Ugly food is not a concept I grew up with. I have mixed Scottish, Indian and Pakistani heritage so it was not unusual for me to be served up haggis bonbons, paya (trotters), any offal that could be procured and I have, on more than one occasion as a child, been tricked into eating cow brains by my grandfather who convinced me that what I was eating was scrambled eggs. I also grew up in a family where the aesthetic qualities of food were only commented on when one was discussing the way a dish should look at certain points in the cooking process. To add to this, from a very young age my grandfather would take me to halal butchers and abattoirs where I observed first-hand how the food that was such a pivotal part of my life ended up on the dinner table. A cardinal sin for my family was waste. My grandfather would come home with a whole lamb, which he then butchered theatrically and there was absolutely no question that every last inch of it would be eaten. What was not being eaten now would be frozen to be eaten later, a habitual family trait that has led to my inherent distrust of ice cream boxes in freezers, which in my house would be more likely to contain left over kheema (mince) than my favourite chocolate ice cream. I would not have had it any other way, though. I remember visiting a Malaysian friend’s home for dinner as a teenager and a fish head curry being placed in front of me. Thanks to my grandfather, I did not even bat an eyelid as my friend’s grandmother poked out the eyeball and put it on my plate explaining that it was the best part. I can confirm that it was.
Given this eclectic background, you can imagine the confusion I felt reading Ugly Food: Overlooked and Undercooked by Richard Horsey and Tim Wharton. Ugly food is the latest ‘hipster’ trend that seems, like a turmeric latte and the ‘discovery’ of avocados, to be somewhat culturally appropriated. Middle class men and women wearing their undersized beanie hats walking around fashionable areas such as Shoreditch, London, explaining how the world needs to eat more ugly vegetables for sustainability is something that I have personally witnessed many times. I, along with countless other people, can confirm that much of the world is eating ‘ugly’ food. Horsey and Wharton have written a book that sheds light on a wide array of issues that surround food consumption in Britain. Their perspective is that of two ivory tower academics who have developed a love for food through a lifetime of travel and new experiences.
The purpose of their work is to highlight why it is that we (specifically the British) have such an aversion to food that we do not perceive to be attractive. Why is it that squid is deemed more acceptable than octopus despite its similarity when on a plate? On the other end of the spectrum, why do people avoid eating rabbit on the basis that it is far too cute when those same people would not flinch when offered up the leg of what was a formerly bouncy, jovial lamb? Through the medium of historical analysis, anecdotes, folk lore, recipes and beautiful photographs taken by Tanya Ghosh, Horsey and Wharton are attempting to take us on a journey through our understanding of these foods.
They do present an excellent point, although I personally devour whatever I am given regardless of how many eyeballs are staring back at me from my plate; one only has to watch an episode of ‘First Dates’ on Channel 4 to see the intense aversion that people have to food that they may not see on a regular basis on their supermarket shelves. Part of the explanation that is given in the book for this is a psychological phenomenon called Introspect Illusion, something that was discovered in the 1970s by two psychologists who found that although humans are very good at knowing what they do and do not like, they are significantly less proficient at explaining how they have reached that conclusion. In the proceeding six chapters the nuances between the British population and octopus; cheeks and feet; ugly fish; rabbits and squirrels; ugly vegetables; and giblets are discussed in detail.
The importance of the topic of sustainability and the future of eating habits is hard to get away from, and so it should be. Netflix alone has commissioned or aired at least twenty documentaries in the last five years on the topic and in one of their most popular – ‘Cowspiracy’ – showed that veganism is potentially the only solution for the catastrophic damage that is being done to the environment through mass commercial farming. By becoming vegan you reduce your carbon footprint by 50 per cent and in a world where 51 per cent of global greenhouse emissions are as a direct result of the farming of livestock and the production of their by-products this is most definitely a figure we should be acutely aware of.
On the other hand, many studies have been done into the practicality of vegan diets for people across the world. It certainly can be a significantly more expensive way of eating and therefore not universally appropriate. Under some circumstances a diet completely devoid of animal products can cause severe tooth decay; a lack of high quality protein leads to liver detoxification being limited and eventually toxicity; not to mention the fact that effective Vitamin A can only be found in animal products and has a direct influence over thyroid function, hormone production and fertility. So, it would seem that Horsey and Wharton would have provided us with a pragmatic approach to these issues in a healthier and more sustainable way.
