Friday, 28 June 2013

Politicians and food: a strange affair

Politicians and food: who knew this was such a fascinating subject? A whole day of rumblings following the Sun's scathing frontpage on which George Osborne was pictured eating a burger and chips, in a staged pose "putting the finishing touches" to the Spending Review.

The Sun's truck was not that Osborne was eating high calorie junk food while the Government invests millions in public health work to tackle obesity. Nor was it scathing of how out of touch policies that prevent working people getting benefits for seven days to nudge them a bit harder into looking for work. Nope. The editorial line was that Osborne was out of touch for spending £9.70 on a burger and chips.

#burgergate trended, respected food critics surprised themselves jumping in to defend the Chancellor's spending of less than £10 on a quality meal, online armchair political pundits welcomed another knee-jerk opportunity to bash the Chancellor. So why is it so fascinating?

I write this from the relatively rare viewpoint of a professional policy wonk and an amateur food blogger. And having just spent considerably more than £9.70 on burger and chips at Hawksmoor Spitalfields. I've always been intrigued with how politicians interact with food, and how the media and the public respond.

The one that really sticks out for me is the 2010 Labour leadership elections when David Miliband was asked what his favourite restaurant was in an Evening Standard interview. His answer was getting a take away from Masala Zone in Camden. My heart sunk. What a bland answer! Masala Zone is one of those totally sanitised Indian restaurants designed for the self-loathing, waist-watching types. Don't get me wrong - it's not BAD. It's just there's no ghee, the coconut milk is half fat, and the spice wouldn't even make a baby sweat.

And then there was the time in 2009 that Gordon Brown point blank refused to say what is favourite biscuit was on a Mumsnet chat. In then characteristic style, after what you might imagine to be 24 hours of constant dithering, a statement emerged confirming his favourite biscuits were "chocolate". So, much more specific then.

Or just the general genericness of politicians saying their favourite food is fish and chips. Traditional - check! Appeals to a wide group of people - check! Not poncey - check check. Rachel Cooke hit the nail on the head with it back in 2010. Even David Cameron and Ed Balls, for all that cultural capital they should have gained at private school, are as bland as they come with their attainably aspirational lasagne suppers.

It's ironic, because opinion polls suggest that people want their politicians to be real and individual. The cult of the personality dominated the discourse around Blair's success, and in the social media age politicians have the chance to endear themselves to the public by giving a flavour of themselves to their followers.

But yet they anchor themselves to bland, generic, shamelessly, cynically, passionlessly populist statements.

I think there's a mixture of factors at play here. Some politicians are just bland in their personal lives because they live for politics. They throw whatever clothes on in the morning, and eat whatever food is available when they have a chance to eat.

Then there are the politicians who calculate every word and inference and how it will play out, slipping in references to takeaways and homemade Shepherd's Pie, trips to Asda and Argos. These are probably the same politicians who force themselves to livetweet X Factor when they'd rather gouge their eyes out.

And finally there are those who know what happens when you reveal what you really like. Nothing whizzy, maybe £9.70's worth of burger and chips from a mid-price chain like Byron Burgers, or that you treat yourself to a slap up meal in the same way as some treat themselves to a football match . Or maybe you put your hands up and say you love the Ottolenghi cookbook and using fresh herbs in meals.

The ensuing tabloid or twitter slapdown is a reminder of  how enjoying food is still seen as a bourgeois luxury, or at least an excuse to accuse someone of being bourgeois and out of touch. Whether it's the myth around Mandelson mistaking mushy peas for guacamole, or Osborne's £9.70 "posh" burger and chips, food choices are seen as ripe territory for bashing someone for prioritising quality, well sourced (i.e. not factory farmed) food, and having a more worldly outlook.

It's most frustrating to see food presented, not just as culturally elite but also as financially exclusive. Eating well doesn't have to involve lots of money. Go to a local market and you can buy loads of seasonal vegetables for only a few pounds - you could cook something amazingly delicious! Maybe even guacamole!

It would be glib to suggest that any person could prioritise eating out if they wanted to - too many can barely make it through the month, let alone enjoy any luxury. But compare it to more "socially acceptable" (read: non-poncey) treats like going to a football match or having a couple of pints or fish and chips on a Friday night, and a good value meal out doesn't seem too expensive. Even £9.70 on a tasty burger and chips!

As long as media outlets perpetuate the myth that eating well is snobby, elite and out of touch, we'll be laying traps for our politicians that prevent them from talking honestly about good food, how anyone can eat well from proper markets, supporting innovation and job creation in our now world-renowned restaurant/food industry. And that would be a shame for policy, for individuals' health and enjoyment, and for the economy.

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