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Like Jo A, I must stress that I only have access to a copy of Delia’s new How to Cheat at Cooking through A Friend. Nowt to do wiv us, guv. Here are some of the handy hints from the introduction:

For instance, why not cut out grating cheese altogether when you’re busy? There are now some good-quality ready-grated (or sliced) cheeses available.

There are ready prepared and chopped vegetables, too, and a whole variety of prepared salads and fruits.

So many wonderful ingredients are just waiting to make your life easier: ready-made ciabatta breadcrumbs, tins of fried Spanish onions, ginger already grated, pastry cases already cooked.

Thanks to frozen diced onions, for instance, you’re not forced to peel and chop an onion if you don’t want to.

At the risk of sounding like Mrs Beeton hitting the crème de menthe, don’t being such a fricking precious wuss-ass. Now, I’m as guilty of chucking a bag of salad into the basket as the next lazy twenty-something (bizarre but true fact: if there’s only one of you, it’s actually cheaper and less wasteful to buy salad in this form, unless you want to devote at least four hours a day to chomping through Hearts of Romaine like a herbivorous slave). And my mother is possibly the only woman left in England who still makes her own pastry and isn’t a frothing Tory. But I mean, “Thanks to frozen diced onions”, for all love? As long as I live, Random Forces of the Universe, may I never have to thank frozen diced onions for anything!

So far, as you will have spotted, this is just a self-fancying cook’s rant. I like chopping onions. It’s soothing, satisfying, aesthetically pleasing. Poems have been written about peeling onions. Who was it who said of the red onion that you peel away the outer layer and what’s underneath is so perfect that you have to peel away the next layer as well to see if it gets even better? And it does! You end up with a glowing ruby jewel of a vegetable about half the size of the one you bought. And much less dinner.

But this is about to become a somewhat more serious rant, because Delia’s polypropylene-sheathed paean to rampant consumerism comes to my notice hard on the heels of this CiF article about the rising costs of food. In the spirit of mean-hearted dark treacly bitterness, I find it hard to much have time for Rosie Boycott, Lib Dem feminist or no. Only baby-boomers whose mamas sent them to Cheltenham Ladies College can afford to live simple ethical lives breeding simple organic pigs in simple organic Somerset. But, accidents of birth aside, she is discussing a theme of increasing potency for our times here:

Almost all the food we eat – 95% – is oil-dependent, so as oil prices rise, the cost of food does too. Oil is central to fertilisers, mechanised production, transportation and packaging. However, between 1950 – when mechanisation and fertilisers transformed farming into agribusiness – and 1984, world grain production increased by 250%. The consequent cheapness of food kept inflation down and allowed for the postwar consumer boom.

For years experts have been asking what will we eat when the crises of climate change and oil depletion converge, with the possible end of our globalised food supply. Our tea and coffee and spices might still come from abroad, but what about salad vegetables, beef and fresh orange juice? Cheap oil has let the west regard the whole world as its farmyard, always seeking the cheapest place to produce and process.

I notice that some commenters – the CiF commenter is a hardy, intelligent breed I increasingly admire; like Gloucester Old Spots, really – take issue with Rosie’s figures. And she does end up reducing the problem down to the oddly narrow and somewhat self-defeating notion that we eat too much meat (“So, umm, you will be stopping your pig production, won’t you? Mustn’t make the problem worse now, must we?” cheeks Tim Worstall) but in essentials she’s right so far as I understand it. Food has gone through a period of artificial plenty in the first world over the last forty years, and barring a sophisticated politico-technological response of which the world does not, currently, look capable, those days are now over. With the supply of oil increasingly dependent on good old-fashioned land wars and the whim of Russia, we’re on the brink of rediscovering the fluctuating prices and scarcities familiar to our ancestors.

I wonder that Rosie and Delia can be living on the same planet. Which they do, not just literally, but in the narrow sense of professional writers with a strong interest in food. If the food crisis is really coming – is really here for much of the developing world, and I feel the impact of the price of milk on my own little margin - how can it be right that the Glossy Cookbook market is complicit in the pretence that ordinary people can not only afford all this food and its cost in oil, but can afford to have other people chop it, dice it, wash it, dress it and tie a great big organic straw ribbon round it and the cost of all that in oil?

Well, it’s not right of course. But it’s interesting. A little bit fin de siècle, a bit “excesses of the court of the Sun King”. Marie Antoinette, at the very brink of disaster for the ancien régime, would have approved of Delia’s principle, even if she abhorred the absence of gold-leaf-dipped brioche from the store-cupboard essentials section. Marie Antoinette played at farming herself, of course. But the difference, in this classless society, is that we’re all rich now. There must be something in the bottled water on CiF at the moment, because Polly Toynbee was also making an unusual amount of sense last week:

…the median earners on £22,000 and below are 50% of the voters – but that’s a bit less than MPs get as expenses for running their second homes. So much gold dust is kicked in the nation’s eyes by scores of TV programmes selling property beyond most people’s imagining, or celebrity handbags costing thousands, that the delusion that most people are affluent has entered Labour’s lexicon and even its soul.

We live in strange and disturbing times when, on the apparent eve of a global food crisis, chopping an onion is considered by rich people to be hard work that an ordinary person shouldn’t feel they have to do. I wonder what How to Cheat at Cooking will symbolise when the socio-economic history of the early twenty-first century comes to be written? 

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