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Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Economy Gastronomy, BBC2

Unhappiness and misery didn’t exist until one year ago, if you believe the plethora of money-saving programmes swamping the schedules like well-meaning missionaries devoutly committed to converting indigenous tribes to Christianity.

Save money on banking charges, cut motoring costs, economise on upholstery – a new industry has erupted from the dormant crater caused by the deafening collapse of the economy, one which, ironically, is based on identical capitalist principles.

Of course people have been losing their jobs since Og the caveman’s fur company was driven out of business by the extinction of the mammoth, but it’s only when enough people (or potential customers) are crippled by financial misery that such an industry can germinate from a sapling into a might oak. And the recession is one such catalyst for this growth.

Economy Gastronomy sees Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merrett venture into the radioactive wilderness of Britain’s careless spenders, and pick out those who have suffered a recent irreversible fiscal mishap to help them to prune their expenditure to a level they can sustain through their hardship.

The most shocking thing about Allegra and Paul is that they are pleasant human beings – witty without being banal, helpful without being patronising. They race through the recipes that can aid, in this episode, the Colton family in such a fashion as to emphasise the low cost but also to make the meals look appetising; tasty enough to look up detailed instructions on the website that is frequently flagged. Perhaps the reason for their pleasing charisma is that they aren’t ‘celebrity’ chefs, just chefs.

This invigorating alteration from the atrophying norm of egocentric ogres stirring their pudding bowls in such a frenzy that they whip up the same inescapable gravitational pull of a black hole is, on the face of it, a good thing.

However, on the other hand, the fact that Allegra and Paul aren’t celebrity chefs indicates that the elite ‘celebrity’ stormtroopers of the culinary invasion of television have done their work. They have altered the common perception of TV cookery as an intolerable novelty to something as everyday as a post box; and after the stormtroopers have spearheaded the colonisation of commonsense, the footsoldiers like Allegra and Paul can mop up any pocket of resistance to the dogmatic way of the spoon.

But the duo’s mission to further drown the schedules in a miasma of cookery and quaintness is undone by children. While adults can be surreptitiously acquiesced into a cowed state of awe by any chef instructing them how to prepare food, even something as absurd as Rick Stein exhibiting how to marinade Richard Madeley’s legs in Chris Moyles verbal gruel, children are very different, and far more obdurate to the facile coercion of chefs, celebrity or otherwise, which undermines Allegra and Paul’s philosophy.

Nine-year-old James Colton turned his nose up at mushrooms, a perfectly reasonable response given that to put a single specimen of that foul fungus in your mouth is the equivalent of dripping a typically acidic Dorothy Parker aphorism into your eye.
And his mum, the endearing Isabelle, prepared some chocolate biscuits with the ingredient of coffee, a substance so repulsive that we’d join Socrates in swallowing the hemlock rather than risk our taste buds downing tools in protest at processing that effluent brew before skulking round our gums and sporadically scrawling graffiti on our teeth. Cooking on a limited budget means a more limited menu, one that’s likely to lead to unhappiness because of the lack of consensus, and more probable than not, the unhappiness will emanate from a child.

And this is where Economy Gastronomy falls down compared to the rest of the invasion force; it allows dissent rather than crushing every outspoken voice under a caterpillar tread of Gordon Ramsay’s leathery bark, Antony Worrall Thompson’s abrasive garrotte whine or Jamie Oliver’s earnest cockney consternation.

It is bad enough that the new menus take the family many more hours to prepare, thus manacling them to the chopping board for a longer period, but also the instinctive contrariness of children will lead to adolescent malcontent. And, as any parent knows, an unhappy child is far easier to handle than even the most devastating financial disaster. Some pockets of resistance will be more difficult to erase than others.

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