A delicately handpicked phobia

It was the blueberries that finished me off. Not because of the exorbitant price, the unnecessary plastic or the air miles – all unedifying but hardly unusual – but because of the label.

Now, it’s been standard practice for some time that any empty space on food packaging should be filled with empty words. These might take the form of highly specific and ultra-cautious cooking instructions, with lengthy cooking times accompanied by the obligatory direction to ‘check food is piping hot before serving’. Alternatively, as in this case, they might relate to the supposed luxury or provenance of the product, an attempt to justify a price per kilo more usually associated with saffron, white truffles or cocaine. In a bullshit-saturated market, it takes something special to raise my hackles any higher than usual. But these berries managed it in the space of two words: ‘Delicately Handpicked’.

Let’s take a moment to break that down. Not just handpicked – and if I’m honest, I don’t really care whether my berries were harvested by hand, scythe, giant Hoover or flung shoe, as long as they remain vaguely intact and no squirrels were harmed in the process – but delicately handpicked. Well, more fool me. I’d presumed that the well-documented dearth of fruit pickers this summer arose from a combination of Brexit, a pandemic and pitiful wages. But no – apparently there were plenty of would-be pickers to go round, but their pinkies weren’t quite delicate enough for the task.

I’m conscious that this kind of marketing drivel is annoying me even more than it normally would, and there’s a reason for that. As we hunker down for a pandemic winter, and millions of people wait to see whether their jobs are deemed worthy of meaningful government support, those in the creative industries are in a more parlous state than most. At the time of writing, some arts venues are beginning to receive desperately needed funds; but the people who work and perform in those venues are slipping through the net – by accident or design.

Governments are often accused of being anti-creative, but this is rarely the whole truth. For instance, these would appear to be boom times for creativity in such fields as procurement, statistical analysis, legal advice and recollections of long car journeys. And I suspect the Chancellor, who provoked a furious backlash with his suggestion, hastily retracted, that jobs in the arts might not be “viable”, would have no qualms about the viability of roles in Tesco’s marketing department. Independently minded writers and performers might be dispensable; but creativity in the corporate and political spheres seems destined to survive and thrive.

You might reasonably point out that I could – and should – simply ignore the marketing guff when deciding what food to buy and what to do with it. And in general, I hope that’s what I manage to do. Ideally, we’d all tune out the noise from marketers and politicians alike and come to our own sensible decisions. But that’s easier said than done, and not as simple as working out whose words are to be trusted and whose aren’t. The politician on your TV might be fundamentally corrupt and a pathological liar; but when he urges you to wear a mask and keep your distance, do you automatically do the opposite? Hopefully not – better in this case to follow the mantra that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

And so it is – with rather lower stakes, admittedly – with the food we buy. Where your Fray Bentos pie tells you to remove the lid before baking and avoid sticking the metal tray in the microwave, you’d be well advised to take notice. But when you’re told to bake it for 35 minutes and it’s golden brown in 25, I’d strongly recommend trusting your senses and taking it out early, rather than sticking doggedly to the instructions and ending up with a well-fired pie.

A supermarket steak is bound to come complete with suggested timings almost guaranteed to ruin it if followed strictly. And if you should absent-mindedly allow that steak to go a day or two past its use by date, you’ll be faced with a dilemma: trust your eyes and nose, which tell you it’s still perfectly fine, or chuck good food straight in the bin.

Of course, if you buy your food unpackaged and unprocessed, no such dilemmas arise. The decisions you make will come down to your senses and instincts, almost always with better results. With packaged food, though, it can be hard to ignore the words in front of your eyes, even if deep down you know them to be somewhere between misleading and meaningless. But ignore them you should – it’ll spare you not only from pointlessly overcooked or discarded food, but also from unwarranted expense on the ‘delicately handpicked’.

You might even decide to put the money you save towards a record or book, helping to support an altogether healthier form of creativity. If enough of us do that, then who knows – some of those jobs in the arts might turn out to be viable after all.

Twitter: @norecipeman

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…these would appear to be boom times for creativity in such fields as procurement, statistical analysis, legal advice and recollections of long car journeys

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