A Point of View: A feast for the soul

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Child eating a meal

A good meal satisfies more than just our hunger, says Joan Bakewell in A Point of View.

How are you with gadgets? I have a sense that many of us addicted to the ingenuity of human inventiveness have squirreled away, in the backs of cupboards and undusted corners, a whole army of gadgets we no longer use.

It may even be we no longer remember what they were for. But they cower there, unloved but not quite abandoned, awaiting some eventual house removal or the piratical raid of a car boot sale.

And yet sometimes, fortuitously thrown into disarray by the unexpected, we find we can bring these ghostly implements from their living death and bestow purpose and a fleeting value to their arcane use. So it is with me and winter and food - a combination of opportunity and expectation that challenges us to ever more bizarre originality.

I have, at last, found a use for my butter wizard. This oblong box - some 4ins by 6ins - sits on its own plastic tray set on four round chrome feet and the whole thing plugs into the electricity. In this way it keeps butter at exactly the right temperature for daily spreading: summer cool and something short of liquefaction. With snow deep outside, soft and malleable, how did I ever live without it?

But then I once lived without many things. Significantly at Christmas, many of them were food. I grew up without knowledge of avocados, aubergines, garlic, croissants Danish Pastries, smoked salmon, anchovies, olives, innumerable pastas, inexhaustible types of rice, crazily abundant versions of coffee.

"So much more than a drink," the ads say, suggesting coffee brings in its wake friendship, romance, career opportunities, mental health and world economic prosperity.

Image caption,
Nothing represents the commodification of consumption better than bottled water

"Coffee, the workers friend," the promotion continues. But no it's not. Coffee is a drink: that is exactly what it is. It is a commodity traded on the world market because it is a flavour that makes a drink; and it is as a drink that it has become popular enough to drive up world prices and play a big part in world markets. But, let's face it, if you were really thirsty, water would do just as well.

But then water, too, has been commodified. When I was filming in Buxton years ago I was suitably impressed by the bottling plant that produces Buxton natural mineral water, the genuine unadulterated thing flowing underground through the limestone rocks of Derbyshire.

I was even more impressed by the sight, on that same weekend morning, of people arriving in hatchbacks loaded with empty plastic cartons to a small fountain in the town centre. These they stacked on to the pavement at the foot of the natural spring and then proceeded to fill them with the same spring water, as they are entitled to do, entirely for free. It was odd to observe the two transactions running in tandem, one commercial and one free and neither intruding, as far as I could see, on the other.

There was something incongruous about it. It put me in mind of the time on a beach in India fringed with palm leaf huts when children came flocking to beg for pens from the few tourists who had strayed this far from the regular holiday tracks. We stopped to talk with them: yes, they were learning to read; yes, they were studying Roman and Greek myths; yes, we liked India and sometimes bought some of its beautiful objects.

One boy, gangly and eager, eyed me cannily. Then he bent down to the sand, selected a fine round pebble that lay at my feet and held it out to me: "One rupee!" he asked. Commerce had entered his soul. By now he's probably something big in Tata Steel.

At Christmas, food has been commodified almost out of existence. I blame photography. It now manages to transform food into a sublime version of the real stuff: "Juicy," headlines the sumptuous menu at my railway table, and within are pictured gorgeous offerings of lasagne, Panini and chicken korma glistening with delectability. When it comes - it's just food.

I worked for an advertising agency in the 1950s - it was Mad Men time - and was sent along to a food shoot, given a jar of olive oil and a paint brush and told to paint a plateful of chips with the oil to make each one glisten before the camera. In the process of course, I rendered the chips entirely inedible.

Likewise, the trick of using scoops of mashed potatoes as stand-ins for ice cream which would, after all, melt under the studio lights. Such trickery was acceptable at the time. Real food lost in the act of promotion.

Christmas faces us with a collision of foodiness: prompting in me the truculent thought that it is, after all, only food. It is nourishment. It is also an excuse for conviviality.

But it is only food, destined in its time - around 24 hours or so - to go down the drain. Everything else that has been added to it - all the great variety of indulgences from fancy recipes, ornate restaurants, and a plethora of cook books by television chefs making millionaires of their authors - all of it is a fantastical construct of western luxury.

Image caption,
Would you pay £1,000 for a Christmas pudding?

And how do they do it? How are generations of cooks and chefs able to conjure yet more variations on the world's available edibles?

My 60s paperbacks by Elizabeth David capture the moment when Mediterranean flavours first arrived in Britain. She quotes a celebrated and challenging recipe for game beginning: "You will require a male hare with red fur, killed if possible in mountainous country." Genuine peasant food, no doubt not exactly accessible on High Street UK.

Since then the search for ever more recondite or simply wackier recipes has grown. Sometimes I can feel the limits being reached now there is a porridge-flavoured ice cream, and crisps flavoured to taste of seafood and spices and even Greek kebab. I have read menus offering ostrich steaks and chocolate coated insects. The sheer variety has grown further with the rise of vegetarianism, once the mocked domain of the nut cutlet, now the source of yet more ingenious mixes and matches.

Can there be a finite end to different things to eat and ways of cooking? Given the new economic climate and the trend towards austerity, I foresee a revival of wartime books with their suet puddings, Lord Woolton Pie and dried egg.

My own contribution to the list would be a recipe for turkey giblet soup, culled years ago from an article by Clement Freud in a colour magazine supplement and kept for decades, ever more frayed and stained but brought out each year as a family staple. The trick is that so many people don't want their turkey giblets that a generous butcher will collect them for you and hand them over for free.

And so we come to the Christmas pudding. This year's food story - like Delia's cranberries and Nigella's goose fat. It is Heston Blumenthal's Hidden Orange Christmas pudding, originally selling for £13.99 but ending up in its sealed box for sale on ebay for anything from £40 to £500 even for £1,000 for charity. I understand a whole orange suitably infused is baked inside the pudding. Heston Blumenthal is said to have 600 dishes in development.

But the point about eating is beyond food.

Meals taken round a table with family or friends have elements of ritual, and tradition that serve to reinforce bonds and loyalties. It isn't by accident that the shared Jewish meal on the eve of Shabat brings together faith and family over food and prayer. The central sacrament of the Christian faith has at its heart the taking of bread and wine. American Thanksgiving, with its own attendant feasts, renews the sense of nationhood around the family table.

It is the table itself - the groaning board that brings different generations together and is the best meeting place for ancient friendships and new acquaintance.

In houses and hotels, palaces and farmsteads, in tents and yurts, in hostels and care homes, on liners and yachts, in igloos and palm huts people come together for food. The moment they do, they are taking time out - from work, from endeavour, from hunting or trading, from learning or teaching, from making money, from spending money to enjoy one of the most primitive rituals known to man - the shared meal.

Our chefs and cooks, our restaurants and hostelries ply us with mountains of delights conjured by their skill into ever more improbable tastes. Food writers and critics entice us into ever higher expectations. But beneath this cornucopia of abundance lies a profound and simple human urge - and one we can hardly avoid - to share and enjoy together the best that we have.