I sometimes worry that ITV — the middle child — doesn’t get enough of my attention and so this week I have decided to redress the balance: I devoted myself to episode one of Food Glorious Food (Wednesday, ITV). It’s a nine-part quest, hosted by Carol Vorderman, which aims to discover ‘Britain’s best-loved recipe’. O jubilate deo!
This is how it goes: treasured family recipes are cooked up at regional events and tasted by one of four judges who choose a favourite and submit it to be tasted by the other three. The judges are Loyd Grossman (smooth), Anne Harrison (stern), Stacie Stewart (bubbly) or Tom Parker Bowles (apologetic). One dish is pronounced victorious — on Wednesday it was a Pimm’s jelly — and it competes again, in a future episode, with other regional winners. The ultimate prize is £20,000 (for the recipe’s owner/manager) and (for the recipe itself) a recording contract with Marks and Spencer — by which I mean that it will be turned into a ready meal and sold from the supermarket shelves.
A quicker way to describe the show would be to say that the head of The Great British Bake-Off had been stitched to the body of Antiques Roadshow and brought to life by an intracardiac shot of X Factor. Need I mention whose genius brain cooked up this gingerbread hybrid? Whose sticky-pie fingers flicked voltage into this particular experiment? ‘I love home cooking,’ says Simon Cowell, ‘which is one of the reasons I wanted to make this show.’ And lo it came to pass: Food Glorious Food was co-produced by Syco Entertainment.
That’s not to say that it’s necessarily awful, but it does provide the product with a useful label. Just as the words ‘made in a factory where nuts are handled’ will cause a certain percentage of the population to treat a packet of biscuits like an unpinned grenade, so will the name ‘Simon Cowell’ inspire some viewers to put down the remote control, switch everything off at the wall and spray the room with Febreze.
The twinkling authority of Carol Vorderman is, presumably, positioned front-of-house to beckon, soothe and nourish a Cowell-intolerant audience. In a recent interview, the lady Vorderman hath protesteth, ‘I really don’t want you to think that [Cowell] is actively involved in this…This is not X Factor. It’s not like that at all.
It’s got a very British feel and it’s very
Fair enough, Carol: this is not X Factor. It does not take place in a cauldron or somewhere deep in the underworld but in the open air on planet Earth — near Malvern, in fact. The crowd looks cheerful (rather than frenzied) and the judges are recognisably human. What is meant by ‘very British’ and ‘very eccentric’, I suppose, is that the sky is a familiar pigeon-grey and some of the entries are reassuringly potty: sausage, onion and milk, served with a blindfold; biscuits that smell of ‘clean, fresh knickers’; a pie that contains the bones of a local dragon. (Anne Harrison’s response to this ingredient was not ‘Dragon?’ but, much more winningly, ‘Bones?’)
But the mark of Cowell runs through this show like a name through a stick of rock. Take the case of the ‘River Swimmer’s Salmon’, for example: a piece of salmon served on a plate with vegetables. Not much to speak of? You might think so — but in fact it’s so much more: it’s a life served up on a plate. The woman who cooked it described, in a narrative ‘aside’ filmed at her home, how much it meant to her: she used to be very overweight, she decided to swim the length of the Lune river and she fortified herself on the journey with salmon and vegetables. She lost the weight, she reached her goal, she turned her life around and now she showed us, triumphantly, a pair of gigantic trousers for which she had no further use. This plate of food had changed her life! It was her very own, best-loved recipe and it was priceless; invaluable.
‘A very dull dish,’ pronounced Grossman, making a moue.
‘It’s helped me lose three stone!’ spluttered the contestant. ‘How rude!’
It would be possible to make a study of this programme: I could measure the distance between appreciation and judgment; I could wonder whether success creates momentum, and failure entertainment; I could balk at the discomfort of strangers, served up for my viewing pleasure; I could watch a plate of food turn from amateur to professional, and laugh at the absurdity of its selling point: ‘If you love homecooked food you’ll love this ready meal!’ I could marvel at the transformation of something that we love but cannot buy — a plate of food, cooked at home — into a commodity we can pay for, take home and pop into the microwave. On the other hand, I could stop being such a sourpuss, switch off the telly and make dinner.