Illustration: Jennifer Dionisio

FOOD HONESTLY

Jay Rayner’s Ten Food Commandments

The outspoken critic has a new book about the world of food and how he sees it. He wants us all to eat well, Instagram our dinner – and ever so occasionally eat a Findus Crispy Pancake

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By Jay Rayner on

When it comes to food, the original Ten Commandments have little to offer, other than the advice not to covet your neighbour’s oxen, which can be tricky. There are some damn fine oxen out there. And yet, more than ever, we need help; we need a set of food commandments hand-tooled for an age of conflicting nutritional advice, feverish trends, terrifying choice and people with glossy hair insisting you eat clean, which is clearly a filthy suggestion. In turn, this means we need a culinary Moses, a person with the authority, greed and teeth to take on the job. I know just the guy. Oh, come on. Who else could it be? I have the right hair, look super-hot in flowing robes – they do flatter the fuller figure – and my teeth have got me this far.

And so, selflessly, I have come up with Ten Food Commandments, not chiselled on to stone, but embossed in print in a series of detailed essays; it’s a book that will help you navigate the nightmarish complexities of how and what we eat now. I’ve even provided you with 21 recipes which make my point for me. These include a seasoning mix for homemade pork scratchings, which will make them taste exactly like Frazzles. And if that’s not leading you to the culinary promised land, I don’t know what is.

Here then, in thumbnail, are my food commandments: 

1 Thou shalt eat with thy hands

Think back to the British general election of 2015 and the picture of David Cameron on the campaign trail eating a hot dog with a knife and fork. Do you want to be like him? Of course not. Only weird Tory prime ministers desperate for re-election do things like that. When you eat with your hands, you bring the sense of touch into play alongside that of smell, taste and sight. Plus, forks are too efficient. Research has found that people eat more when they use a fork, rather than their hands. Using your fingers puts you in contact with your dinner, skin on roasted skin. And it separates you from David Cameron.

2 Thou shalt worship leftovers

For centuries, there was no such thing as leftovers – there was just dinner. Wealthy nobleman expressed their power through an overladen table and then gave what went uneaten to the poor on the estate – a kind of edible almsgiving. American farmers stretched what they cooked through the week. So, what changed? Two things: food got cheap and the domestic refrigerator was invented. The first use of the word "leftover" was in a cookbook, published in 1910 by an American refrigerator company. In an age when food waste is increasingly unacceptable, we need to stop thinking in terms of leftovers and recognise that each meal is merely a jumping off point for culinary inventiveness, a game of gastronomic tag. A roast rib of beef is not just for Sunday lunch – it’s for the whole week.

Forks are too efficient. Using your fingers puts you in contact with your dinner, skin on roasted skin. And it separates you from David Cameron

3 Thou *SHALT* covet thy neighbour’s oxen

Well, of course though shalt, and everything else your neighbour’s eating, too. Coveting what your neighbour is having for dinner is what makes food culture move on. It’s what staves off boredom. We’re meant to roll our eyes at each new food trend – the heavily loaded bowl of ramen, the chilli-drenched Korean chicken wing – but edible innovations enrich our dinnertime possibilities. And we wouldn’t have got to try them were it not for those who first saw someone else eating them and wanted to try a bit of that. Covetousness makes the world a better place. Or at least your dinner a better place. Give thanks for people Instagramming their way from one mealtime to the next. Without them, we’d all still be eating Findus Crispy Pancakes. (Not that I’ll hear a word said against Findus Crispy Pancakes.)

4 Thou shalt cook – sometimes

You think this one’s obvious, don’t you? Only ignorant numpties don’t cook their own food from scratch. But it’s not as simple as that. There’s very little research to back up the theory that food cooked from raw ingredients is better for you. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. Plus, throughout human history we’ve laid off mundane tasks – growing our food, making our own clothes – on to others. Why shouldn’t we do that with making dinner? Here’s why: because cooking is fun. It’s a way of taking control of your world, when no other part of it will bend to our will. Humans used to make things: we made our own furniture, our own crockery, our own houses. Now we make nothing. Apart from dinner. That we can make. And we can feel better about ourselves for doing so.

