It’s not what you’re eating…..

It’s what’s eating you!

A central principle underpinning the diet industry is that losing weight is difficult, and as such, you can only do so with the help of their (invariably expensive) diet, product, food programme, or more often than not, all of the above.

The flaw in all this is, if, somewhat like cosmetics, these actually worked, they would put themselves out of business in a short period of time. We would all gleefully shed the weight we want rid of, and the whole industry would disappear in a puff of success.

Except it isn’t like that. Miracle diets don’t work for most people. And as I started to tackle my personal  issue with weight; the two stone I had added due to comfort eating after being made redundant from my job, I started to wonder why diets don’t work, and how I could make one work for me.

Two things hit me round about this point, however. One was that phrase – “comfort eating”, and the other was a piece of advice I was given years ago – “it’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you”. All that started me to wonder if, by changing my relationship with food, or more importantly, dealing with all the crap I was using food to self-medicate, could I be successful in getting rid of weight? Well, 29 pounds later, it turns out it is possible.

I didn’t say it was easy, I didn’t say it was difficult. I just said it was possible.

What does “food” actually mean?

Well, there’s the obvious dictionary definition that we could play with, but I started to get curious about why I was eating. In other words, what did food actually “mean” to me? Put another way, what purpose did food serve for me?

Clearly, food was providing for something other than the biological imperative of providing nutrients for my body; since I was gaining weight, I was clearly exceeding the biological imperative need.

There’s really no surprise there. Food in society has always, and probably always will provide for a range of societal needs. We eat together to form and reinforce bonds. We cook for each other as a demonstration of our regard and care for each other. But since no one could be accused of forcing me to eat, I had to accept that there was something wrong with my personal relationship with food. Which brought me back to that advice, and led me to ask myself, “so what is eating me”?

Reaching for meaning

I realised at the end of it that I was doing exactly what I had described myself as doing – “comfort eating”. I was dealing with the feelings of loss of security, rejection, loss of a sense of self-worth, all the emotions that being made redundant had evoked in me, by changing my emotional state using food.

I was on a sugar “high”. And I was eating to ensure that I stayed there, so I didn’t have to deal with the motional backlash of redundancy. The problem was, well, actually there were two problems.

One problem was that the food wasn’t actually dealing with the emotions – no matter how much I ate I still felt lost, abandoned, lonely, scared, all the things you go through, no mater how apparently irrational, when you are made redundant.

The other problem was that not only was all the eating not dealing with the emotional problems, it was adding the problem of low self esteem because I was adding all this weight.

And I could follow all the diet plans in heaven and earth until the day I died. No diet in the world was going to work, because it was dealing with a symptom, not a problem. My weight was  symptom of how unhappy I was, and until I dealt with my unhappiness, no diet would ever work.

Happily, the converse is also true. Having dealt with much of not all the emotional fallout, the weight is falling off. And the funniest part is that I’m not following a diet. No expensive books, no “perfect, chef-created, calorie controlled meals delivered to my door”, followed by the exit of my pay check into their bank accounts.

For the first time in my life, I am in control of what I eat. The most amazing part is that having lost 29 pounds in three and a half months, I have never once felt hungry. Because I’m not self-medicating the pain any more.

Yes, I pay attention to what I am eating, but I’m not fixated with it, because I am eating enough to maintain a healthy diet, and so am returning, quite rapidly, actually, to a healthy weight.

Where to from here?

So if you are trying to lose weight, I’ve got a few suggestions:

Get curious about why you are eating, and what food is providing for you. Are you actually eating because you are hungry, or because you are bored, scared, tired, worried, lonely, whatever it is.

If it’s something other than hunger, get curious about how to fix the real problem. Even if that means spending time and money on a therapist to help you through. You can save up for it by not spending the money on diets that just reinforce your lack of self-worth

And if you don’t believe that food is a problem, even though your weight is increasing, keep a food diary. You’ll be horrified, as I was, at the number of calories in apparently innocuous foods, some of which claim to be “health” foods. The diary I use is at www.myfitnesspal.com but there are loads of them out there

And above all, stop beating yourself up for carrying weight. You’ve been doing the best you can for yourself.

