Like re-runs of Only Fools And Horses festive specials or your peers recapping their year’s achievements on social media, food snobbery is an unwelcome Christmas motif. You’ve noticed it. The laughably ambitious Yuletide newspaper cookery supplements; the immaculate table settings hijacking your Instagram feed; a grinning chef on daytime TV assuring you that it’s not much extra work, honest, to cobble together your own forty-two ingredient cranberry sauce – and yeah, while you’re at it, a homemade Christmas pudding is far tastier too. You might even be a raging culinary snob yourself. I certainly was: hello, my name is Gwen and I’m a recovering Maldon Sea Salt bore. And thus it falls on me to bring you not glad tidings, but a reminder that while ‘tis the season of excess, it’s best to exercise restraint when it comes to snooty attitudes in the kitchen. Ideally for life; at the very least, for Christmas.
Behold my cautionary festive tale. I didn’t grow up in a house of foodies. My family enjoyed eating, sure, but we lacked the time, budget and passion to take it too seriously. Our favourite meal was a sand-coloured concoction called, misleadingly, ‘brown rice salad.’ I say misleadingly, because among its three unimprovable ingredients – rice, tuna and soy sauce – there wasn’t a green leaf in sight. Meanwhile, pudding – or ‘sweet,’ as I referred to it before I left Cardiff for London and developed hoity-toity metropolitan lingo – would involve my mum sawing up a block of rock-hard raspberry ripple with a bread knife. We’re far from booze connoisseurs either. A treat of a drink for ma and me is Blossom Hill topped up with lemonade. As an inveterate catastrophist my dad imbibes only orange squash with dinner, lest he be called upon to drive an imperilled loved one to hospital at a moment’s notice (true story).
So, this was a world of Penguin biscuits, not pomegranate seeds. But as I grew up I discovered a whole new one – a tantalising, achingly aspirational second realm of adequately defrosted ice cream, extra virgin olive oil and meat on the bone signalling prized tenderness rather than a choking hazard. In short, I fell in with the food snobs.
My upmarket tastes may have bloomed when I moved to the capital (a cruel enabler for the fledgling foodie). Yet the distance also allowed my family to sidestep our differences. I’d hold forth about the remarkable dish I’d sampled after reaching the end of a very long queue while my dad remained gently unimpressed at the other end of the phone. On days out we’d frequent cafes that proffered both bacon sarnies and burrata. But avoidance wasn’t an option at Christmas. After all, the centrepiece of the celebrations is usually the turkey dinner – or, as culinarily mismatched clans across the country shiver to realise every year, everyone eating the same thing. Naturally, I wasn’t suffering the indignity of ingesting overcooked carrots and icky shop-bought stuffing. So one year soon after leaving home, I micromanaged the meal.
‘Can’t we eat late afternoon, rather than rush to have everything on the table at half past twelve?’ I moaned. ‘This year, we’re sautéing the Brussels sprouts with pancetta – not just boiling them!’ whined another demand. Shockingly, my diktats didn’t foster comfort and joy. Instead, my dad was furious that the elongated plating up time – the fault of all my fiddly extra side dishes – had rendered the food unacceptably lukewarm. My mum was red-faced and slurring after being cajoled into swapping her spritzer for neat Chardonnay. And what about me, poor me? I was exhausted after hours of unnecessary cooking – and filled with a stomach-twisting suspicion that I’d ruined Christmas.
Obviously, I kind of had. In my zeal for performative poshness, I’d overlooked what’s key at this time of year. Comfort, familiarity, and actually spending time with the people you care about, rather than communicating with them only through distracted mutters as you attempt to master a recipe for a showy canape. Of course there’s nothing wrong with pushing the boat out if that’s what relaxes you. And many of us have fractured identities when it comes to food. But now’s not the time to resolve that. For a restorative holiday season, concentrate on making life as easy as possible and maxing out on tried and tested favourites. (After my year in the role of Condescending Daughter Who Doesn’t Know She’s Born, I’ve rediscovered the joys of Sainsbury’s blackcurrant cheesecake and salt and vinegar crisp sandwiches in front of the telly. My parents can now bear to look at me for more than five seconds and promise to start speaking to me again soon.)
Moreover, contrary to what Insta-bores, clean-eating gurus and well-intentioned but myopic foodies would have you believe, you’re entitled to have a good time even if your budget doesn’t stretch to producing twelve varieties of potato and festooning every surface in the house with eucalyptus sprigs.
So, the moral of this unflattering glimpse into my personal life is to go forth, make merry and ignore the seasonally-enhanced snobbery.