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Why all the fuss? - Ray Connolly

Blog | By Ray Connolly | Mar 25, 2024

A good meal spoiled: I blame Fanny and Johnnie Cradock

From smart restaurants to burger bars, they’re all at it, pouring poncy sauces on strange creations. Ray Connolly longs for meat and two veg

What do Robespierre, the late Duke of Westminster and I have in common? Probably not much, other than that none of us ever liked fancy food.

Robespierre sent hundreds of French aristocrats to the guillotine while reportedly living on a bowl of gruel a day. The Duke of Westminster, despite his billions, never wanted much more than an omelette in the evening. And me? I was a war baby, and a war baby’s tastes were and are mine. Plain is best.

But if I go out to eat, where will I find anything plain these days? The restaurant world is flooded with funny foods. There I sit, balefully studying the menu, searching for something I recognise. Yet whenever my eyes alight on a dish I fancy, I find that it comes with some kind of alien sauce.

I hate sauces. Sauces are disguises created by self-aggrandising establishments to hide what they are serving and we are eating. I like to see, and know, what I’m eating.

What, for instance, is ‘taïnori chocolate with hazelnut voatsiperifery pepper’? Foodies might know that taïnori chocolate comes from the Dominican Republic, and that voatsiperifery is a relative of black pepper, its berries being used in a spice, its name coming from voa, the Malagasy word for fruit.

But I didn’t. And, to be honest, it doesn’t sound much like a dessert of chocolate mousse with a hazelnut on top that I could safely eat – because I hate anything peppery. If I ate it, I’d need a Gaviscon on the side.

The blessed time was when I could go into a restaurant and ask for meat and two veg – and get meat and two veg. Simple and perfect. These days, we’ve elevated cooks with big hats into chefs and made them as famous as footballers. They are all superstars now, gastronomic maestros, forever outdoing each other with their condiments and seasonings until we have no idea what we’re eating.

Even burger bars are at it, with their garnishings of ketchup or brown sauce, cemented together with cheese and onions and who knows what else, when all I want is a plain burger in a bun.

It wouldn’t be so bad if fancy food hadn’t become a status symbol, but now it is often served in the most humble of homes. There I go, looking forward to a good natter with my old mates, when a plate of what looks like something unmentionable in polite society appears before me.

What should I do? Insult my dearest friends, ruin everyone’s evening and risk killing our friendship by refusing to eat whatever it is? Or groan, rub my tummy, claim a sudden attack of diverticulitis and say, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but…’? I haven’t the nerve. So I close my eyes, open my mouth and pray to God that the meal doesn’t taste as horrible as it looks.

I blame foreign holidays, Fanny Cradock and her husband, Johnnie, back in the fifties. She might only have been showing us how to make an omelette, but that hand on her whisk was bewitching. If just a sprinkling of parsley or thyme could completely change the taste of egg and cheese, what could a pinch of cayenne do to a Welsh rarebit?

She and Johnnie became stars, and television discovered the cheapest way to mesmerise the nation: cookery programmes.

No evening on BBC1 is now complete without a hold-your-breath, anxious, phoney wait at the end of a knockout competition to find out which of the tearful, trembling contestants has baked the best pie.

Baked a pie! Humans have been baking pies since they learned how to light a fire. It’s hardly a new achievement. But The Great British Bake Off now has millions of fans, some still mooning over the lovely Nadiya, while others wonder why Mary Berry left the show. Who needs soap operas when we have bake-offs?

We might have thought lockdown would have returned us to old-fashioned home cooking. But what chance does tradition have when commercials bring floods of custard and orgies of eating … all available, with a few keyboard clicks, from a takeaway?

There they go, night and day, food couriers on motorbikes, zipping past our house with their varied cargoes of curried, vegan, vegetarian, organic, ethically sourced pizzas, pastas and stir-fried everything.

Come on, it’s only food – the stuff that every living organism shovels into itself on a daily basis in order to survive. But, in its ever more diversified forms, it’s become a national obsession. And I just don’t get it.

How did funny-tasting food ever get so exalted? How did exotic eating become so fashionable? And how do restaurant critics manage to write a thousand words a week without repeating themselves?

Ray Connolly is author of Being John Lennon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)