Apropos of Snackmasters: Some thoughts about home cooking and fast food

I am a huge fan of Snackmasters.  I doubt I will ever tire of watching Fred Sirieix and the week’s pair of chefs as they try their best to recreate some of the nation’s – if not the world’s – favourite snacks.  Most of the time snacks are involved, but sometimes – as with Domino’s pizza and the Burger King Whopper – the production team cheat and set the challenge of preparing a square meal.  Whether or not you agree with the definition of pizza or burgers as a square meal is moot; the point is they are exactly that for millions of hungry mouths.

There are some strong parallels with domestic labour and fast or convenience food.  Both are geared exclusively towards those dependent on you for meals.  The processes are streamlined: minimum effort, maximum flavour, resource management (waste not, want not), time efficiency.  Of course, this applies to kitchens of all kinds, but the urgency behind mass production and domestic cooking is something else.  When you order fast food, you’re looking to do several things at the same time: quell the hunger, enjoy the food, feel nourished.  There’s very little, if any, time to wait, nor may there be time to sit and savour your meal.  Grab and go. Time really is of the essence, especially for society’s poorest. 

A memory bell from my MA is ringing, reminding me of the day I learnt about the pie makers of medieval London. Because the city’s poorest didn’t have enough living space for kitchens – wooden houses would also have been a consideration for open fires – cooks with licences to sell pies were charged with an important civic duty.  It would cost them their livelihood if they were caught selling dodgy food, knowing that so many people relied on them as a primary source of sustenance.  And so these cooks chugged away, churning out pies day after day, keeping the city fed and moving.

A bowl of fluffy mashed potato, seasoned with butter, salt and pepper
Mashed potato is sometimes a lunch option for me. Minimal prep, maximum satisfaction #carbsforever

It’s hard not to think of the queues outside fast food outlets, frequented by people in food deserts.  And these same people are often so time poor that they are unable to cook for themselves, even if they have the necessary skills.  Similarly, the invisible labour carried out by people in the home is largely taken up with grocery shopping, meal planning and food preparation.  My personal favourites are either meals that can be put together within half an hour, or meals that can be prepared and forgotten about for anything between 1-3 hours, with minor interventions whilst I’m doing other things.  After these one-pot wonders are ready, all I have to do is Dig and Dish.  The magical appearance of food on the table – or from behind a glistening metal unit – is anticipated with a gleeful appetite.  Food on demand.

In the thick of the pandemic, I dare to hope that these symptoms, indicative of a culture that refuses to allow everyone the means to mindfully prepare a meal, are lessening.  Many of us are spending more time at home, taking back control of the hours in the day, saving time and money that would be spent on a commute, and spending part of that on cooking meals.  Not wanting to cook a meal is one thing, but where does that leave the people who do want to devote time to scratch cooking?  Rather than falling into the capitalist trap of seeing time to cook as a luxury, what if it was (re)seen and respected as the fulfilment of basic human needs – maintaining a relationship with oneself, inside and out?

In ‘The Future of Food’, an essay contributed to In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life, Rebecca Liu reflects on her relationship with Gousto delivery boxes, initially wanting “to hold strong against the scourge of delivery culture that define[s] our new post-modernity, full of overwork and overconvenience,” but eventually realising that they’d become a means of reconnecting with her humanity.

There’s an undeniable, visceral pleasure in unboxing, the same feeling you get when you unwrap a Christmas present, regardless of whether you’ll like what’s inside.  Even though it’s food you have chosen for yourself.

Rebecca Liu, ‘The Future of Food’, p.43.

No amount of pressure, nor any food substitute or “protein-heavy goop” will ever meet the primitive need for nourishment and (self) care.  In the same way that food tastes better when somebody has taken the time to prepare it for you, Liu revels in her Gousto deliveries because they materially validate the time she has taken to nourish herself.  She may have clicked a few buttons instead of visiting a grocery store, but it still matters.  If she had not done so, where would she be?  She would have

…lost the ability to be present in the moment, to find delight in the ordinary, or even pay attention to it.  Every inch of my life feels mediated by the need to be occupied, which comes from the need to generate capital. … I think about what sort of salvation I’m trying to find when cooking my Gousto meals…[a] single sacred space where I can…be myself.  It’s often just me, in my kitchen, with my friendly recipe book.

Liu, ibid, p.50.

My kitchen is my escape too.  Even when I can leave the meal alone, I choose to sit and enjoy the moments between stages of preparation and inspection.  I tell myself that there’s no point leaving the kitchen to find something else to do, because by the time I get settled elsewhere I’ll have to go back and check on the pots.  And so cooking becomes a ritual: I babysit my pots, and I babysit myself, just as the factory inspectors and servers at fast food outlets take meticulous care over the food that leaves their establishments.  Every box and wrapper must be perfect, because the future eater relies on consistency.

The Snackmaster chefs are marked according to how close they come to the real deal; their faces are always a picture, maybe something like the very first time they watched a paying customer eat their food.  No doubt it is a pleasant change from the usual fare of a professional kitchen, but they seem to care just as much, if not more so, about serving a tasty end result that makes the judges happy.  I watch and wonder how many Whoppers and Domino’s pizzas they’ve eaten, squeezed between shifts or on the way home from feeding hundreds of hungry bellies.

An empty bowl that once held mashed potato.  Only the spoon and the merest morsels remain.
An empty bowl that once held mashed potato. Only the spoon and the merest morsels remain.

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