Heston’s Feasts: costly & pointless, Discuss.

A small exchange on Twitter with one of my favourite contemporary writers/thinkers has prompted me to write and think a little about Heston’s feasts.

I have been watching Heston’s Feasts with a mix of anticipation, intrepidation and curiosity. The episodes so far have gotten me thinking about food, imagination, ingredients, history, grand feasting traditions, the culture of Spectacle and also the strange media position that exists for someone like Heston Blumenthal. I find the choice of celebrity guests to enjoy his feasts somewhat nauseating (‘I’m not frightened of bollocks’ uttered in forthright fashion by Germaine Greer during the medieval feast was for me one of the lower points of the series thus far) but I understand why the programme has been set up in this way.

The formula for Heston’s Feasts seems to run along the lines of ‘we get Heston to make something insane and feed it to some celebrities. We film their responses; it is HUGE, I mean mega HUGE, and the public get really excited, and our ratings go up.’ That might be cynical of me, but it seems pretty transparent that this is how Heston’s Feasts works from an economic/entertainment perspective. Like the excess that is celebrated from start to finish during the programme, there is something just completely OTT about the whole thing. Of COURSE it has to be ‘celebrities’ and of COURSE it has to be ‘feasts,’ because what Heston does is just too lucrative in this kind of context for the moguls at Channel 4 not to notice it. If this mechanism is the means by which HB gains access to the materials and resources and cash that he needs for his experimentations and his imaginative, culinary dreaming then I don’t mind so much. On a basic costs/analysis basis where expense and culture are in the balance, I think that the cost of HB’s materials and expeditions are justifiable. Millions of pounds get spent in this country every year on the creation of television programmes and thousands of cultural projects get funding. I don’t see why in this confusing sea of distractions Heston Blumenthal especially ought to be singled out as a purveyor of evil excesses. In many ways I find the amoral honesty of Heston’s Feasts refreshing when compared to the insiduous ‘worthiness’ of something like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Run series. Heston isn’t telling anyone how they should shop or eat or buy or make or create or anything; he is doing something new with food and showing us the process. In my opinion this is a good thing, a thing that opens the doorway on what is possible, that gets us to dream and imagine and feel and consider and hear and taste and smell food in a different way. In the incredibly long line of chefs who have worked with prohibitively expensive materials for the titillation and enjoyment of the extreme elite, I find Heston’s work to be comparitively generous, socially. It means that he does have to enter the cringey circle of reality TV, but what he does in this arena is no worse than Gordon’s antics on Boiling Point or Nigella’s naughty, bulemic raids to the fridge in Nigella Express or even Jamie Oliver’s I <3 Sainsbury’s after they gave me millions of pounds TV life. And I love them all. I don’t care what deals they had to strike with what TV companies; I’m just happy that they are out there, talking about food, arguing about costs/ingredients/animal welfare and inhabiting people’s kitchen-chats as we argue about whether or not it’s OK to eat turtles and debate the pros/cons of keeping our own livestock.

To my mind Heston is one of the more interesting celebrity chefs because he is a genuine geek, perfectionist and inventor, and because he is brave, and I value all of these things. I am a geek when it comes to things like the provenance of my yarns. I will drive hundreds of miles to meet with a sheep-keeper who will talk to me about the history of a particular breed and I do not baulk at the comparitive expense of a skein of UK – bred, locally-spun Wensleydale or Bowmont Braf when I compare it to the cheap acrylic that my thrifty Grandmother prefers to knit with. I have invested enough time in reading about such things as sheep breeds and the history of the wooltrade in the UK, and have cut enough corners in other areas of my budgeting (food, ironically enough) to be able to make the odd purchase in this vein, and to then enthuse geekily about this to everyone I meet, in much the same way that HB goes in search of Bresse Chickens and particular kinds of animals in his creative endeavours. To my mind, this pattern of research and consumption is not so different from HB’s approach to his ingredients and recipes, but we are talking about a massive leap in scale, obviously. But the geekery resonates with me.

What IS interesting, is how emotive and divisive the issue of food seems to be. Eating turtles, killing frogs, making fruit from testicles etc. push buttons on issues of class, consumption, luxury, ethics, humanity, animal-welfare and sustainability in highly provocative ways. A towering absinthe jelly featuring dildoes is surely one of the most emblematic images of hedonism to have ever graced our television screens, but as such, it is brilliantly playful and bold. Dishes no less expensive to produce would avoid criticism simply by being less overstated about their influences and origins. As she states in her interview on the selection of dildoes utilised in the jelly, ‘Food and sex is a time-honoured meeting of two of the best kinds of sensuous pleasure.’ Hedonism and gluttony *do occur* in the world and are a part of our grubby, bloodied and complex culinary history. Does the difficult and unpalateable nature of these activities mean nobody should do them under the spotlight of a majorly popular TV series? I think not. I feel Blumenthal’s innovations and explorations of food do delve quite legitimately into the recipes of the past, the history of cooking and – most interestingly to me – into our imaginative relationship with food. I am really glad that amongst the scores of chefs who search to create delicious flavours and combinations, there is one person who is approaching cooking from such a genuinely imaginative perspective. Heston Blumenthal is not the only person to be sourcing recipe ideas from stories, (Alice in Wonderland) and the realms of art, but whilst not being nearly as accessible (you can do this at home!) as Brocket’s book, Heston’s Feasts does at least make a deeper forray into how we dream (and write) about food. And he isn’t afraid to be daring or to try out offensive ideas and I applaud that.

I think the ‘you shouldn’t try to do this at home’ aspect of Heston’s Feasts is an important thing to consider and I find it very interesting to experience this radical departure from the normal cookery-programme format when I watch his shows. There is no way you will find me making giant, inedible pastry pies or boiling up turtles but that’s OK, I don’t have to, because Heston will. So I can still learn about it, get excited about it and share in the creative process (albeit vicariously) and the things that I discover in so doing can only inspire my own experiments in the kitchen. This was a fact that struck me when I read his book, In Search of Perfection, and realised that – were I to follow a single recipe to the letter – I would be making very elaborate, carbon-footprint-heavy trips to France to buy Bresse chickens and suchlike. At that point in my perusing of Heston’s works, I realised that he is a man whose directions I can never afford to follow and I shifted gears in my mind so that reading his book was not so much about lifestyle envy or consumerist desire, as passion for food, and the vast opening out of what is possible. The sorts of cookbooks that I use (mostly Weight Watchers) are incredibly sensible and economic. Quantities for food are given in the measurements by which such things are sold (cheaply) in supermarkets (210g tinned tomatoes; 1stock cube etc.) and it is very possible to thrift brilliantly in both calories and finances while following them. But however sensible and serviceable the Weight Watchers approach is, I can’t imagine a duller world than one where thrift and sense are the only applaudable approaches to take to food!

There are so many ways to think and feel about food; it is something we are all incredibly emotional about in one way or another, and I find that in the confusing world of diets, fads, celebrity chefdom and contemporary food-related ethics, Heston’s message is refreshingly unmoralistic, highly creative and extremely diverting. Really recognising the massive cultural aspects of food beyond its necessary sustaining powers, he fetishises and transforms and ritualises eating in a truly fantastical way, and I think this is a good thing.

I may be biased in my sympathetic approach to Heston because of my great love of Bobby Baker and her incredible body of work that has been built up, historically, around the mythical and material aspects of food. In one of her shows she leaps into a bathtub filled with chocolate sauce and is consequently powdered with hundreds and thousands. In another show she covers a bedsheet in expressive daubs of all the food she craved during her pregnancy. In yet another performance, a dress made of ladles is continuously filled with different liquids, soups and tisanes, and the costume is danced in so that the floor beneath becomes besmirched and soiled by the inevitable spillages. In other works, meringue ladies are handed out to the audience, cakes are given away, packed-lunches are made up according to class (fish paste for the budget lunches, smoked salmon for the expensive lunches) and distributed amongst the visiting public, and wherever Bobby Baker goes and makes her work, people talk about food.

Now clearly there are some important distinctions to make between the works of Bobby Baker and Heston Blumenthal. Firstly, Bobby Baker’s work is very much about personal narrative, class issues surrounding food, issues surrounding the nourishing/sustaining role of The Mother in families, the importance of the everyday, and a plethora of other socially-engaged concerns, and the way that she presents herself within such work – in her white chef’s outfit – is very much in the role of the nervous, English, middle-class housewife. This self-presentation is key to Baker’s work and much of her commentary derives from the way she herself enacts housewifely tasks and brilliantly subverts them in the process. Heston Blumenthal’s work has not been designed to address such issues in an overt way or according to a feminist art agenda and in his work as a professional chef he presents himself very differently to Bobby Baker.

