Food, in and of itself, is emotionless. Much more, it is a vehicle for how we are feeling. You slurp at a Mr Whippy because you are happy on a hot day. You eat an entire sharing bag of crisps in bed because your hangover is very seriously threatening to murder you. There is all of humanity in a potato smiley: it can be a symbol of love, or of total debasement. It can also just be something you eat because you've not done a big shop and it was in the freezer.
What I am saying is that food is what we make it, and nowhere is this clearer than on food TV shows, especially British ones. Because food is so malleable, and so part of our (and every!) national landscape, there is always a food programme to watch, no matter your mood, whether you're feeling Very Zen (anything with Nigel Slater) or listless as fuck ( Hell’s Kitchen USA).
Like fine wine and cheese pairings, I have matched a bunch of food shows to mood, with objective correctness:
If you came to my flat during an episode of Masterchef, here is an overview of what you would hear and observe:
Me: "A velouté is it?"
*Gesturing to my housemate* "He’s doing a velouté."
"It’s a chicken one."
*Taking enormous, open-mouthed bite of charred Linda McCartney sausage that I slung in the oven 20 minutes previously* "The cunt."
"It's no good, it's gone too thin."
*Dipping the bitten end of the sausage, raw-ended and terrible, into the ketchup pooling at the side of my plate* "He has absolutely fucked it, the stupid prick, not enough flour in his roux."
*Shaking my head, holding a new sausage like a cigarette.*
Watching Masterchef, in lots of ways, is like watching professional sports. It's possible to accrue a level of knowledge about things like football or cooking through sustained interest, but that doesn’t mean you have actually developed any of these skills yourself. But it's as though this lack of ability, this abstract idea of a skill, makes us even more smug when we’re observing people who are actually good at the thing. Somehow, the fact I know what a jus is, but could never in my dreams concoct a decent one (at least, not one without granules) renders shouting at the television, looking on as Phil from Newcastle fucks up his jus, even more enjoyable.
HORNY: Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares
Look, I can't explain it either. It's one of the great mysteries of existence: why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why does hearing an ocean of expletives about overdone sea bass pouring out the mouth of a man whose face looks like hardwood flooring provoke something deep within my loins? I think it's one of those things you only find out once you die.
REALLY EASILY PISSED OFF: Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food
The only point of comparison I have for watching Jamie Oliver programmes is the act of purposefully hate-scrolling through the Twitter profile of someone you muted ages ago because they're so fucking annoying.
Jamie is, of course, a well-known tit and class traitor, but I watch his new Channel 4 series Jamie's Quick and Easy Food with near-religiosity. Firstly, this is because, as I push Quorn á la nugget into the hole in my face, I like to look at his carefully styled salads and stews. It makes me think I could make food like that if I wanted to, and the idea that I might lovingly toss rustic kale salads with freshly roasted almonds is, to me, basically the same as actually having done it, except this way I am actually eating breaded onion rings, which is better. It is secondly because there is no act I find more ecstatic than roaring my living room down every time Jamie makes a salad dressing out of natural yoghurt (approx. three times an episode).
I watch Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food out of a perverse desire to be wound up. There are so many things about this show that make me want to scream, and I love them all:
Annoying Things About Jamie Oliver and Specifically Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food (non-exhaustive):
- Jamie’s insistence on saying that different herbs are best friends with each other. Usually I would find this sweet, but he has been known to award basil three different "best friends" throughout the course of a 30-minute episode, which is emotionally dishonest.
- The conceit of Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food is that you need only! five! components! to make any of the dishes featured. This is an out-and-out lie, which I will now expose. There are a number of items that Jamie considers "store cupboard staples" which do not count as part of the five official ingredients. Some of these – salt, pepper – are sensible. Olive oil is fair enough at a push. But I am afraid that RED WINE VINEGAR as a prerequisite pantry essential is beyond the pale.
- And another thing, actually. "Five ingredients only" it might be, but when one of those five ingredients is literal clams it becomes a great deal less accessible, doesn’t it, Jamie??? You can’t pop down to Iceland for some clams, you Tory prat.
What I am saying is that the only reason to watch self-congratulatory, middle-aged dudes doing cooking programmes is to get extremely, indulgently pissed off. See also: Sunday Brunch.
Tired: The Great British Bake Off
The Great British Bake Off – BBC version only, sorry; real heads ONLY – is the cooking show equivalent of being tucked up in bed by Mel and Sue, with a warm mug of cocoa and a story about the origins of the meringue (except for the time someone put that bearded lad's cake in the bin, which was the most exhilarating television I have ever seen in my life).
SAD: Anything with Nigella
You might have assumed that Nigella would be in the horny section, but to merely get horny to Nigella is to underestimate her entirely. Nigella is a real one. She absolutely gets it; she understands you: she's insecure sometimes, too – like when she says she's not really very good at chopping veg, or when she gazes wistfully over her batch of devilled eggs – but she gives it a decent go anyway. And isn't that all we can do, in the eggless lemon polenta cake of life? Nigella knows that it is.
ABSOLUTELY HYSTERICAL: Dinner Date or Come Dine With Me
Any programme that involves amateur cooks allowing strangers into their homes is automatically The Best Thing on TV. Dinner Date and Come Dine with Me are the kingpins of the genre, and they have achieved this status because both of them are carried on the wings of a very mild but specific hysteria. On both shows, every contestant is buzzing on a frequency you can only reach if you are wearing high heels in your own home and showing off for a TV camera and trying to cook a three-course meal as you do it.
On Dinner Date, Becky, 26, who likes boxercise, has done a boxercise-themed menu with a starter inexplicably called "Ding ding! Get ready to rumble with my king prawns and homemade sweet chilli dip", and some lad called Rob, 28, is reading that menu and going, "Seems like she’s into boxing, might have to be careful with that one, haha." On Come Dine with Me, Keith is telling Sara that he doesn’t agree with woman drivers. They both score Alan’s chicken wrapped in parma ham ft. side of asparagus a 6, citing "the atmosphere of the evening" as the reason they did not award more points.
All of it, utterly hysterical.
NIHILISTIC: Man Vs Food
If you are feeling existential and would like to wallow in it, may I suggest flicking on an episode of Man Vs Food (extremely not British, I know, but its deepest-held ideals – pulled pork, bacon compulsion in lieu of a personality – have become embedded enough in our food culture for it to still count). Let the wastefulness of a foot-wide cheeseburger wash over you; wonder about the point of literally anything at all as a guy who looks like he owns a Female Body Inspector T-shirt tries once again to eat 70 chicken wings coated in chocolate ghost chilli sauce and vomits all over himself. Nothing matters. It's comforting, really.
WEEKDAY HUNGOVER: The cooking bit on This Morning
Holly and Phil, lovely Holly and Phil. Holly is stroking your hair and saying, "It's OK." Schofe – silver fox Schofe – he is smiling, and saying, "Shhh." They are not actually saying these things, you understand, but watching their easy banter and kind faces on the television is comforting you and your sore head and your sicky belly, and they might as well be.
You know the hangover will only ease off if you eat something, but you have not moved for many hours, so you settle for the next best thing: watching lovely Holly and lovely Phil watch Gino D'Acampo make a quiche which is "perfect for summer picnics and barbecues". Someone has said something vaguely dirty, like "stick it in", and they are all laughing. It is so lovely. You are smiling now. Your bad head is cured, your drunk texts deleted from history, your vomit cleaned up off the sides of the sink. Holly and Phil have made everything better.