Eating has become a curiously fraught act for many.
Instead of a cause for excitement, adventure and love it is guilt-inducing and joyless, full of random rules and pointless denial.
We live in a time where people are scared of potatoes – POTATOES – and young people are making themselves calcium-deficient because they think cow’s milk is bad for them.
Arbitrary laws are attached to the type of sugar you should ingest and god help you if you eat gluten.
I thought Jay Rayner, journalist, eater and very nice man may be able to help me figure out why.
For Jay was one of the first to rally against “clean-eating” – a concept that is the very antithesis of fun in Fed Up’s book.
I tell him I want to talk about fads and food culture and muse that through my particular lens it seems that eating has become a battleground, an odd world of good and evil.
He replies with a frankness I admire in any person.
“The vast majority of the population wouldn’t even know what you meant by those questions.
“They just get on with their lives and do what they want to do.
“There is no doubt that there’s a major health issue building up in the UK. If you’ve ever looked into balancing the budget or what the NHS has to spend you can see we’ve got a problem.
“But what is on the one hand a public policy issue does seem to have turned into a morality issue.
“Food, which has to be said has historically – all the way back to the Bible with the eating of the first apple – been seen as a source of moral right and wrong. You only have to look at Jewish laws to see that as well.
“Food has become a moral issue, a moral battleground and it works in all directions.
“Obviously we’ve had some people, like me, raging at the term ‘clean-eating’.
“There’s this moral aspect: if you don’t eat clean you’re dirty. Then some people respond by talking about ‘dirty food’ as though it’s a marker of some kind of authenticity – that you’re a real person in touch with your appetite.
“Food is neither clean nor dirty. Food is just a part of the diet. We need to remove that moral language out of eating habits.”
But why have the clean-eating bloggers and wellness gurus managed to get such a tight grip on our psyche?
“Modern life is a complicated thing. A lot of us feel quite powerless to control our place in the world. If you can’t control externalities, what can you control? You can control the internal life and food is ultimately an internal thing.
“At the risk of sounding like an old grey-beard, I think the online world has a part to play in this because you are seeing reflected images – they were always there in the pages of the magazines and on telly but you get a rather more intense and personal connection with people through the online world.
“So, if you have any doubts whether you are leading the life you should be leading – and we all have those doubts – you’ll be encouraged in a certain direction.
“So I think it’s about control in the face of a complicated world – with the added catalyst of the web providing a route to seeing an unattainable perfection.”
Do you think the UK is particularly susceptible to food fads and a negative relationship with food?
I confess my bias (I put Italy on a pedestal) and say I reckon on the continent they’re just better at being normal about food than we are.
“I think it’s good to put your hands up when you don’t know and I don’t know. I know that it’s prevalent in Anglo-Saxon countries. You’ll find it in America, you’ll find it in Australia and New Zealand.
“I would be very surprised if there was not an element of it in France, because god knows they can be body-fascists. And actually the Italians can too. I would be very surprised if clean-eating didn’t exist in other countries at the moment as well.
“One of the real problems actually is that food has been a class issue in the UK for a very very long time. It’s been divided between those for whom it is a luxury that they are able to think about morning, noon and night and those who are just getting by and aren’t able to think about it.
“I wrote about it a lot in Greedy Man. About the idea of food issues being a clinking-glass, cocktail-drinking-party for the middle classes for which there’s no other chore.”
Has our eating culture changed in the time you’ve been writing about food?
“For as long as there have been people eating there have been diets. You see evidence of diets in the 18th century and the 19th century. Annie Gray, the food historian who appears with me on the Kitchen Cabinet can give you chapter and verse on people haven eaten something and it making them feel awful, bloated.
“I think back to the 70s when my own mother became a figure-head in getting people to eat fibre.
“Food guidance has been around for a very long time. We blame everything on the internet as Bart Simpson does. But I think in a way there is a strong argument that it has emphasised people’s concerns.
“In the same way, and this is going to sound really rather dark, but one of the things that the web did was enable people with weird perversions to find each other and to as a result not feel abnormal.