In the introduction to the book we find a list of ‘maxims’: quality, purity, availability and sustainability. On the whole, I do not have a problem with this. They are tools being employed to approach a somewhat non-academic subject in an academic manner. Broadly the maxims are used to define the parameters for their study and justify the food choices that have been made. In a perfect world the maxims that Horsey and Wharton present are ones that many would enjoy abiding by but are at their very core ignoring a deeper issue. They claim that buying an ox cheek will cost you less than a leg of lamb. A brief exploration into the local butchers on my high street in Clapham allowed me to verify this. It also allowed me to clarify that the butcher’s shop was entirely empty. I asked the two men behind the counter of the family run shop whether that was the norm on an otherwise packed street on a Saturday and they confirmed my suspicions. It was. Through our chat I found out that they had to move out of their previous – significantly larger – shop because they were no longer attracting enough clientele, a story that is more often than not mirrored across the country.
Difficulty continues to rear its ugly head when you delve deeper into the rationale behind what the authors refer to as ‘the core techniques’. It is from this point in the introduction that there is an inherently arrogant approach to the preparation of food. When asked their opinion on people who never follow recipes but still manage to cook food that is delicious, their response was that ‘more often than not they are the only ones who enjoy the fruits of their labour’. As someone who has eaten plenty of food cooked by fantastic cooks who have never followed a recipe, I would like to wholeheartedly disagree. There is also a significant amount of time dedicated to debunking the use of ‘heavy spices’ as a device to mask the purity of the high quality, readily available and sustainably sourced items you are encouraged to cook with. I have to say that it was at this point that I became quite frustrated with what I was reading. I grew up being told I smelled of curry and the only reason Indian people used so many spices was because they were trying to cover up the poor quality of their food while in the same breath being asked for my korma recipe. So the accusation of spices being used to cover rather than enhance food is one that was not unfamiliar, what was also not unfamiliar was how it smacks of an unnecessary loftiness of people who have not been taught how to use spices correctly.
The hubris exhibited in the opening chapter only worsens to the point of elitism throughout the book. So that by the time I got to Chapter Three where they begin discussing the importance of Marie Antoinette, the poster girl for a bourgeoisie lifestyle, in the ugly food movement of France I could not help but laugh audibly in the middle of a crowded train.
There are deep-rooted issues in this book, although I will readily admit to the fact that visually it is beautiful. The artistic quality of the photography is stunning and would not look out of place on the walls of a high-end restaurant. On the surface, this book also seems to be achieving what it feels it should be, providing a light-hearted but academically-fuelled approach to a much more serious issue through the medium of stories and pictures. Ugly Food has done an excellent job of identifying an issue which should be discussed in depth. The writers claim that their purpose is to encourage people not to avoid foods that they do not see on their supermarket shelves. This is genuinely a fantastic concept, people should be more aware of what they are eating, sustainable alternatives and where their food has come from in the first place. Unfortunately, the book falls short of its ultimate goal. Yes, I was given an insight into the potential origins of the fear of eating octopus – they specifically reference the myth that it is a particularly difficult meat to cook but I also went into three supermarkets and two fishmongers within walking distance from my home to buy octopus and it was nowhere to be found. I was also laughed at quite viciously when I asked a local butcher whether he ever orders squirrel – another ‘cheap’ and easily acquired meat that had been promoted in the book. I also searched everywhere for salsify and burdock root; not even Wholefoods the most elite of all high street food shops could help me here.
My question to the authors is who is their book for? It does not seem to be for the average person who acquires most of their food on a strict budget from their local supermarket. Often their purchases are based on what will go the longest way, be easy to cook or particularly simple. On the other end of the spectrum are the people who would potentially pick this book up and consider changing their buying habits according to what they are reading. As I have already pointed out, squirrel can be particularly difficult to come by and although it may be possible that this is an issue affecting my particular corner of London, a cursory glance on the internet does seem to indicate a similar issue is also plaguing the rest of the country.
Ugly Food is aimed at the very people who are least likely to have a problem with eating so called ‘ugly’ food: those who have a selection of other coffee table books, and would like an additional prop in their home to prove how progressive and committed to a sustainable lifestyle they are. Another issue is that I really did not feel that I emerged at the end of the book with a deeper understanding of British eating habits, although I do now have some interesting anecdotes for the next dinner party I am invited to about Ancient Greek soothsayers and their relationship with giblets.
What would have potentially been a better use of paper would have been a thought-provoking analysis into why less attractive and more sustainable foods do not make their way onto supermarket shelves where they can be purchased by the average consumer. How can we help people understand what is seasonal and what is not? How practical is it, in a globalised world, for people to entirely abstain from using products that are shipped from abroad? Why it is that ideas for cooking sustainable foods do not end up in recipe cards distributed for free at tills or on websites for people to peruse? The fact remains that the ‘ugly’ food they are talking about is not as widely available as they claim it is. It all seems to me to be a futile academic exercise.