The lessons I learned from my life as a food critic | Food


Mhis father was not a big eater. “I would be happy if I could just take a pill for my lunch,” he once said to me when I was eight or nine years old. I had already concluded that the adult world can be intentionally confusing, but it seemed unnecessarily provocative. It was like a betrayal. As a child, a fuzzy mess of soggy limbs and rounded edges, I knew the food was great. I loved the bacon sandwiches on white bread and chocolate éclairs, and I lived evenings when my parents were running out of time and dinner was the convenience of Findus Crispy Pancakes filled with a delicious brown material, albeit unidentifiable. .

Fortunately, my mother was not interested in eating a pill. Claire wanted to be fed and fed at the same time. On Saturday noon, after doing the weekly groceries, my mother filled the kitchen table with cold cuts and cheeses, and plates topped with slippery ribbons of smoked salmon in the liveliest shade of orange. There would be dense fish balls, chopped liver topped with crumbled eggs and bagels, as we were Jewish by food. There was no room in our lives for God, but there was plenty of room for lunch. It was a meal called “Fick and Porridge,” a Spoonerism adapted from picking and fodder. It was one of those family jokes that isn’t funny to anyone else or even, possibly, to the family who invented it, but sticks. What mattered was the intention expressed in the name: it was a deliberately relaxed lunch. It was also a form of open house that some close family friends knew they were always invited to. And so they would come.

Jay Rayner’s agonizing aunt’s mother Clare Rayner. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe / The Guardian

It was at our kitchen table that I learned the power of food and mealtimes. With a full plate in front of them, people were talking. They stood on elbows and unloaded, both good and bad, as my mother made a living as a dying aunt and was therefore seen as both a good listener and a source of professional wisdom. There was no excessive sharing. Here, fueled by those fishballs and bagels, they would be the most selfless version of themselves. Oh, the stories they told. Sometimes we would talk about the food itself. I learned the correct way to make a cream cheese and smoked salmon bagel. (Cheese is not a butter substitute, to be spread thinly. It is a pedestal for salmon and therefore to stack high, like a litter of pillows.) Like last week. I understood that this table life matters.

My relationship with my dinner (and my lunch) had come to define a very personal and intense part of me, which ultimately presented challenges. In 1999, when I was offered the position of food critic for the Observer, I was both ecstatic and ashamed in private. Naturally, I was thrilled to be paid to do what I had always done at my own expense: wandering from restaurant to restaurant, deciding if it was worth someone’s time and money. But I also wondered if making the staff so very public was appropriate. I was 32 and finally established myself as a reporter, which I considered to be the noblest profession of journalist. I had gone from soft arts and writing reports to more pointed reports. I covered racial crime and social policy. I had spent weeks at the Old Bailey, attending the only war crimes trial ever held in the UK, and for a time digging through the workings of the intelligence services until the UK government’s D-notice committee, which monitors the lines between media and national security, had told my editor to check me. I wore these things as a badge of honor. And now?

Well, now I had to write about the quality of a custard pie or the precision roasting of a loin of venison. I love cream pies. I love venison. But really? I told a friend, a well-respected restaurant reviewer for many years, that I would do the job for a few years and then go back to “correct” journalism.

Chew The Fat By Jay Rayner
Chew the Fat by Jay Rayner.

I blush at the thought. What an incredibly pompous thing to say, and how wrong it is. All writers need a subject, and in the world of food and catering, I had found mine. The lesson I learned as a kid at the family kitchen table on Fick and Porridge, that food and food can take you anywhere, had to be repeated as an adult.

The subject of what we eat, I realized, is not just the taste of things. It’s about memory and emotion, stories of love and sex and the two together. It is about family and education; environment and agriculture.

I remained a journalist, investigating the political and economic entanglement of food supply chains and national health policy.

This led to a stint as a reporter for The only show on BBC One, for whom I have produced more than 150 short reports. I have come to love those who show us exactly where our food comes from; not just the delicate, niche artisanal products of farms and kitchen tables – although there are a few of them – but the complex, large-scale business of freezing a crop of peas in 45 minutes or harvesting peas. carrots in the middle of the night, when it is nice and cold. I walked through a silver bay of Morecambe at low tide at dawn to fish for brown shrimp and stood in a tank with a huge farmed halibut in my arms, while it was milked for its sperm. It was a varied life.

