Jamie Oliver’s pukka poverty

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Preston, the Lancashire city with some of the highest rates of unemployment in England. Looking for food on low- and fixed-incomes in Preston is not easy, and the results are less salubrious fare than “25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence” as Jamie Oliver says he wants to “teleport” a poor family to see.

Besides Preston’s covered markets, in which you can buy from a wide selection of fruits, vegetables, South Asian and East Asian ingredients, Caribbean and East African foods, tripe, black pudding, fish and pigs trotters, stands the city centre branch of Iceland. The city center branch is rarely empty, and when I potter round for my usuals, it’s pretty much packed from the checkouts all the way back to the vacuum packed value bacon. Outside the entrance is a circular seating area based around an “inspirational” mosaic which has been hacked, scuffed and ignored from the day it was installed. Chain-smokers and women eating Greggs from the packet sit around watching other Prestonians go about their business. From the seating area outside a pub, men of a certain age consider the world through their pint glasses.

Inside Iceland the world of Jamie Oliver is far from peoples’ minds. A mother and her exuberant bundle of hyperactivity stop-start along the aisles, picking up or putting down the various in-house prepared meals Iceland proudly advertise as being a step above the kind of value meal cost-cutters which were involved in the horse-meat scandal. There are other mother-with-children grouplets all over the store, bagging multi-pack crisps, cartons of £1 orange juice and yoghurts. Everything the man in front of me puts out onto the checkout are in cardboard boxes: a Sunday roast, a pasta-bake type affair with sausages, Yorkshire pudding filled with beef slices. I stock up on pasta meals too, and a pork pie, and Yazoo milkshakes.

Oliver has skirted around the realities of poverty and poor living in Britain, though only with a camera crew or researchers around him. His most often quoted remark this week – concerning the couple eating cheesy chips in front of a “massive fucking television” – is typical of his comfortable ignorance. The poor are predominately proud as a rule, who want to show a brave face and nothing of the feet flicking madly underneath the water. Suggesting the aspirational route – eat pasta! make your own pasta! rustle up some ricotta fritters with tomato sauce! – is only throwing the map down from a very tall height, and that map probably doesn’t show the best route to travel. In the middle are jobs which can’t be found, money which is almost impossible to save, demands from banks and utility services that cannot be ignored, and food which has to be affordable, often for anybody but the person buying it. The low- and fixed- income families who want to show their children that they, like any other family, can sit down in front of a television aren’t trying to put TV over nutrition; it’s wanting to carry on as normal with as little negative judgement from strangers as possible.

Eating pasta with mussles in front of a moderately sized television may well be an option for some on low- and fixed-incomes, Jamie, but not from where I’m looking.

Affordable food is not necessarily healthy food. It can be, and indeed really should be if supermarkets had any morals about them. There are options but they’re shrinking. The price of chicken, once a fairly safe option for cheap stand-by meals, has gone through the roof. Most other meats have seen similar price rises. Fresh fruit and veg, so often packed into bags of 6- or more, cannot always be stored away for long amount of times, and they’re not as cheap as they used to be either. Faced with mounting living costs or the need to visit a foodbank, the low- and fixed income poor can’t count as an option the dozen or so ingredients required to make the “cheap” foods so many middle class TV chefs assume just lie waiting in the pantries and fridges of the nation. I wonder if Oliver knows this, deep down, and refuses to accept it.

There are moments of sense and reason in the Oliver interview, given to promote another of his social-conscience television shows. He is right to point to local markets and more sensible purchases, but has gone about it in the completely wrong way. The little dictator attitude is that of most typical Tories and small-c conservatives, who have provided a generation-and-then-some-long soundtrack of tuts and moans from the sidelines on most subjects under the sun. Education? Not as good as it was for the poor or those Northerners, don’t you know. Jobs? They’ve got no grit, those poor and unemployed folks, that’s the problem, need to bring National Service back, I say!

Let’s not demonise the low- and fixed-income poor. There’s ingenuity with that pride and sense too. It makes good copy to draw attention to cheesy chips and expensive unhealthy options, but that distracts from the real economic hardships facing millions across the country.  Maybe the best recipe for Jamie Oliver is not to brag about 101 solutions to national poverty whilst preparing yourself for another lucrative television programme. Come to Iceland or B&M Bargains without a camera or researcher to watch the reality of those people who can’t just be marched into a market for a swift transformation into people who could pick up dozens of fresh ingredients and all the necessary herbs and spices without denting their weekly budget.  It’s not “poverty” as our grandparents or great-grandparents might have known it, but whatever we’ve got cannot be fixed with theatrical gasps at the sight of a Greggs pastie or Bird’s Eye fish-finger. If you want people to see the Sicilian fishermen with their mussels and pasta, Jamie, you’re going to have to pay….

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welfare state of the nation

Remember the horsemeat scandal? A hurried panictime spread across the news media with more urgency than any usually given to food stories (such as those concerning the world’s population which has no access to regular food, or those nations with an obscene excess of the stuff.) Much to the dismay of Queen of the Gloom Kate Hurley-Burley, nobody died from eating horse DNA, so the heatlamp of scrutiny was slowly dimmed until there was barely a flicker left to read recent stories about dodgy fish. Daily updates from warehouses in Romania to three paragraphs on page twenty, and all because nobody died

In the light of Iain Duncan Smith claiming he could live on £53 a week, and the interconnected April 1 onslaught of welfare changes, the horsemeat scandal comes back to mind. Undercutting the media’s coverage was the inconvenient truth about the types of people who bought frozen ready meals on the cheap. Why do people buy low-cost, big bulk Tesco burgers fleshed out (if that’s the right phrase) with horse, or pile ’em high quid-a-box Lidl lasagna? What are these poor people thinking? Or doing?

