The British Have No Food Culture

This is the piece that got me into the finals for Fresh Voices in Food Writing at the YBFs. A longer version of this appeared in the New Statesman’s CityMetric in January 2018 and an even longer version can be found on this site.

I actually took this picture in Jerusalem, not Ilford. Because never in the history of civilisation has a good picture been taken of Ilford.

I actually took this picture in Jerusalem, not Ilford. Because never in the history of civilisation has a good picture been taken of Ilford.

Angela Hartnett went on Desert Island Discs and said that the British don’t have food culture: there are just some people who have money and can afford to pay for good food.

I hate to disagree with Hartnett, a star in the food pantheon and sensible person of such no-nonsense credentials that she laughed in the pock-marked face of Gordon Ramsey and lived to tell the tale. 

But what is this beige buffet of Britishness, this porridge of Reddy-Brexit, class-ist, philistine, pale and bland as white bread? It feels a million miles away from the gastronomic paradise, the vibrant and class-fluid food culture of the country where I was born and raised.

I speak of Ilford.

Ilford is a London suburb on the Essex/East End border, which, like a reverse Mecca or a shit Jerusalem, unites travellers from across the world in the fervent desire to get the hell out, go mad, or kill everyone. And, like Jerusalem, it has its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian quarters, with further fractions etched out by Hindu, Sikh and Chinese diasporas, waves and tides of 20th and 21st century immigration ebbing and lapping on the shores of the North Circular. It is an Ithaca: journey’s end, but a bit of a let-down. A rest rather than a new beginning. A bad motherland, to which we are all ambivalently attached.

Say what you like about Ilford, but it is a place where you’ve been able to find tahini, turmeric and jackfruit since before decimalisation. Most of these items, you could buy at any hour of the day or night, and be served by a tiny child who had been left to mind the shop whilst the adults were at second jobs or night school, at the mosque or synagogue, or in prison. Purchase and consumption of these items signified nothing, except the taste of home.

And it really didn't matter whose home. On festivals we would exchange samosas or jalebi or pierogi or hammantashen with our neighbours and drink masala chai three doors down. There is a whole world of dumplings, and a season for each one. We consumed a lot of chicken: fried pieces in boxes, or in a soup lovingly simmered for the precise amount of time to extract the maximum amount of guilt.

On a Sunday mornings you can wander along Barkingside High Street, which is by any metric an utter shithole, and join a queue for Sri Lankan curries or Italian gelato. There’s an egg-free cake shop. British, Halal, Kosher and African butchers. Four Jewish delis ranging from the glatt to the glitzy. There is no shortage of grilled meat, kebabs, chicken shops, noodle bars. Vast banqueting suites and local cooks cater for weddings of some thousand guests.

You could accuse us of having no culture in Ilford – the cinema long ago became a bingo hall which became a mega-mosque which became flats – but you cannot say we have no food culture.

I can go to the house of any of my Indian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Israeli, Nigerian, West Indian, or Scandinavian friends, safe in the knowledge and mutual understanding that I am going to be fed like a foie gras goose or that spaghetti guy in Se7en.

Just as there’s a multicultural London way of speaking, there is a multicultural London way of eating.  An immigrant, diasporic soup of gravies and liquors and hot sauce. A sense of the importance and significance of food and meals and flavours. An appreciation of our own and your neighbours’ diverse food heritage. A love of the marketplace and the dinner table. An ear for languages where "foreign" is the same word as "guest" and "friend". Throw the windows of your semi in Ilford open on a spring morning and you’ll get waves of bacon, chai, cholla bread. And the sounds of TVs in a dozen languages, and music in a dozen different keys, and Sikh builders shouting at Polish builders, and the soft shoe shuffle of the Lubovitchers and the revving engines of the rudeboys before we all go home for Sunday lunch.

Food is my culture. I feel a twitch on the end of each strand of my DNA, like the taste of madeleines on a thousand foreign tongues. I feel it in my bones and the bones of my ancestors as they dissolve into distant soil in foreign fields. Come, gather, sit, eat. Leave room for pudding.

I Quit Sugar So You Don't Have To, pt 2

Should you quit sugar?

Following months of extensive reading, research, trial, error, and some pretty heavy falls off the wagon, I have concluded the following:

Is sugar addictive?

There are two schools of thought on this: Yes, and No. Some books says Yes. Some books say no. Hope that helps.

OK, to go slightly deeper here, whether or not sugar is a chemically addictive substance, it is clear that it is habit forming, we crave it, and some people certainly exhibit signs of physical addiction on it.

Is sugar dangerous?

It is bad for your teeth. It can mess with your weight and blood sugar, and in volume over time can bugger your body’s ability to control your weight and blood sugar, which leads to all sort of well known problems.

But for most people, and especially people prone to extreme restriction, orthorexia, over exercising, and really most eating disorders, talking about sugar as toxic, addictive, a vector of disease, an feeder of cancers, gouts and diabetes, is profoundly unhelpful. If you want to use sugar - or these books on sugar - as something to beat yourself (or anyone else) with, then just don't. If you can't pin-point sugar as the really problem in your life and health - maybe as a diabetic, pre-diabetic, Liver patients, some Autism and seizure patients, some cancers, some IBS (FODMAP-ers) or the obese and super obese... really wouldn't pick this scab. If a part of you knows that orthorexia is the problem, not the eating, steer clear. There is too much new and unpopular science here to help you.

Reasons to quit sugar:

Sugar makes lots of people fat. Lots of people hate fat people.

Society is similarly unkind to the toothless. 

If you can’t have a good, healthy relationship with sugar (or INSERT YOUR POISON HERE) then the argument for abstinence is pretty compelling. 

And you don’t need sugar. Your body creates all the sugars it needs from the rest of your diet, any diet. So you can live without it, and if you can’t live without it, that might be the problem

Are some sugars better than others?

High Fructose Corn Syrup is terrible for all sorts of reasons. Socio-politically we are all in the pay of Big Corn. Behavio-evolutionarily speaking, we are all in thrall to King Corn. You know those parasitic wasps which lay their eggs in those ants which then hatch in their brain and drives the ant round like Krang in his man-suit? That's you that is. Corn, sweet sweet corn syrup, is the wasp, driving us puny humans to cut down our rains forests to plant more, eat more, crave more, plant more. If existence is but a dream, it is a dream in the mind of Corn.

Eating fruit is fine though. Crack on. The fibre and vitamins more than make up for the inherent sugars. What about honey or agave? Your body can't tell the difference between all the things it breaks down in to glucose and glycogen. It's just harder to drink the litre of honey equivalent to one large bag of Tangfastics unless you're a performance artist or Winnie the Pooh.

The best sugar of all is Cadburys Twirl. #Fact. 

What are your top dieting tips, you weight loss guru, you?

  1. Never eat anything you would be embarrassed to be discovered eating e.g. two pizzas, XL marshmallow surreptitiously shoved into mouth during a meeting which you then have to swallow whole when your boss directs a question at you, a human child.
  2. Certain calories don't count if consumed in the bath, on the way to or from the gym, or Between 1am-7am when it is quite possible you were sleep-eating 
  3. Fish are friends not food
  4. Avoid anything with marketing copy that addresses you in the first person, so as to imply strongly that it is the food and not the marketing company speaking directly to you. "I'm a squishy treat! Enjoy me as part of a balanced diet of other Talking and Sentient Foods."
  5. Eat food, not to much, mainly Twirls. 

And how much weight did you lose during your experiment?

Fuck off, I didn't. #thinspo