McDonald’s: a healthier, happier meal, or just good PR?

A McDonald’s chicken salad. Photo: Graham Turner for the Guardian

A comment piece for the Guardian

McDonald’s has announced the creation of 2,500 new British jobs. Over the last five years, in fact, the company increased its UK workforce by 20,000 – a rise of over 20%. Many of these McJobbers will be workers on benefits or “Wobs”, of course, and they’ll still be miserably underpaid on seven or eight quid an hour while, last year, the company’s chief executive James Skinner took home almost $9m.

But whatever its reputation among those of us who care about working conditions, public health, the environment and the quality of the food we eat, McDonald’s is still doing extraordinarily well. Every day, 68 million people visit one of its restaurants. If you’d bought its stock in 2004, when Morgan Spurlock released Supersize Me and some people predicted the eventual death of the giant, you’d have tripled your money by now.

The McDonald’s PR campaign of the mid-noughties has undeniably been a success. But did the chain actually improve, or were its changes merely cosmetic? In the UK, at least, I would argue McDonald’s felt genuinely compelled to act on some of the concerns people had raised about it. It introduced more salads and fresh fruit to its menus, it began to use only free-range eggs and organic milk, it made its revolting coffee Rainforest Alliance and it began to recycle much more than it had before. People argued, with some reason, that the lettuce leaves were just fig leaves: that healthy-ish food in a burger joint was only a “vehicle to sell more burgers and fries”, as one anti-junk food campaigner put it to the New York Times.

In part, she was probably right. But Jamie Oliver was right as well: it’s now possible to eat a relatively healthy meal in McDonald’s. (This is if you define “healthy” as merely “not high in fat and sugar”: a narrow definition, but the most important in the debate on obesity.) This is an undeniable improvement on the situation 10 years ago. Many people thought that putting calorie counts on menus would look stupid or nannying, but those numbers turned out to make it much easier for people to make better choices about the food they buy. Middle class as I am, I use them in Pret sometimes. Anyone could guess that a ham and cheese toastie is going to be more calorific than a tuna salad, but few would necessarily have realised the toastie has well over three times as many calories as the tuna.

While it’s clear that McDonald’s continues to make it easy to eat very badly for very little money, I’m not convinced it’s reasonable to blame it alone for the obesity crisis. Blind though it perhaps is of me, I still marvel that it can raise, kill and butcher a cow, make a bun and cheese with all those weird chemicals, lurid colours and sugar, van everything round the country or the planet, pay the rents on the restaurants, hand its staff their abysmal wages or million-dollar bonuses, market itself ferociously, and still sell a cheeseburger for 99p.

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How to cut food waste

‘The typical British household could save £50 a month by minimising its food waste’

A comment piece for the Guardian

The figures are stark: up to 2bn tonnes of perfectly good food is wasted every year – between 30% and 50% of all the food produced around the world. In Britain alone we waste a quarter of all the food we buy. This includes 1.6bn apples – 25 each – and 2.6bn slices of bread. If you could somehow get all the food we waste in the UK into the bellies of the world’s malnourished people, two-thirds of them would no longer go hungry.

Much of this waste is cultural. Your average Briton wastes 112kg of food a year: Germans, who are much more frugal about food than we are, fritter only 15kg. (Americans are even worse than us.) And that shows we could change some of this. Wasting food isn’t merely bad for its own sake: as Tristram Stuart shows in his powerful book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, it damages the environment, uses up dwindling resources, and contributes to the rising cost of food in the developing world. The more food you buy that you don’t need to eat, the hungrier goes the global south. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) calculates that the typical British household could save £50 a month by minimising its food waste.

There are several easy steps many of us can take to reduce our own waste of food. One of the most important is to treat use-by dates with scepticism. Supermarkets are quite reasonably terrified of poisoning their customers – Stuart shows how they calculate those dates for people who leave their shopping in hot cars for hours on end, put it in poorly working fridges, and so on. Evolution has given you clear and powerful senses that can help to determine if meat or produce has gone bad. Bear use-by dates in mind, of course, but you know from the smell of the milk if you shouldn’t be drinking it.

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The joy of Christmas feasting

‘Christmas husbandlie fare’ indeed

A comment piece for the Guardian

Prepare to unbuckle your belt. On Christmas Day, the average Briton will consume 6,000 calories, the equivalent of almost 5kg of egg fried rice, or 24 baked potatoes. A Christmas dinner main course is only 1,000 calories, but all the extras, puddings and booze tip the scale.

