Bugging the culinary operating system

 
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By  Ray O’Reilly

Elevating food to celebrity status has turned the theory of motivation upside down. It’s time to stick one up the foodies.

14 September 2009

Celebrity chefs, uppity restaurant critics, food-fetishists… all overcooked ingredients in a grubby concoction that passes as entertainment – debased media feeding off basic human behaviour. It’s time to put a bug in the culinary operating system.

The BBC’s newest food celebrity Levi Roots takes the proverbial cake. For starters, he seems a rough and ready cook. For mains, yes he’s likable and cool, but does that mean I should entrust my stomach to him? For dessert, all this cool bravado is a little too Jaimie Oliver in dreads for my liking.

The Beeb’s blurb for the new series (and accompanying book) Caribbean Food Made Easy partly acknowledges the man’s dubious food cred: “…passionate food enthusiast Levi Roots travels around Jamaica and across the UK showing how to bring sunshine flavours to your kitchen”. Okay thanks for that.

This crafty bit of CV-shaping is up there with MasterChef (also BBC) presenter Greg Wallace’s bio which effectively went from a “successful vegetable grower” in the early series to “food expert and TV presenter” as a self-fulfilling prophecy in later episodes.

Elsewhere on the BBC and on other channels around the world, foul-mouthed chefs berate co-workers solely for entertainment, so-called celebrity cooks race the clock preparing trumped-up grub for daytime TV, and hopeful restaurateurs face humiliation while the world watches on.

And the press does its bit churning out reviews of these programmes, ego-soaked write-ups about eateries of any ilk, and helping to promote endless branded kitchen utensils for an audience that can no longer cook.

Is there any way to claw our way back from this culinary brink?

We have to eat, sleep, breathe and a few other things to live. These “physiological needs” control us in fairly basic ways, according to Abraham Maslow who baked up a tantalising new theory on human motivation in the 1940s, called the hierarchy or pyramid of needs – read his paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ published in the Psychological Review (50, pp370-396).

Personal growth, he posited, is possible only when basic physiological and safety needs are met first – the cake base, you could say. The need for love and to belong is the next layer of the cake, and our sense of esteem and confidence the icing. A sprinkling of characteristics – creativity, morality, problem solving, etc. – which satisfy our need for “self-actualisation” are the final decorative touches.

But what happens when you mix the basics like eating with higher-order growth needs including ego? You get a messy up-side-down cake, or a Levi Roots concoction. I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive to make food tasty and even pretty, but elevating food and the operating system around it to cult entertainment status is warped, especially in a world facing growing food security problems.

But I have a grass-roots idea to bug the operating system. Yes, it’s childish and probably pointless, but revolutions have started in stranger places (beds even). Invite your worst foodie friends over for dinner and cook them up a plate of really special grub. (See recipe.)

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Crispy Caribbean shrimp (grub) stir-fry

Ingredients: a handful of mealworms, an onion, red chilli, oil, steamed rice, greens, tamarind paste. Preparation: Heat oil and tamarind in a hot wok and stir-fry the diced chilli and onions. Add grubs and fry until cooked (like shrimp), add greens, and a splash of chicken stock to steam just before serving with rice.

If you’re wondering if I’ve actually prepared and eaten this myself… of course I haven’t!  But if you’re up for it, let me know how it tastes.

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You probably have to mask the appearance of the grubs with some garnish – say, coriander – and/or come up with a back-story along the lines that they are a Malian or Caribbean speciality.

After they’ve all complimented your culinary skills, praised the suitability of the wine, and talked about their favourite restaurant TV programmes, you can then decide whether to tell them about the grubs.

Here is also where you could brush up on some bug-eating facts to spice up the ensuing dinner conversation.

Apparently, up to 80% of the world’s population eat one form or another of the 12 000-odd edible insects – from fried crickets in Thailand and roasted termites in Ghana, to the Balinese speciality of dragonflies in coconut cream. Apart from being tasty, they are packed with vitamins and minerals.

Maslow might say spiteful cooking (and journalism) like this is no better than what it seeks to stamp out – ego-inflicted behaviour. But one item in his treatise on “self-actualisation” is the ability to accept facts. So my reply to him: “Get over it!”

A version of this article first appeared in (A)Way magazine. It is republished here with the author’s permission. © Copyright Ray O’Reilly.

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