25 October 2012

Pretty badly

In this week’s New Statesman comes more saddening evidence that foodists have trouble understanding any text longer than a menu or a recipe. Self-confessed foodist William Skidelsky’s review of my book, You Aren’t What You Eat, takes the rather courageous tack of actually denying that foodism is culturally omnipresent:

Modern-day Britain doesn’t strike me as a country obsessed by food.

What? Really?

A fast-growing minority of people, it’s true, take cooking and eating extremely seriously, perhaps to the point of overkill. Yet what this group has to do with the millions who tune into Gordon Ramsay’s or Jamie Oliver’s latest TV show, I don’t know.

Um, they are both obsessed with food?

It is not long before Skidelsky performs for our pleasure the sorrowful moralistic bigotry of the postmodern glutton, wringing his hands at what the uneducated masses actually scoff:

The truth is that the large majority of people still eat pretty badly and don’t spend enough of their lives thinking about food (by actually cooking the stuff).

He was obviously unmoved by the discussion in my book of the unexamined snobbery and faddism bound up in complaints about how “badly” the proles eat. If you are happy for Mr Skidelsky to tell you what you should be spending your life thinking about, you are probably a foodist too.

But hang on, what is a foodist? Skidelsky doesn’t understand:

Poole gives his argument a spurious coherence by bringing together all sorts of disparate groups under the ‘foodist’ banner. Yet do those obsessed by losing weight really have much in common with those concerned by the ethics of eating, as he suggests?

Actually, I don’t suggest this, because nowhere in the entire book do I say anything at all about “those obsessed by losing weight”. Next!

And are the hordes who attend MasterChef Live, a mega-food exhibition in London’s Olympia, really ‘foodists’ in the same sense as those who frequent Michelin three-starred restaurants?

Well, yes they are, in the sense that they are all obsessed with food. (Is this really so difficult to understand?)

At length, like a conjuror unveiling a sawn-in-half woman, Skidelsky presents what he calls “the single most powerful objection” to my book’s “thesis”, an objection that I allegedly “avoid”. Pray tell, what is this puissant objection?

For all that may be annoying about the ‘foodists’ (whoever they are), it remains the case that, thanks to them and their ilk, the quality of food available in Britain (or at least in parts of it) has improved dramatically in the past few decades […] If the cost of this progress is having to put up with a certain amount of pretentiousness, that doesn’t seem such a terrible sacrifice.

Ah, the good old “But British food is so much better now!” objection, or rather pseudo-objection. I can only regretfully assume that, in Skidelsky’s copy of my book, some pages were glued together, so that he missed what I wrote on page 69:

We can surely be happy that in our day olive oil is no longer sold exclusively in chemists and labelled ‘for external use’, as it was in the 1950s, and that all kinds of other scrumptious things are now available. But the tempo of foodist faddism has become ridiculous…

So rather than avoiding this objection, I actually acknowledge that food in Britain is indeed better than it was decades ago; but this obviously isn’t any kind of justification for the absurd pan-media fetishization of food that has colonized not only Britain but Europe, Northern America and Australia too.

Skidelsky concludes:

Poole evidently wouldn’t care if the clock were turned back to that golden time when, free of the obligation to think about food, we all scoffed corned beef and feasted on great philosophical insights.

I quite like corned beef myself, but I must point out that nowhere in my book do I suggest for a moment that anyone should stop eating whatever they find most delicious. On the contrary, it is foodists like Skidelsky himself who are all too interested in preventing other people from eating what they fancy. Chacun à son goût — in food as in literature too.