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Food watching

Vic Howard


People tell me I take odd holidays. Personally speaking, I find flying 2000 miles in order to lie beside a hotel swimming pool for ten days  seems really odd, but everyone to their taste.

Well, there I was, wandering through Highgate Cemetery on a wet and dull day during my summer break last year, when I stumbled across Philip Harben. He was snuggled up against Patrick Wymark; just inside the gates. An odd sleeping companion, I thought,  but who knows what his preferences were when he was with us.

Philip Harben. Do you remember him? He was the first of the TV cooks, back in the days of black & white TV. Little did he know what he was starting.

Here in Sweden, where I live, the TV schedules are filled with those retched food preparing programmes. They even hold competitions in cooking and baking. It has got to the stage where it is now being referred to as Food Pornography, probably because  more people watch it than do it. The average modern Swedish house or flat has a kitchen that costs as much as a small car and is equipped with all the gadgets man can think of, but none of it gets used much. People have to go to work and their children  are left at nursery or playschool. They get home late and tired and have no desire to cook anything; besides which, they had a very good restaurant lunch at midday and are not hungry. When Swedes do get around to cooking something they go into the garden  in summer and incinerate some meat on the barbeque. Food preparation has become TV entertainment for long winter evenings – and almost every other evening as well, judging by the schedules.

It wasn’t always like this, though, was it?

Dear Philip Harben, with his neatly trimmed beard and soft voice showed us how easy it could be done. Nothing fancy. No expensive ingredients. No Atlantic Cruise Liner kitchen units. Just enthusiasm. And it was live too, which  is why he had to go through the "and here is one I made earlier" routine to speed up the process. He published his The Grammar of Cookery in 1960 and it was revised and reprinted several times over the following years.  What a gem! Our copy has been professionally rebound although it was only a paper back originally. The cookery bookshelf in our kitchen is three tiered, but it is Philip Harben who gets referred to most often. There are no mouth-watering pictures, just solid, good advice.  He is basic and thorough and tells you why  as well as how food behaves when being cooked. He wasn’t the first famous cook, of course, but he was the first to enter our homes and talk to us sensibly about cooking.

Compare Philip Harben with Constance  Spry, for instance. I bought her Cookery Book in my early twenties when I wanted to learn about food. I was more interested in the eating than the cooking then. It cost £4 at the time, which was about eight times the price of the average book, but  it did weigh-in at 4 lbs so was pretty good value for money in that respect. Constance Spry was no TV star. I doubt if she ever owned one. She belonged to the "first kill the cow" generation of cooks. I didn’t have a cow, but I did hope I might  one day be invited to a weekend house party where classic Constance Spry dishes would be prepared. We all have our dreams.

Mrs Beeton is perhaps the one  who started it all a hundred years earlier with her Book of Household Management. No doubt Mrs Bridges of Upstairs & Downstairs would have used that one. I can still hear her saying "A stew boiled is a stew spoiled."

But TV cooks were something else.  They produced soufflés like rabbits out of a hat, with a flourish!. I remember one TV cook, Mary somebody-or-other who wore a wide, multi-petticoat skirted dress when performing at the stove. She would walk across the kitchen swinging her skirt like  a church bell. The outfit was more suitable for the school prom than a kitchen. Then, of course, there was Fanny Craddock and her apparently hen-pecked husband Johnnie, though I suspect the hen-pecking routine was for the cameras only. Fanny and Jonnie  would always be dressed as though they were going to the opera. How they managed to keep the clothes free from food stains I shall never know. The one that was "made earlier" was probably done with an apron in place.
Sarah Brown was one of the first to introduce us to the benefits of a vegetable diet and  since then there have been many attempts to improve our eating habits and, more recently, to consider the environment when buying ingredients. But despite all the good advice the fast food and pizza joints still make remarkable profits and the pharmaceutical  industry makes a further fortune selling cholesterol reducing drugs we eat to compensate for our bad eating habits.

Love him or loath him, Keith Floyd was a flamboyant cook who travelled the world upsetting people and slurping red wine as he went. He was no educator and, though he was very experienced in his profession, chose to perform as though he had no regard for  the food he was preparing; throwing things into the pot before taking yet another slurp. I well remember him almost setting fire to a hotel room when filming a scene; and when he visited Sweden he outraged the TV public by boiling crayfish as though they  were potatoes, instead of killing them quickly and painlessly in boiling water.

Today’s generation of TV cooks prefer the complicated, exotic, "mucked- about-with" approach. Somebody said recently that the more you pay for a restaurant dinner, the more you can be certain it has been "mucked about with" in the kitchen. Philip  Harben never "mucked about" with food. He never put flower petals into a desert or dribbled a sauce in a line around the plate and he never leaned closely over the food and busied with both hands while breathing into it.

TV cooks have come and gone and fashions have changed. Have we learned anything from them, I wonder? We have been introduced to many ingredients we had never heard of in the post-war period. Olive oil was unheard of in an English kitchen. Spices were  exotic, expensive and unavailable in the local grocers. I didn’t taste spaghetti until I was in my twenties and cheese that wasn’t hard, dry and come from Cheddar hardly existed in my world. Food is no longer seasonal. I sometimes look at  my plate and try to count the number of different countries the ingredients have come from, often from the other side of the globe, in order to allow me to eat anything I please at any time of year. Not very environmentally friendly I admit.

We have become consumers of products presented to us by the food processing industries. Fewer than a dozen international companies control the food we eat and avoiding extra sugar or, worse still, modified maze products that have been turned into sweeteners  and emulsifiers is a full time occupation for the informed shopper. What would Philip Harben have said about that?

I used to live in Somerset when I was newly married. Our local butcher killed his own meat. He let it hang and when it was cooked it melted in the mouth. Animals died quickly and painlessly and were not stressed. Today cattle are herded through metal  pens in factories while being prodded to keep them moving. They see others being killed and are stressed at the point of death. Quickly jointed, the meat is often frozen immediately and packed in plastic. Not infrequently it is injected with extra water  to increase weight or with chemicals to make it  "mature". When we collect it from the supermarket it is a product not a cut of meat. It releases the water when being cooked, shrivels and ends up like shoe leather on the plate. Chickens no longer taste  as they did when mother raised them in the garden and father killed them in the shed. Studies have shown that the average factory farm chicken and even those that are supposed to be free-range, i.e. are not in cages but still have little room to move,  have less vitamin and nutritional value than they once had. We fill our stomachs with fodder that is tasteless and harmful unless we make every effort to obtain unprocessed ingredients or grow our own.

Food Pornography continues to titillate on TV and many find it entertaining, but has the genre of the TV cook really made progress in the past sixty years since Philip Harben? I doubt it.
I hope he rests well in Highgate.

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