“Some of the time that’s fine and some of the time it’s not, it’s dark. If you have body image issues and you find a whole bunch of other people with body image issues suddenly you don’t feel so bad about your body image issues. But actually sometimes if it’s pathological you need to feel bad about it because it’s wrong and you need to get help.”
Has eating ever been a source of anxiety for you?
“All the time. Oh god, all the time. In the sense that if there is a genetic predisposition to being overweight I’ve got it. I have varied in size over the years. I’m constantly looking at that.
“I’ve just come back from summer holiday and pretty much kicked the boot at home, I’m not drinking at home.
“I’m not doing it because I know how much carbohydrate is in a glass of wine.
“So yeh, the idea that I’m in some way completely immune to any concern and that I’m the shape and size I’m entirely happy with is bollocks. I’m not entirely happy with it. I’ve worked at it.”
Have you ever tried a fad diet?
“Is low-carbing a faddy diet? It probably is. But I’ve never done it the classic Atkins way which requires you to cut out all fruit as well – so you go cold-turkey on fruit sugars and that gives you a banging headache for two weeks.
“I just try and avoid the bread and potatoes and the pasta. There are no foods that I blacklist – there are some that I miss. I love pasta, I just don’t eat very much of it. I just eat the very good stuff.
“And a well-made pizza is a marvellous thing but there aren’t very many of those in my life.
“If you have a good look at my diet on a weekly basis you’d go yeh, there is a reasonably good spread of carbs and protein and fat and fibre in there. It’s just that I am a greedy bastard and if you put me in a room with a lot of really good sourdough I will eat half a loaf.
“I try to control myself. Is it pathological? No, I don’t think it is. The only pathology I’ve tried to develop is an addiction to the gym. I’m very happy to be addicted to the endorphin rush of a good work-out.”
I don’t know about you but I sense a revolution coming. There’s been a backlash – especially against the clean-eating gang – but that doesn’t mean it’s not already taken its toll.
A Freedom of Information request revealed that the number of children treated for eating disorders has doubled in the last 5 years and the number of under 9s has quadrupled!
Do you think the language we’ve become accustomed to using around food is having a pernicious effect on our children?
“What bothers me most is not looking at certain foods and people saying ‘oh you shouldn’t eat that, it’ll make you put on so much weight’ it’s when they graft on it a kind of science that bears no relation whatsoever to the truth.
“A classic example is Ella Woodward saying ‘no refined sugars’ and then filling her products with sugars that are exactly the same. They all basically convert to glucose in the body and it doesn’t make a slightest bit of difference. It’s based on fake science.”
Why do people lap it up like they do?
“It’s down to the freer flow of information. In the old days before the online world you’d have to work very hard to find out stupid things. Now it’s much easier.
“What actually makes me angry is I look at certain women who have portrayed a lifestyle and done untold damage to much younger women – selling them an unattainable goal. That makes me absolutely livid.
“Is there a change coming? We are facing a really serious situation. Legacy for the NHS 20 years hence is appalling. We are living longer but less healthily towards the end of that life and that is going to cause us all massive problems. So something has to be done. Maybe people could die a bit more – that would help.
“Government education campaigns are all well and good but they’re very hard to actually get purchase. I think in the end it is about the media policing themselves.
“It depresses me that some reputable publications continue to bang on about superfoods. I was looking at BBC Good Food which endlessly goes on about the medicinal properties of certain ingredients – you must eat kale because it’s high in this or that.
“I love journalists but we are awful at certain things and science is one of them. I would just love to see better education in science for journalists.
“Anthony Warner has clearly had a major impact. But at times he risks tipping over to becoming just as obsessive as those he’s criticising. He’s got the wind behind him and his strident prose – which is very much a contrast to when you speak to him – just occasionally has a tinge of the messianic about it. It troubles me slightly because you can end up going the other way.
“It’s about balance. It’s about a mid-way – if that doesn’t sound too mamby-pamby.”
What does food mean to you?
“It’s for living.
“I always made the point that I came from a noisy Jewish family who communicated through food. All the best conversations tend to happen around the table. It’s as simple as that.
“I live for disclosure. I want to know about your dirty secrets and you’re more likely to tell me over a great bowl of pasta than not. There is something about eating together which opens us up to sharing what it is to be human. Really that is what it’s about. You can mistake what I am – oh, he’s the food guy – but really I’m just a writer. I’m a writer with a subject and that subject happens to be food.
