‘Tis the season to be jolly. More specifically, it’s the season of mulled wine, 80 denier tights and beige food, which is certainly more than enough to make me jolly. It is my favourite time of year, when vol-au-vents, stuffing, and mince pies are in near constant supply. Though I have always loved Christmas, it is only recently that I have felt completely comfortable with my love of beige food.
Like almost everyone else I know, I was introduced to the food pyramid at primary school. I saw bread, pasta, rice and grains on the bottom, the bulk of what we should be eating. Vegetables and fruits were next, then meat and dairy. Fats sat in the top, alongside sugary dishes as an occasional extra. It is a simple and clear message: a balanced diet is about eating from all of those food groups. The current UK Food Standard Agency’s Eatwell Plate is similar – there’s room on the plate for everything, but the biggest portions are reserved for vegetables and starchy foods. Again, it’s all about balance.
I wish I had taken this on board at the time. Instead, as a weight-conscious teenager, I tried every diet under the sun. I struggle to remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about it – from a young age I could tell you how many Weight Watchers points everything in our pantry represented. Whatever size I was, there is no question that I had an unhealthy relationship with food. The illicit thrill I felt when I had a few slices of toast (one-two points each) instead of a handful of carrot sticks (zero points), labeled bread as an exciting treat, in a way vegetables never were. Instead of being part of a healthy, balanced diet, eating them – which I always did anyway, regardless of the points – filled me with guilt.
All food: green, beige, and everything in between, has a place in a balanced diet. The idea that some food is “virtuous”, while other meals should be eaten in shame, is a harmful one
I now write about food in fiction, on my blog The Little Library Café, on the Guardian and, soon, in a book. After realising, a few years ago, that I had started baking a treacle tart because that’s what Harry Potter would want to eat, I found a way to combine my two loves, books and food.
I now spend my days cooking the meals that my favourite characters consume. As I read and re-read, with my mind always on food, I have lost count of the times that I have come across the phrase “hot buttered toast” in literature, as an indicator of comfort and safety. There is clearly something in it that speaks to us.
And yet, after posting a carb-heavy recipe, with a beige photo to match, I’ll receive emails from readers criticising my health, as if one dish represents my diet as a whole. My teenage attitude was reinforced – beige food is not acceptable, and should leave me full of guilt.
I’m a keen Instagram user, and love following people who post pictures of their dinner. It has made me keenly aware of how food looks, of which colour is a key part. When I share the food I eat with an online community, more often than not, I tend to avoid it being beige. Toast is topped with avocado and an egg, porridge with poached fruit, and bright chutneys or sauces accompany pies. It is, of course, the food that I eat, but there’s a reason that macaroni cheese rarely makes it to my feed.
But, after a lifetime of associating it with guilt, I am here with a genuine love letter to beige food. To plates of hot crumpets, dripping in butter, eaten on the sofa while still in school uniform. To pots of stew, patiently bubbling away in the oven, awaiting their attendant circle of dumplings. To the beauty that lies in a pile of spaghetti vongole. To the unadulterated joy of a warm croissant dipped into milky coffee. To food that comforts, food good for the heart and soul, food that feeds us in more ways than one.
Twenty years after I rejected it at school, I have started appreciating the wisdom of the food pyramid, and of that most simple piece of advice: “everything in moderation”. Nowadays, I eat what I feel like, and so bread has lost its association with guilt. I have nights where I do fancy an enormous serving of broccoli with chilli, lemon and garlic, a bowl full of stir-fried cabbage alongside some fish, or a piece of grilled steak with a green salad. I also have days when only a stack of potato pancakes, pita bread with peanut butter and smoked salt, or fish and chips will do. I feel more full of energy and, most importantly, less weighed down by guilt. It seems balance, as my Home Ec teachers tried to tell me, really is best.
No one can argue that, as a nation, we should be exercising more and eating less. But all food: green, beige, and everything in between, has a place in a balanced diet. The idea that some food is “virtuous”, while other meals should be eaten in shame, is a harmful one.
Let’s face it: 2016 has been rubbish. Can’t we at least start 2017 with food that warms, comforts and sustains, not with fasting, ‘clean eating’, or pizza bases made from cauliflower? After a long day in the office or, frankly, a lazy one at home, I think it would be nice if we could eat a big bowl of pasta and cheese, in front of First Dates, without the guilt.