Despite the popularity of Great British Menu and Masterchef, the general public are no more able to make confit of duck than they could name Zimbabwe’s highest scoring batsman*.

This is not primarily down to a lack of ingredients in most towns and cities, but their cost. On the now totemic £53 a week figure a Masterchef lunch is out of the question, even within walking/bus distance of the ‘world foods’ aisle at Morrisons. And I did say walk/bus for a reason; there’s a good chance that the economically challenged trying to rustle up something like a good meal every day won’t be able to hop into the car every journey. I should know, I’m one of them.

If you don’t already do so, join me in picking up odds and sods at Iceland every week, with bright £1 and £3 stickers on almost every shelf. Shopping budgets can only stretch so far even here, as IDS would find out if he took up the challenge to reduce his incomings to the bare minimum. It wouldn’t go amiss for David Miliband, able to fly off to a £300,000 job away from his working class constituency, to push his trolley around Iceland or Aldi either, to watch as banknotes become pocket-shrapnel far quicker than you realise. It’s not always possible to store away herbs and spices for future recipes if that week’s budget is taken up on basic ingredients.

The quality of food on a low level budget plunges too, which is both how any why the horsemeat scandal affected families on fixed or battered incomes. The bacon you fancy is far too expensive, that’s why what’s currently sizzling in the pan looks see-through and as though the pig was drowned. Pies are thick with tasteless pastry, chicken inflated with water, pizza barely covered with a shredded substance pretending to be cheese.

General assumptions of modern life are predicated on ideas about earning and spending, rather than saving and making do. It’s the opposite of the post-war generation (and the teaching they received) about the value of money coming in, the depth and breadth of opportunity. I know very well what happens when there’s too much month for the money, having been an office monkey with between 60-75% of my monthly wage taken in bills and private landlord rent. There’s only so often a northerner in a low-paid job can stretch the funds for social events, never mind eating something made from scratch. This is being repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the country, away from the cookbook world and glossy magazine fashion shoots.

How you react to the ready-meal reality of people defines your politics; some will urge people to aim towards better jobs with more pay, others would demand better pay and conditions, or more generous welfare payments. I think our current age is the most politically polarised time for a generation, fuelled by the very opposite of political anger. There has not been an ideology-age since the dual work of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reshaped political parties as lifestyle management companies, and one consequence of all that is the righteous fury on both sides of the spectrum trying to reclaim their relevance. Somewhere away from all this is a group of ordinary people, millions in number, who couldn’t say with much confidence that they, like a Secretary of State of HM’s Government,  would live on £53 a week without any problems. The lifestyle choices you make now may well be formed by the comfort and complacency of your current surroundings. When these are taken away, even the taste of food changes with it.

The bad taste from all this debate, be it flavoured by welfare reform or Union fears, will rest on the tongue of only a small percentage of the population. Whatever term you use, it’s likely that politician’s won’t be part of them.

 

*Andy Flower, I’m told.

Takeway Getaway

Thirty minutes from my house, a ‘hybrid’ takeaway sells kebabs, curries, (halal) pizzas and….BUTTER PIES. If that isn’t multiculturalism in action, what is? Okay, so it’s not high-end restaurant eating but it is an indication all the same. Economic migration into the country has signs of positive consequences across the country, none more so than in food and cuisine. If immigrants can continue to adopt and adapt English traditions like the good-old chippy, then all the better…No?

While “Save the Pub” campaigns enchant local newspaper journos and MPs alike, anything done to keep the Chippy seems not to have taken hold across the population at all. Unless I miss my guess, the traditional chippy has a future far less certain than the local pub. Some chippies within easy wandering distance of my flat have made the slow transformation into varied menus – samosas here, spring rolls there – or regenerations into Chinese, Turkish or Indian takeaways.

Who could be blamed for Chippies falling out of favour? Did they stand still while takeaways blossomed, stores such as Subways took over the High Street, or a general shift in food fashion moved away from the Friday fryers? Can the majority of Chip Shop owners be blamed for standing still while developing tastes moved from the rigid menu of fish, chips and pies?

I have a particularly fond taste for the ‘chippy tea’ of legend. Give me the chips and gravy from a Chinese down the road, gravy smelling slightly of red wine with the texture of emulsion paint. It’s not possible to buy such traditional fast food from an old fashioned chippy here unless I fancy an hour walk into the suburbs, or to wait until an “all night” chippy opens at gone midnight opposite a nightclub. No wonder takeaways and Café Nero and Subway and suchlike blossom if the chippy options become less convenient by the month.

Immigration into the country over generations has influenced and dictated our language, fashion and music. Our tastes have become far more varied and mature since the Britons of my father’s generation got their first taste of post-Empire curries. It could be we are living in an era where the totems of Britishness – the boozer, the chip shop – are turning into something different. Younger drinkers, for example, are less likely to meet up down the local for a few jars while the smoking ban is in place and the corner shop can stretch £20 far further than on-tap beers. The pub as a meeting place still exists, only altered, in transition, and so it seems proven with the fast food and snack markets.

In years to come, then, will the chip shop survive only as English options as an aside to the main curry house menu? Interestingly, certain elements of the old-fashioned menus are finding themselves reinvented by the fancier chefs. More evidence of the slow decline of the chip shop?

For too long, the health “agenda” has been far too dictating, too preachy. Making choices like fish and chips or steak pies or battered sausages was seen as almost a crime against the body. Health “chiefs” – who are they? Like the “community leaders” you hear about? – would decry the deep-fried menus; perhaps the message has actually soaked in, if you will?

All this talk of food is making me hungry. I think it may be best if I choose something quick, cheap, and within walking distance…Tesco it is then….