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Friday 14 March 2008

Delia Smith Cheats at Cooking? [Lurks]

Delia Smith, the original British celebrity cook, has released a book called How to Cheat at Cooking. There's also something on TV, I don't know where. I turned it on and saw it. To my horror Delia was constructing some dish out of frozen mashed potato.

So, I'm sort of fond of Delia just because I find her likeable, shallow I know. However as a food educator I was never very impressed. We've got a couple of old Delia food bibles on the shelf and we've tried to cook from it. In Delia's time anyone who did this sort of thing was as snooty as you could get. It'd be rammed with ingredients you couldn't even buy in any supermarket and of all other concerns such as cooking technique, and health considerations... there were none. To Delia an undercooked vegetable or daring to skim off fat, it was all a strict no-no. That's not to say she was useless, you have to remember how bad British food was and the fact that NO ONE could cook. She taught people to boil eggs who didn't know how.

My god how things have moved on though! Celebrity chefs are here in spades and largely they all do something of incalculable value. They show ordinary people how to make good healthy food from ingredients you can actually buy. I think this has turned the UK around. The best bit of television I watched this year was Masterchef. I'm not sure we're as a nation yet obsessed with food, we still don't take our time over lunch and dinner as the French, but at least we now understand real food and largely we're all cooking for ourselves.

So what to make of Delia's latest? I'm gobsmacked really. Her argument is basically that we shouldn't be snobbish about food (am I the only one that finds that pretty damn ironic?) and that she's doing a service for people who can't or wont cook, who don't have time, or the money, etc. People who would otherwise eather eat takeaway or ready meals. That's a pretty laudible goal but I am a little perplexed that Delia of all people feels qualified to tackle it.

Further to that, what is she actually showing off? Well, essentially she's proposing that one puts together actual proper meals out of things ostensibly sold in packets, tins and jars so there's pretty much zero actual raw ingredient preparation. Among her ingredients include pre-packed crispy bacon, frozen mashed potato and frozen char grilled aubergines, tinned lambs mince and... much more. The hilarious thing is that many of the ingredients she's chosen can't be easily found so at least she's retaining an air of consistency in her career.

What, though, is the point of it all? The Guardian got together a panel of people to look at the food. The conclusion is that in several of the cases it takes longer to make the dish this way than the 'proper' way. The ingredients were nowhere to be found and even if you could buy them they'd be more expensive than the normal ingredients.

The worst thing of all, quite clearly, is that by using pre-processed food such as this you are not only compromising to ridiculous degree in the taste department but you're also using ingredients with severely unhealthy levels of fat, salt, and god knows what else. For what possible upside? Longer to prepare, more expensive, loads more environmentally unsound packaging. The only possible upside I can think is to sell her book!

Why the hell do we even need this nonsense? The shelves are rammed with relatively tasty ready meals if you really can't be arsed to do anything, and if you can be bothered to do slightly more supermarkets have countless solutions such as sauces in jars. Brown a bit mince, boil up some pasta, chuck a jar of sauce in there. And there's so much more exotic than that, grab some frozen prawns, tin of stir-fry vegetables and a green curry sauce package. There's loads of this stuff, we keep some of it when we haven't the time to cook properly.

Lest we forget what supermarkets have: There's on-shelf packets of pre-prepared salads, sealed packets of stir fry vegetables with a helpful soy sauce sachel. There's fresh filled ravioli and tortellini complete with large variety of chilled pasta sauces. There's even high quality pizzas and shelves full of sliced exotic meats for additional topings. There's kippers in packets, countless lovely read-to-eat stuff from the Deli including a fresh 'curry kit' from Waitrose and Sainsburys. There's those cracking Old El Paso boxes to make mexican food with just an onion and a packet of mince.

Since this is in the UK there's every different curry sauce known to man in a jar with every type of angle on it from severely anglesized through to real imported Indian concentrates. There's jars of chopped finicky ingredients like garlic and chilli. There's tins of tuna and red kidney beans, mix beans, corn, tubes of handy tomato puree - allowing for a fantastic spicy tuna pasta type dish in 3 goddamn minutes... the list goes on and on and on.

So what's Delia's real argument here? She's actually ignored ALL of the sensible real solutions on the shelves on the supermarket and deliberately gone for the entirely suspect ingredients as if to prove a point, sow some controversy, possibly, and to sell some books, definately.

Well she can fuck right off. This book isn't a help. The food is shit, expensive, hard to make and bad for you. Shame on you Delia. Anyone that wants to make a meal should go pick up handy recipe sheets from their supermarket, or just browse the shelves or, far better yet, buy a book from an actual modern relevant celebrity chef or watch one of their television programs.

It's time to let sleeping dogs lie.


  1. De-glorifying cookery and showing that frozen or pre-prepared veg can be used in a normal recipe was admirable. Great honest talking. If frozen mash is real potato with real butter, what's wrong with that? It's not the powdered stuff which has no place in a modern kitchen.

    But she lost the plot when she said that it was okay to make Shepherd's Pie using tinned mince. it's just not. You may as well say it's okay to make sandwiches with spam or to regularly eat a Fray Bentos pie. It's not acceptable to buy tinned mince when it only takes five minutes to brown £1.50 of lean steak mince and add a tin of chopped tomoatoes. So she lost my support with that particular recipe.

    Really though, the programme needs to be called Delia's Youth Cookery or Neo-Student Dinners.


  2. Well I guess I dispute that she's de-glorifying cooking. She did quite a lot to make cooking fairly unapproachable in my view. I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but it also wasn't useful for working families. The new wave of chefs like Jamie Oliver have done far more to show that anyone can cook.

    Frozen mash... If it didn't have extra shit in it then I'd say fine. One look on the web site for the shit she favors though, yep sure enough - high levels of fat and salt. Probably nearing a gram of salt and ten grams of fat in a helping of it.

    I'm not saying there's no value in this type of thing but I think it's been done far better by more credible people before. It depresses me ingredients are selling out which she's promoting. She's actually getting people to eat more of that type of food. That's a disaster!


  3. There's two ways of looking at it, as a slide down from what people should be doing, or a step up from buying ready meals and McDonalds.

    I'm not that impressed personally, and I've suffered a similar fallout with Nijella who's just done a very similar style book. Now more than ever, people need to learn how to cook from scratch and not rely on overpackaged pre-prepared shite, and people like Delia should be leading the way, not taking us backwards.


  4. Well that's just it, she's pitching it as a step up from people buying ready meals and McDonalds. I'm saying that if you have any inclination to put a pot on the stove at all, supermarkets already offer you countless options. For fuck sake is it like she's just the first person who's thought of convenience food? Supermarkets spend their every fucking waking hour thinking about this shit.