I have been in England for a few days now, and I love it so far. I have had some lovely food here, including a glorious selection of cheese with Marmite, a hearty lamb roast washed down with Adnam’s real ale, and some delicious home-cooked meals by Laura’s mum. I am quickly developing an infatuation with the parsnip, a potato-carrot hybrid root vegetable I’d only heard of in fairy tales.
While I have been eating quite well, the exploratory, exuberant, grossly unethical bon vivant lifestyle I enjoyed in Japan and the United States has briefly been put on hiatus, mostly due to the lack of income (and, surprisingly, the lack of time) that tends to ensue from unemployment. However, I caught a string of British cooking shows the other night that let me vicariously indulge in British food culture for a few hours. I must say I was thrilled. There seemed to be four main themes that dominated them: simplicity, rusticity, locality, and celebrity. It may be a silly comparison, but I couldn’t help but think of these themes as quite in line with trends and ideals that inform Japanese food culture.
The first show I watched was Jamie at Home, starring the UK’s favorite culinary cutie pie, Jamie Oliver. American foodies know Jamie as the sleepy-eyed, lazily charismatic host of The Naked Chef, a misleadingly titled, fairly short-lived, and very good show that aired on the Food Network some years ago. While Jamie’s slacker-savant image and vernacular recipes failed to find a loyal audience in the States, he has apparently become one of the most popular and influential celebrity chefs in the UK. Always a champion for simplicity and freshness, Jamie has become a patron saint of Slow Food, and he has recently led successful or semi-successful movements (televised, of course) against unhealthy school lunches and the factory farming of chickens. Jamie at Home is his latest TV manifesto, in which he cooks uncomplicated but damn tasty food with ingredients he grows in his own backyard garden. No, not garden; mini-farm is more like it. To accompany the show, Jamie’s got a book of the same name; it goes a bit beyond your average, garden-variety cookbook by providing actual gardening tips.
I think Jamie’s convictions, which are quite strong, are easy to swallow because they come bundled in disarming charm and sincerity. However, he’s gone a bit Gordon Ramsay with his latest series, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, which features a more angry and profane Jamie on a Pay It Forward-style crusade against ludicrously unhealthy eating habits. Ministry of Food has a lot of faults – major faults, in my opinion – but nevertheless, it is an honest effort to encourage Britain to eat more healthy and natural food, just like all of Jamie’s shows.
Speaking of Gordon Ramsay, he is clearly England’s biggest culinary rock star. With an inspiring backstory, obvious talent, and a certain celebrity panache that falls somewhere between Emeril Lagasse and Russell Crowe, it’s no wonder Gordon’s fissured countenance is all over TV, not to mention billboards, book jackets, tabloids, and fine china. Americans know him as a heavily-bleeped, hot-headed slavedriver – the head chef of Hell’s Kitchen – but in England this is only part of his persona. He can also be a sympathetic, wise guardian angel figure or an affable man-about-town, hawking gin and schmoozing with the likes of Cat Deeley and Ricky Gervais. Oh, and he can be an exemplar of Slow Food, too: in one very special episode of The F Word, Gordon assisted with the slaughter of a pair of sheep he himself had raised. (“Shepherd’s pie is the last thing on my fucking mind right now,” remarked a disturbed Gordon as he looked on.) While Gordon doesn’t usually make his ethics as overt as Jamie does, I thought the sheep slaughter was a cool bit of consciousness-raising in the middle of an otherwise fairly vapid hour of entertainment – something I wish American celebrity chefs would do more often.
While Ramsay’s ordeal with the sheep was perhaps far more primal an experience than both he and his viewers are accustomed to, it may have been somewhat less disquieting to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Hugh’s latest show, River Cottage Road Trip, followed the chef across southern Scotland as he hunted and gathered meals for himself as well as thirty dinner guests. I had never heard of Hugh before, but I found his show really unique and exciting. In the course of the half-hour episode, Hugh hunted, gutted, and roasted a teal over an open campfire; then he plucked damsons off trees and made them into cheesecake and liquor; then he made and enjoyed a meal of haggis and oatcakes; and finally, he caught a bunch of trout (well, he tried to, anyway) and cooked them up over an open flame for thirty hungry diners at a festival.
It was a very cool show, one that celebrated regional eccentricity, seasonal ingredients, and unbridled Britishness. Two of the three main ingredients on the show were things I’ve never heard of (teal and damsons), and you’d probably be hard-pressed to find many people outside the UK who have heard of them. The show is somewhat vain and self-indulgent in the same way Michael Pollan’s “hunting and gathering” excursions in The Omnivore’s Dilemma are, but nonetheless, I was inspired by Hugh’s exuberance as he venerated the land, the food, and the people of Great Britain.
I understand that in the past decade or so, the UK has undergone a sort of quiet culinary revolution; the old jibe that English food is terrible is quickly passing from cliche to lie. Since I started writing this, two weeks have swiftly passed, and in that time I’ve been able to try a lot more British food and get a slightly better grasp on the culture behind it. So far, it seems that Jamie’s simplicity, Gordon’s celebrity, and Hugh’s zeal for local vagaries are all things that British cooks and diners seem to hold in esteem; homey, made-in-England foods like fish and chips and bangers and mash remain national favorites even in the age of curry, while brand-name products and famous local specialties like Cornish pasties seem to be almost as highly fetishized as they are in Japan (or maybe that’s just me).
It’s only been two weeks, but I can tell I’m going to enjoy eating my way through the British isles in the months and years to come.