Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"I'm ready for the question, Noel..."

Cheap food: it’s a relative concept, isn’t it? One man’s bargain meal deal is another’s disaster, according to whether you live like a lottery winner or exist on extremely meagre subsistence rates. Most of us, however, are fortunate enough to be able to munch on a happy balance: we can splurge on fabulous food - usually cooked by someone else - when the occasion is upon us, but spend most of our day-to-day life keeping a close eye on the cashflow. And, despite the doom-laden headlines (largely revolving around the “we’ve never had it so bad” theme) that the recession has thrust upon us, ‘twas ever the case. What has changed, however, is the contemporary concept of ‘value for money’, particularly in relation to the food that we eat.

The fact that we live in an age where spending money on ever-evolving gadgets (translation: toys for grownups), clothes that are never given the opportunity to become worn out and endless, mindless, thoroughly exploitative ‘pampering’/holiday/leisure activities is prioritised way above spending money (or time) on decent food is not the result of the natural evolutionary process. Supermarket price comparisons, loyalty card ‘events’ and supposedly wallet- and family-friendly offers from the high street fast food snake oil merchants dominate advertising campaigns across the media, but if you read, watch and listen between the lines, the overall message is this: spend less on food with us, and you can spend more (preferably still with us, or at least with one of our multinational conglomerate franchise partners) on a whole host of other shite that will feed neither body, mind nor soul.

Such insidious propaganda starts very early. The results of a recent survey of more than 1000 West Country school children between the ages of 6 and 8 may have thrown up some ‘cute’ responses to questions regarding the origins of the food we eat (sheep lay eggs, butterflies produce cheese, burgers come from McDonalds, etc), but the temporary ‘awww’ factor can’t erase the stomach-churning reality behind the results. But who can blame the survey respondents for their lack of knowledge when they’re being taught about food production by TV adverts that feature dancing strings of processed cheese, breakfast cereal ‘knitted by nanas’ and a fast food ‘chef’ talking passionately about his ‘career’ in the kitchen?

When did you last see a TV advert that genuinely promoted really decent food at really decent prices? You may have seen several that featured a woman (it’s still always a woman) pushing a trolley around a supermarket, piling it high with all kinds of BOGOF deals (usually frozen, jarred or vacuum packed) and then loading it into the boot of her car with a smug look on her face. And what do the family get for dinner? Frozen pizza. ‘Curry’ made with a jar of orange gloop. Buckets of factory-farmed chicken. Chocolate spread on toast, posing as a ‘nutritious breakfast’ (okay, I’m mixing my advertorial metaphors here, but you get the idea). But despite what the ad moguls would have you believe, ‘convenience’ food will never, ever be a bargain compared to shopping for, cooking and eating the real thing; the only beneficiaries of such modern day habits are the fat cats.

But please don’t tell me that most modern families can’t afford either the money or the time to live the good life. A budget that can adapt to keeping a small battalion of mobile phones, laptops and computer games topped up, charged and upgraded is ripe for a bit of book-cooking, while sacrificing just one hour of the 28 the average family spends in front of a screen every week and using it to do a proper weekly shop instead (online will do!) is all it takes to herald a domestic revolution. Allow 20 minutes a day for cooking the ingredients you’ve brought and you’ve got yourself a real meal deal.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

An old romantic gets a bad case of VD

Hands up how many people reading this are planning to ‘do something special’ this Valentine’s Day! But before you expose your pits, please check the following terms and conditions.

Votes cast by those who responded to surveys recently circulated by Thorntons, Interflora or Ann Summers in a lame attempt to publicise how popular their chocolates/flowers/knickers are at this time of the year won’t be counted. If you really think that chocolate-flavoured hearts scrawled with a spidery trail that vaguely relates to the name of your ‘loved one’, a weary, over-priced, imported red rose or a thrush-inducing nylon thong bearing the legend ‘I’m Yours’ make the perfect romantic gesture, you shouldn’t be allowed to even consider going on a date.

Also excluded from our survey are the knee-jerk reactionaries who believe that acknowledging Valentine’s Day is something you ‘just do’. These are the same people who rate pizza as their favourite food, spend a fortune on T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the shop they brought it from and think that the bland but sinister Donny Osmond mini-me who won the X-Factor is ‘really good’ - in other words, those who responded to the surveys mentioned in group one.

Next on the ‘keep your hands down’ roll call come all those who think that remembering to buy a Valentine’s Card will make up for forgetting the anniversaries, birthdays and other, more personal landmarks that take place throughout the year. Listen up: it won’t.

If you’re hoping that turning up with a bunch of flowers on February 14th will go some way towards saying sorry to your partner for calling him/her by the wrong name last time you were in the throes of passion, ’accidentally’ snogging his/her best mate or ‘failing to tell’ him/her that you’re prone to herpes outbreaks or bingeing on internet porn forget it; that bouquet is destined, at best, to be rammed down your throat.

Please also abstain from the vote if you’re a man who thinks that housework is woman’s work - you’ll never be capable of conducting a mature relationship based on mutual respect, so don’t further condescend to your maid - sorry, partner - by pretending you love her on Valentine’s Day. Meanwhile, if you’re a woman who regularly picks up his stinky underwear from the bedroom floor, cleans his skidmarks from the toilet pan or thinks it’s ‘quite sweet’ that he doesn’t know how to work the washing machine, you can sit on your fist too - as Cesar Millan will tell you, we don’t reward badly-behaved dogs for non-effort; instead of a Valentine’s Day card, present him with an invoice instead.

If you’re going through what’s politely referred to as a ‘bad patch’ (translation: prone to throwing violent tantrums that wreak havoc on each other when even the most spiteful words fail you both), please don’t expect a quiet table for two at your local cosy bistro to give you temporary respite from the boxing ring. As most restaurant staff will tell you, Valentine’s Day can be as much about tears and tantrums as it is about hearts and flowers; you have been warned.

Also on the desist list: stalkers for whom V-Day marks the anniversary of the 150th item they’ve sent to the ‘recipient of their affections’ this year. Single people who buy cards for their cat/dog/tadpoles. Those who harbour a crush on a celebrity. Lovelorn employees/students with a crush on their teacher/boss. Anybody who thinks that an anonymous card will give their recently-dumped/long term single a glimmer of hope. All those who can’t think of a more imaginative way to tell the person you love that you love them - and really mean it.

Cynical, moi? To the contrary: I believe that Valentine’s Day is for life, not just for, erm, Valentine’s Day. But whether you’re with me or against me, please keep your hands to yourself.