This is what traditional British "pub grub" really looks like. Photo author's own.
Broadly speaking, TV isn’t a particularly posh medium. However, on weeknights, in that long lull between The One Show and Babestation, BBC2 gets sucked into a weird bouji black hole, a four-hour twilight zone where TV shops in Marks & Spencer and holidays in Provence.
On Monday night right now that means a programme called Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food. It seemed like a funny idea to me, a man travelling the country indulging in molten paninis, room-temperature scampi and massive fucking sandwiches served with wet crisps. But of course, it isn’t actually that. It is instead a sentimental journey through a mythical golden age of food culture that I, as someone who has spent a lot of time in pubs, cannot recognise at all.
Nothing in this show reminds me of The Misty Moon in Harlesden, or The Crystal Palace Wetherspoon in Glasgow, or Bernard Manning's "World Famous Embassy Club" in Harpurhey, Manchester. Instead, Kerridge's show seems set more in a place like Epcot, the Disneyworld park that ambitiously tries to recreate the entire planet through a series of cultural stereotypes. In Epcot, Britain is a tiny cul-de-sac with a red phonebox and a fudge shop. But while that kind of basic view of the country is pretty much expected of Disney execs, you’d think the Beeb would have a better understanding of these things. Alas, they don’t.
In the show, Kerridge (an affable West Country chap, who looks a bit like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket having gone through a course of CBT) goes on a journey to find the best of British "pub grub", and then attempts to recreate it himself in his fancy kitchen. A fine aim, you might think, for anyone who’s ever wolfed down a Yates's "Monday Madness" burger and thought “You know what, I’d really like to recreate this unique combination of flat Carlsberg, unevenly cooked meat and semi-thawed bread for my own friends and family.”
However, it quickly transpires that Tom has not been playing Pints For Prizes on the same itboxes as us. His idea of pub food is not the same pan-cultural, “anything goes as long as we can microwave it” culinary philosophy that usually convinces me I’d be better off with a second packet of crisps than anything requiring cutlery. Tom Kerridge's bizarre relationship with pub food seems to have been shaped by Rick Stein, Marcus Mumford and the British tourist board.
Tom has made the fatal mistake of confusing gastropubs for the norm. While gastropubs might elbow themselves into the Sunday supplements, boasting of Timothy Taylor on tap, backgammon and benches, the idea that their £19 roast dinners are enjoyed by anyone beyond a tiny elite is bogus. There are some cheaper options, I suppose; high-street joints with stone baked pizza ovens and flatscreen TVs, but they’re basically glorified student unions where Urban Outfitters shop floor managers watch Arsenal games. A real pub is basically just a place where people go to drink because it’s less depressing than their living rooms (but only just).
This isn't what traditional British "pub grub" really looks like. Photo by Jak Hutchcraft.
His idea of what most pubs actually serve is ridiculous. At one point in his show, he meets a man who makes delicious mussels and sells them out of a bubbling cauldron of broth. No doubt, they look great, and they probably taste great, but how many pubs in this country actually serve mussels? Surely most landlords wouldn't bother asking their kitchen staff – who are probably alcoholics, given that they work in a pub – to whip up something so likely to result in a food poisoning lawsuit? I mean, maybe you could find a few in the West Country, but the truth is that 99.5 percent of pubs are more likely to serve pad thai cooked by illegal workers than homemade mussels. Yet this, according to Tom Kerridge, is Proper British Pub Food: representative of our everyman pub cuisine.
He goes on, watching another chap create a sumptuous pastrami and cheese sandwich at a stall. Again, I wondered, what pubs serve artisan pastrami and cheese sandwiches? I was hoping Tom would point one out, but he didn’t. And frankly, even if the Plough & Harrow in Hammersmith were making such food, it would be an anomaly. A delicious, overpriced anomaly.
Perhaps Tom is harking back to the grand old days of pub food, where our grandparents supped mussel broth with their BrewDog pale ales? Well, as far as I can tell, pub food has always been shit. My grandfather was a real “sit in the corner all day with a copy of The Racing Post” man; he spent all of his spare time in the pubs of Elephant & Castle, yet he still came home for his meals. Why? Because pub food is uniformly terrible, and always has been. Pretending pubs were once the Fat Ducks of their day is as ridiculous a domestic legend as Spring-heeled Jack or St George killing the dragon. Even Tommy Robinson would balk at such ridiculous patriotism, knowing full well that a Selfridges sirloin betters anything the boozers of Britain can offer.
Again, this isn't what traditional British "pub grub" really looks like.
So why is Kerridge pedalling such a fallacy? Well, it’s because, on behalf of the nation, he’s trying to prove a point. He’s trying to prove that the people of Britain eat well. Something we’ve been struggling to make the planet believe for a while.
You can probably trace this insecurity back to the June 2005 G8 summit, at which Jacques Chirac made an offhand statement about British cuisine, stating that, “one cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad".
"After Finland," he continued, "it is the country with the worst food.” He rounded off his slagging with the emphatic claim that, “the only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease”.
Of course, it later transpired that the French were almost entirely responsible for the BSE outbreak, with their cannibalistic cattle feeding policy. But Chirac's harsh words sent shockwaves through our culture nonetheless. The tabloids launched into a DEFCON 1 state of jingoism, desperately trying to prove the worth of the full English, press-ganging celebrity chefs into hagiographic testimonies of the Yorkshire pudding, making cheap gags about frogs' legs and horse meat (some of which would come in useful a few years later).
Nor is this
Events like this one and other phenomena that have followed – bi-weekly E. coli outbreaks in Scotland, Instagram's gamification of lunch, Jamie Oliver's incessant fat-tongued haranguing of schoolchildren – have undermined our confidence in British food, making us peer with existential grief into both ourselves and our fridges. No longer would Britain be proud of Fray Bentos or ironically laud Little Chef. It had a food fight to partake in, and it was going to go about it by putting Scotch eggs in the Finest range and charging nine quid for cheese toasties in Islington cafes. Soon, legislation was passed where black pudding was required to be on every restaurant menu, TV cooking shows were inundated with Paul Bocuse-schooled chefs going nuts about “posh butties” and the public perception of most farmers went from Tony Martin to Anthony Worrall Thompson. The inbred, shotgun-wielding bogeymen our parents had taught us to fear began to look like a freethinking epicurean who refused to be a slave to the readymeal rat race.
We need to learn that while some British dishes are indisputably great, we don’t need to prove anything to anybody, not least Dr Oetker and his preening army of baby octopus munching bastards on the mainland. Charging more money for something doesn’t make us look better, it just makes us look like dickheads for charging it and morons for buying it. The best food cultures on Earth all have a fantastic understanding of “peasant food”, the home-grown basics that fuel the nation. By ripping ourselves off for the things that should be most accessible, we’ve inadvertently made one-pound pizza the fuel of the nation.
In no way am I saying that this problem is solely Kerridge's making; we all need to cut the shit and stop pretending pub food is great. It isn’t, it never was, and as long as we continue in this pattern of overcharging and undercooking, it never will be. We have nothing to be proud of, yet nothing to be ashamed of, either. It is what it is: sustenance for people who are too drunk or too afraid to go home. Pretending that we all eat mussels when we’re on the piss isn’t fooling anyone, other than a few BBC producers, obviously.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
More from VICE: