In 1988, aged 15, I made my first expedition to a magical, otherworldly kingdom. It was cold, frosty and pale in places, like Narnia, while other parts were a Willy-Wonka-esque explosion of colour and exquisite tastes. A land of limitless opportunity, it was just off junction 44 on the M6 near Gretna. The big Asda had come to Carlisle.
For the Dent family, this was akin to a religious awakening. My mother went first, while we were at school, after hearing about it on the local news. She arrived home breathless, the car loaded with dozens of fresh white rolls, boxes of Findus crispy pancakes and family-size microwave lasagnes. She had spotted her emancipation from the kitchen and she was grabbing it with both hands. Or at least she would once she had unloaded a family-sized Sara Lee gateau and three bags of McCain oven chips from the boot of her Austin Princess.
Later that day, we drove back again as a family, marvelling at the traffic jams and the chaos in the car park, then stepping gingerly inside a world of pure imagination. Even as a sulky teen, steeped in existential angst from listening to the Smiths’ Hatful Of Hollow 86 times a week, I could not fail to be thoroughly seduced by the joy of processed food. Or just “food”, as we called it then. No one, certainly not me, was questioning where this tasty abundance of riches had come from. I just knew that, until then, we did the Friday-night big shop at a small supermarket called Presto that had only two types of choc ice, while Asda had 5,000 sq ft of chiller cabinet, six flavours of squirty Ice Magic and sold Wall’s Funny Feet by the box. Life would never be the same again. I have heard similar tales of joy regarding processed foods hitting 80s Huyton, Llandudno and Scunthorpe, worlds that suddenly felt less grey, small and isolated once the big supermarkets arrived.
Nowadays, when the working classes are attacked, as they often are, for enjoying a dinner of Chicago Town pizza and Wall’s Cornetto, I think how little is understood about why people make these choices. Or why it seems to be a constant surprise to well-meaning nutritionists that, when they advise against a KFC boneless bucket or Krispy Kreme doughnuts, the reaction is two fingers aloft, rather than forelock-tugging thanks.
I believe that at the heart of the processed-food debate is class war. Delicious, fructose-syrup-drenched, MSG-sprinkled class war. So, while I have no doubt Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and hapless Moby, who argues food stamps shouldn’t pay for junk, are sincere, I wonder if they really know what they are up against, or how the noises they make really sound.
Perhaps because healthy-food campaigners always sound so posh, any debate can only ever descend into a bunfight over privilege. How dare you, multimillionaire Jamie Oliver, suggest a jacket potato is nutritionally better than a chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle? Do you not realise families on the fringes of society often share one microwave in a hostel? Why must you be so heartless? But, while it’s satisfying to shout down the sharp-elbowed media classes for trying to tax doughnuts, the truth is much more complex. Yes, a relatively tiny percentage of British adults don’t have cooking facilities; Ken Loach didn’t pull I, Daniel Blake out of thin air. And, yes, a jacket spud is probably better for your innards than a plastic carton of dehydrated noodles flavoured with monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate. But the bigger, more disconcerting fact is that the majority of British working people have disposable income, access to a four-ring stove and a GCSE-or-above-level education and are fully conscious of the links between too many Greggs pasties and a profile like Homer Simpson’s. And these people still love processed food.
As the Guardian’s restaurant critic, I have Britain’s fanciest fine-dining restaurants at my disposal and a job that requires me – no, contractually compels me – to eat locally sourced, ethically harvested organic crops. Yet I love a dinner of Birds Eye potato waffle with spaghetti hoops, and a Heinz salad cream smile on the side of the plate. Processed food is easy, tasty and restorative. It hits the spot. It celebrates, it pacifies, it is a light of hope at the end of another tricky day. It is what you reach for when you need to get the job of eating done.
One of my happiest moments last year was going to a very long dance recital with my niece and “rewarding” her afterwards with a late-night drive-thru McDonald’s. I do not want her to grow up eating McDonald’s. But, at the same time, I grew up being rewarded with McDonald’s and remember those moments as pure happiness. I am an idiot and a hypocrite and someone trying to be a good auntie all at once. I didn’t say any of this stuff was easy.
The fact is, my hackles rise whenever posh foodies talk of their childhood eureka moment. Forgive them, God, I often think, for they know not what they say. The cliche goes something like this: it was in Tuscany, or perhaps the Algarve, maybe Brittany, they say, while appearing on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen or Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. They were seven years old and until this point didn’t understand the importance of real food. But as they ate al fresco by their grand-père’s orchard, they tasted a girolle and it shook their world. Suddenly they realised the importance of top-quality fresh food of exquisite provenance! And, from then on, they have firmly believed that everyone – yes, everyone – should eat as simply and freshly as this.
