We are obsessed with food. Everywhere I look there are food philosophers, and food activists with manifestos. There are the slow-food movement and Food not Bombs, the AMAP anti-food-mile warriors in France, pro-GM missionaries, the natural food movement (recently joined by Wolfgang Puck in LA) and the People’s Food Movement. There are the raw foodists, living juice lifestylers, wild food foragers, organic evangelists, the brotherhood of farmer’s markets and even a Found Food Movement in Portland, Oregon. On the darker side, fast-food guzzlers have grown so plentiful that 30,000 die of obesity annually in English hospitals. The government warns that in 20 years half of us will be too fat to get medical insurance (Heat magazine readers fully expect the other half to be anorexic).
One way or another, we probably don’t spend any less time thinking about where our next meal is coming from than our cave-dwelling ancestors did. We’ve just found new ways to do it. But it looks as though something has gone curiously wrong in our relationship with food.
The most highly praised of our famous chefs are the highbrow molecular gastronomists like Heston Blumenthal who have labs rather than kitchens, and make things like Trompe L’oeil sausages, goose-liver whipped cream and liquid quiche Lorraine. What they do is wildly entertaining conceptual art, and I don’t believe they care a jot if they give people indigestion — but in the end, they’re just messing about with food.
Given that there are so many ways of looking at feeding ourselves, and that food is a political issue as well as an obsession, an individual has to know where they stand. Personally, I’m on the side of the Hippocratic dictum — ‘Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food’. I’m too impatient to be a good cook, but I am totally fascinated by the nutritional properties of foods. Planning menus around themes like South American Spice or whatever is a dotty irrelevance to me. I think the secret of cooking lies in nourishing people in a way that revives them, body and soul.
Research is vital in knowing what to feed someone who is stressed or taking exams (almonds for memory-boosting and stress-reduction, fish for brainpower, for instance). It’s exhilarating to discover what foods will restore someone who’s depressed, having digestive problems, pale and lacking in energy, and so on. And then see the food do its work. In this context, most fashionable recipe books and TV shows become redundant, and you turn instead to archaic herbals and international databases of the medicinal uses of herbs, vegetables and fruits.
Judging by the large number of online cookware shops, our lust for kitchen equipment is an extension of the infatuation with food, and this makes them a good choice for Christmas presents. You really can’t give cooking kit to women, even in these post-feminist times — it’s like giving a woman a Hoover. But you can give cookware to the large number of husbands who cook, and you probably should give really good cookware to young people, especially undergraduates.
Forget the chocolate fountain, the cappuccino machine, the gadgets that need batteries, anything coated in non-stick polytetrafluoroethylene, or the expensive corkscrew that is no match for the £5 Waiter’s Friend. To help freshmen establish a reasonable relationship with food, possibly for the rest of their lives, and support them through their course, buy them solid cookware in materials that have stood the test of time.
It takes roughly 15 minutes to prepare a great supper in a humble terracotta chicken (or fish) brick. You put it in a cold oven on a medium setting and an hour later get fabulously nourishing chicken and vegetables cooked in their own juices which make the cook look like a genius. It’s perfect for people who don’t have time to cook and will make the dodgy late-night burger lose its appeal. Again for new cooks, the cast-iron casseroles by Le Creuset, Staub or Lafont in Buenos Aires make delicious, nourishing food and are coated in thick enamel in lovely colours.
Lustrous copper pans lined in stainless steel, though they don’t speed up cooking times, do turn a good cook into a maestro (it’s something to do with even heat distribution) and make great presents for men. My husband wants sharp knives by Wusthof, Henckels or Chroma knives from Japan. If I could, I’d buy him a double-oven Wolf range or an Aga. Not that we’re obsessed with food or anything.
Where to buy cookware: