An abomination. According to the dictionary, that is ‘something that causes disgust or hatred’. Are we talking about Russia’s anti-gay reign of terror? Are we talking about Syria’s use of poison gas on its own population? Was this word perhaps used to describe the ongoing practice of fracking? No. This word was used by William Sitwell to describe how he feels about food that is being served on square plates.
William Sitwell is an employee of a large UK supermarket chain, and as such he writes all sorts of inoffensive and informative articles for the in-store magazine, that are solely meant to make people buy a certain product. It has nothing to do with journalism, but everything with marketing. For some obscure reason, Sitwell was chosen years ago to become a regular food critic on Masterchef, and his bespectacled face has become a regular guest in our household since then. And it seems that the rise to tv fame has gone to Sitwell’s head.
Suddenly, he sees himself as a real food critic instead of a glorified supermarket checkout girl. Someone, who must leave his mark, someone who could be directional when it comes to steering British cuisine into the 21st century. And so, he has started to have opinions, and to value them, and to impose them on others, in short: he had become a Proper Food Critic.
If great cooking is a pure act of love -and that’s how I see it anyway- then food criticism is all about murdering that love. The food critic in general is a sad, joyless creature, who has long ago blurred the lines between being witty and being cynical, and who really only lights up when he finds fault in a certain dish, so he can then start his verbal assassination. Food critics only have few words to praise a meal, but millions of ways to say what they do not like. The more expensive the restaurant, the more absurd the scrutiny they’re under. Peas not all of the same size? Abomination! Slightly lumpy mashed puree/celeriac/swede/parsnip (oh, the UK and its enduring love of baby food!)? Abomination!
The animation film ‘Ratatouille’ was definitely not one of Pixar’s greatest, but one thing they did do well was how they portrayed the food critic Anton Ego, a self-inflated ball of bile and cynicism, always trying to find fault in whatever he eats (for free) and then of course finding it. I’m afraid real life food critics (and yes, I know a few in person) are more like Anton Ego than they would dare to admit.
Once, these food critics probably really loved food, and appreciated it. But they have taught themselves to suppress their enojoyment and to be ruthless killjoys, in the name of journalism. Heaven forbid, after all, the food critic gets accused of having a cushy easy job, with lovely free meals in expensive restaurants! Oh no, we mustn’t think that! No, it’s hard work to have to struggle through a slightly underseasoned saddle of venison, or to have to plough through yet another dodgy crème anglaise (custard to us commoners). And to then sit down and shoot the whole meal down in flames, that’s seriously hard work!
Take a programme like the Great British Menu for instance. There, three regular critics get to taste the creations of the chefs… but all they really do is try and outwit and outsmary… and outcriticize one another. If Prue Leith says she loves a certain aspect of a dish, it’s the signal for suspiciously thin (I believe people who say they love food ought to look like they do!) Oliver … to quip that it is completely awful, and then Matthew Fort chimes in with his posh accent and slightly effeminate manner that is so common in upper middle class Brits, to really destroy the entire dish just for the sake of being witty. It is as depressing as it is predictable, and I am sure that the critics in question don’t even realize how miserly they come across to a public that probably never ate venison sweatbreads or pickled grouse tongue and can only afford fish fingers.
I am sure William Sitwell used to be a kid that loved food, and that was excited to try new things and flavors. But now he too has turned into this unpleasant ogre, this food-Scrooge, who is cynical just for the sake of it, or because that is what a Serious Journalist is supposed to be. And one morning he woke up with a bright idea to carve a name out for himself in the overcrowded world of food writers. He would begin his very own crusade… against something nobody had thought of before. A crusade against square plates. Square, he reasons, goes against what is natural. An abomination!
Let me say this very clear. Nobody gives a toss about what sort of plate food gets served on as long as it’s clean and big enough. I have had great food from round, square, rectangular, oval, oblong, triangular, octagonal, parallellopippidoic plates. Plates that were made from porcelain, majolica, terracotta, glass, plastic, melamine, cardboard, slate and recycled potato peels. If William Sitwell has truly reached the stage, where he fusses more over the shape of a plate than about the food that’s on top of it, then really, he hasn’t got anything left to write or complain about.
I suggest he retires, before he starts complaining about the diabolical evil that is the three-pronged fork.