Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Remains of Ben Gunn

I always enjoy reading poet Hugo Williams' "Freelance" column in the TLS, though it's hard to believe anyone can lead quite such a haplessly charmed life, or get away with being quite so self-consciously hopeless. This week's installment of the Adventures of Hugo made me laugh out loud (that's right, LOL!):
Does anyone seriously consider pre-heating their oven before throwing in some horrible ready meal? You'd think Tesco's Beef Cannelloni was a finely tuned piece of culinary art from the way they insist on exactly fourteen minutes' cooking time on Gas Mark 4, rather than what it tastes like -- a rolled-up piece of parchment containing the remains of Ben Gunn.
This is a man whose relationship with food and cooking is clearly under stress. You'd probably have to be British to fully understand his comment that "My antipathy to food goes back to my childhood in the 1940s when people were naturally thin because the food was so awful". Austerity Britain lasted officially until 1954, when rationing was abolished, but its spirit lived on well into the 1970s. Even the good times always had something irredeemably cheap and meagre about them, like the filling of a baker's shop sausage roll.

The true awfulness of much British food is one of those legends that happens to be true. Hugo mentions the Vesta range of instant Chinese and Indian meals, and unless you have attempted to eat a Vesta Chow Mein you have no idea how criminally low our expectations of food once were. I have eaten quite a few such simulacra of food in my time, as the child of working parents left to my own devices through most of the school holidays. The term "meal solution" had not been coined back then, but would have been very appropriate; I suppose they did seem an excitingly modern approach to malnutrition at the time. Rickets à la mode.

Unbelievably, Vesta meals are still made and sold in all the major supermarkets. Indeed, there is a special aisle in every supermarket which sells the Great British Convenience Foods: tinned pies and stews, jellies with chunks of fruit, tinned fruits and rice pudding, Camp Coffee, instant custard and Angel Delight -- a 1960s cornucopia. Who buys this stuff? How is it possible brands like Ambrosia, Fray Bentos, and Birds are still in business? I can only imagine they are in receipt of subsidies from the National Lottery, to preserve part of our tinned, boiled and stewed British Heritage.

We are most exposed as a nation, gastronomically, in the area of "treats". Although -- having grown up with the stuff -- most of us retain a fondness for the waxy compound sold as "chocolate" by the likes of Cadbury, there is no revelation quite like the moment a Brit first tastes European chocolate. Now, obviously, something like a Mars Bar is a sort of apotheosis of industrial confectionery -- it defines its own category of sublimity -- but no-one who has once tasted Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa chocolate is ever going to eat Cadbury's Bourneville again. And is there any more depressing sight than a High Street baker's window, filled with greasy, misshapen jam doughnuts, "buttercream" pastries with a perfunctory grafitti of icing, and bulbous apple turnovers crusted with sugar and filled with nothing but apple-scented air? It says a lot about our tolerant national character that we can still put up with this roadkill patisserie. "Mustn't grumble"...

Amusingly, we have started to pat ourselves on the back as a nation of gastronauts, in recent years. So many top class restaurants, so many cooking programmes on TV, so many celebrity chefs! So many new ingredients, and a hundred different microwaveable ready meals! It's all so much better than it used to be. Have you tried these new Red Leicester Cheese and Caramelised Onion crisps?

And yet, how many simple, nutritious meals get prepared from basic ingredients in British kitchens most nights? The guy who installed our kitchen last year told me only old people and hippies use ovens these days. Have you ever heard that famous and profound remark by Sir Thomas Beecham, that "The British may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes"? I think the truth is that something of the sort applies to food, too. We may not like cooking, but we absolutely love filling our supermarket trolleys with meal solutions.

If British comedians wants to make thumbnail sketches of social stereotypes, especially about class and pretension, they reach for food items; I must admit I am always very amused whenever I remember the joke about Peter Mandelson, as aspiring parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool, mistaking mushy peas for guacamole in a chip shop. But can anyone explain why "the remains of Ben Gunn" is so funny? It's a long time since I read Treasure Island, but I don't recall Ben Gunn ending up as spag bol.


Unknown said...

I lived in the UK back in the 70's, when things were starting to improve, but there were still some Wimpy's Restaurants surviving in London, not to mention the local fish 'n chips spot. Our British neigbors raved about the place; we recoiled from eating food off rolled up newspaper. You must admit it has gotten better.

Mike C. said...

I hate to say this, Tim, but Wimpy are still in business (strapline: "The home of fresh cooked, nutritional meals"), and fish and chips is still sold in newspaper.

I think I'd say things are "different", rather than "better" ...


Paul Mc Cann said...