But I found myself unavoidably drawing the two of them together in my mind when I was watching Heston’s previous TV series, Big Chef takes on Little Chef. If we set aside for a moment some of the great differences that exist between Bobby Baker and Heston Blumenthal and just focus on the relationships between memory, imagination, food and childhood, it becomes obvious that these two practitioners share a certain sensitivity to how we feel about what we eat. Heston Blumenthal’s discussion on his childhood memories of Little Chef, his insistence on its quintessentially British nature and his considered rearrangement of the menu was very interesting to watch – especially since the CEO of Little Chef seemed hellbent on (like the moguls at Channel 4 who spotted a massive economic opportunity with Heston’s Feasts) ‘getting Heston to do something really mad’ to bring in the rubberneckers. I think that faced with Little Chef as a working context Bobby Baker would do something probably equally interesting, but in different ways; perhaps devising a performance involving an embarrassing waitress or bathing in chip-fat or sticking burgers to the walls… but either approach involves a certain amount of food wastage, a certain amount of excess and consumption and a specifically non-utilitarian approach to food. Those things, I think, are the price that is paid for more deeply considering our relationship to what we eat.

Bobby Baker won’t do performances that include food destruction in deprived areas or countries, because she thinks it would be disgraceful to do so. And Heston Blumenthal is very accountable in his own way about where ingredients are sourced from. So both big-food-dreamers and creatives have their own kind of logic or ethics, and clearly feel that something of what they are doing is of enough social benefit to justify the material excesses involved in the process. I totally agree with them. In a world where we throw away a third of our food in most households, where supermarkets throw away perfectly healthy food, where 30 – 40% of our food actually doesn’t get eaten at all and where the UK produces 4 million tonnes of food waste every year, the doings of Bobby Baker and Heston Blumenthal are the least of our worries.

In the case of Heston’s Feasts one could argue that his approach to food – to decadent feasts, opulent ingredients, and elaborate menus – is grossly emblematic of our complete out-of-control approach to consuming food in this country. Likewise, one could attend a Bobby Baker performance where 3 carrier bags full of food were thrown onto a sheet and then presumably landfilled later, and say ‘well that was a shocking waste of food.’ But I believe this reading of either Heston’s Feasts or Bobby Baker’s performances would miss the point.

Another reading of Heston’s Feasts finds him working imaginatively with strange ingredients, exploring new territories in terms of what is possible, and fostering an interest in food that could arguably inspire LESS wastage of ingredients. Celebrating the imaginativee potential of food, experimenting with different kinds of flavour combinations and developing innovative dishes on national television can surely only inspire us to think more about what we eat? Bobby Baker’s performances – likewise – are a fascinating and important reflection on the way that we consume food, our emotional/imaginative relationship to it, and the rituals in our lives that have built up around it.

I believe that the conscious exploration of food as an imaginative, creative and emotional resource is an important thing for people to be doing right now, because we ARE wasting too much food, as a nation and we DO consume too much food. Obesity IS on the rise and FOOD is a confusing issue for a lot of people. These are very confusing times in terms of the economic distribution of food in the world being totally skewed, in terms of half the world having too much food and the other half not enough, in terms of farming and environmental policies and the ever widening divisions between the haves, and the have-nots.

But in these confusing times there are plenty of people whose decadent doings far exceed those of Heston’s Feasts, and whose actions do not usefully contribute to our collective imaginings around food in the way that his programmes do. I am glad for anyone who can give us back a cultural reflection on how we got to be this excessive, this greedy and this craven. In summary I am glad for anyone who can open up the way that we think about food, offer a different perspective and draw attention to its many, confusing aspects. So I love Heston and I find his feasts very fascinating to learn about. They make me think more about ingredients and where they come from, they turn food into (potentially) a kind of historical/social narrative, they renew my respect for what I eat and where it comes from and they make me really inspired about what can be created from edible materials. Jelly will never look the same to me now. Likewise, Bobby Baker’s performances have transformed the way that I consider the meaning of sandwiches, the ritual of dinner-parties and the immensely emotional resonance of working with FOOD as a creative material

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