George Orwell’s lesson for Jamie Oliver

27 August 2013

Jamie Oliver, eh, what a card? Why can’t Britain’s revolting poor eat better food? If they can afford televisions they can afford mussels and rocket too, don’t ya know? Something like that anyway. But instead they loaf in front of the goggle-box stuffing their fat faces with lardy ready-meals and fast food. What is to be done with them? And why can’t they be more like the Spanish or the Italians?

Never mind that Italian children are more likely to be obese than British children. Never mind, too, that kids in impoverished southern Italy are more likely to be overweight than children in the wealthier north. Instead just fantasise about a future in which poor British families will dine on fresh vegetables and the finest seafood. Failing that, they can make do with something “slow-cooked” or the “amazing texture” of a meal fashioned from “leftover stale bread“.

Of course it is true that “peasant food” in other countries can be good for you and relatively simple to prepare. But, hark at this, when peasants become wealthier they often leave these time-consuming meals behind. They want something reasonably nourishing and tasty that can be prepared quickly. They made a virtue of want; they’d also like to leave want behind.

Oliver doubtless means well. But his comments are not so far removed from the kind of nasty authoritarianism that wants to deny fat people treatment on the NHS or thinks the unemployed should be banned from purchasing tobacco or alcohol. The poor lead difficult, sometimes miserable, lives so let’s make their lives still more miserable and difficult. Punish them for their sins! Or rather, for the sin of appalling their wealthier compatriots. Slap a minimum price on alcohol that will hurt the schemies. What finer way to express our disgust for them and their ugly little lives? We, after all, will always have claret. And single malt Scotch.

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As so often, we have been here before. Consider this passage from The Road to Wigan Pier:

The miner’s family spend only ten pence a week on green vegetables and ten pence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. […] When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pen north of chips Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea. That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

That was true then – when British people were dwarfish and thin rather than, as now, taller and fatter – and it remains true now. Being poor is no fun at all. No wonder the poor crave sensation – salt, sugar, tobacco, alcohol, drugs – in any form they can get it. Perhaps they would be better off if they had a better diet and I don’t doubt Oliver’s sincerity in trying to help people cook better – but still cheap – food but, often, people don’t eat poorly because they’re stupid or lazy but because that’s the food available to them and, actually, because they want something a little more “tasty” than stale bread.

Oh, and one more thing: you should read this typically-fine Chris Dillow post.

[Thanks to Padraig Reidy for bringing the Orwell passage to my attention.]



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Show comments
  • keir watson

    Much as we all admire Orwell, he was wrong about this being the worst diet. At least they had some milk (and it would have been full fat in that era). At least they ate some meat, even if it was tinned, and were not trying to subsist on lentils. At least they spent 10 pence on green veg. And the sweet tea? It is a way of providing some calories, albeit without much in the way of nutrients, but actually it is better than just water, as the milk is in there, and the mind calming effects of the theanine in the tea. Mr Orwell, raw carrots are not better than cooked carrots. You gain fewer nutrients from raw veg than cooked veg. And brown bread, unless it is very freshly ground wheat, is not really any better than white, all wheat, in any form, is toxic now, but then it wasn’t quite as bad. If it was a medium for dripping in that era I would allow it, unless there was evidence of any illness, and then I would withdraw all wheat products as they are, no doubt, responsible for a great many diseases, including vulnerability to TB (hint hint Mr O!) as well as lymphomas, all manner of gut dysfunctions, skin lesions, mental illness, depression and heart disease. What these people are probably seriously lacking is sunshine for vitamin D, which is free in the summer if you just get your bare skin in it; lard, which is a cheap source of safe fats (poly unsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated are all in it) which allows the fat soluble vitamins to be absorbed; fish (cheap tins of sardines, or mackerel are great) and eggs, for which a couple of hens pecking at grubs and grass in the yard will suffice. I know poor people now who eat a far worse diet than Orwell describes here, in that it is made up of processed, lifeless acellular carbohydrates fried in inflammatory vegetable oils and is based around wheat in the form of breakfast cereals, bread, pasta and sandwiches. All made of one, very low nutrient substance, wheat, that also happens to contain toxins such as glyphosate (a carcinogen) and prolamines like gluten that can generate any autoimmune disease you care to name. Put that in your cigarette but don’t smoke it George!

  • milomonkey

    he just a celebrity chef who have delusions .. in fact his so called ‘ministry of food’ smacks an orwellian title by itself.. one must be forgiven if one suspect jamie have some kind of god complex..

  • MIchael Richards

    It’s important to note that neither Massie or Chris Dillow in Massie’s link (or Orwell, for that matter, but that’s another story) were actually born in poverty with few options. Yet they’re very keen on telling people what few options are available to poor people and reinforcing the notion that the poor have precious little agency, thus diminishing not only the vital notion of personal responsibility, but also removing one of the essential ingredients for aspiration and social mobility. I like Massie’s work, but so often, people like him sound like a ridiculous Ken Loach film, where the poor are nothing but ciphers doomed to have the odds permanently stacked against them. Having some hope, knowing that you’re not doomed and being told that despite appearances, there are options and choices you can make seem to me to be a vital public service. So good on you Jamie.
    I’m just glad I didn’t listen to the likes of Massie when I was a boy.

  • thanksdellingpole

    I was poor and on one meal a day, eating from Tesco’s reduced section for literal survival and I decided to cook real meals.

    When I was poor, really poor, that’s when I learned to cook.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    The weather, narrow-minded people, the awful food…
    You only fully realise what a dump Britain is when viewing from a distance.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • Toby Esterházy

      You were born in Japan. No-one asked you to come here!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Good picture. Mind if I lift it for my presentation on UK trash culture?

    • Toby Esterházy

      What presentation? You are just an unemployed Japanese bum sitting behind a computer for the last 9 years!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Does that mean you no longer believe I was a guard at a WWII Japanese PoW camp?
        I suspect we`re about to witness a full-blown psychotic episode in real-time cyber space as Jock spits the dummy.

        • Toby Esterházy

          I never said you were. That part is definitely dreamed up purely by yourself.

          The topic is about FOOD, remember? Idiot!

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Liar. Under an earlier user name, you claimed I was a guard at a WWII Japanese PoW camp. Insane assertion obviously, but then you are a couple of cans short of a six pack.
            I gather one of the symptoms of obsessive compulsive personality disorder to an inability to deal with everyday stress as well as finding it difficult to form relationships.
            Does that strike a chord?

            • Toby Esterházy

              More off-topic nonsense from you!

  • FrankS

    There’s a passage in Wigan Pier Diary in which Orwell describes the typical daily food intake of his mining family (I think) hosts. What struck me about it was the enormous quantity of food they seemed to eat.

  • Shorne

    Yeah but look Jamsie me old mate if they didn’t have big TVs they wouldn’t be able to watch your programmes…narmean?…sorted…sweet as bruv.

  • george

    Well Alex, I don’t always agree with you (yeah, understatement) but in this case you are bang on.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Britisher pals, you need to examine the knock-on effect of junk food and the extra load it places on the NHS. Now take on board that Britain is 30th in life expectancy ranking. Not as bad as the US at 51st, but definitely an also ran.

    • Toby Esterházy

      Give it a rest! Your Country literally poisoned the entire Pacific at least for the next 10,000 years!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      One advantage of being resident abroad is that you are not obliged to take responsibility, or accept guilt for the actions of your host nation. If you weren`t washed up on the UK beach with the flotsam and jetsam of the stream of life you`d realise that. So how`s that multiculturalism going? That Muslim food must make a pleasant change from all the greasy muck.

      • Toby Esterházy

        An obvious Troll is obvious, and this one is mad as a hatter too!

  • John Smith

    This is the guy who wrecked the schools meal service. So who treats him with ANY credibility

  • Noa

    George Orwell was a thin man making a comment defending the poor in Wigan getting pleasure from eating junk food.
    Jamie Oliver is a fat man criticising the poor for buying and using their televisions to get pleasure from watching his programmes showing them how to cook.
    Isn’t their willingness to watch the use of fresh vegetables in food progress? Of a sort?

  • Eddie

    There is no such thing as unhealthy food – all food is by definition healthy; there is just an unhealthy diet. Vegetarians and vegans who get iron deficient because of their diets are eating as, or more, unhealthily than someone who hardly eats any fruit and veg.
    Most of our sense of taste comes from what our pregnant mothers eat and what we eat as babies and young children; our life expectancy is largely defined by our grandparents’ health too.
    So there is nothing at all wrong with eating chips or fried food, and schools, hospitals etc should not be forcing spicy, rocket and fennel based food to people who want good solid British fare. Paste is never nice in institutions anyway – it’s always best cooked fresh and served in a minute, not an hour.
    Jamie Oliver’s campaigns make not a jot of difference to the health of the nation, because that rests with what parents, usually mothers, cook and feed their kids.

    • Eddie

      By the way, just going out to buy some fish and chips tonight actually. Yum.

    • Daniel Maris

      I doubt that in the 80s many British people’s mothers had eaten curry. But within a very short time we had nearly all developed a taste for curries.

      Soup is best for unwell people, but hospitals are so overheated that people tend to just lie there in a heat-induced stupour.

      • george

        A heat-induced stewpour?

      • Eddie

        Some traditional British food is very spicy – think English mustard; think Christmas pudding. Spiced food is more traditionally British than many realise.
        But really, hospitals – and the food gurus like Oliver and Grossman who get paid vast sums to update menus – have got it all wrong. People do not want spicy food when they are ill – and people don’t want to smell other people eating it either.

        Hospital food should revolve around pies, stews, mash, potatoes, chips, baked beans, soup and sandwiches – comfort food to fill people up and get them back to life (that is what I eat when I am unwell anyway). Not the awful rocket (why on earth do people eat that spiky salad weed?) or wholemeal pasta (always yucky) or poncy cod-Mediterranean or Thai or Indian fare. Keep all that nonsense in Islington where it belongs. And, much as I adore real Italian food, let’s stop thinking all food served in our institutions has to be Italian too – because hour-old chewy pasta is unpleasant indeed, and that’s what you get in hospitals.

        Let’s not forget either that it was the Europeans who took chillies to India – and potatoes and tomatoes – and tea too. British Indian food in a British invention as well. But best eaten when tanked up on lager; not really what you feel like when you’ve got a stomach ulcer in hospital…

    • drewla

      You’re right that there’s nothing wrong with chips per se. I try to eat a healthy balanced diet, but that doesn’t mean I can’t treat myself to good fish and chips once in a while. And I regularly fry food — I don’t think many people say that it is bad. But deep-fat frying too often is not a great idea.

      Jamie Oliver would say no different — we shouldn’t paint him as some sort of food fascist. (You only have to watch one of his TV shows to know that.)

      As with most aspects of life, it’s all a question of balance, surely.

  • Fergus Pickering

    However hard I try I cannot say that Mr Massie is 100% right and thatwhen I was young I would have liked his supper with plenty of beer and cigarettes.

    • george

      ‘cannot not say’, I take you to mean.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I do. It just took me so long to post te opinion. F*t and f*gs were great problems.

  • drewla

    A long line of bloggers seems to forming to lecture Jamie Oliver on why it is wrong to lecture people.

    And to tell him why it is wrong to make generalised pronouncements about the poor — moments before doing precisely the same thing themselves.

    It’s immaterial because Oliver seems to be being accused of crimes he has not committed. You would think he had unleashed some extended rant about what people must and mustn’t eat.

    He has done nothing of the sort. He made a couple of comments in the course of a wider discussion about eating habits and how to eat economically. These have been beaten into some great frothy diatribe that he simply didn’t make.

    The Orwell extract is indeed fascinating, and grim reading. (I’ve read at least 3 journalists who reference exactly the same passage, incidentally. It must be doing the rounds by email as a substitute for original thought.). The problem is that it just doesn’t stand up as a fair comparison. Orwell refers repeatedly to drab food as being the only alternative e.g. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. Wouldn’t we all?

    Today is different because a) there is a fantastic range of healthy alternative alternatives b)they are easily available c) we have TV and the internet, both overflowing with advice and assistance d) we have far greater scientific knowledge about nutritional benefits.

    I totally agree with Orwell that being poor changes your mindset, but it doesn’t turn into a complete idiot by default. It makes it harder, for sure, but not impossible. The fact that many poor people DO eat healthily and cheaply bears this out.

    Just finally, I hate the way that people are ridiculed, shouted down and accused of being engaged in social engineering, just because they dare to express an opinion that the writer disagrees with. Bloggers these days seem to spend their efforts building strawman arguments with impunity. This sort of patronising parody, that creates a raft of views that Oliver did not express, and does not hold, is as unethical as you can get:

    “Oliver doubtless means well. But his comments are not so far removed from the kind of nasty authoritarianism that wants to deny fat people treatment on the NHSor thinks the unemployed should be banned from purchasing tobacco or alcohol. The poor lead difficult, sometimes miserable, lives so let’s make their lives still more miserable and difficult. Punish them for their sins!”

    Jamie Oliver is free to express a view, just like you, and should at least be accorded a bit of respect. Indeed, some might say he has a greater authority to do so given his profession and given the several projects he has actually got off his backside to turn into action, rather than just tapping out whimsical attacks from a safe distance.

    • clouty

      Jamie Oliver has a new book to promote, and very little idea of what life is like with £10 or less to spend per week per person on food. Anyone who takes the moral high ground about something they don’t understand deserves everything they get.

      BTW TVs are the cheapest form of diversion from a miserable life, and last for at least ten years. Mine was given to me. It’s a flat screen.

  • zakisbak

    Why can’t Britain’s revolting poor eat better food? ……and work harder,for less,like the wonderful East Europeans?
    (The mockney’s latest pronouncement.)

    • drewla

      Which of course was nothing remotely like what he actually said.

    • Vrai écossais

      Eastern Europeans tend to eat fruit and veg and fruit juice/tea, not 3 packs of crisps, a chocolate bar, Coca Cola and a pork pie for lunch. Go into Farmfoods or ASDA and the place is packed with junk food, and all the obese people wobbling about the aisles are filling their trollies with that junk food. Poor people are fat as they eat lots of fat.