And a good thing too. Though the modern Christmas dinner is a fairly recent composition, feasting at the midwinter solstice is probably as old as civilisation in these islands. And from the Normans to the Tudors, the elements of Christmas dinner barely changed. If you were rich you ate lots of meat, especially peacock and boar. If you were poor you put some scraps of meat into your porridge, perhaps killed and ate a chicken, or used a bit of expensive, treat-day spice.

Frumenty was a sloppy medieval puddle of minced mutton, onions, currants, wines and spices. The food writer Florence White called it “England’s oldest national dish”, and it’s the forerunner of Christmas pudding. Some time around 1550 emerged its cousin, the Twelfth Night cake, one of the earliest spiced cakes. Whoever cooked it baked a single hard bean within it, and the person who received this became King or Queen of the Bean: it was their job to direct the evening’s festivities.

Turkeys reached Britain in the 16th century, and quickly became “Christmas husbandlie fare”, as writer and farmer, Thomas Tusser put it in 1573. Henry VIII is popularly believed to have been the first monarch to eat a Christmas turkey. The Puritans disapproved of the Christmas feast, but by the 18th century people had started to celebrate it again. On Christmas Day 1716, the Prince Regent (later George II) sat down to plum broth with capon, partridges, beef, pork, turkey, woodcock, stag’s tongue, plum pudding, snipe, pheasant, andouilles, brawn and mince pies containing meat.

Pies, in fact, were a vital Christmas food for a long time. It was traditional to bake a rich and long-lasting meat pie to send to your relatives: Hannah Glasse’s Yorkshire Christmas pie of 1747 saw pigeon, partridge, chicken, goose and turkey baked into a solid crust.

But the Victorians, especially Charles Dickens, cemented Christmas dinner in the modern form. The closing pages of A Christmas Carol, with their child-sized turkey and flaming pudding “like a speckled cannon-ball”, display not only a fuzzy Victorian sentimentality but a belief in the virtue of feasting as an expression of love. Dinner at Fred’s: “Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!”

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Cane rat on the menu: why not?

‘The Peruvians famously eat cuy, or guinea pig, and have developed a fascinating festival in which they dress the creatures in little costumes before roasting and eating them.’ Photograph: Martin Mejia/AP

A justified public outcry arose yesterday at news that some traders in east London’s Ridley Road market have been selling illegally imported meats, including Ghanaian cane rat. The bushmeat trade is a destructive and criminal operation, a potential threat to public health, to the environment and even to the security of certain species.

It was almost certainly west African hunters butchering chimpanzees for food that led to the relatively tame simian immunodeficiency virus jumping species and mutating into its monstrous, pandemic cousin, HIV/Aids. The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force has documented the environmental damage wreaked by some bushmeat hunting methods, such as people starting forest fires to smoke their quarry out. Many of the African animals commonly used for bushmeat, including gorillas and elephants, are endangered.

But much of the disgusted reaction to this news overlooks an important point. One tabloid headline capitalised “rat” as though the Ridley Road stallholders had been selling Cockney rodents hauled from the sewers. In fact, cane rat looks rather more like a cat-sized, short-haired guinea pig. Its meat is said to be lean, “succulent and sweet” , and low in cholesterol. In Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, where it’s more appealingly called grasscutter, people actually farm it.

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Kebabs – the true Turkish delight

Kebabs … enjoying something of a renaissance. Photograph: Alamy

A gimlet eye recently spotted that a little Turkish restaurant is currently the seventh-best rated in London on the website TripAdvisor, beating more than 10,000 others. It’s not, as some have giddily said, strictly a kebab shop, and it’s worth noting straight away that TripAdvisor is an imperfect source of information on restaurants. Most of its contributors seem to be tourists, and visitors in a new city are by definition inexpert local restaurant critics.

Nonetheless, Meze Mangal in the south-eastern borough of Lewisham is a loveably dowdy restaurant which has been knocking out superb grilled meats and pide (a Turkish pizza variant) for more than 12 years. And it’s great to see kebabs featuring so highly on such a list. Turkish food has long been the most underrated in the UK, and its greatest offering perhaps the most bastardised and maligned of all our imported foods.

