In Praise of Plain Food

Last month, daughter and I went to Gramma and Grampa’s in California for Easter break.

Since lazing about was what it was all about, one afternoon, my mother and I treated ourselves to a girls day in. We sipped white wine at midday and binged on American TV cookery. Barefoot Contessa seemed compulsory and we sat through a few episodes of Ina in her gorgeous kitchen, making fabulous food for Jeffrey. Watching the show, it quickly becomes apparent that everything Ina does is for Jeffrey (watch here, here and here, for example). Even when the episode is about something else, she still manages to at least utter his name.

If you have never watched it, Jeffrey is Mr. Contessa. I am sure there is a PhD to be written about how many times the name ‘Jeffrey’ gets mentioned in the series. It crossed my mind to start counting but I was too fascinated by the whole concept of a woman in 21st century America who has a successful TV show which revolves around cooking for her husband. Did someone sleep through the Sixties and Seventies?

In proper cookery programme fashion, it gushes and oozes aspirational. Ina’s kitchen is to die for. Her garden is to die for. All the accessories are tasteful. Her hair is always perfect and, since it is the East Coast, her collar is usually up. I bet that massive, gleaming refrigerator never gets dirty or smelly. Even worse, she seems really nice.

Basically, her life is to die for. And, as far as marriage set-ups go, theirs is aspirational, actually. Jeffrey lectures at a university in Connecticut (Yale) during the week, so he is only home at the weekend. She gets that gorgeous big house in East Hampton to herself all week; no wonder she is happy to cook lovely lovely things for him. But, like any married couple, they too have their habits. No it’s not takeaway curry; Friday nights, it’s roast chicken and tiramisu (watch it here).

BC was followed by The Pioneer Woman, which neither of us had ever seen. It’s all about what Ree Drummond cooks for her family, on their ranch in Oklahoma. A different take on aspirational but Ree is still all about cooking for her loved ones. The only episode we managed to sit through showed a lunch she was making for the ranch hands and her teenage daughter, who was learning the cowboy trade out on the plains with Cowboy Josh. She made supreme pizza burgers, a salad which included iceberg lettuce, tinned black olives and a dressing with lots of mayonnaise. Dessert was, admittedly, kind of fun: no-bake French Silk Pie. The format was lots of Ree cooking with occasional cuts to the cow-folk working with the cattle. Cowboy Josh certainly was a dab hand with the antibiotic syringe, lassoing cows and injecting them, which was disconcerting.

Eventually we turned off the tv and had a discussion about what to make for dinner, which felt very inadequate after everything we had just seen. The trouble with cooking shows is they make meal preparation look interesting and easy, in an entertaining, fictional way which bears little or no relation to what real life is like.

This is why I do not have a cooking show. No one would want my dinner hell. The under-20s do not like the same things as the over-20s, or each other, everyone comes and goes at different times due to late shifts, tutors, social engagements, lack of consideration and, one resident has just been prescribed a wheat, dairy and onion free diet (more on that another time). Even the dog has food preferences. Despair sets in about 5 p.m every day. It would not make good TV.

But here’s the thing. It is 2015. We all know no one really has a life like the people on TV do, yet these programmes persist. Why? Who, exactly, are we kidding. According to one scholarly paper, “cooking programmes maintain the fiction that cooking in the home in fun.” Is that it, we want to believe it is more fun than it is? It is housework, people. Cooking generates a huge amount of clean-up and you never see that on TV, just like you never see a person tackling the weekly ironing pile. Can you imagine a show called The Great British Houseclean-Off? No, me neither. Why does food preparation get so much attention?

I suppose, as a cookery book writer, I contribute to this myth machine but, going back to my earlier point, I would not get paid to write about what really gets cooked. Most days the menu is anything but aspirational.

Ordinary is a better word. That is mostly what I do; I cook a lot of plain food. Pan fried chops, spaghetti tossed in passatta, boiled broccoli or, another regular menu: baked chicken, rice pilaf, green beans—that sort of thing. There are no celebrities asking me how I’m feeling. There is no pressure to get it cooked and plated before the buzzer goes. The food is not sexy, it is not photographable; it’s just dinner. All of this detracts considerably from the entertainment value.