But maybe, just maybe, it is time to ask yourself, “If it’s not what I’m eating, what is eating me?”

And while you are asking yourself, you might want to deal with your real hunger pangs using my recipe for…

Thai Fish Cakes

  • 450 g any white fish, skinned and cut in chunks
  • 1 stem fresh lemon grass
  • 3-4 cloves fresh garlic
  • 1.5 cm peeled ginger root
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1 lime
  • 2-3 red chillies
  • 75g ground coconut
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  1. Blend the lemon grass, garlic, ginger root, kaffir lime leaves, lime zest, chillies and coconut in a food processor until very well chopped
  2. Add the fish, and chop together in the processor only until the fish is blended. You are trying for chopped, not a paste
  3. Tip out the resulting blend of flavourings and fish into a bowl
  4. Form into small patties, no more than about 0.5 cm thick and no more than about 3 cm wide
  5. Fry lightly in flavourless oil and serve with the following dipping sauce
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp lime juice – juice the lime from above
  • 1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 chilli, de-seeded and chopped
  1. Stir all the ingredients together

 

I hope you enjoy them, and as always, until the next time, Bon Appétit

Cooking as a non-contact bloodsport

Cooking in the Somme

Why has cooking become the last great bloodsport?

Why have we allowed the kitchen to become a battlefield, similar in survival rate if not topology, to the battlefields of the Somme?

Silly me, I thought the kitchen was supposed to be a place of relaxation, where one of life’s most basic needs was provided for.

So how did it suddenly become the last great area where we must fight to the death to prove our ability, either covered in the glory of the successful delivery of any recipe from the River Cafe Cookbook, or damned in the ignominy of admitting that we can barely boil an egg?

Time Was….

Back in my mother’s generation, food was indeed a political issue. In that generation, a geopolitical issue, because for her and her generation, food was rationed, was part of the war effort, and so was genuinely part of the battlefront. Home economists like Marguerite Patten were working constantly to keep the nation fed, in the knowledge that a nation constantly hungry was unlikely to make it through the Second World War.

Food was a battle front that had to be won, and so the process of feeding the nation took on military proportions, with the Ministry of Food closely aligned to the Ministry of Information (a polite term for Propaganda) and the War Office. Even after the war, with rationing of basic foodstuffs continuing well into the 1950′s, food was a political issue.

The (re)rise of the “Celebrity Chef”

Let’s face it, we’ve always had celebrity chefs. Anyone who doesn’t believe so just has to read the books of Eliza Acton, Elizabeth Beeton and Auguste Escoffier. Heston Blumenthal and Marco Pierre White are not the product of the late twentieth century, but rather, follow a long and adored line of great chefs.

But the phenomenon of the celebrity chef started, for me, with Fannie Cradock in the 1960′s. This was woman who gave cookery demonstrations in the Royal Albert Hall to audiences in their thousands. If you Google her, please don’t worry about the results, but please, do make sure your children are protected from the images. This cross between a pantomime dame and a Halloween witch was both real and sincere in her belief that cookery was something not for the masses, but only for those capable of recreating her beloved Escoffier, in spirit if not in fact.

The complexity of her recipes is legendary. Her famous, or perhaps infamous book on cooking for Christmas advocated that Christmas dinner preparations rightly started in January, and if you had missed that crucial start date, you may as well forget the whole ugly mess and start again the next year.

We would all have fared better, had she been more fixated with Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the French army pharmacist who convinced the French that, and I kid you not, potatoes were not in fact poisonous to humans, as had been believed up to that point, but were in fact a highly nutritious and often delicious addition to a varied diet.

The rot set in

So with Cradock and others having set the British nation on the path to believing that food was a minefield, and that cooking should only ever be attempted by those suitably qualified, for example, with a diploma from the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, the roll call of celebrity chefs was established. We lost sight of Marguerite Patten with her message that good, nutritious food could be prepared easily, with few ingredients, and could be life affirming and a joyous celebration of family, hearth and home. we were set on the path to the trenches of the Somme, armed with our dough hooks and our glazing spoons.