      • M. K. Hajdin

        Have you actually ever been to Eastern Europe? This isn’t true at all.

        • Vrai écossais

          Yes I have worked for several years in Poland, Latvia and Estonia. Rarely see fat people at all, certainly few under 30 and it is remarkable to see any fat teenagers.

      • george

        Actually, fat people consume lots of fats and starches, usually in (pound-packing) combination.

  • Shoe On Head

    wasn’t it morissey who said:

    “There are just three problems with modern Britain: first – Jamie Oliver, second – Jamie Oliver and third – Jamie Oliver”.

    on this occasion i agree with the miserable one.

    oh. do something about those overpriced restaurant-chain trattoria’s (oh, the irony).

  • Fergus Pickering

    Why am I not allowed to comment on this?

  • Wilhelm

    Regarding the photograph, what disgusting slop, I wouldn’t give it to a dog. I saw Massie on television a couple of months ago, he looked ill and sweaty, probably get a massive heart attack in his fifties.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I remember that the man who invented jogging dropped dead in his fifties

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        You`d do well to research this story as there`s more to it than you might suppose.

        • george

          I’m sure he knows that: but all the same, the man did drop dead (while running, didn’t he?).

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I made a quick visit to Britain last November (the South obviously), and I have to say that supermarket food was the best, indeed the only thing worth buying to take back to Japan. So I essentially dumped my clothes and filled the suitcase with Waitrose products. While the food is worth buying, eating in a restaurant is not. However, not a serious problem, you do tend to look a “sorry-@ssed loser” eating alone in anything other than a motorway restaurant.
    Such a pleasure to get back to Japan where catering standards are so much higher, such that a mediocre restaurant is really difficult to find. This helps explain why Brits straight “off the boat” actually find Malaysian food acceptable. While to those of us that reside in Japan it`s pig swill. And I say this with all due respect.
    Jack Japan Alps

    • True_Belle

      I expect Japanese food glows in the dark also?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Reading UK trashy tabloids for a laugh is one thing. Actually believing and disseminating the nonsense they print is quite another.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        It’s not about living forever; it’s about living with yourself.
        But as you’ve raised this salacious and irrelevant point, I may as well pick up the ball and run with it. So this may be of interest to those able to use their head for thinking. Sounds more Guardian territory.
        “In 1971, General Electric designed, built and delivered the first, now-exploded, Mark 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and that design was also used for four of the other five reactors.
        Whistleblower Dale Bridenbaugh, a former engineer for GE, exposed a critical flaw in the reactor design that was so bad; he recommended all Mark 1 reactors be shut down to repair them.
        This didn’t happen. Then, as now, profits and protection of nuclear business were put ahead of safety and the protection of people.”
        And the rest, as they say, is history.
        Jack, Japan Alps

        • True_Belle

          Calm down or you’ll start glowing also!

        • Toby Esterházy

          It is usually pretty naff to nick a quote from a dialogue in a film, certainly “The Pirates of the Caribbean”.

          When was General Electric ever actually allowed to directly run power stations in Japan, nuclear or otherwise? Quoting from Greenpiste on the Spectator (or indeed anywhere else) is definitely an automatic fail.

    • Toby Esterházy

      There is definitely no such thing as Malaysian food. Each of the ten major ethnic groups in Malaysia all have their own separate cuisines.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Really you needed to look no farther than Canterbury or Whitstable (ah the seafood!) for a decent restaurant. Things have improved quite markedly in the last thirty years

      • Toby Esterházy

        Don’t encourage him. He is obviously just trolling.

  • roger

    Orwell is the antidote to so much modern foolishness, he should be read a lot more , not just !984 and Animal Farm. The diaries are a good place to dip in, contrasting them to ‘Chips’ Channon.

  • Austin Barry

    One of the great pleasures of watching Jamie is reconciling his increasingly porcine appearance with his exhortations to eat healthy food.

    His hypocricy does rather recall a culinary version of ‘Animal Farm’s Napoleon.

    • Dan Grover

      As well as his routine Christmas adverts for Sainsbury’s whereby he extols the virtues of mince pies and gingerbread men to children.

    • george

      If we’re going to spell hypocrisy as ‘hypocricy’ then I insist on going the whole hog, in Jamie’s porcine case, and spelling it ‘hippocricy’. Or even ‘hippocrispy’ (if people can pronounce ‘asphalt’ as ashphalt’, why not?).

      • Fergus Pickering

        Nice one George.

      • Austin Barry

        Fanks, bruvver, pukka spelling now in place. Beautiful.

        • george


      • Sue Ward

        Or artic as arctic and vice versa. And don’t get me started on pacific and specific!

  • Wessex Man

    If that was your supper you need serious help!

    • The Red Bladder

      I would imagine if the ‘meal’ shown were to served in a prison the Howard League for Penal Reform would kick up one heck of a stink!

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