Can’t Cook? Watch TV!

Cameron Borland on cookery programmes

First published January 2001

Well, Maureen Lipman (for one) may be aghast at the proliferation of TV chefs and cooking shows that currently populate our screens but – hey – I’ve never forgiven her for the painfulness that was Agony, so who the hell is she to pontificate on television programming? There’s surely nothing worse a grand dame/big cheese/utter twat (delete as appropriate) of the entertainment industry patronising and condescending the unwashed masses with their “I know best mentality”.

Coming from a part of the country (Glasgow) with one of the worst health records – if not the worst – in the developed world, these programmes are not merely schedule fillers or pandering to the lowest common denominator, but vehicles for the greater good. The rash of cooking related shows on our screens are powerful tools to educate (or should that be “educate, educate, educate”?) and inform those members of society for whom the daily staple diet consists of Big Macs. It ill behooves anyone to look down and frown at this part of the schedule.

Make no mistake, there is – as well as an underclass struggling to make ends meet on money that is below the poverty line – a generation of kids out there who have never ventured beyond this Big Mac ethos. That is not only frightening but a telling indictment of society today. For the chattering classes to disregard this strand of programming is nothing short of yahoo ignorance.

As families in this part of the world evolve into third generation unemployed, the dietary habits remain unaltered accordingly. My better half on first arriving in Glasgow was astonished to see both frozen pizzas and Mars Bars being deep fried – that is the entrenched level of shocking dietary habits that exists here. The Chewin’ the Fat sketch in which the cod French commentator intones “voici le mince!” is, sadly, indicative of the West of Scotland. Our national dish is not haggis but the deep fried Mars Bar – in batter.

Therefore, when Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook takes hold of the public imagination I feel a sense of hope. The format maybe simplistic, formulaic and lacking imagination but it shows the disenfranchised and the underclass that cooking can not only be fun, but healthy too. This show’s inherent ability to take a handful of ingredients and, in 20 minutes, create a dish of quality and distinction is inspirational. Furthermore, the raison d’ĂȘtre behind its sister programme Ready, Steady, Cook is actually to create a meal that is not only enjoyable but – and this is crucial – inexpensive. Forget the egos and the flamboyant overacting, fundamentally both shows have the power to change for the better.

Jamie, Ainsley and Brian may be self serving egotistic fops but they all undeniably have a passion for food and a sense of inquisitiveness that is beautifully conveyed to the viewer. Moreover, the viewer is never patronised or disregarded but always included – sometimes conspiratorially, sometimes jocularly. These three guys may inherently dig the cult of personality but always their passion for food and cooking remains a constant.

Ignore the bitch wars breaking out amongst the cookerati (what is the collective term for a bunch of chefs?), as long as Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook et al exist, then there is room enough for everyone no matter what the seemingly menopausal Delia has to say about it. We’ve came a long way from the class ridden subtexts of Fanny and Johnny and the wait has been worth it.

Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay in particular deserve specific praise. Rick for his love of seafood and his championing of this cause, Gordon for clearly submersing himself in pursuit of his art and being so obviously and joyously consumed by it. The current Rick Stein journeys around Britain and Ireland are wonderful slices of television. With his laid back, laconic manner Rick is the perfect individual to espouse the cause of seafood. His recipes are always true to the local produce and related with calm assurance to the viewer. It’s programmes like this that impact upon the public consciousness and cause people to make a detour to their local fishmongers and seek out fresh scallops. Enough of Rick though – that’s another review!

Delia may have been received mixed response from the critics for her last series but, once again, it served a useful purpose. It may be glib to poke fun at the Blessed Delia showing the proper way to boil an egg but never underestimate the number of people out there for whom this was a worthwhile and educational experience.

That’s not to say that the current slew of shows is without fault. Nigella Lawson in particular fills me with dread. The sooner someone pricks her self-obsessed bubble the better. How to be a domestic goddess? How to be a pompous prat more like. If Fanny Craddock and Hughie Green ever had an illicit liaison then Nigella is surely the result of this horrific tryst.

If people can watch TV chefs learn from them and improve the quality of their eating habits, then all is not lost. When the likes of Lipman berate shows such as those mentioned previously, then read between the lines and ask yourself why. Do we really want to return to Fanny, the upper class dominatrix, scolding us for having ideas above our station?

Forget parliament, the real class war is raging in the television kitchen!