In a recent newspaper article, the journalist Grace Dent notes that UK television cookery, in its pursuit of entertainment, ignores what needs to be taught, and valued. “We labour under the myth,” she writes, “that cooking plain dinners… is failing. There are no trophies in the prime-time finals for the home cook who finds 88 captivating ways to serve minced beef to their family over one year.”

The point of her article was not so much the illusion of the television cookery show but the need for children to learn cookery skills. Real ones, not how to smear plates with emulsions and reductions in under 25 seconds.

It takes a lot of skill to cook a simple meal and make it nice. If you have the skill, it will be good. It will also be plain, but tasty and economical too. So many televised cookery shows convey very little information of actual use. The food is generally overly complex, hugely wasteful and completely budget-busting if you are trying to run a household on anything less than a substantial six-figure income.

But back to Ina and Jeffrey. I can’t help but wonder what they really eat when the cameras are not on. Even more thought provoking, what does Jeffrey eat during the week? Turns out I’m not the only one who wondered. Find out here.

 Tomato Soup

Plain food at its best, this calls for entirely storecupboard ingredients and you could even eat it out of the pan to save on washing up. Better and healthier than tinned soup and enjoyed by those who would not otherwise eat a vegetable. This is a frequent weekend lunch or weeknight supper, with carrot sticks and thick slices of buttered brown bread.

Serves 1

200 g tomato passatta
200 ml chicken stock (or water mixed with 1 tsp bouillon powder)
Good pinch salt
1 heaped tbsp ketchup
3 tsp vinegar, any kind
Splash of Worcestershire
Small pinch sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan, stir and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally as it heats.

Taste and adjust seasoning. It should have a nice sweet-sour balance so you may need to fiddle with the vinegar-sugar-ketchup to get it how you like.

Serve hot.

13 thoughts on “In Praise of Plain Food

  1. June

    Oh, I so agree. I just finished watching this year’s MasterChef and, while the cooking was impressive and the food looked divine, mostly I’ve been inspired to write a post called “10 reasons I’ll never be on MasterChef”. Every episode brought new levels of madness – expensive ingredients, complex processes, dainty plates of food that wouldn’t fill a four-year-old. I’d be far more likely to write the book on 100 creative ways to use mince. (Wonder if that would sell…) I’ve never been that impressed by Ina, but as the biggest selling cook book author in the US last year, she must be doing something right.

  2. dasophstah

    Love this post! Especially this line that made me giggle: “There are no celebrities asking me how I’m feeling.”
    Instead of taking on a “How It’s Made” feel, modern cooking shows seem to function more as a way to fantasize about succeeding in the often confusing, overwhelming arena of cooking. People spend zero effort watching a pretty person in a pretty kitchen with vivid ingredients that are thrown together with interesting techniques. They see a recipe through to the end with pretty guaranteed results, receiving hints of completion and capability vicariously. Certainly a nice way to spend some time relaxing but not at all comparable to what happens when one actually cooks, as you write.

  3. Sophie James

    I agree with all of the above. Actually watching the food Network in the US, I can become quite ill. Iron Chef America for example is like watching Knight Rider. And those cake shows… Thank you for the lovely tomato soup recipe, and I frequently eat things out of the pan. It’s just another receptacle isn’t it?!

  4. Wendy Bazil

    Well said! One of my main goals when teaching (I teach both people who can full pay and pro bono for underserved food insecure) is that perfect gets in the way of good enough. There is a time and a place for dinner party and holiday food, but it’s not realistic to try to provide that day in and day out. It’s like a diet – go too extreme and you can’t stick with it!

  5. linsolo93

    Hi Laura I really enjoyed your article and echo your sentiment. I feel TV programmes do not reflect real life. If only we had the behind the scenes team when we have to cook for the family!
    I felt the last amateur Masterchef contest has gone beyond amateur status with the recipes being created. This view was echoed during last nights Borough Market Talk ( I was the blogging newbie sitting next to you).
    One of my favourite simple recipes is a tomato sauce: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper and a pinch of dried oregano & brown sugar.It is simple to make and can be used with pasta, roast chicken or chrgrilled veg.


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