Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Culinary Catastrophe - The Four Ingredients

For me the culinary catastrophe of 2008 was the success of a slim volume of ‘recipes’ by Queensland Mum’s Kim McCosker and Rachel Bermingham. 4 Ingredients has been on the best seller list for ever. The authors have received a good deal of publicity and the book has been widely discussed as a publishing phenomenon. The girls now have another book and their own television programme (check them out here).
However little if any attention has been given to the book’s contents.

The first positive attribute of 4 Ingredients is that it is cheap. At, the last time I looked, only $17.95 it is well within the grasp of its target audience - the busy, the impecunious and/or those with limited culinary skill. This unpretentious little book has no fancy photographs or clever graphics just the appearance and feel of something home produced (or more accurately in this case self-published) which is no doubt meant to be in keeping with the authors’ cheerful, no nonsense approach to food and clearly differentiates their offering from most of the other recipe books in the local bookshop.
On reflection the price is perhaps this book’s only positive attribute. I am prepared to turn a blind eye to the grammatical errors and the gushings of both authors who ‘absolutely love and adore’ their families, themselves and one another. Everyone it seems is gorgeous, talented, courageous or creative and the food is fabulous, sensational, wonderful, fantastic and adored by all. I can tolerate the waffle, the biographies, the handy hints and even the gratuitous financial advice. What makes me angry is the naivety and ambiguity- which I am tempted to call ignorance and blatant hypocrisy – inherent in their recipes.

Kim and Rach have their own eater’s manifesto (à la Michael Pollan). They believe that by simplifying cooking – reducing the number of ingredients and the number of utensils used – we can save time (both shopping for and preparing food), and money. I am uncomfortable with the assertion that by reducing the number of ingredients ‘you won’t need to buy as much’ and I am by no means convinced that a recipe with eight ingredients will even ‘generally’ cost more to prepare than one with only half that number of components. Surely for one thing it will depend on what those ingredients are and how many mouths you have to feed. My own experience tells me that one recipe does not a meal make. Nor am I persuaded that fewer ingredients per se will make food preparation easier. But it gets worse.

On the one hand the Misses Bermingham and McCosker recommend organic flour and eggs on the other they are singing the praises of French Onion Soup mix. How can they be advocates of both? Packets of French Onion Soup are staples in at least ten recipes – including the recipe for French Onion Soup! Soup – either from a can or a packet – features in at least another 15 recipes. Why would you buy pork tenderloin, a by no means cheap cut of meat, and drown it in a can of tomato soup mixed with a packet of French Onion soup mix? How can this be more economical or quicker than cooking the meat with crushed tomatoes, fried onions and some seasoning? Easy Roast Beef calls for a rib roast, a packet of French Onion Soup mix and a can of cream of mushroom soup. How can this be cheaper than a traditional roast seasoned with salt and pepper and perhaps a little garlic, cooked on a bed of onions and served with sautéed mushrooms? ‘Best Gravy Ever’ involves nothing more than mixing dry gravy mix with water. I would have thought that most people don’t need a recipe book to tell them that or how to cook some spaghetti and smother it with reheated pasta sauce from a jar. Surely all you have to do is follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Why, if you are interested in economical, healthy meals, make apple crumble with a can of apple pie filling? You can buy a whole kilo of apples for less than the price of a can of processed pie filling.

Perhaps the authors have not read the Forward to their own book (written by Cyndi O’Meara, Nutritionist). Cyndi exhorts the reader to make healthy meals and assures them that ‘Nature makes all the healthy foods’ and that purchasing good quality ingredients will guarantee that ‘all the recipes in this book will be healthy’. Whilst the authors are well aware that ‘natural, non-technically enhanced products are LOADED with essential nutrients’ (p.13) they seem to be unaware of the irony in recommending using cold pressed oils and organic products alongside ‘ingredients’ such as vanilla instant pudding mix. Haven’t they ever wondered how the onions got into the soup packet? Don’t they ever read the ingredient declarations on the packets and cans and jars of ‘ingredients’ they ask us to use? And don’t they know that organic products are generally more expensive? How do they reconcile the taste and health benefits of eating these ‘less technically altered’ and healthier products with their price?

The other criticism I have of this book is that no where is there any suggestion that cooking is a creative process or that it might be possible to enjoy food preparation as a satisfying act in itself and a means of nurturing and loving your own ‘gorgeous’ family. Nothing about 4 Ingredients encourages a young generation of cooks and eaters to value food as anything more than a means of survival and meal preparation as anything more than a chore. I have had enough experience of cooking for a family to know that preparing meals week in week out can become a bit of a bind. Limited time to shop and prepare meals is not however an excuse for not trying. Experience has also taught me that buying good ingredients means that you can do something very simple and produce a nourishing and tasty result at a reasonable price especially if you concentrate on whatever fruits or vegetables are in season. Good food is not only for the idle and the rich.

I am by no means against short cuts and convenience products per se. In my pantry you’ll find cans of tomatoes and pulses and packets of instant couscous. No, I don’t make my own bread or jams or chutneys and I am very partial to vegemite. I don’t always make my own mayonnaise and I use premixed spice blends but I do grow my own herbs and I like to think that I understand the implications of the choices I make in the supermarket. I certainly understand the difference between something that is processed – like canned kidney beans and frozen peas – and something that is manufactured – like condensed cream of mushroom soup. What disturbs and concerns me most is that in the end Kim and Rach offer no real guidance on how to prepare healthy food or how to shop economically and they avoid altogether the issue of eating ethically in the interests of ‘something you can whip up and get on the table’. (Herald Sun 5 April 2008)

Saving time in the kitchen has been the subject of far better books for example Take 3 and Very Simple Food by Jill Dupleix and Nigel Slater’s The Thirty Minute Cookbook and his very successful Real Fast Food. Edouard de Pomiane recognised that the pace of modern life left little time for food preparation when he wrote Cooking in Ten Minutes or The Adaptation to the Rhythm of Our Time. ‘Modern life spoils so much that is pleasant’ he says, ‘let us see that it does not make us spoil our steak or our omelette’. His book was first published in 1930.

Before you buy 4 Ingredients think about paying a few dollars more and purchase one of these or even Michael Pollan’s In Defence of Food. Rach and Kim would do well to reflect more on some of Pollan’s philosophies not least ‘Pay more, eat less’ and ‘Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle’.

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