It was also a great experience for what was to follow. I have long been an occasional screenwriter for Monthly Food Observer. In 2010 I was asked if I would write a column for the front of OFM, called The happy eater. I got the idea straight away. It was to be a column on all aspects of food and eating written by a man with appetites. In addition, it would be defined by a second column on the next page of the great American writer Ariel Leve. His would be called The picky eater and tell the story of someone who was a little more suspicious of what he was given to eat.

We set up our respective stands from the start. Ariel’s first column was about how picky she can be when it comes to eating sushi. Mine was about my penchant for the more scuzzi of restaurants, the ones without velvet curtains and cut crystal. As I said, “Depriving yourself of an edible pleasure just because you couldn’t safely remove someone’s appendix in the room it was prepared in just seems insane, not to mention. of self-destruction. So it started.

Leve wrote wittily about the American barbecue as if it were a dreadful cult; I wrote about how anything can be made better by adding bacon. She described her commitment to eating superfoods; I dismissed superfoods as anti-science cobblers. She wrote how much she hated watching people eat in public; I wrote about the joys of dropping my lunch on my shirt.

Jay Rayner.
“Don’t compare your Christmas to Nigella’s”… Jay Rayner. Photography: Jonathan Stewart

It was a chic double act, but with a lifespan. An enthusiast like me has endless directions to go. For us, the world is a big table set forever. It’s a matter of more and seconds and “yes please”. The picky eater lives a smaller life at this table. They just aren’t that interested. Within a few years, the picky eater made her knife and fork sterilized. Leve had other big writing projects that needed his attention.

But the happy eater? I pushed. For month after month.

It was during the first confinement that I began to return to these chronicles to reflect on the complicated situation in which we now find ourselves. Along with the critical issues of illness, loss and clinical urgency, questions around food and how we eat had become a recurring motive for the pandemic.

If it wasn’t empty shelves in supermarkets due to a suddenly increased demand for home cooking, it was nature to be forced to eat together in a family unit, or alone when we were not. had not. These were common experiences in cafes and restaurants that had been stolen from us. It was about more than the taste of things. It was then that the idea of ​​bringing these columns together was born. They were all about the detailed pleasure and pain of the table.

It is in the nature of a column written for a newspaper supplement that some are tagged about events in the news, but many others have spread far into the edible landscape in a less fixed manner in time. .

There are some essays on why the messiest dishes can also taste the best, or why the secret to flavor lies in giving ingredients a lot of time together. There are a few restaurant columns that, after all, are my specialty. I write about the dishes professional kitchens do so well and those they hurt terribly. Lesson: you’ll probably make a better apple crumble at home than any chef could ever make in a restaurant.

I approach the thorny issue of Christmas food from all angles. Believe me the world won’t end if you don’t make a dozen side dishes and, for goodness sake, don’t compare your Christmas to Nigella’s because that’s how madness lies. I also allow myself to indulge in a bit of bile and vitriol, because there are things around food that make me cringe and it’s much better for my molars that I take all that out. The happy eater is not always happy. But sometimes he is ecstatic.

The hospitality industry has gone through a hellish period of 18 months. The combination of Brexit and the pandemic has challenged our food supply chain like never before. The climate crisis has raised serious questions about the sustainability of our agricultural sector. Too many people do not have access to enough good quality food. All of these very real and important issues can make enthusiasm for our food culture seem totally inappropriate. I think this is a mistake.

Yes, we need to tackle the issues. But we must also recognize that eating and nourishing oneself are more than a bodily function. It’s an important part of the social dynamic that makes us who we are. It’s one of the beautiful things that makes us human. It deserves to be celebrated.

Chewing The Fat: Tasting Notes From a Greedy Life is published by Guardian Faber on September 2. To order a copy for £ 4.99, go to

Jay Rayner will be Live conversation with Jo Brand at the Apollo Theater in London, September 6

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