Bad Food Britain by Joanna Blythman (Fourth Estate, 2006)

Like an alcoholic who can't accept that he or she has a drink problem, Britain is in denial that it has a Bad Food problem. -- Joanna Blythman

Any country with a healthy food culture has a distinct body of ingredients and dishes that can be recognised widely as constituting a national cuisine, but in Britain even the native population has difficulty agreeing on such a definition. -- Joanna Blythman

Brits are only exceeded by Americans for their relationship with bad food, a relationship that all too clearly manifests itself in poor health.

Walk down any high street in England and there is a dearth of good food shops, decent restaurants. Instead we find high street chain eateries serving plastic food, and worst still McVomits serving junk food, out-of-town supermarkets selling cheap food with an illusion of choice.

Brits see food as a necessity of life, not a pleasure. A chore, something akin to filling the car with fuel.

Foreigners in England are highly critical of the bad food and lack of good food. In turn they are criticised by the natives for being foreign.

51% of all savoury snacks and crisps consumed within Europe are consumed within the UK.

1 in 4 households in the UK lack a dining table where the family can sit round and share a meal together.

Brits have lost the ability to cook. Where these skills are still practiced is within immigrant populations.

The closest the average Brit gets to cooking is to watching a celebrity chef on TV. Programmes that are entertainment, nothing to do with conveying the ability to cook, closer to game shows than education, reality TV, dumbing down what we watch.

It is not as though there is a shortage of cookbooks. Cookery books are rarely out of the best seller lists, many column inches are devoted to recipes and cooking and eating in our newspapers, and still Brits cannot cook.

Look in the average supermarket trolley, piled high with rubbish.

I remember 20 years ago when I had a Swedish girlfriend and she used to comment on the rubbish people put in their supermarket baskets. Litte has changed, if anything it has got worse.

Everything is bought on price. Eavesdrop in on a conversation, and the choice of supermarket is based on price, not which supermarket has the best quality food.

Brits eat more ready meals than the rest of Europe combined.

There is a myth that good food takes time to prepare. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. A couple of years ago I used to get invited round by my lovely South African friend Estie for a meal. She'd cook, I'd provide the wine. No matter what she had to hand, it only seemed to take her minutes to knock out a really good meal. Or maybe time stood still, with excellent company, fine food, fine conversation.

I have never understand the English desire to eat a meal as quickly as possible, as though engaged in some distasteful act. For me, a meal it is to be enjoyed, to savour the food and company.

The height of haute cuisine in England is fish n chips, the nation's traditional dish. When in Brighton with my lovely Czech friend Iva, I insisted we ate fish n chips. It's traditional I said, by way of explanation, or was it apology. She could not understand why we would be eating an awful greasy meal. The seafront was lined with fish n chip shops and she insisted we moved elsewhere as the smell was so awful.

It does not have to be. Queen's Market at Upton Park in East London, a traditional East End street market, provides an excellent choice of fresh fruit and vegetables, as does nearby Green Street. A market the local mayor, in collusion with property developer St Modwen, is determined to destroy for a supermarket. Alton, a small market town in Hampshire, still has a quality, independent food shops, in the summer, local fare is celebrated at the Alton Food Festival. But these are little green oasis, the jewels in the crown, in an otherwise food desert.

As I was writing this review I read in a local paper of a woman who was fined for overstaying her welcome in a McDonald's. She had exceeded her alloted time in their car park. No mention of her feeding her offspring junk food, in what amounts to little more than child abuse.

Do the Brits have poor palates, is something wrong with our taste buds, or are we brainwashed by Big Business into consuming bad food?

In Bad Food Britain, Joanna Blythman looks at how we have got into this situation, why our food is so bad. She compares our attitudes to food with that of our continental cousins.

From my own perspective, I was aware of how bad food is in Britain, and yet I was nevertheless shocked on reading Bad Food Britain to realise just how bad it is.

The food industry would argue there is no such thing as bad food, just bad diets. That we are as a nation unhealthy with a growing obesity problem is not down to bad food, but down to the fact that we are a bunch of lazy fat bastards who don't get enough exercise

But as Joanna Blythman shows, not only is there bad food, but the British public are gorging themselves senseless on it.

The solution she says is very simple:

British politicians simply need to get their heads and and tongues around one very clear and unequivocal public health message: Eat as little processed food as possible and base your diet on home-cooked meals, made from scratch from raw ingredients. But no government has the stomach for serving up this truth. It has become an alien message that the British no longer want to hear.

And the government, any government, is too scared to take on Big Food, let alone Big Business.

There are those who would claim there to be a renaissance of good food in Britain, but as Joanna Blythman shows, this is not so.

Highly recommended.

Also worth looking at:

Richard Benson (ed), The Good Food Ride, BMW, 2006

Joanna Blythman, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, Fourth Estate, 2004

Sophie Grigson, The First-time Cook, Collins, 2004

Andrew Kimbrell (ed), Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Island Press, 2002

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, Chronicle Books, 2002

Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label, Penguin, 2004

Markets create twice as many jobs as supermarkets and food is half the price, New Economics Foundation, 22 May 2006

Jamie Oliver, Cook With Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook, Michael Joseph, 2006

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2001

Super Size Me! {DVD}

For my lovely friend Iva who made me think about food.
Books Worth Reading ~ Not on the Label ~ Cook With Jamie
(c) Keith Parkins 2007 -- January 2007 rev 0