It’s difficult to remember a time when Jamie Oliver wasn’t in our lives. It all started with him in our living rooms; cheeks as plump and round as cherry tomatoes as he filled our heads with pancetta and chorizo and olive oil.
Back then, cooking was fun; his enthusiasm was endearing, if mildly irritating. Then he took over our kitchens, cramming our cupboards with his books, his magazines and his branded pots and pans. We queued to eat in his restaurants and we applauded his campaign to improve school meals, but then Jamie, or Saint Jamie as he was known by then, started tinkering around the edges, “reaching out” to people who couldn’t cook, had kitchens with one gas ring and a low-wattage microwave.
These were people who ate frozen sausages, cheap chicken and white bread and Jamie, who had been to Iceland (the shop, not the country) was horrified. Change, not chorizo, became the dish of the day.
And so he tried. Only, his 2008 series Ministry of Food was an experiment that failed. (It may have been a cookery show, but this was cooking with real people, in real kitchens which had no Aga and not a single Gaggia coffee machine.) It made depressing telly, attitudes were entrenched and the budgets of the participants too tightly stretched. These were homes which couldn’t be reached.
Yet, here we are, five years down the line, and poverty porn is the new property porn. Documentaries on “Recession Britain” are all the rage and Jamie – never one to miss an opportunity – is back with a new series aimed at families on a budget.
This week, he’s been telling us all about Jamie’s Money Saving Meals, and as if revisiting the scene of an earlier crime, reminiscing about his brush with Britain’s poor. Apparently, he still finds it difficult to talk about, but has decided to try: “You might remember that scene in Ministry Of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”
Clearly, that image, of an overweight child eating a takeaway in front of the TV, still rankles with Oliver. He thinks laziness, not lack of money, is the main driver for eating badly, citing “expensive” ready meals as the biggest evil known to man.
But the implication is that poor people, in this case the single mother whose house he was in, are not only poor, but feckless. He thinks priorities are topsy-turvy and that you and I may well be paying for that big telly; money which should have been spent on other things. But the notion that low-income families shouldn’t really have TVs or takeaways, is naïve and insulting. People the world over want the same things – stuff we don’t need – only the poorer you are, the bigger the sacrifice.
Oliver’s other unhelpful comment, a claim about Sicilian street cleaners dining like kings on stale bread and spaghetti and “knocking out the most amazing pasta”, was also grossly insensitive. Our relationship with food is more complicated than tossing a few ingredients together. It’ll take time and money to crack it, not a multi-millionaire celebrity chef with a show to promote.
And yet, he does have a point about diet and disease and our unhealthy habits. As a country, we’re badly overweight. In Scotland we’re not only fatter, we’re still far sicker than we ought to be. What we eat and how much we eat, matters.
So Oliver is right to highlight cheap, poor quality food, but he needs to remember that people who are struggling – to pay bills and feed families on modest incomes – may not have the time, the inclination but most of all, the budget, to shop at local markets and fishmongers – even if they had the bus fare to get there. The corner shop, with its £1.99 Findus lasagna, might be the only thing on the menu where you live; fresh may mean fried, when the only other option is the chip shop.
So, if Jamie’s Money Saving Meals addresses some of these issues, along with shrinking incomes, benefit cuts, rocketing food prices and our increasing reliance on food banks, we should all tune in.
Only, he really should lay off the poor and their poor diets. Sometimes, people have limited choices.