Here’s the latest Real Meals column in the New Statesman:
Well, here we all are – this is the last Real Meals of 2011 and I for one would like to go out with a bang, rather than a whimper. My charming editor at the Statesman suggested that I might like to write something “Christmassy” but why would I want to do that? I made my feelings about Christmas dinner perfectly clear in this column at about this time two years ago and they haven’t changed one jot during the intervening months. Frankly, I’m about as likely to set out on the highways and byways of Albion as a sannyasin as I am to begin at the age of 50 rhapsodising about a meal I’ve never ever enjoyed or even seen the point of.
Actually, I’m a good deal more likely to become a mendicant, because if there’s one thing writing about food confirms me in, it’s my ever-lurking manorexia. I like to review fast food outlets rather than fancy restaurants because if there’s one virtue they have, it’s that they exist to satisfy the hunger of the masses, rather than to stimulate the jaded palates of the privileged few – it’s an axiom of gastronomy that the hungrier you are, the better something will taste and, when you’re starving, any old shit will do, so long as it has “US food aid programme” stencilled on it.
My late stepmother once served up a Christmas dinner at the picnic site on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. I want you to picture the scene: the lake is an artificial one in the middle of the Australian federal capital, Canberra, and on the far shore, the parliament building rises up, a queer pre-postmodernist spaceship of a structure surmounted by what appears to be a giant hypodermic syringe. Possibly the architect’s idea was to suggest that the legislature needed injecting with a hefty dose of common sense, or irony, or both.
In 44 degree heat, my stepmother doled out turkey, bread sauce, roast potatoes, sprouts . . . God love her, you might well say, and with the benefit of 20 years hindsight, I do feel that I cruelly misjudged her on that occasion. What aroused my scorn was the small charity collecting envelope she had put beside our plates that featured – if my memory serves me – a photograph of some Somali starvelings. Nothing, I withered at her, could be more calculated to ruin a feast than the presence – even as representations – of these ghosts! Now I see that her reasoning – whether conscious or not – was perfect: Christmas dinner is a meal fit only for ruining, so why not cut to the chase. And if it offends you to think of all the bellies swollen with air, then I suggest you look away now and get back to pickling your nuts.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s statistics, there were in 2010 925 million people in the world suffering from innutrition. Innutrition is the preferred term for starving nowadays since the ambit of malnutrition has been expanded to include the obese as well as the meagre.
Actually, I think we can all benefit from this new form of usage over the festive season. When roly-poly Uncle Henry, or blubbery Auntie Roberta wallows along, why not greet them at the door saying, “My, you look awfully malnourished, you’d better come in . . .” The facts are that, despite all the love-bombing of Bono, Sir Bob, Tony “Granita” Blair and the rest, world innutrition levels have increased substantially since the mid-1990s. The reasons for this are obvious: the neglect of appropriate sufficiency agriculture by governments, the current world economic crisis and rising food prices.
But as ever, the most significant impediment to Tiny Tim gorging himself on goose are the Scrooges of this world, who girdle the earth with the political equivalent of a gastric band so that not enough food reaches southern bellies. There’s more food being produced worldwide than a decade ago; unfortunately there is also more inequality, instability and in the past three years a huge upsurge in refugees, which is why around one-in-seven of the human family will be tucking into bugger-all on 25 December.
Why not join them? I hold no brief for tokenistic charity efforts designed to make the moneyed feel better about their status but fasting is another matter: it clears the mind and concentrates the thoughts on both the spiritual verities and the hard realities of life. No wonder all serious religions include it as a key part of their practice. It’s very effective against malnutrition as well – at least, the sort we get down my way.