Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Delia Smith's new book

Delia Smith (aka St Delia) is a classic cooking icon in Britain. Her book (or tome!) 'Delia's Complete Cookery Course' is on the kitchen shelves of many friends and relatives, and generations have relied on her cooking series and cook books. She was the one to go to when one wants to find out how to make shortcrust pastry, roast a turkey, poach a fish or make a white bechamel sauce.

But I think I have become slightly disillusioned after watching her new TV series last night. I wasn't sure I wanted to watch it initially. I recently flipped through her new book, 'Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking' and was frankly rather taken aback at her approach and slightly disturbed at her recommendations of buying ready chopped onions, instant mash and the like. There have already been some controversial reviews in the papers, most of which echo my initial thoughts (from The Times and The Guardian).

After watching about half of last night's episode (I didn't want to watch any more), I was less than impressed and more importantly far from inspired. Watching her pour out ingredients after ingredients from tins, bags and packages was... frankly rather depressing. I believe that celebrity chefs should inspire us through what they do (whether it's their restaurant cooking, books or television appearances, to inspire us to cook/eat/shop better and think about food in new and interesting ways. And during a time when there is increasing concern about carbon footprints, food miles, food waste and excessive packaging, isn't it going backwards to be recommending buying basic ingredients that come prepared and packaged in tins and bags and trays and plastic? Whatever happened to just buying onions and potatoes and even mince meat? I might have recoiled slightly from the telly when she brandished that tin of prepared lamb mince for a shepherd's pie.

I understand that part of the objective is to make people cook more at home rather than just going for takeways. It is also aimed at those who are new to cooking or just afraid of the kitchen. But surely there are better ways to achieve that. It truly is not that difficult to rustle up a good meal with simple, fresh ingredients. Nigel Slater (check out 'Nigel Slater's Real Food' or 'Real Fast Food') and Jamie Oliver (e.g. 'Jamie's Dinner') are great examples of no-nonsense chefs who focus on quick, wholesome and simple cooking with great results. I am certainly not adverse to using oven chips, frozen peas, store-bought pastry, curry sauces and the like, but her book and series seem to be championing ready-prepared food too heavily for my taste.

She said in an earlier interview that she simply cooks and doesn't do politics. But as such a public figure, I think it is naive and rather myopic not to consider the kind of impact and message that she sends out with her cooking recommendations.

Check out her new book if you wish. It might give you some ideas and sections might be useful. But it is not for me.


Pixie said...

Good on you Nil for writing this entry. Personally, it's not for me either! Have responded to your topic in forum.

mycookinghut said...

I am totally against her ideas and I read some of the controversial reviews in the papers (not in detailed though).
I think it would be a waste of money to buy her book. There are many more good chefs out there! :)

delightt said...

Interesting. I think I chanced upon the NYT review of this person's "new" cooking style. I'm in two minds about it, and you've captured them both.

Definitely more discerning home-cooks would eschew processed foods for fresh, and like you and your commenters have said, it's not for those of us who are privileged enough to have to time and energy to spare in the kitchen.

But if the show is targetted towards those who regularly eat out (and alone) because they have no time, and who are afraid of cooking because they deem it "too much work" or "scary", then definitely some conversion-based tactics are helpful. I don't have many facts to back this up, but I do think that there are way more people who eat out and overly processed foods (TV dinners, etc) than those of us who bother to prepare our meals from scratch.

I actually think that this "cheat" thing is probably a good thing.

Environmental concerns is a different thing altogether. I think if people are aware of it, they will already try to lessen their impact on the environment. Definitely she could put in a few words (at the end of every show) about the environment, being such an icon.

But then again, I believe that 80% of any population is stupid, so any small step that helps people out would be good. It's probably also because I'm biased - J and I tend to stock up on frozen vegs because we don't have the luxury of heading out to get cheap freshies that frequently.

My 2 cents are quite large here, sorry.. :P

Nilmandra said...

Pixie: Got to stick your neck out sometimes, I suppose :)

My cooking hut: To each his/her own. It's just not for me.

Delightt: Your 2 cents is worth a lot! Not bad for your first comment in here too. I guess being verbose is an occupational hazard ;)

Frozen veg actually retains a lot of its vitamins and nutrients so they're not bad. And I know what you mean about it getting people into the kitchen at least, which is a good thing. Many of her 'cheats' just go a bit too far though, IMO and bring out my inner food snob, heh.

amy said...

