My latest New Statesman column concerns my use of tinned and other pre-prepared products. They are compromises, of course; but, to judge by the words of some of Delia Smith's detractors, you would conclude that promoting them was akin to ordering a cull of the first-born.
I filed another version of this piece before discovering that Rachel Cooke, in her TV column, had also written about Delia. Rachel gave her a kicking. Here is what I wrote.
Delia Smith has the place in the national consciousness reserved for resolute women. Liking her – or liking Queen Victoria, or Margaret Thatcher – is not the point. (Although Delia was weirdly endearing when, in high spirits, she went on to the pitch at Norwich City to yell “Let’s be having you!” at her fellow supporters.) Instead, aficionados admire her. They trust her. She is nanny. Hence the shock that has greeted publication of her new book, How To Cheat at Cooking. It may be number one on the bestseller lists, but on Amazon the book has more reviews in the bottom, one-star category than in any other. “Woeful, and profoundly disappointing”; “a lazy, dirty, distasteful, money-making exercise”; “Delia has sold out”: these are some of the comments.
Delia’s crime is to present recipes largely assembled from store-cupboard, frozen and pre-prepared ingredients. Her “good old shepherd’s pie” – which perhaps she should not have named so phonily -- consists of an onion, a tin of Marks & Spencer minced lamb, diced carrot and swede from Tesco, olive oil, thyme and cinnamon; you top it with Aunt Bessie’s Homestyle frozen mash, chopped leaks, and ready-grated cheddar. It’s cooking, but not as one normally understands the term; and not as promoted in Delia’s How To Cook. Melanzane Parmigiana includes frozen aubergine slices, ready-prepared tomato sauce, and ready-grated cheeses. Avocado with prawns is avocado with Tesco finest prawn cocktail, enlivened with Whole Earth tomato ketchup and some lime juice and cayenne.
As do Delia’s detractors, I draw the line at some of these ingredients. Grated cheeses and pre-prepared vegetables seem to me to be decadent, overpriced products; and their packaging is nutritionally and environmentally suspect. Excellent though Aunt Bessie’s mash may be, I do not mind peeling, cutting and cooking a few potatoes. My only local supermarket is a Tesco Metro, which does not stock the items Delia recommends.
No cookery book, though, ever offers an entire new collection of recipes for one’s repertoire. One picks and chooses. It seems to me that, taken in this spirit, How To Cheat at Cooking is brilliantly inspiring. I like to cook fresh food, and I also like, when time is pressing and when culinary standards need not be so high, to assemble meals from the store cupboard; I wish more writers would recommend particular brands, as Delia does. I can vouch for a few of her choices, especially the spices from Seasoned Pioneers.
Corner-cutting, not ersatz approximation, is her theme. One recipe, for Greek lamb stew, involves no pre-prepared ingredients at all, but simply lamb, garlic and lemon: I am very eager to try it. Today, for lunch, I had lobster and coconut soup, consisting of tinned bisque, coconut milk, lemon grass, ginger, and lime. Yes, it fell short of Michelin standards. But it took -- in the middle of a working day -- less than 15 minutes to prepare, and it tasted fine. While that may not be good enough for some Amazon customers, it is for me.