By the time we made it to the 1970′s and 1980′s when Terence Conran convinced everyone that cookery started and finished with French Regional, although quite which region remains unclear, the rot in our confidence as cooks was well and truly established and the message had been read and understood quite clearly.

Cooking was only for the (highly) qualified. The enthusiastic amateur need not apply, indeed, should hide in shame, cowering from these culinary titans with their pathetic attempts at simple cookery.

Cookery Book as Coffee Table

So by the time we made it to the 1980′s and 1990′s, when Delia Smith was trying to turn back the tide with her Complete Cookery Course she was, sadly, trying to empty out the sea with a leaky teacup. We had all learned our lesson – that cookery was for experts, and that cookery books were for the coffee table, not the kitchen. Indeed, these decades saw the publication of some cookery books so large, they could safely be used as the coffee table.

Noma, in my beloved Copenhagen, had started the “kitchen laboratory”, where food was performance art, rather than a source of nutrition. Marco Pierre White had made it acceptable for chefs to bellow like a musk ox in a breach birth, terrorising his staff into submission, and we had all learned an important lesson. No one had the right to call themselves a cook unless they could negotiate the assault course into which we had turned the kitchen. Every dish had to be complex, perfect and in practice, pretty much inedible. But it was art, sweetie!

By way of example, my most favourite recipe of this period, one which I must emphasis, I have never cooked, and have no intention of doing so, remains Anton Mosimann’s recipe for “Chicken in Gold Leaf”, contained in his aptly titled cookbook, “The Essential Mosimann”. I’ve tried it, but you can’t hardly get good gold leaf in Tesco nowadays…..

Where are we now?

My concern is that we’ve terrorised ourselves into a fear of cooking so extreme, so deep, that we allow ourselves to be conned into the belief that cooking should really be left only to experts. We’re in danger of being left with Masterchef as the model of our children’s view of cooking, where amateurs kill themselves and each other in their attempts to impersonate professional chefs with degree level qualifications, as if that’s the only model for any engagement with the cooking process.

We’ve abnegated our responsibilities to our families, relaying rather on “ready meals”, frozen food to go and “dine in for £10″ deals from supermarkets, whose main priority is their bottom line, rather than our nutrition and healthcare.

How can we expect people to take care of their own nutrition and well-being if they are terrified of any engagement with the kitchen?

So where to from here?

I’m not going to fix the rot myself. I can’t. But I can, through this resurrected blog, start to encourage folks to return to the kitchen, even in just a small way.

The purpose of this blog is two-fold. In one small respect, it is to provide me with a vent for my more aggrieved thoughts on the subject of the British kitchen. But it is also to provide some simple, and I hope, enjoyable ideas on how to turn back the tide in the kitchen, and recover the kitchen as a place of safety and I hope, some enjoyment.

With each posting, it is my ambition to provide, along with the post itself, a simple, enjoyable recipe to encourage our re-engagement with the kitchen and one of the great joys of life; the creation of simple, enjoyable food, fit for family and friends

So where better to start than with one of my personal heroes, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier and his recipe for…

Potatoes Parmentier

  • 350g (6 medium sized) potatoes
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • generous knob of butter (melted)
  • 2tsp dried parsley
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • salt and pepper
  1. Place a large baking tray in the oven and preheat it to 200C (fan oven – 180C)
  2. Peel and dice the potatoes into half inch cubes
  3. In a small pan, melt the butter and stir in the parsley
  4. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and cook the cubed potatoes for about 5 to 10 minutes, stirring now and again to prevent them from browning or sticking to the pan
  5. Remove the rosemary leaves from the tough stalks and chop the leaves finely
  6. Transfer the potatoes to the baking tray
  7. Mix the parsley butter in with the potatoes and sprinkle with rosemary and season with salt and pepper to taste
  8. Roast the potatoes for 30 minutes, shaking the tray halfway through cooking to prevent sticking

And until the next time, in the words of Julia Child, Bon Appétit.