A Point of View: A feast for the soul

Child eating a meal

A good meal satisfies more than just our hunger, says Joan Bakewell in A Point of View.

How are you with gadgets? I have a sense that many of us addicted to the ingenuity of human inventiveness have squirreled away, in the backs of cupboards and undusted corners, a whole army of gadgets we no longer use.

It may even be we no longer remember what they were for. But they cower there, unloved but not quite abandoned, awaiting some eventual house removal or the piratical raid of a car boot sale.

And yet sometimes, fortuitously thrown into disarray by the unexpected, we find we can bring these ghostly implements from their living death and bestow purpose and a fleeting value to their arcane use. So it is with me and winter and food - a combination of opportunity and expectation that challenges us to ever more bizarre originality.

I have, at last, found a use for my butter wizard. This oblong box - some 4ins by 6ins - sits on its own plastic tray set on four round chrome feet and the whole thing plugs into the electricity. In this way it keeps butter at exactly the right temperature for daily spreading: summer cool and something short of liquefaction. With snow deep outside, soft and malleable, how did I ever live without it?

But then I once lived without many things. Significantly at Christmas, many of them were food. I grew up without knowledge of avocados, aubergines, garlic, croissants Danish Pastries, smoked salmon, anchovies, olives, innumerable pastas, inexhaustible types of rice, crazily abundant versions of coffee.

"So much more than a drink," the ads say, suggesting coffee brings in its wake friendship, romance, career opportunities, mental health and world economic prosperity.

Man drinking bottled water Nothing represents the commodification of consumption better than bottled water

"Coffee, the workers friend," the promotion continues. But no it's not. Coffee is a drink: that is exactly what it is. It is a commodity traded on the world market because it is a flavour that makes a drink; and it is as a drink that it has become popular enough to drive up world prices and play a big part in world markets. But, let's face it, if you were really thirsty, water would do just as well.

But then water, too, has been commodified. When I was filming in Buxton years ago I was suitably impressed by the bottling plant that produces Buxton natural mineral water, the genuine unadulterated thing flowing underground through the limestone rocks of Derbyshire.

I was even more impressed by the sight, on that same weekend morning, of people arriving in hatchbacks loaded with empty plastic cartons to a small fountain in the town centre. These they stacked on to the pavement at the foot of the natural spring and then proceeded to fill them with the same spring water, as they are entitled to do, entirely for free. It was odd to observe the two transactions running in tandem, one commercial and one free and neither intruding, as far as I could see, on the other.

There was something incongruous about it. It put me in mind of the time on a beach in India fringed with palm leaf huts when children came flocking to beg for pens from the few tourists who had strayed this far from the regular holiday tracks. We stopped to talk with them: yes, they were learning to read; yes, they were studying Roman and Greek myths; yes, we liked India and sometimes bought some of its beautiful objects.

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Joan Bakewell

Christmas faces us with a collision of foodiness”

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One boy, gangly and eager, eyed me cannily. Then he bent down to the sand, selected a fine round pebble that lay at my feet and held it out to me: "One rupee!" he asked. Commerce had entered his soul. By now he's probably something big in Tata Steel.

At Christmas, food has been commodified almost out of existence. I blame photography. It now manages to transform food into a sublime version of the real stuff: "Juicy," headlines the sumptuous menu at my railway table, and within are pictured gorgeous offerings of lasagne, Panini and chicken korma glistening with delectability. When it comes - it's just food.

I worked for an advertising agency in the 1950s - it was Mad Men time - and was sent along to a food shoot, given a jar of olive oil and a paint brush and told to paint a plateful of chips with the oil to make each one glisten before the camera. In the process of course, I rendered the chips entirely inedible.

Likewise, the trick of using scoops of mashed potatoes as stand-ins for ice cream which would, after all, melt under the studio lights. Such trickery was acceptable at the time. Real food lost in the act of promotion.

Christmas faces us with a collision of foodiness: prompting in me the truculent thought that it is, after all, only food. It is nourishment. It is also an excuse for conviviality.

But it is only food, destined in its time - around 24 hours or so - to go down the drain. Everything else that has been added to it - all the great variety of indulgences from fancy recipes, ornate restaurants, and a plethora of cook books by television chefs making millionaires of their authors - all of it is a fantastical construct of western luxury.

Christmas pudding Would you pay £1,000 for a Christmas pudding?

And how do they do it? How are generations of cooks and chefs able to conjure yet more variations on the world's available edibles?

My 60s paperbacks by Elizabeth David capture the moment when Mediterranean flavours first arrived in Britain. She quotes a celebrated and challenging recipe for game beginning: "You will require a male hare with red fur, killed if possible in mountainous country." Genuine peasant food, no doubt not exactly accessible on High Street UK.

