Hungry by Grace Dent shares many thematic similarities with A Half-Baked Idea by Olivia Potts in that they are both memoirs about the joys of food, starting out in competitive careers in London and difficult family circumstances. While Potts’ memoir detailed her enrolment on the Cordon Bleu culinary school patisserie course after deciding not to pursue a career as a barrister following her mother’s unexpected death, Dent’s is about the childhood nostalgia of cheap beige comfort food in the 1980s, finding her feet as a journalist in her 2os and her father’s health problems including vascular dementia.
Dent is probably best known in the UK today as a judge on the BBC series MasterChef. Since writing her first regular restaurant column less than a decade ago, she has made a name for herself as the best kind of critic – a wholly unpretentious one: “When Heston Blumenthal shows up making a risotto using a Dyson Airblade and a conical flask of formaldehyde, I still think: Use a pan, mate. Stop dicking about.” Unsurprisingly, Dent’s observational humour is consistently brilliant, whether it’s about her childhood in Cumbria where the arrival of the big Asda in Carlisle was the event of the decade if not the century, writing for the student newspaper at the University of Stirling or the people she worked with in the offices of fashion magazines “with names like Taffeta Flinty-Wimslow”. She also writes movingly about her family – as a teenager, she discovered she has half-siblings on her dad’s side and when his health starts to decline, she spends more and more time back in Cumbria, and back in Toby Carvery of all places. ‘Hungry’ is a nostalgic, poignant and very funny memoir.
The dual meaning of the title of Scoff by Pen Vogler makes it a particularly apt one for a book with the subtitle ‘A History of Food and Class in Britain’. It gallops through the history of traditional British cuisine (including roast beef, Cornish pasties and Christmas pudding), adopted national dishes (turkey, curry and ice cream amongst many others) and the foods which have been subject to fads and fashions (gin and avocados inevitably feature here) with examples spanning from the medieval period all the way up to last year’s lockdown stockpiling of pasta.
Vogler shows how most aspects of the culture of food in Britain are closely associated with all kinds of social class issues. Everything from how people use cutlery, to the time of day they eat, to the vocabulary they use to describe food, to where they buy food and which restaurants they frequent can often reveal a lot about a person’s aspirations and prejudices. The simple act of sharing a meal with someone will therefore see us subconsciously make lightning-fast judgements about their social class. British cuisine has never had a brilliant reputation abroad, but it’s clear that as a nation we are pretty obsessed with eating, at least in terms of what it reveals about social status if not the food itself necessarily. It’s no wonder that the national debate on how the word “scone” should be pronounced and whether milk should go in first or last will continue to be argued over for some time to come.
This is an excellent social history of Britain, entertaining and informative in equal measure. I have refrained from using food-related puns in this blog post until now, but please allow me to say that I devoured both of these books and they were delicious and definitely not bland. More, please.