Well I remember Wimpys being the epitome of cool. The circular restaurant they had in Coventry was the place to meet. Strangely I remember them being expensive as well. Given I was earning £7 per week as a lowly civil service clerk I suppose they were.

The sheer number of cooking programmes on television amazes me. I find it hard to reconcile this with the huge range of ready meals supplied by the supermarkets. Are people eating ready meals off their knees whilst watching Jamie Oliver ?

Mike C. said...


Do you remember the Golden Egg chain? Now they were cool (greasy, but cool). The very embodiment of the swinging sixties, brought to your own High Street.

Your second para nails it: I think that is exactly what is going on.

In our family, of course, they sit watching Jamie while eating nutritious (sorry, "nutritional"!) meals that I have cooked for them, while I eat mine at the kitchen table, being allergic to (a) TV and (b) eating off my knees.


Poetry24 said...

I come from a long line of 'pudding fanciers'. Nothing special, but nearly always something that included sponge or pastry, and fresh prepared fruit. The digestive system protests these days, but I can still manage a healthy serving of steamed pudding with custard on a cold day.

Incidentally, one TV chef has made such a meal of, well...meals, that the locals now refer to Padstow, as Padstein. Try his fish and chips, but be prepared to take out a second mortgage.

Mike C. said...


Stop, stop, I'm really craving a steamed pudding now.

That is the other, secret side of Brit cuisine, of course... My Nan had been in service before she married and was a cracking cook of "rib sticking" food with pastry, dumplings, suet, the works. Her steak and kidney pie was a-m-a-z-i-n-g.

God, I'm hungry. I want CARBOHYDRATES, now.


Gavin McL said...

Well growing up middle class in a working class mining village during the seventies placed me on the front line between the the emerging foodie culture which my parents indulged in and the "Fray Bentos" faction. I dreamed of trying those pies whilst I tried to explain a quiche to my school mates and I was nearly laughed out of town when I explained about an avocado: A pear that was green inside -not possible.
My mum had an HND in "Institutional Management" which included plenty of modules in nutrition and cooking so we were well provided for and she was a devotee of Robert Carrier so as well as the rib stickers we got the "exotics" as well.
Some of it rubbed off though and I can cook still feel uncomfortable having a ready meal.
I do like that Beecham quote


Mike C. said...


Yes, I'd forgotten about avocados! That's real "Abigail's Party" territory. A friend at university persuaded me to have a taste in about 1974 (I was militantly unreconstructed in my dietary prejudices back then) and I had to spit it out, it was so disgusting -- I haven't eaten one since.

I think the important thing about a ready meal is to feel the guilt then eat it anyway... I used to make my own pizza dough, once, and it was great, but life is truly too short for that. Tesco's curries are actually very good, I think.


Martyn Cornell said...

Ben Gunn - he asked Jim (lad, arrrh) if he had any cheese, and declared: "I dreams o'nights of cheese - toasted, mostly", IIRC. Not sure how that fits in with beef cannelloni.

Golden Egg was started by a man called Phillip (sic) Kaye, who later moved on to found Garfunkels: his sons Adam and Sam started the ASK and Zizzi chains, and his nephew Jonathan owns Prezzo. The family trick is to be cheap, but not quite nasty enough that you swear never to go back (although Zizzi was pretty foul the one time I ever went in a branch.) He's done well out of it: the family's worth several tens of millions, partly, apparently, because whenever he sold a restaurant chain he always kept the freeholds of the restaurant premises.

Personally I never saw a red pepper until I went to university: however, watching all the nice middle-class girlies knocking out dishes made with fresh ingredients in the kitchens of the student accommodations shamed me out of Vesta curries, and I spent the next four decades doing almost all the cooking in any relationship I was in. My mother was a pretty OK cook, though, and her steamed puddings … mmmm! Spotted dick!

Mike C. said...


Ah, that will be it -- the remains of a man obsessed by savoury snacks -- at some subconscious level, my mind must have remembered that, funny how laughter seems to find its stimuli down there.

I remember, aged about 10, trying to manhandle (boyhandle?) one of those Golden Egg "menus on a board", on a visit to London, and being completely entranced by the graphic design. As the saying goes, no-one ever got poor misunderestimating the tastes of the British public.

Yes, my experience at college was the same -- total mystification at the quasi-religious food-related convictions of the most attractive girls, followed by revelation, and then (qualified) emulation.

Being an arrogant little shit from the Town With No Name, I was initially deeply unpleasant about my ignorant prejudices -- I recall, to my eternal shame, reducing a girl to tears at a dinng table by viciously mocking the word "vegan". I'm so glad to say I've changed since then...