A sour taste in celebrity confection

In his latest TV series, Jamie Oliver adopts a ministerial cloak while undermining governmental efforts and mechanisms to effect social change, argues Tara Brabazon

November 6, 2008

The louder that journalists chatter about the credit crunch, obesity or the decline in public services, the more frequently I pull George Orwell’s essays from the bookshelf. The Road to Wigan Pier confirms that the current obesity “epidemic” is one of many crises that have embraced bodies and food.

In 1937, Orwell travelled to Barnsley, Sheffield and Wigan and found filth, decay and inequality. He reported that working-class families did not remove luxuries from their household purchases to buy necessities.

Orwell justified such decisions by noting that, “the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food… When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.”

Applying Orwell’s observation to our present situation explains the explosion of fast-food restaurants and pizza places during a time of unstable and “flexible” work. It is expensive to eat well. The cheapest way to consume a day’s calories is to buy a chocolate bar and a Coke. It is cheaper to buy a Big Mac than to source focaccia, fresh tomatoes, carrots, organic beef and watercress. In a time when it costs less to eat badly than to buy organic, locally sourced sustainable produce, celebrity chefs overlay guilt on food choices.

The moral panics of our age – children, youth, poverty and obesity – converged when Jamie Oliver intervened to improve school dinners. In a culinary spin on Orwell, he travelled to the poorest areas of Britain and offered ruthless judgments. He found that in working-class schools, children were served pizza, chips, pies and nuggets. But because Oliver did not construct a theory of class and food through his programmes, he became frustrated and confused.

The surprise of Jamie’s School Dinners was that when Oliver convinced parents, teachers and heads to spend more money on better ingredients, the children would not eat the food. The reason was that children – like all of us – develop notions of taste through lived experiences.

Fast food and prepared meals are extremely sweet and salty, overstimulating our senses. Once acquiring this taste for extreme flavours, foods with more subtlety do not register. After eating a pepperoni pizza with a cheese-stuffed crust, lightly sautéed organic chicken will be a culinary disappointment.

We cannot unlearn this food knowledge. We can make different choices. But we must not lie. Bad food tastes brilliant. That is why Orwell’s miners and unemployed families ate white bread, dripping and sweet tea rather than fruit and vegetables. Orwell’s point was that when work is hard, sweet or salty food lifts the mood. There are many reasons why people are obese, but the changing histories of work, leisure, unemployment and underemployment must be part of these explanations. Without attention to context and class, television programmes trying to intervene in daily routines of cooking will continue to fail.

Lacking Orwell’s insight into why people eat unhealthy food – and after mixed results from his school food initiative – Oliver’s campaign moved to working-class parents. His Ministry of Food programme was based in Rotherham. Like Orwell, Oliver went north to find a truth about food that may be unpalatable in the south. He finally met “the Rawmarsh women”, who were filmed passing chips and burgers to their children during his School Dinners programme.

Oliver started this new campaign through a television show, cookbook and slogan, “Pass it on”, and recently extended it into a Nintendo DS game, Whats Cooking? Once more, Oliver did not discuss or test his opinions about cooking, ingredients and takeaways with food or labour historians, urban planners or leisure managers. Instead, he filmed young mothers feeding kebabs to children, women unable to switch on their ovens and miners who had never held a frying pan. Oliver constructed a space where he was the expert and unquestioned in his views and values.

There is a reason for this selection of footage and mode of argument. The rationale is found in the title. Oliver called his new programme the Ministry of Food. The phrase catches the ambivalence encircling public-health initiatives, with the etymology of the word “ministry” rattling through history. From 1916, British governments gave some departments the title. But the religious connotation saturates this more recent intervention. From the 14th century, “ministry” explained the functions of a priest. But the earlier Latin root – “ministerium” – described service, attendance or employment. All these meanings are needed to understand Oliver’s commandments about food.

The most obvious historical connection with Oliver’s Ministry of Food is derived from the British Government’s initiative in the Second World War to ensure both a more equitable distribution of food and a public education campaign about nutrition, health and cooking. Oliver found this scheme “completely inspiring”.

There is, however, a disconnection between the inspiration of these wartime strategies and their application in a (post-)neoliberal state. Throughout his project, Oliver did not “campaign” to increase the power of governments to moderate and manage consumption.

He did not wish governments to fund – without the mediation of a celebrity chef – increased pensions for the poor, disempowered and undernourished. He did not address the availability of public parks and leisure facilities. Instead, Oliver constructed himself as a simulacrum government minister, sucking the history and content out of this wartime ministry, preserving only the title and quaint 1940s photographic style for the cover of his cookbook.

It is easy to blame governments for obesity but much harder to understand the sugar-saturated and leisure-starved environment that makes obesity difficult to avoid.

Oliver reconstructed a history from 1939 to 1945, believing we are now in a war over food, seemingly forgetting that we are already fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, involving far more important choice than selecting pasta over pizza. These military conflicts are unmentioned and irrelevant to his metaphor or agenda. Instead, the real war was the Second World War, and it is this conflict that provides the nostalgic inspiration for a new fight.

