I write this piece with a little trepidation: I am about to utter remarks that might be deemed highly critical of a national institution. Delia Smith is part of the dictionary, part of the annual TV schedules and, if a brief trawl of internet book chatrooms is anything to go by, someone whose fanbase is pathologically loyal. And yet, no-one who really cares about food rates her, although chefs and food writers who should know better seem prepared to endorse her (Nigel Slater, of all people, made a guest appearance on a recent ‘How to Cheat’ show and even Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, prepared as he is to take on the might of the supermarkets and the poultry industry, looked rather scared when Richard Madeley recently attempted to goad him into criticising Smith on live TV).
In one sense, I can understand Whittingstall’s reluctance. Delia is terrifying. Not only are her fans rather militant, but her recipes are often, especially these days, highly alarming (Aunt Bessie’s potatoes in your chocolate muffin anyone?). Her style of delivery is famously leaden, her TV manner so very Shaun of the Dead. But why, given the hostile reviews she generates (see The Guardian & The Telegraph for recent examples) does she end up dominating the bestseller lists?
Is it precisely because she has nothing passionate, creative or inspiring to say about food? With Delia we can forget all about air freight, food miles, the exploitation of farm labourers in this country and elsewhere. We can forget about misery meat and battery farming. We can forget about the skill and perseverence, enjoyment and experimentation involved in learning to cook. On Planet Delia, we do not let our consciences (or indeed our intellectual faculties, or even our tastebuds) bother us at all. Instead, as she outlines in the introduction to her book, we simply follow her commandments (she calls her prescriptions ‘a way forward’ (p.7)).
‘To begin with you have to rid yourself of prejudices which sometimes are… myths… or a form of snobbery’ (‘Life from the Freezer’). ‘Have to?’ Apparently what those who don’t cook for lack of time or due to lack of confidence simply need to get over is their desire to eat fresh food, in favour of a diet of ‘measured portions’ of frozen basmati rice, ‘frozen, ready-cooked chickpeas,’ and ‘ready-diced [frozen] onions’. This will mean, apparently, that we need only do ‘some smart shopping–probably once a month.’ Am I alone in finding this Delian Brave New World terrifying? Don’t bother with the remaining small-scale local greengrocers and butchers who struggle on in the face of Tescodification–let them rot and close down whilst the supermarkets take care of your every whim. And remember to shop around folks; don’t just stick to Sainsbury’s–try Tesco AND Asda AND M&S as well (the recipes in How to Cheat generally involve buying a brand from a named supermarket).
Of course, you could argue that it’s better to visit the supermarkets less, and that this will help cut greenhouse gas emissions as shoppers stop using their cars as often. However, any gains of this kind must surely be offset by the fact that Delia proposes we spend our cash on expensive ‘value-added’ products that are produced using God knows how much energy (what does the ‘blast-freezing’ process she mentions entail, exactly?) and made from products flown from Thailand, Kenya or elsewhere: ‘Now ingredients grown in Thailand are available deep-frozen in the UK’ (see? not the slightest tremor of conscience in that last sentence, was there?). These are also products which swell the coffers of the supermarkets. As Joanna Blythman points out in her excellent Shopped: The Shocking Power of the Supermarkets, supermarkets don’t want to sell us fresh fruit and veg (low profit margins). Instead they are ever more greedy for us to buy ‘value added’ goods: ready meals, as we know, and, as Delia is currently to promoting with some zeal, as many other types of processed food as they possibly can. Tins (tinned lamb, Delia?), bottles (expensive passatas, pestos etc) and frozen chopped veg. Of course, not only are these value-added items better for supermarket profit-margins, these products also perpetuate their own popularity. The more people use them, the fewer people will learn to use a knife to chop onions, or will think about animal welfare (it’s easier not to worry about the beef in your spag bol if it comes in a tin), or will learn any kind of culinary independence. Therefore, the more people will need to buy these things. The upshot being that, instead of Delia fostering the desire in her audience to eat fresh food, grow their own and not use Tescos and their ilk, she simply reassures us that it’s OK to sleepwalk into a future of absolute dependence on supermarkets.
But of course, this should not surprise us. How to Cheat crowns the career of someone whose first book, in 1971, was called…How to Cheat at Cooking. If Delia is in so many ways a happy food colonialist*, and, as such, the enemy of the eco-warrior, she is at least adept at a certain amount of judicious recycling.
*Part of the introduction to her latest book is entitled ‘Hidden Servants’, in which she tells us ‘there are a million and one servants around the world beavering away, preparing quality foods designed to help us around the home.’ I can’t be alone in finding this statement staggeringly offensive.
N.B. All references are to How to Cheat, 2008.