They form a powerful part of our personal and cultural history. But we need to allow for experimentation – and not be outraged when ingredients are changed
You’ll no doubt be aware that the internet, though a marvellous invention, is also a maelstrom of pedants, trolls, mansplainers and sealions (sealioning being “the name given to a specific, pervasive form of aggressive cluelessness, that masquerades as a sincere desire to understand”).
These annoyances are everywhere, but if you were to ask for my nomination for where, in this vortex of pomposity, the splainiest splainers (of both genders) are to be found, I would direct you to an online recipe website.
“Looks delicious,” the comment under a chef’s expert recipe will read, “but I myself would add a pinch of dried garlic, and use green chilli instead of red.” Another smuggins will interject: “Personally, I would substitute the chicken for a pigeon, and indeed not use tinned chopped tomatoes but plum.” “It’s not a cacciatore without a bell pepper,” lonelymaninmumsbasement87 will insist. “YOU’RE a bell pepper,” chiefpedant46 will naturally retort.
And on and on, until the original recipe is unrecognisable, and its original author would be well within their rights to attack the laptop with a hammer while screaming: “WHY DO I BOTHER, YOU UNGRATEFUL AMATEURS?”
Cooking can be an unexpectedly fraught discussion topic, as Mary Berry discovered to her detriment this week when she committed the crime of adding white wine instead of red to a classic ragu bolognese (which is perfectly acceptable according to an Italian ex, and a crime against humanity according to pastamonger Antonio Carluccio). Witnessing Berry’s act of madness, people who know nothing about cooking went nuts, to the point where it made the front page of the Daily Mail. Berry’s suggestion to add double cream also caused a stink – despite other Italian chefs doing the same.
Poor Jamie Oliver knows the feeling well. He is always getting a kicking for his open-minded approach to recipes, most recently for his paella, which was declared an “abomination” for containing both chicken and chorizo (there actually exists a Valencian authentic paella movement called Wikipaella). Of course, as he once said in a rant about food fascism, maintaining regional food traditions is important, but not at the expense of all creativity and innovation. Italians are particularly rigid about their recipes (my friend Michele almost wept real tears when he saw that British restaurants often add cream to carbonara). Oliver declared them “stubborn fuckers”.
Italian food is delicious, and I have had some of the best meals of my life while living in Italy, but the country’s uncompromising attitude can suck some of the joy out of cooking. The attitude to “ethnic food” is particularly troublesome – in 2009, the cities of Lucca and Milan introduced a ban on foreign food outlets. How dreary, not to mention racist. Though tasty, the homogeneity of Italian food can be boring, and by the time I came home, I was desperate for some spice.
One of the wonderful things about Britain is our culinary variety and adventurousness, and it is one of the things that you miss most when abroad. I feel immensely privileged to have access to cuisines originating from all over the world, and am saddened by the devastating impact of immigration rules on curry houses particularly (two or three are closing a week). Cooking and eating are two of the great inclusive activities. I suspect that some of the pedantry on recipe websites is a result of that; it comes from a desire to participate, to be included.
Food is also a crucial part of our own personal history: to this day, I cannot eat a pork chop, because they remind me of the poverty of my childhood, the dry, cloying meat catching in my throat like shame. My mum’s Sunday roast is a comfort and a symbol of how hard she fought for us as a family. A handwritten recipe discovered after a bereavement can be enough to move a son or daughter to tears with the memory of family dinners that they will never be able to eat together again. Apple puree, meanwhile, brings back memories of my Mamushka, who made it from the apples in her garden. I have a mental picture of my other grandmother drinking the “blood” from roast beef with a spoon, an act that reminds her of her war childhood in Hartlepool. I hope to pass down her delicious steamed chicken to my own children one day.
As powerful as food memories can be, when it comes to cooking I will always side with those who promote creativity. Food is too crucial and enjoyable a part of life to be viewed with the dispassion of a mathematical equation. If Berry puts white wine in her ragu, why not try it? But there are limits. Sainsbury’s “little twists” advertising campaign, which suggested adding instant coffee to spag bol and soy sauce to tomato and basil penne, remains a gastronomic crime. I’m all for inventiveness, but I’m not an animal.