“It’s such a shame it takes a bloody world war to focus people’s attention on health, but we have a modern-day war on our hands now and it’s over the epidemic of bad health and the rise of obesity.”

Terrorism, 9/11 and 7/7 have passed Oliver by. Instead, an odd history has been created where fighting Nazis and fighting obesity are equivalent actions. It is a strange age where the making of an omelette is given more attention than making a war.

Oliver announces in his book, “Welcome to my Ministry of Food.” Unelected and self-appointed, the simulacrum state summoned by Oliver does not deploy a public-health initiative, but a celebrity chef, television programme and commercially produced cookbook. There is no mechanism for change, except that a celebrity will “inspire” people to buy different ingredients, learn new skills and cook in different ways.

“I need you to get personally involved in pass it on by pledging to learn just one recipe from each chapter of this book… And don’t for a minute think that your single contribution won’t count, because it will.”

Buying a book, watching television, cooking and sharing the recipes are the only available models for social change when notions of “the public” and “community” are frayed, stripped and terrorised. Government legislation, public-health campaigns and redistribution of resources are undermined as mechanisms for social transformation. Instead, individuals (consumers) can work with a (celebrity) chef to change the world (through television and cookbooks).

The unstated justification for this argument is sourced from the second, older definition of “ministry”: services as a minister. With consumerism the new faith and celebrity chefs the current deities, the marginalisation of secular governments in creating and shaping strategies for change is almost complete.

The faith in celebrities as offering special and/or informed views about dieting, fitness, work, leisure, relationships and politics is as inevitable as the release of the next exercise DVD from a B-list model and presenter who was voted off Strictly Come Dancing. Oliver has become a minister, sharing with his disciples the faith that cooking improves communities and that eating well is more important than reading widely. He is preaching, trying to convince women (while pretending to also talk to men) that spending time in the kitchen cooking for others is the most important job in life. He gushes: “There’s great satisfaction in making a lovely meat pie, and I can promise you that everyone at your table will be coming back for more.” We have reached a cultural moment where social achievement is embedded in food preparation, and “coming back for more” is valued – even while Oliver critiques the obesity epidemic.

The final definition of ministry is the oldest: a means of serving or ministration. It is obvious that instead of Oliver serving food, food is now serving him, enabling the building of a commercial profile and celebrity status. While the development of the Jamie Oliver brand is not unusual in our age, the problem is that his status and recognition is built on not only ignoring, undermining or discrediting governments, public initiatives and history, but allowing health crises to serve his career.

Without his interventions in schools or Rotherham, Oliver would be one of many chefs. His branding is also more complicated than other competing celebrity foodies because his career was built on being a young, cheery chap. This image is less appropriate as the chef ages. His interventions in public health and institutions were an attempt to transform his brand, building a bridge from “pukka tukka” and into middle age.

Unfortunately, the recipe for baked Camembert pasta is not an important topic of debate in terrorised times of financial instability and xenophobia. The other difficulty with many of the recipes he promotes in Ministry of Food is that they are not that nutritious. In the book, he admits that “pasta and runny cheese isn’t the healthiest thing in the world, but it’s so worth it once in a while.”

Although he feeds off Second World War rationing and restrictions, his ingredients are perhaps not what might be included in a conventional weekly shopping trolley under any culinary ministry. His “Cheat’s sponge cake with summer berries and cream” involve buying a large panettone from the supermarket, cutting it into three, smoothing cream and strawberries between the layers, then using cream and almonds as icing. I am sure it is delicious.

But these recipes demonstrate the complicated space of both food and Jamie Oliver. Is cooking intrinsically healthy? Is buying an already packaged Camembert or panettone increasing the culinary skills of the nation? And what – at its most basic – about calorie consumption? If Oliver’s focus is the obesity “epidemic”, then page after page of recipes featuring pastry, parmesan and butter will only increase weight-based problems.

The aim of these recipes, beyond inspiring people to cook, is unclear. The rationale for selecting certain foods and preparation methods is similarly vague. What is obvious is that he is using the language of crisis to sell books.

While the television programme may mask the clear connection between Oliver’s campaign and marketing products, his YouTube advertisement on behalf of Waterstone’s for the Ministry of Food cookbook does not hesitate to sell change, sell emotion, sell family and sell community through food.

With celebrity chefs the new shaman and cooking the new religion, a fundamentalism of food is emerging that attacks, blames and ridicules those who refuse to think that basil, bay leaves, truffles and extra-virgin olive oil are pathways to salvation. Perhaps for his next series, Oliver should do more reading and less talking. Before he blames the poor for buying chocolate, kebabs and beer, a return to Orwell’s Wigan – rather than Oliver’s Rotherham – may provide answers unavailable in a Ministry of Jamie.

Tara Brabazon is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Brighton.

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