself Thin- although I’ll post more about that later, it really is the wheatgrass virgin margherita of “gluttony” and I don’t mean pretty presentation or awe of particular restaurants or showmanship, I mean proper, full-on, all-out wanton nomming.
The places this works best without descending into pornography or the (admitedly, beautiful and pheremone-stimulating) schoolboy leaping around of Valentine Warner is with a double act. The Two Fat Ladies famously perfected the chemistry of indulgence- perhaps the austere surroundings and unfussy presentation, combined with a pacing that makes today’s effects-and-cut-scenes cookery shows look even more parodically frenetic offset the (theoretically, unpalatable to audiences) sight of two extremely overweight, often rather visibly pissed ladies making enormous plates of food.
Watching through clips the other weekend, I was utterly mesmerised by watching Jennifer Paterson insist to me that the only proper thing to do was to knock myself up a quick Lobster Thermidor if I heard that nuns were coming to visit. It embedded in my psychology to the extent I found myself checking the price of fresh lobster in the supermarket, even though I have an almost pathological fear of exoskeletons and the idea of carrying a live crustacean back from Sainsbury’s is now giving me mild palpitations.
That’s the secret to it, though, The insane indulgence of discussing how marvellous lobster is is the sort of thing which, were a chef like Messr. Oliver saying it to me directly, I’d be really incensed by; “fuck off, Jamie,” I’d be saying, “do you know I was standing in Tesco trying to work out what form of mackerel was most cost-efficient the other week? Where the hell am I going to get a lobster, you monstrous ponce?” Yet if two (quite posh) ladies discuss it in front of me my feeble psychology says that if TWO people know about it it must be ok.
That way mentalism lies, if you don’t realise that lobster is perhaps unnecessary but the double-act as a fear queller, a reassurance when trying new things or contemplating whether you should actually eat deep-fried lard is a great enabler. Some peer pressure, of course- until I saw the Hairy Bikers making scallops on black pudding the other week I’d never contemplated ordering some of the frisky little buggers but two days later I was trying to work out how much freezer space I’d have to clear to get in a kilo of blobby white shellfish.
I’m very fond of shows by solo chefs; Nigella’s idiosyncracies have never bothered me, I can tolerate Jamie Oliver up to the point where he starts discussing his own conception with his mum and dad (a recipe I am none too enthusiastic to reproduce) and I even liked Sophie Dahl. There’s nothing, though, quite like the double-act’s ability to bounce off each other.
Ready Steady Cook was a formative part of ,my childhood and the banter (for it is not a dirty word in and of itself0 between the chefs was a big part of that. The acidic familiarity of competitors is nothing in comparison to the peer-to-peer encouragement of two genuine chums, though. Si King and Dave Myers differ from Jennifer and Clarissa in that they knew each other before they were introduced for telly and also that they knew telly (and film) before they were on it. They’re generally less pissed, too, which may explain the slightly faster pacing of their programmes.
The similarities, beyond the superficial predilection for two-wheeled transport are in the Hairy Bikers & Two Fat Ladies’ lack of self-consciousness. They are delivering the food to you but not selling you themselves or their lifestyle. I love both dearly and indeed (as much of the female population) would quite gladly go for a pillion spin with Si King but as much as I’d very much like to try all the food they eat, I’d never expect a lifestyle piece on how to live like a cross-country-biking cook.
There’s an underlying fallacy in cookery programming, which is that day-in-day-out it cooks you delicious, rich, indulgent food and then shows you a thin person eating it as a treat. That’s not really how it works; my principle to never trust a skinny chef would probably mean I ought to disregard my own cookery in the eyes of many but nevertheless, it has to be taken with several hefty doses of saline detox solution that Gizzi Erskine eats everything she cooks. There is not a way to eat yourself thin (at least, not that thin) and bar some massively dangerous thyroid disorders, there’s a direct correlation between eating nice food all the time and getting quite fat. Doesn’t matter if it’s salmon with steamed peas and scattered, boiled rice or lardy pigroast; if you eat enough of it (and if you’re cooking lots of it all the time and don’t own a restaurant, you probably will) you won’t look like Kate Moss at the end of it.
That’s all well and good- I’d rather look like I can cook more than a Flambee Marlborough Light than have Pete Doherty on my dating profile but then where the hell are all the fat people on cooking telly? Jamie Oliver flew off the handle in a recent TV interview where he was asked about his weight gain, when he’s supposed to be a healthy chef. In frustration, he called the interviewer a bitch and pointed out that if you cook and eat and taste things all day, you are going to put on some weight no matter how healthy they are; it’s a rare emoton for me but I could have hugged him. Yes, of course you fucking are because gluttony doesn’t just take effect if what you’re eating is death-by-chocolate pie topped with fudge cheese, it’s what happens when you… how you say; ‘like your food.’
Many people of all shapes and sizes like their food but I have seen very few people on television who look like the chefs I know. Maybe working at a culinary arts school has warped my brain on the topic but Nigella would be considered rather athletic round my way. I am extremely pro-healthy eating and inclined to feel rather ill at the thought of Man Vs Food (where gluttony is repurposed from innocent hedonism to a drill-sergeant’s perversity) but I would also like to eat all of the things just to see how they taste.
Maybe it’s massive projection (isn’t that what television is for, though) but I feel a similar underlying philosophy to tv’s cooking bikers- the permissive intimacy of having a chum along means that the cookery becomes less about performance and more about conspiracy. The fact they’re nominally cooking for each other makes the sight of fat people eating palatable to television executives and their unpretentious, off-brand cookery appealing to the viewer.
There’s no fussing; a glutton is not a connoisseur or reviewer, the preserve is raw enthusiasm and willingness to try things rather than snobbishly discarding anything. Affection is key to this and there’s no doubt that a friendly atmosphere breeds it. Possibly it’s just the lunacy of a woman with a freezer full of bacon and an appointment with a box of wine talking but I am enormously fond of this uncompetitive, non-performance cookery and am very glad to see it sustained (by ten series and 47 books a year, yet I can’t possibly resent the Bikers) even as most top-rating shows amp up sports-type tension.
It’s about lovely food, let it be lovely.