5 Thou shalt not cut off the fat

In 1980, the US government issued nutritional advice which amounted to this: fat is the enemy. We entered the era of low-fat foods. So, what happened? Manufacturers replaced the fat with sugar, and levels of obesity doubled. It turns out the research upon which the advice was given was seriously flawed and that carbohydrate is the real enemy. Fat is not the killer it’s been claimed to be. What’s more, it’s where the flavour is. Flavour dissolves in fat and, without it, your food will taste of nothing. Do NOT cut off the fat. Or, if you do, give that fat to me.

6 Thou shalt choose thy dining companions bloody carefully

A brilliant meal out isn’t just about the food, tweezered within an inch of its life, or the bow and scrape of the service – it’s about the people you are with. Get that wrong and everything else will be a disaster. This means there are various types of people you must avoid: the ones who are so fearful of food they take an age to order; the slow eaters; the people who drag their cutlery across the porcelain; the ones who eat with their mouths open; the ones who order their steaks well done. Why do that? It’s an insult to steaks. And if you can’t find people who pass all these tests, just go out to eat by yourself. At least that’s a meal with someone you love.

7 THOU SHALT NOT SNEER AT MEAT-FREE COOKERY

Yes, I like meat. Many animals have died to feed me. But I also recognise the impact of raising livestock on the environment. However, demanding we all go vegan isn’t the solution, quite simply because billions will ignore the advice. Reducing meat consumption makes an awful lot more sense. But we need to do so by rejecting appalling meat substitutes, fashioned from tortured mushrooms. Meat-free cookery should be great because it has no animal in it, not in spite of the fact. A vegetarian sausage is just desperation fashioned out of oats, soya and a failure of imagination. But there is no dead animal that will improve the vegetarian dishes of the Gujarat. A roasted cauliflower is a beautiful thing and an aubergine long roasted and glazed with miso is the food of the gods.

8 THOU SHALT CELEBRATE THE STINKY
Look, I know some cheeses smell like a latrine; that there are offals with more than a hint of the duodenal about them. But how things smell and how things taste is very different. Indeed, our sense of smell operates differently when it’s investigating the outside world and the internal world inside our body. The stinkiest of foods also have the richest of flavours. And a life without those flavours is a life unlived. Yes, these foods can have about them a faint whiff of death. But that only serves to remind you how alive we are. 

Give thanks for people Instagramming their way from one mealtime to the next. Without them we’d all still be eating Findus Crispy Pancakes. (Not that I’ll hear a word said against Findus Crispy Pancakes)

9 THOU SHALT NOT MISTAKE FOOD FOR PHARMACEUTICALS

Repeat after me: there is no such thing as a superfood. Even Cancer Research UK calls the term nothing more than a "marketing tool". Obviously, what we eat is important for our health. We need food to keep us alive. But there is not a single ingredient which will protect you from cancer or improve brain function. It’s all based on a misunderstanding of how science works. There is no food which will detox your body and you don’t need such a thing anyway, as long as you have a functioning liver and a set of kidneys. They will do all the detoxification you need. Of course, you could stop filling your body with toxins in the first place, but that’s a different thing entirely.

10 HONOUR THY PIG

I’ve never claimed to be a good Jew. Look, pigs are just gloriously edible. There are the loins for roasts and chops, and the legs for hams. You can braise the trotters, tails and ears and make sausages from the intestines. More charcuterie is made from pigs than all other animals put together, and their skin makes scratchings. Their heart valves and their insulin keep us alive, and they make adorable pets. All of which is great. But they also challenge us to think carefully about how and what they eat. Because pigs are smart. Properly smart. They force us to think seriously about the welfare standards we allow the animals that we cook. They demand to be honoured.   

These are my commandments. They are designed to improve your dinner. And your lunch. And your breakfast. You can thank me later.

Jay Rayner’s Ten (Food) Commandments is available now. Penguin Books, £6. 

Jay performs a live show based on the Ten (Food) Commandments, all over the country. For more information visit jayrayner.co.uk 

@jayrayner1

Illustration: Jennifer Dionisio
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