Talking enthusiastically about everyday foods

The Guardian had a column called How to eat, which is now reaching an end. It sounds entertaining; I’ll have to browse the back catalogue. The idea originated in irritation at the pompous posh brand of food column.

Would there be mileage, we wondered, in sending up such high-handed advice in a clearly tongue-in-cheek, OTT way? But by flipping the subject matter and talking enthusiastically about everyday foods – beans on toast, lasagne, pesto, Magnums, pasties, hummus – in a way that would generate engaged, friendly debate below the line (BTL)? Note: the bottom half of the internet was less toxic then.

Sounds interesting but wait a second – pesto and hummus and lasagne and beans on toast? One of these is not like the others. The first three are foreign, yes, but that’s not the most relevant difference. The important difference is that they’re good. Beans on toast are not.

Naturally, some people got very angry. The implicit How to eat vibe was: please yourself, each to their own, crack on. I wasn’t going to come around and shout through your letterbox because you were serving (grotesque, medieval) bread sauce with Christmas dinner. But personal taste is sensitive. A cohort took How to eat at its word and saw any criticism of their dishes as an insult. Even under mildly amusing pieces about crumpets or coleslaw, the Guardian comment moderators had work to do.

Of course. Also, beans on toast are an insult to human intelligence.

The philosopher and writer Julian Baggini, an early contributor BTL, finds it fascinating how, when discussing food, rather than holding true to the Latin maxim de gustibus non est disputandum (in matters of taste there can be no disputes), rational people “find themselves acting as though … the whole point is to dispute”.

Guilty as charged! At least, when the subject is beans on toast. I can refrain from disputing a lot of food tastes, but the worthlessness of beans on toast is an objective fact. (Beans on toast, for non-UK readers who may not be aware, doesn’t mean some deliciously seasoned and sauced beans with an inexplicable piece of toast under them, it means canned beans made by Heinz with an inexplicable piece of toast under them.)

“Philosophers are drawn to aporias,” he emails, “two or more individually compelling but collectively incompatible claims. How to eat is the Platonic form of such a contradiction. It is absurd to say there is one right way to eat a food, and also obvious that cream before jam on a scone or pineapple on pizza is wrong. In philosophy such contradictions are torturous. With food, we get to enjoy them.”

Heh. I’m agnostic on the cream/jam question but emphatically gnostic about pineapple on pizza – it’s criminal.

They conclude with a few certainties of their own.

2 Raw bell peppers, ruin of many a pizza or tuna sandwich mix (particularly, those bitter green vibe killers), have fewer supporters. Rise up, Britain, rise up!

Hang on! Raw red or orange bell peppers are delicious. Really. Very different from the green ones, and very good, and crawling with vitamins. They’re also good cooked, especially of course with garlic and onions, but a raw red pepper in the afternoon is a fine snack. But I wouldn’t put raw ones on a pizza, no. Wrong vibe.

14 There are certain foods – ice-cream, chips, cheese, crisps, toast – that, even at their worst, are still enjoyable. As How to eat put it in 2012: “With its killer combination of fat, salt and umami, it is impossible to be a snob about cheese.” This, it transpires, is not a universal view.

Agreed, except about chips aka french fries. I don’t hate them but I don’t like them much either – they just seem dull to me. I never eat them. Potato salad, potatoes cooked with cheese in some way, hash browns, mashed, little red potatoes with lots of garlic and parsley, yes, but chips/french fries no.

18 Make a mess. Proudly wear your dinner. Get the kitchen roll on the table. Or just wipe your hands on your jeans. How to eat spent a lot of time debunking the myths of good manners: tip that soup bowl towards you; eat on the bus; chill out about double-dipping (this was pre-Covid).

No no no. Again, one of these is not like the others. Eating on the bus affects other people on the bus, people who have not chosen you as a munching companion, so broadly speaking, don’t eat on the bus unless you have the seat to yourself and it’s something quiet and not smelly.

19 When you start talking about how acrid bitterness is a positive characteristic in food and drink (grapefruit, coffee, slightly burned jacket potatoes, west coast IPAs), people start looking at you funny.

Well then they should have some beans on toast. Of course it is. Dark chocolate is another, and so is kale. I hated that last acrid bitterness as a child, but bitterness is an acquired taste. I done acquired it.

On lasagne: “Like a good U2 song, impressive vegetable lasagne is possible but so vanishingly rare as to be statistically insignificant. For every exquisite artichoke or wild mushroom [version], there are 10,000 lumpen veggie lasagnes layered with a ‘Mediterranean’ vegetable slurry that has all the sunshine flavour of an abandoned graveyard in Telford.”

To put it as tactfully as I can, that might be a British cooking thing as opposed to a vegetable lasagne thing.

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