No one with a platform to discuss food in Britain admits the unfettered joy of their first trip to McDonald’s magical golden arches. Mine was in 1983, on Edgware Road in London. Oh, the unwrapping of the cheeseburger, the slurping of the strawberry milkshake, the horror of the salty-sweet, snot-coloured gherkin slice, the crispness of the hot fries. We went back every day of our holiday in London, sampling the magma-hot apple pie and the quarterpounders. We also fed tame sparrows on our hands in Hyde Park and took pictures of “real-life punks” in Camden. All this joy, in my memory bank, is interconnected. The best moments of my childhood were the ice-cream van blaring Frère Jacques along Harold Street in Currock and the mad scramble down sofa backs to find funds for a Mr Men lolly. Or summer holidays spent deciding on a 10p mixture from the newsagent’s: sugary cola bottles or sherbet spaceships? Pink prawns or strawberry laces?
It is worth noting that, in the 70s and 80s, most working-class mothers saw no correlation between sugar and a child’s behaviour, so I will always feel conflicted when I hear modern middle-class parents obsessing about birthday party food or vending machines. When I was small, if you drank a blue Slush Puppie and started running about headbutting other kids, you were simply being “a little shit” of your own accord. You would get your arse smacked and be sent to bed until you gave a full apology, after which you might well get another Slush Puppie.
At this stage, I should mention that the working classes are, and always have been, very diverse, so some readers will be screaming: “Oh, how patronising – my family had no money throughout the 1980s, but my mother made lentil soup from scratch every day!” This I can only applaud. In fact, let me pause and pay tribute to those kids with a mother like Toni Collette in About A Boy, who never tasted mint Viennetta and were not allowed to eat Cadbury’s chocolate rolls at birthday parties.
But let’s turn back to more commonplace working-class Britain, where the comedian Peter Kay, with his reassuringly normal rounded frame, entered the Guinness World Records in 2013, selling 1,140,798 tickets over 113 arena dates, performing routines about the Friday-night big shop and the reassurance of finding Cadbury’s fingers in a foreign supermarket (“Les Cadbury’s Fingreses!”). Kay’s routine about the sadness of your mam buying store-brand rolla colla when all you longed for was real Pepsi is so close to my life, it’s as if he had CCTV footage of my teenage years.
I recognise Kay’s descriptions of going to see your gran, who will tell you you have got fat, then bring out a plate piled high with Breakaways and Penguins. Or sedentary Sundays in the 80s, when true happiness was your family lazing around watching Bullseye with a big tray of cake. I believe that, for huge swaths of this country – and this very much includes Brits whose families arrived here from other parts of the world in the 50s, 60s and 70s – the eating of processed food is our real shared British cultural heritage.
Still, when foodies mention this sort of eating, they sound disgusted. I can hear muffled middle-class loathing at the habits of normal, non-rich people like a dog whistle. “This Domino’s pizza is not real food,” rails the street-food entrepreneur, or the nutritional guru, or the saucer-eyed Instagram star. “Um, OK,” think millions of people, “but I ate that with my friends last Friday, and the Friday before that, and I’m still alive. Am I not a real person?” When people attack Wetherspoon for its big, flappy menu and bogof deals, it feels as if they are attacking my father. Because, although I ended up dining in the world’s fanciest, more exclusive places, this meant nothing to him. Curry Club on Thursday night in Keswick Wetherspoon was his favourite restaurant. (Wetherspoon’s sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry is completely decent, by the way. I am a sucker for the beanburger with onion rings, too. But, mainly, I just loved seeing my dad temporarily happy.)
As I write today, now in my 40s and living the London life of a Guardian columnist – knee-deep in fancy quinoa, invites to juicing bars and nutritional yeast as a condiment – I confess that I have quit processed food almost entirely. I am at least two years clean since my last Greggs cheese pasty. My fridge is filled with the rainbow of fresh colours that nutritionist Amelia Freer advises us to eat. I am the perfect example of the working-class woman who took notice of all the health warnings. I spent time in California, where my colleagues lived on goji berries and activated sprouts and no one had more than 10% body fat. Their skin gleamed, their bones stayed dense and no one was off work with gout. I cut refined carbs, factory foods and chemical flavourings from my life. What I am left with, alongside a Holland & Barrett loyalty card and a smaller waist, is a confused and jumbled identity.
Who am I without processed food? Am I even working class any more? I certainly still have to work. But I have spent years in the north railing against my family for adding Anchor squirty cream to already creamy items, for loving a Toby carvery. I have stood at Christmas gatherings reminding people that the only way not to gain weight in December is to eat no Quality Street or mint Matchmakers at all. The words “preachy tosspot” surfaced from some of my closer family. I suppose I was trying to be helpful. Or trying to communicate my newer, fresher religious awakening. Sugar is the false god. The real saviour – gather round, people – is a Fitbit and fresh air.
