Last time, I talked about 2 really beautiful words in the english language. Today I’m going to talk about 4 of my least favourite –


These are not really words that you see so often in the health-concious and pricey South East. But North of the Watford Gap, they are more common. American-style “buffet” dining is doing very well in the UK.

Apart from the obvious price issue, in my opinion there is the added factor that working-class men (who are more likely to project an image of their power via their physicality rather than their intelligence or wealth) have always regarded a large appetite as an easy signifier of masculinity.

"Small portions are for poofs"

In the towns near where I live, the default look for men is the tattooed, roll-necked, barrel chested, shaven headed warrior. The way these large fellows gain their impressive stature can probably be apportioned in part to the dishes on offer here in the Midlands.

The Balti, that most famous of Midlands dishes -whose literal translation is ‘bucket’- is a case in point. I assume the pakistani name was given derisively to mock the terrible gluttony of our decadent inhabitants.

At a normal balti house, you are given a dish the size of a hubcap. I would estimate that these hubcaps usually contain well over a litre of bright orange slop. This is accompanied by a Naan bread about the size of a broadsheet newspaper. Even more terrifying is watching every table apart from my own ordering TWO different curries per person, plus rice, plus poppadums, plus all that filling beer.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t eat that much, I’m just amazed to know how they eat that much!

If I ate 2 curries at once I think even my sinuses would be full of meat.

But this is all old news, everyone knows about the apocryphal Balti. Perhaps these binge–eaters are in a sense closer to their food than I am. After all they eat for the primal reason of feeling full. To deny them their right to eat large quantities of food that I consider unpalatable is pure snobbishness. I am so spoiled by our advanced society that I can afford to eat simply for my own pleasure and enjoyment. The reason why I am upset with the culture of massive portions is because:

  • To serve huge portions, food ingredients must be simple and cheap, so menus are simplified to the most basic staple dishes.

  • Each restaurant must then prove that it is better than every other similar restaurant by serving ever larger portions of the same product.

  • Flavour and quality are removed from the experience

In short, this symptom of capitalism -giving the customer what they want- actually eradicates choice.

The escalation in portion size becomes a war, with the losers being quality and flavour.

Because diner’s bellies have become permanently distended by the vast amounts offered to them, they will seldom eat at a venue that would offer smaller or more ‘challenging’ dishes. Country pubs attempting to offer something a bit more refined struggle to stay afloat because their small portions of quality ingredients are considered stingy. People come to think that quantity IS quality. Despite my neck of the woods being an affluent area, there is only one decent group of pubs to be found, the rest are a deep-fried morass of Harvesters.

Of course, you have to be careful what you wish for, or things can work in reverse and you end up in a place like Burford, where it's difficult for a working man to find a place that serves decent pub grub and not over-priced london-fayre, smothered in sputum-like foams and emulsions.

It all goes back to that arcadian thing, that eden thing. For many men, a pub is a physical manifestation of that search for perfection, never quite attained.


Gaw said...

Wise words - I always avoid the all-you-can-eat-for-£5 buffet. Like you, I'm too suspicious of how the incentives work for the vendor. Anyway, you can gorge yourself on a decent fry-up or fish and chips for less than that (but not in Burford, it's true).

I don't think there is a perfect pub out there as the whole world can be represented in the qualities of a pub. How can any single place encapsulate all that?

worm said...

exactly - but the search is pretty good fun....

Brit said...

All-you-can-eat is anti-dining. You can't relax and enjoy it, all you keep thinking about is: what haven't I stuffed in my gob yet, and can I get the best bits before everyone else does?

worm said...

yeah, there's always a queue in front of the tempura prawns

I haven't been back to my local 'all-you-can-eat' chinese since I saw a guy waiting for the tempura prawns to be brought out, then when they arrived he just stood there over the rest of the food stuffing them in his mouth in big mouthfuls.

very dignified.