This is so interesting to me. My British husband posted about this on our blog today as well. We didn't see the show since we're in the US, but he read about all the backlash and I can see why he's so fuming mad. He grew up with Delia (as I'm sure so did you). He always identified her with using local ingredients and cooking from freaking scratch! Using processed s&it in recipes is one of the most two-faced, selling out thing she could do. It's as if she's just faking this for the money or something? In the US now, we've got TOO, too many of these annoying TV 'cooks' who try to show us how to do everything quick and easy. And every one of these people use some processed stuff in their 'recipes'. it bothers me so much.

And in response to delightt, I just feel sad that her comments represent the thoughts of too many people nowadays. If you have enough time to regularly eat out, how do not have time to put together a healthy, simple (NON PROCESSED) meal? I don't think one is 'privileged' to have the time/energy to spend a half hour cooking a meal a few times a week. There are too many idiots out there who are teaching the people who don't feel like cooking from scratch how to do short-cuts. It's the brilliant, original cooks that are few and far-betweek nowadays and it's sad.

I also heard Delia used a freaking bag of mashed potatoes as a cheat. This is blasphemy, I don't care HOW crap you are at cooking. Maybe I'm too fired up about this. Regardless, I'm sad to see Delia go to the 'other side' b/c she's completely lost credibility w/ both me and my husband (and seemingly alot of others). Another one bites the dust for the almighty pound/dollar. - amy @ http://www.weareneverfull.com

delightt said...

@amy: I'm being critical here and trying to present the perspective of people (and there are legion) who are either afraid of cooking, or who are under the misconception that it takes too long, there's too much work involved, etc, etc. Wait, there's also washing up!

For these people, Delia's intro to (admittedly, "lite") cooking could put them back in the kitchen when they see the show and think, "hey, I can actually do this", and that's where they start. And then one day they will realise that since they're already cooking, they may as well start from scratch (it doesn't take that much more work!), if/when they realise that it's not as healthy to use processed foods, etc. It's a process that people need to go through. One doesn't turn from a workaholic who only boils water and makes toast in the kitchenette to a from-scratch home-cook overnight.

I'm sad that my comments make you sad, but there's a reality here that sometimes a lot of us (particularly those who bother reading food blogs) are ignorant of. We ARE privileged, because we have the time to go out and purchase fresh food several times a week in addition to having the time to prepare them, and wash up after. Furthermore, we have the knowledge. The average non-home-cook on the street doesn't. What do I buy? How do I cook it? etc.

@Nil: I haven't seen the show, only scanned through the NYT article, so I don't know how extreme she gets. J resorts to instant mashed potatoes sometimes, because we don't buy potatoes often (heavy; if neglected too long, sprouts) - it's basically desiccated potato; the only fault I personally find with it is the use of packaging (one cardboard box), and the fact that it tastes like the bloody box, which is why I refuse to eat it when he makes it.

Nilmandra said...

Amy: Just read your blog post. So sad to hear that your husband is disillusioned! I agree that quick and easy can still be fresh and healthy. One wonders if she has lost her mind in her old age... :-/

Wrt to delightt's remarks, I can certainly see her point. Not everyone has the time, money or frankly interest to cook 'properly', however much it appalls us foodies. I mean, we wax lyrical about food and spend ages online, in markets and in the kitchen enjoying ourselves over food, for goodness sakes. We're clearly biased! :) The sad truth is that in this day and age processed food are often cheaper than non-processed ones and for many who simply cannot afford the money or time (e.g. holding two jobs with four kids), when food is indeed fuel and not art/leisure/for pontificating, Delia's latest methods certainly has her appeal. But she has certainly set the food community ablaze!

Alexx said...

I do think pre-chopped onions is just so lazy! Or any pre chopped fresh veg, really. Honestly, how much time does it really save us? Not to mention the plastic packaging.
I do use cheats, but I try only to use them for things that are genuinely time consuming, or that need lots of ingredients I don't often use (like curry pastes). Basically if they save me more than 30 minutes or stop waste, I'll do it. And if I have the time I always try to do things 'from scratch'...

Nilmandra said...

Alexx: I agree that there should be a balance of when to reach for the ready-made pasta sauce and when to put together one from scratch. I must admit that the ready chopped veg really got to me (much more than the instant frozen mash)!

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