To confound matters, it’s a little-discussed truth that most working-class people who manage to stay at the bottom of the BMI chart are greeted with suspicion and vague slander anyway. Long before the fashion press began branding bouncy curves as the mark of the “real woman”, it was a given in my house growing up that thin people “live on their nerves”, “could do with a feed” and have to “run around in the shower” to get wet. At my gran’s house, there was nothing worse than being “a picky eater”. To this day, my mother sees my slightly protruding collarbone as an act of open hostility. She fights this via packets of mint Viscounts casually strewn in my eyeline, boxes of my favourite Mr Kipling’s french fancies. Lord God, those things never stop being delicious. My heart feels giddy merely thinking about that fragrant box of pink, yellow and chocolate mass-produced squares.
“No wonder you’re cold – there’s nothing on you,” my mother will say. “Have one of those Co-op flapjacks you like,” she will say, adding as a compromise, “They’re full of roughage – they’re good for you.” I do like those Co-op flapjacks, she is correct, but I am currently smaller than I was when I was 20 and to stay here I must refuse all such rectangles of beige happiness. I must walk miles every day. I do squats. I drink three litres of water. In Costa Coffee, I have learned to say: “No, thank you,” to the “Anything else?” question and not: “Yes, please – I will have a giant milk chocolate Tunnock’s teacake as big as a child’s head.” In the middle of all this, I have come to relish eating clean and training dirty.
But, as the great philosopher David Sylvian of Japan once said in their hit tune Ghosts: “Just when I think I’m winning… the ghosts of my life blow wilder than before.” I will never view eating Heinz macaroni cheese cold from the tin as anything less than heavenly. If I had a gun to my head and was asked to choose between 10 courses of Michelin-star fine dining at Claridge’s or lying under a blanket on the sofa eating sour cream and onion Pringles, I would go for the latter. The thing that well-to-do food experts will never truly get is that, for millions of people, life is very hard and, via a million tiny ingrained cerebral signifiers, processed food is very cheering. You know these brands and they know you. They are our friends, even if they may be trying to kill us. Don’t tell me a Sunday night hungover Domino’s delivery, when you are dealing with the fear of another working week, doesn’t feel just like a cuddle. I am from a land of garlic bread and circuses.
Grace tests old favourites
McCain’s potato smiles
Yes, they look like tiny offerings from Satan. No, they are not a superfood. But I ate a plate of these at 7am with a very bad red-wine hangover and I was restored. Reheated frozen potato can be dry and textureless, but this is moist, crunchy and quite delicious. Pairs well with a big scoosh of Blue Dragon sweet chilli dipping sauce, a pint of Gold Blend, 400g of ibuprofen and a long stare out the window. 5/5
Chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle
Pot Noodles taste much less synthetic and gnarly these days. Even in the 80s we sensed there was something a bit so-wrong-it’s-right here. There was a definite aftertaste and a smattering of dehydrated veg that would weld to the teeth. I think both of us have changed. Cup noodles no longer feel as exciting as space food and Pot Noodle has taken out all the additives that gave you a raging thirst and a momentary belief you could stage a coup and take down Thatcher, before leaving you needing a nap. I feel they are the poorer for this. 2/5
Findus crispy pancakes
I had not eaten these breadcrumbed pockets of goo for at least 30 years. It felt like going back to my old school and finding everything is tiny and smells a bit of vomit. These pancakes – note: they are not remotely pancakes – probably tasted better in the 80s when we chucked them in the deep-fat fryer. Old-school mums didn’t get het up when their kids were faffing about with vats of boiling oil. Today’s pancake demands to be baked. The result is dry with a stingy cheese-flavoured filling. 1/5
The old Viennetta was crisp and delicate, a glamorous multi-layered feat of Italian ice-cream architecture. You needed a big knife to cut through it. If you had one of these for afters on a Sunday lunchtime, rather than tinned fruit cocktail and evaporated milk, your family was winning. Today’s Viennetta is not Viennetta. It is a slab of mint ice-cream with a few soft, perilously thin layers of chocolate. This is Brexit Viennetta: no more Napoli, more a holiday in Nuneaton. 1/5
Magical, ever-dependable slices of sort-of-chocolatey happiness. The actual taste of unloading an 80s Friday-night big shop from the car while your mother screams at you not to spoil your tea. On closer scrutiny, I now see that a Penguin is just a large, milkier, slightly posher Bourbon. But the bright red wrapper with the unmistakable logo makes it so much more. And it comes with a joke. I say, I say, I say, why can’t Penguins play football? A: Snowballs. Can’t work out whether this is a climate joke or pithy satire about gender division among aquatic flightless birds in the southern hemisphere. Doesn’t matter. 5/5
- Fashion stylist: Kara Kyne. Prop stylist: Elena Horn. Food stylist: Dagmar Vesely at Hers agency. Hair and makeup: Sarah Cherry using Bobbi Brown and Kerastase. Knitted skirt and wrap sweater, both Diane von Furstenberg at Harvey Nichols. St James cake stand and silver-plated tea set, both fortnumandmason.com. Table and chairs, conranshop.com.
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