There is beauty in simplicity. Or rather, there was. Over recent years, simplicity has been increasingly difficult to come by. Nowhere is it trickier than in our local grocery stores and watering holes, which increasingly dress up simple staples as luxury goods with a premium to match.
Remember Schweppes tonic? Possibly not. It has garish yellow and white packaging, is modestly priced and is a perfectly adequate accompaniment to Gordon’s Gin (with lemon and angostura to taste). But seek and ye shall not find, for schweppes tonic and many of its steadfast friends have been banished into the darkness by food and beverage products with frills on. The gentrification of gin and tonic is one of the great tragedies of our age (alongside a reality star leading the Free World and the death of Bambi’s mother). What should be a straight-forward drink is now talked about with the same brow-furrowing expertise as wine: we’re bombarded with so many variants on the ingredients that it’s a wonder anyone can remember how to make it. Similarly, Cadbury’s chocolate has been dwarfed by luxury silver-wrapped alternatives such as Godiva and Green and Black’s. The reign of Wine Gums has come to an end, and Prosecco Gums have succeeded to the throne.
Such is the embellishment of all comestibles that a visit to the pub – arguably one of life’s simplest pleasures – has now become an elaborate ceremony. Gone are the days of Walker’s Prawn Cocktail Crisps; the punter is instead presented with a smorgasboard of ‘luxurious’ and often ‘hand-cooked’ snacks. Where Kettle Chips led, Tyrrell’s, Burts and Piper’s now follow, offering flavours such as truffle and rosemary or Waygu beef and honey mustard. O humble mini cheddar, where art thou?
And crisps are just the beginning of our woes. Wait until you try ordering a drink. Local pale ales are out of the question, having been propelled into obscurity by craft beers of every hue. Gin deserves a eulogy of its own: Beefeater and London Dry have been overthrown by expensive, niche brands (Dà Mhìle Seaweed gin will set you back £33 for a bottle, Salcombe gin starts at £40) and absurd reincarnations (Tappers Hydropathic Pudding Gin or Death’s Door Gin, to name but two). And this is before it’s served to you in a goblet that makes the FA Cup look small.
The great tragedy in all this is that we no longer eat for satisfaction, but for display purposes. Food and drink products are made to be ‘gifted’ more than they are made to be consumed.
Cookery writing has suffered the same fate. We have moved so far beyond the days of recipes composed of few ingredients, straightforward methods and clear writing that such formulas seem as outdated as prawn cocktail or avocado mousse. Jane Grigson, Arabella Boxer and even Delia are drowned out by Instagram-driven food trends involving ingredients you can only pretend to know about and copious amounts of pomegranate seeds.
M. F. K. Fisher, perhaps the most underrated cookery writer of all time, demonstrates the pleasure that is to be found in the simplest of meals. For scrambled eggs, she instructs ‘break eight good fresh eggs gently into a cold iron skillet. Pour ½ pint of rich cream in, and stir quietly until the whole in blended, but not longer… Serve on toast… It is a poor man who will say that eggs are fit only to be eaten at breakfast.’ She is probably turning in her grave at the sorry state of our shelves.