During my daughter’s seven-month stay with us, with our new grand-daughter, our mealtime habits changed. Where once we used to listen thoughtfully to Radio Four, we had to compromise with the chewing-gum-for-the-eyes that is presented on TV over the supper-time period. This wasn’t because daughter is particularly lowbrow or we particularly highbrow. The fact was that the needs of the baby at that time of the day tended to make her rather vocal, so the thread of a story or a nuance of comic timing came off a very bad second to her demands. So we perforce became visual rather than aural consumers of the broadcast media at mealtimes.
As a newcomer to the early evening TV time slot I was very surprised by how many cookery programs are put out. I’m now aware of how fashionable food is, and how vital is its presentation. Inconvenient plates of vast acreage are placed lovingly before the foodie, bearing a concentrated and astonishing array of edibles garnered from all corners of the globe. I know globes don’t have corners, but you understand what I mean.
I admit that many of these arrays look delightful. Tastyvision and smellyvision have yet to reach us, so on a TV food show colours are everything. And colours we are given, along with facial and vocal expressions of delight from the people who actually get to touch-smell-taste the products of the many celebrity cooks. What piques me, though – and piques me even more when I am just occasionally out there, dressed up and paying for it – is the excess of presentation that food seems to need, as evidenced by the catering profession.
I did see one well known foodie person on TV disparaging a wannabe chef for producing “tall food”. And rightly so. Not only is it so 1990, but a plate a foot wide with a tower of tiny edibles tottering in the middle is a waste of effort on everyone’s part – chef and customer alike. Chef spends time assembling the edifice, while customer has to calculate how he can safely eat it without the whole thing collapsing into his neighbour’s lap. I have to say that the critic, for once, got my applause. I don’t want to puzzle out how to deconstruct le gros bonnet’s presentation. Stick it all on a plate – prettily if you must – and just let me eat it.
Drizzles of any kind are irritating, too. Weatherwise they are neither one thing nor another; wet without making an effort, so I don’t want anyone to drizzle on my grub for me, thanks; whether with olive oil, mayonnaise, sundried tomato purée, brown sauce or anything else. Give me the choice of doing it for myself.
“Coulis” are snob’s blobs. Smudged artistically into a plate with the back of a spoon they are an insult, as are dots, squiggles or stripes of sauce like punctuation marks around a central noun of food. If you really are offering me a nice sauce to complement your dish, give me enough of it to let me pick it up and eat it. I’m of the opinion that this drizzle-smudge-squiggle school of presentation is no more than a cheap cheat; using very little material to create a pretentious dish. It offers me food in such a stingy way that I couldn’t even slide a palette knife under it. If I want not to eat food, I won’t put it on my plate in the first place. Don’t ask me to pay for it just because it has been painted onto a bit of porcelain.
And puddings – as opposed to desserts. A proper pudding needs a pudding dish. Pudding dishes are designed bowl-shaped so you can get your spoon into the duff and consume it sumptuously, down to the last puddle. Their sensous curves are meant to collect those juices or sauces to be scooped up and savoured at the end of the whole delicious experience. Serving a pudding on a flat plate defeats that satisfaction. You’re not giving the waiter much chance, either; how’s he supposed to control custard when he brakes or turns a corner?
Finally, there’s a pointless tendency in fashionable eateries to present you with a miserable little spot of pud surrounded by, not even drizzles, but dustings of cocoa powder or icing sugar. If the drizzle-smudge-squiggle is mean, this miserly dusting is just plain pointless. You can’t eat such culinary daftness. It is impossible to pick any of it up unless you lick your finger, wipe the plate and suck it.
Join me in exorcising this ghostly pretence at food. When your pudding is eaten and coffee is imminent, the proprietor, chef and/or waiter will be unctuously hovering, all-but prompting you to say that everything you ate was simply lovely. Don’t be swayed by their desire to be praised as well as paid. This is your cue to sigh ostentatiously – if necessary, several times – and then say loudly and with deep regret, “I do wish you had washed the plate.”