There is very little, any more, that bonds us as a nation. On most things, the country seems to be split straight down the middle, siphoning us off into spiteful little sects. Half of us want fewer immigrants. Half of us identify as shy. Half of us – staggeringly – take our own bleach to hotels. Half of us wouldn’t bother going on a trip to the moon because, among other things, there’s “not enough to see or do”. None of this data paints a picture of people who travel especially well, so it’s a shame that we all seem to hate each other so violently. Now that the pandemic has hit, we’re stuck here together for the long-haul. We might as well strive for some common ground.
In an attempt to bring about national unity, I have decided to analyse the 39th most popular contemporary show currently airing on our TV screens and figure out who the British people "really are". Which is to say: I have decided to count up every winning starter, main and dessert from Come Dine With Me to determine the nation’s favourite things to eat.
First, I phoned a nice man named Henry who works at ITV to see if he could give me access to winning menus and make this process a little less, “oh god, what have I done”. Henry said that ITV don’t keep the CDWM menus neatly filed away (shocking!) and something called “GDPR” meant he couldn’t give me the names of winning contestants. I respect Henry, and I appreciate his time, even though he didn’t respond to my frequent follow-up emails after our initial call. If you’re reading this, I understand you have more important things to do with your life, Henry – but also: do you?
Anyway, the upshot was that I actually had to manually watch each episode of CDWM currently available on the Channel 4 website, creating a Winning Dish Spreadsheet as I went – an excellent use of both my “bachelor’s degree” and remaining time on this mortal coil, and I won’t be entertaining suggestions to the contrary. I have no regrets, though I do have complaints about Channel 4's media player, which is rude, disgusting and surely violates several human rights laws.
A word on methodology, for nerds. Not every episode of CDWM is available on Channel 4's website, but there’s a nice smattering starting from 2006. There have been 1,647 episodes of CDWM to date, meaning there have been roughly 300 to 400 winners (because early in the format there were five hosts a week and later only four).
I analysed 300 dishes from 100 winners – at best a third (and at worst a quarter) of all winners to date. I analysed dishes from 2006 to 2011, because once I hit 2012, the artist formerly known as 4OD crapped out on me and started doing that skip-forward-a-minute-in-the-episode-and-I’ll-show-you-four-more-adverts thing. I want you to know this project took strength of will, and also a lot of time. Should you admire me? That is not for me to decide.
The first thing I found is that there’s actually lots of variety in winning CDWM dishes, meaning a specific dish only needed to win four or five times to be the most frequent.
Let’s begin with the starters, and an absolute brain-melter of a fact. It feels hard to prepare you for this… The most commonly winning starter was: smoked trout pâté. I have – no exaggeration – never heard of her! If that wasn’t shocking enough, only one winner made asparagus wrapped in pancetta, a dish that seems to crop up at some point in every episode of CDWM. The second most popular starter was a “tapas selection”, while stuffed peppers and stuffed mushrooms came joint third.
However, if we take a step back, soften the focus, and look at genres of starter, soup is by far the most popular dish. Precisely 18 out of 100 winning starters were soups, while only ten were different types of pâté (as well as trout, there was chicken, salmon and duck). Finally, shout out to the wildcard starters that only appeared once: pizza, fresh grapefruit and battered zebra.
A few questions, now, about humanity. Why do so many people have red dining rooms, and who let them? Why do so many middle-aged women like to describe food as “orgasmic”? Why don’t the people who bashfully give their hosts higher scores the next morning get Pride of Britain awards? Why isn’t the line, “I honestly can’t believe I’ve come joint last with somebody whose snake pooed on the table,” etched on a plaque?
If you were enjoying this wild, wild ride of an article, it will come as a disappointment to you and a surprise to precisely no one that the most popular main was a fillet of beef, tied in first with baked salmon. In the words of one of the all-time greats: dear Lord, what a sad little life, Great Britain.
Thankfully, the nation redeems itself with steak as the third-most popular dish (and if you combine steak and “steak pies”, then steak would be the overall winner). Sea bass, moussaka and chicken curry are tied for fourth place. Genre-wise, 20 out of 100 mains featured beef, 16 included chicken, ten were lamb-based and only seven were made using pork.
Some observations. My laptop is whirring. People like to name puddings “surprise” when they’re not very surprising. When someone loses the competition, they tend to either blink twice and force out a smile or do a sarcastic “Woo-hoo!” I am mortified by the transparency of our existence – that, try as we might to conceal them, our emotions are etched upon our faces for all the world to see.
Pudding’s a tricky one to analyse. Technically, the most popular specific dish was tiramisu, but if you count any flavour of ice cream or sorbet together, then the frozen stuff is a clear winner, totalling 11 out of 100 winning dishes. Genre-wise, however, chocolate steals the show, because if you combine all the chocolate tortes, tarts, fondants and mousses, they make up 20 of the 100 victorious dishes, a whole fifth of the CDWM contestants’ favourite desserts. Special shout out goes to the three hosts who offered a trio of puds; surely a winning strategy.
So, if you find yourself on the nation’s 39th most popular contemporary TV programme and don’t know what to cook, the answer is: smoked trout pâté, a fillet of beef and tiramisu. If you’re looking for a nudge in the right direction but want to exercise creative freedom within broader parameters, go with soup, steak and chocolate.
There is no need to thank me, but if I were you, I would.