Since then the search for ever more recondite or simply wackier recipes has grown. Sometimes I can feel the limits being reached now there is a porridge-flavoured ice cream, and crisps flavoured to taste of seafood and spices and even Greek kebab. I have read menus offering ostrich steaks and chocolate coated insects. The sheer variety has grown further with the rise of vegetarianism, once the mocked domain of the nut cutlet, now the source of yet more ingenious mixes and matches.

Can there be a finite end to different things to eat and ways of cooking? Given the new economic climate and the trend towards austerity, I foresee a revival of wartime books with their suet puddings, Lord Woolton Pie and dried egg.

My own contribution to the list would be a recipe for turkey giblet soup, culled years ago from an article by Clement Freud in a colour magazine supplement and kept for decades, ever more frayed and stained but brought out each year as a family staple. The trick is that so many people don't want their turkey giblets that a generous butcher will collect them for you and hand them over for free.

And so we come to the Christmas pudding. This year's food story - like Delia's cranberries and Nigella's goose fat. It is Heston Blumenthal's Hidden Orange Christmas pudding, originally selling for £13.99 but ending up in its sealed box for sale on ebay for anything from £40 to £500 even for £1,000 for charity. I understand a whole orange suitably infused is baked inside the pudding. Heston Blumenthal is said to have 600 dishes in development.


  • A Point of View, with Joan Bakewell, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT and repeated Sundays, 0850 GMT

But the point about eating is beyond food.

Meals taken round a table with family or friends have elements of ritual, and tradition that serve to reinforce bonds and loyalties. It isn't by accident that the shared Jewish meal on the eve of Shabat brings together faith and family over food and prayer. The central sacrament of the Christian faith has at its heart the taking of bread and wine. American Thanksgiving, with its own attendant feasts, renews the sense of nationhood around the family table.

It is the table itself - the groaning board that brings different generations together and is the best meeting place for ancient friendships and new acquaintance.

In houses and hotels, palaces and farmsteads, in tents and yurts, in hostels and care homes, on liners and yachts, in igloos and palm huts people come together for food. The moment they do, they are taking time out - from work, from endeavour, from hunting or trading, from learning or teaching, from making money, from spending money to enjoy one of the most primitive rituals known to man - the shared meal.

Our chefs and cooks, our restaurants and hostelries ply us with mountains of delights conjured by their skill into ever more improbable tastes. Food writers and critics entice us into ever higher expectations. But beneath this cornucopia of abundance lies a profound and simple human urge - and one we can hardly avoid - to share and enjoy together the best that we have.

Here is a selection of your comments.

My mother made me help her in the kitchen - which gave rise to a curious reaction of irritation, curiosity and maybe understanding. Now I can be a quite excellent cook, with hindsight thanks to her, though I do not as a rule follow recipes as she did, but cook creatively responding to availabiltiy of ingredients and a situation affected by time, mood and urges. Having had to live alone for long periods this ability in the kitchen has been helpful. But something for which nobody prepared me was how to put up with the relative sadness of 'enjoying' good cuisine alone. As you say, there's more to food than the food.

Bruno Scarfe, Cadiz, Spain

Remember Epicurus, 341-270BC: "Live without fearing death, or worrying about religion. Value friendship and tranquillity,simplicity and moderation. Nothing satisfies him or her for whom enough is too little."

Miles Mellonie, Sale

In keeping with the theme of experimenting with foods and conjuring up bizarre combinations I thought I might share my latest culinary adventure. Recently I decided to boiled a Ham in Coca Cola. I cooked the Ham by boiling it in water first, then removed it from the heat to strain and rinse. I then added 1.5 L of Regular Coca Cola to it and allowed to cook further. When cooking the Coca Cola separates, and the syrup sticks to the Ham. After boiling the Ham is removed from the pot and placed on a baking tray, with no foil covered in the remaining 0.5L of coke and roast until the liquid is piping hot. The meat when done is very succulent. Soft and tender. The sweetness is mild but the flavours vary. I can taste Lemon, Orange, Cinnamon and a hint of cloves. Does make you wonder what exactly is in Coca Cola, as I would never have thought there was orange in it but the smell is unmistakable. Overall I'd give it 8/10. An odd experiment but worth it in the end.

Sean, Armagh

I am not that family orientated and a friend and i will go out for a fancy three-course in a posh part of town. It is after all food...and the desire to have some Chablis with the meal makes the feeling of food more appealing. It is after all a means to a end! It is how you appreciate the texture and tastes that is more rewarding. It is the surroundings and settings and the company you spend time with that makes it all worth while. It is not what you eat and drink that counts, it is how you enjoy things along the way. You can't take it with you.

Clive Collins, London

All this culinary adventurousness is all very well, but spare a thought for people, like me, who have allergies to very common foodstuffs and who much prefer "normal" food. Some people - like me - prefer simplicity on their plates rather than assortments of ingredients that come from places that few people have ever heard of. It's nice to be able to predict from the menu what the taste will be like, rather than take a big risk that it'll be unpalatable. For those with allergies, "weird" food is uneatable, and people like me will go hungry rather than risk unwanted illness. Heston Blumenthal can keep his exotic and expensive concoctions. Bring back traditional English fare for the English Christmas table. Present it well, by all means - it need never be boring - but by doing so save some money by living and eating simply. Perhaps then, what we save out of reduced self-indulgence can be put towards the good of others who do not have our luxuries in the first place.

Tony White, Downham Market, UK

Having seen the description of your much used butter dish, my immediate thought was "must have one" On reflection it would end up abandoned in the back of the drawer or cupboard. We live in rural Spain on a typical mediterranian diet I doubt if we eat more than one 250g of butter per year. Now Olive oil is a completely different matter. We have our 18 trees to supply our needs. We have two apple eating trees with very good flavour and 16 purely for all. In my book a very wise investment.

Dave Horrod, Conquista De La Sierra, Spain

Food and I have an intimate connection. When I lost whom I thought was the love of my life, I was petrified to find that food no longer tastes. So I decided that I needed a trip to Rome in search of stimulus. San Crispino's green apple gelato, Il Gelatone's pistachio and hazelnut gelato, San Eustachio's macchiato, Santa Lucia's pappardelle with white truffle... still I was lost. I persevered, to Paris. Kayser's mini-financier, Gerald Mulot's pineapple-paired saffron macaron... I almost give up. Standing in the cold autumn wind, I thought of mom's rice vermicelli in chicken broth with pork meatballs, dad's steamed free-range chicken, grandma's ikan kembung seasoned with garlic and turmeric... I knew it was time to head back home.

Catherine Chong, Nottingham, UK

I hate food! For the last 41 years, the length of my marriage, I have had to plan menus, shop for food and cook the wretched stuff, every single day. Holidays bring little respite as we go away in our touring caravan so the routine continues with only the occasional respite of a meal bought out, which never lives up to expectations and as it can cost almost as much as my entire weekly food bill, leaves me wondering how it can possibly be worth so much money. Breakfast is the only meal I enjoy as it is the one meal my husband manages to get for himself, cereal, toast and orange juice. Pure joy, I can eat without without cooking or serving anyone else!

A Watkinson, Newmarket, Suffolk

Food is used to strengthen family ties and social connections in many cultures and religions. As the author mentioned the feast of Shabat eve in Judiasm and the bread and wine in Christianity both signify much more than indulging in delicacies... Islam also emphasises the social aspects of sharing food, not only with family and friends, but also with the poor and needy. Hence, in Ramadan, most Muslims will fast during the daylight hours in order to experience first-hand how those who are less fortunate feel everyday.

Kate, UK

My family is always having a supper together. I have to admit that sometimes, especially when I am feeling too tired after a long day,I choose to feed my family a ready meal. On the way back home from the school,my kids do not miss out to ask what we are having for a supper tonight. I buy fresh ingredients and make from the scratch most of the time means that most certainly it requires more time and efforts than quick oven or microwave meals. When the supper is ready to be served, we lit the candle lights on the dinning table,and having a chat over the meal. They do enjoy my food,but not just food. I always believe that there is much more than just sharing food. I believe that it brings family together,and I also strongly believe that my homemade food will not just feed them for healthy body but also it will feed their heart with my care and love.

Mi, Poole, Dorset

Meals around the table. 7 children, 11 years from top to bottom. Dad "don't play with your cutlery", "don't talk with your mouth full", "yes you can pick up the bone, but don't do it when you are out". Plain and simple food, meat and two veg. But oh the pleasure of the time spent together, debating the day, talking about school and play, sharing experiences, learning from each other. Cutting up the food for the younger children, having your last morsel taken from your plate by a brother. Moving the things you didn't like to the plate of the one who did and thinking your parent didn't notice. The food may have been important to a growing child but the memories of a daily gathering so much more so now. Christmas dinner, especially as we grew up and brought home boy or girlfriend. Dad cooked and 10 or 12 of us crowded around the table. After dinner the boys wash, dried and put away to a suitable rendition of the partridge in a pear tree routine suitably adapted when the words failed. Food and family around a table the bread of life.

Lesley Gee, Shipston on Stour, Warwickshire

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