As well as creating a lot more work for women, the gormandising of Christmas has seen tradition trumped by foodist fashion. This year, the middle classes feel compelled to invest in a festive ‘wow factor’. Demand for extravagant centrepieces and weird food has soared. All the best tables will be sporting a multiple bird roast, where different types of bird are stuffed inside a larger one; the more the merrier. Hugh Fernley Whittingshall’s ten-bird effort last year has been trumped by a 48-bird roast, created by a Norfolk farmer, comprising 12 different species. It weighs almost four stone and costs £665.
It’s fair to say the multiple bird roast won’t be on the menu for the 80,000 kids in temporary accommodation this Christmas. Even if they could afford the ten pound Aldi version there’d be nowhere to put it; a recent Shelter report said most families living in B&B’s this Christmas don’t have a table. Shared kitchens and bathrooms mean many kids are forced to share these intimate family spaces with strangers.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently said the emphasis on consumption was ruining Christmas for struggling families. I think the pressure to deliver a pop-up culinary experience with a wow factor, rather than just Christmas dinner, is just as guilt-inducing, possibly more so, for those whose Christmas budget won’t even stretch to the basics.
The whole point about Christmas dinner is that it isn’t a big culinary performance. It used to be low key and functional before the foodies turned it into a test of culinary mettle and set us up to fail. When I was growing up, women were pleased to be relieved of the drudgery of feeding a family: instant mash was perceived as liberating, rather than shameful junk. In the seventies, Delia Smith produced a popular recipe book called How to Cheat at Cooking, which advised “make up the onion sauce from the instructions on the packet”.
Stephen Poole’s fascinating anti food polemic, You Aren’t What You Eat says that it was “palpably subliminal feminism that enlivened How to Cheat at Cooking”. There was no need to pass the onion sauce off as homemade; why would you be ashamed of cutting corners when cheating was a feminist act?
My mother was a big exponent of cutting culinary corners. As a child I didn’t know you could make your own mince pies – I never had a homemade one until I was in my thirties. My mum hardly ever cooked, and never felt guilty about it. The focus of our family Christmases was the people round the table, not the food on the plate. Most of the Christmas dinner was bought: stuffing, gravy, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and brandy butter.
Now food culture has come full circle. Packet stuffing in Christmas Turkey and any number of other ‘short cut’s like Bisto granules are now perceived as morally reprehensible. If you don’t cook your roast potatoes in goose fat, maple-glaze your parsnips, or construct Mary Berry’s grade 2 listed gingerbread house, you are letting yourself down and, more importantly, letting your family down.
Middle class women are tied to the stove again, and food shopping is now called ‘sourcing’, which seems to take five times as long. It’s an anxious time for the middle class foodie; the must-have turkeys from the top organic online suppliers are just as likely to sell out as a must-buy outfit on net a porter; then what will we do? Buy a four-bird roast from Aldi for a tenner? Or go hungry?
And yet the Aldi roast would be aspirational to the countless families in food poverty. The food banks are distributing thousands of Christmas food parcels this season as the government’s Dickensian welfare reforms have bitten. Food banks are an ironic counterpoint to food culture. There was a 170 per cent increase in the number of people using them in 2012.
Research conducted for Ipsos Mori recently found that 9 per cent of London children – that’s as many as 74,000 children – may be suffering from inadequate nutrition. Behind the statistics are stories of people in precarious situations when a tiny misfortune precipitates calamity. One woman described sitting, unemployed and broke in her freezing flat on Christmas day last year, with no presents, no TV, nothing in the fridge, and no child – she’d sent her one-year-old to spend Christmas with his dad as it was the only option.
I first met the multiple bird roast in real life a couple of years ago. In the play Filth, about the Bullingdon Club, it was a symbol of decadent excess. Like the abused songbirds boiled alive and eaten whole by gourmands (including President Mitterand) with napkins over their heads to stop God from seeing, until the practice was banned, the roast in Filth was meant to be disgusting.
The online reviewers of the Aldi four-bird roast seem to have missed the point. They weren’t chowing it down in a salacious reverie, or reveling in its Romanesque vulgarity like the Oxonians in Filth, but judging it in the terms Aldi were marketing it – as a nice change from turkey – and finding it wanting.
The mass-market versions of fashionable foodist products cut a curious figure on the supermarket shelves. You can buy gilding glaze in Asda for less than the price of a bag of chips. Once a sign of wealth and opulence in the 16th century, now everyone can experience the vulgarity of the Tudor Court in their suburban dining room. Is this culinary escapism a good thing? What does it mean?
The most expensive Christmas dinner, costing £125,000, features a £3000-pound melon and a £5000-pound serving of pistachios. Most people will be experiencing it vicariously, as I did when I Googled “most expensive Christmas dinner”. Culinary escapism is a middle class sport that now has mass appeal. This year, many poor families will be experiencing the satiety of Christmas vicariously. Watching Christmas Bake Off on an empty stomach must be as tormenting and compelling as smelling the emanations from Willy Wonka’s factory was for malnourished Charlie Bucket. Unfortunately, there is no golden ticket out of their predicament.