“The reason for that is because it’s the way in to the essence of ourselves. You can learn everything you need to know about a person by watching them at a table.
“You can learn everything you need to know by the way they dress a plate, by what they put on a plate, what they buy themselves, by what they decide to eat. Everything you need to know is there.”
When did you realise you cared about food more than the average person?
“I was just always hungry as a kid. But I didn’t see myself as unusual in that because I grew up in this secular Jewish family and we were all like that. I was just part of that culture.”
What makes for a good eating experience?
“The people. I’m going to get you to plug my book now but in ‘The Ten Food Commandments’ the sixth is ‘I shall choose my dining companions bloody carefully.’
“And I do still hold to that. If you get the wrong people at the table you’re screwed. You’re going to have a miserable time if they’re dull, or they’re boring or they’re uptight.
“The table that we eat at is the most obvious forum for discussion of all kinds. So it doesn’t matter how good the food is, if the company is tiresome you’re not going to have a good time. It’s not going to taste anywhere near as good as it should.”
I’m coming to realise that I’m all about straight-forward deliciousness – an unpretentious offering of joyful food.
Where do you go in London to find that?
“I have to say that whenever anybody says to me, ‘oh we’re so over that fru-fru tasting-menu manicured, tweezered stuff’ I have to point out that while I too may not have a massive appetite for it, I did once.
“It may simply be that I’ve been overexposed to it. So I’m not going to criticise anybody who loves a tasting menu or a really fancy bit of presentation. I totally see the appeal; it may just be that in the pursuit of this so-called job of mine I’ve seen too much of it to still hold it dear to my heart.
“If I was going looking for a really great un-fussy plate of delicious food I’d probably go to Jackson Boxer’s place on Vauxhall Bridge, Brunswick House.
“Jackson’s cooking is exactly the kind of thing you described. It’s rustic and butch. It’s about flavour. The plates are pretty but my god they’re tasty.
“He’s really good on big salads. He’s really good with meat as well but you almost feel like they’re companions rather than one is playing second fiddle to the other. He’s a chef of extraordinarily good taste.
“The other one is Jeremy Lee. God that man can make a pie! And Jeremy Lee invented a sandwich I’ve never had before: smoked eel with fresh horseradish on sourdough.
“Go and try it. Trust me. It’s sort of there as a snacky-starter thing but I know people who go there and order two of them for a main.”
Does it matter to you who makes the food?
“Only if I’m writing about it I think; only if I’ve got to bring a narrative to it.
“A lot of people tell me that the chain Cote is really rather good and I’m not going to argue with it just because it’s a chain.
“What I’m saying here is I’ve eaten at Pizza Express and it’s fine and I’m not going to sneer at it just because it doesn’t fit a narrative story. I’m sorry if that disappoints you.
“A narrative can be really useful but it’s not the same as distinguishing whether it was a good plate or a bad plate.”
Jay Rayner is an award-winning writer, journalist and broadcaster with a fine collection of floral shirts.
He has written on everything from crime and politics, through cinema and theatre to the visual arts, but is best known as restaurant critic for the Observer.
For a while he was a sex columnist for Cosmopolitan; he also once got himself completely waxed in the name of journalism. He only mentions this because it hurt. Jay is a former Young Journalist of the Year, Critic of the Year and Restaurant Critic of the Year, though not all in the same year.
In the 2014 British Press Awards he was shortlisted for both Critic of the Year and Specialist Journalist of the Year.
Somehow he has also found time to write four novels and three works of non-fiction. His latest full length book is A Greedy Man In A Hungry World: How (almost) everything you thought you knew about food is wrong. He chair’s BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, and is a regular on British television, where he is familiar as a judge on Masterchef and, since 2009, as the resident food experts on The One Show.
He tours Britain performing various one man shows, based on both Greedy Man, and his short book My Dining Hell, a collection of his most scathing restaurant reviews. He is a sometime jazz pianist and in 2012 formed the Jay Rayner Quartet with whom he regularly performs, whether you want him to or not.
He likes pig.