A good kebab marries the comforting solidity of its bread and the crunch of its salad to the nourishing, tender spice of its meat. It resembles in no way the standard dismal offering of the British high street: a cardboard pocket of dough, brown and wizened lettuce, a greasy spurt of sauce, the textureless brown of processed flesh.

I have a small mobile kebab venture of my own – currently on hiatus – and I’ve studied the history and manifestations of the food in some detail, both here and in Turkey. The ugly city of Gaziantep by the Syrian border produces the most ravishing ones: the lamb there – lamb, mutton and goat are the best meats – is marinated for several days in a fierce and pungent mix of spices, the floppy breads are warm and chewy, the saucing is judicious and rich. People take them seriously well beyond the Caucasus and south into Persia and the Middle East, but Turkey is the true home of the kebab. “Doner” means “to turn” in Turkish: a gently revolving, well-assembled spit of unminced meat is one of the most beautiful shop windows I can think of.

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Britain’s most hated foods

The escargot topped the list of Britain’s most hated foods. Photograph: Alamy

A survey has revealed “the 40 most hated foods in Britain”. There are some you might not be surprised to see (sprouts, anchovies, cottage cheese) along with some relatively inoffensive ones (prawns, goat’s cheese, avocado). Snails, tripe and oysters were the top three, followed by squid, anchovies, liver, cockles, kidneys, olives and black pudding. The survey was commissioned by Hotpoint, who’ve got a new fridge out.

“Taste” was the main reason people gave for not liking these foods, followed by texture and smell. But that’s rubbish, if you think about it. Squid doesn’t taste of anything beyond being slightly sweet. Snails are perhaps somewhat earthy but largely piggyback on the flavour of whatever they’re served with. Children love black pudding – which is soft and sweet and rich – until you tell them it’s made from pig’s blood.

No: in most of these cases, the texture of the food is far more disturbing. And texture is married to what we might call the “idea” of the food: the psychological associations it triggers in people’s minds. A perfectly fresh oyster, if it tastes of anything, tastes salty. But it’s a slopping, snotty, slippery, squelchy thing, and it’s alive. Badly cooked squid is latex. Snails are snails, for God’s sake: maggoty, warty little pellets sliming their way across the garden.

Often the most delicious foods are the ones you have to train yourself to like, that withhold their pleasure beyond the first tentative nibbles. The difference between a Haribo sweet and an oyster is like the difference between bad and good literature – one is more difficult, engaging, nuanced, austere, but its rewards are greater.

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The website that names lousy tippers

“There is a consequence” is the forbidding slogan of a US website called Lousy Tippers, which I discovered via this piece on Eater.com. It’s a forum for food delivery guys, waiters and the similarly employed to upload stories of bad tippers, shame them by listing their names and addresses and to append vengeful comments. These can get pretty furious. Of an address in New Hampshire, one user writes: “The guy here tips fine, the woman tips like shit. Maybe you’ll get a warm 2l Coke next time.” Elsewhere: “What kind of cheap ass leaves less than 10% tip? Go die.” An Ohio man who left a $2 tip on a $30 bill finds himself succinctly glossed as a “fucking nightmare”.

Publishing people’s real addresses is wrong, of course, and the occasional flare-ups of racism on the site are thoroughly depressing. But I confess to feeling a good deal of sympathy for the principles behind Lousy Tippers. A waiter or deliveryman in the US likely earns under $3 an hour – they’re heavily reliant on tips to secure a living wage. Absent a forum like this, he or she has no recourse to complain about bad customers or to reinforce the need for others to tip properly. The carrot of doing a job well has failed: it’s time for the stick.

Undertipping is less of a problem in the UK, where most restaurants whack 12.5% on to every bill regardless and where there is, in general, less of a tipping culture. (If you’ve ever felt that service wasn’t very good in New York, don’t take it, as they say, personal – Brits are notorious there for being polite customers but terrible tippers, and some waiters don’t try as hard at a table of British accents.) Nonetheless, there are British punters who routinely exercise their option to deduct optional service, even when nothing was wrong with the meal. They should be discouraged from doing so.

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‘Deskfast’: terrible name, not such a terrible idea

Eating breakfast at your desk? Photograph: Marcus Clackson/Getty Images

A piece for Comment is Free

Pity the poor cereal manufacturers. After decades of growth, with Britons crunching and sucking their way through bowl after bowl of heavily processed grain made palatable by salt and sugar and afforded spurious claims of nutrition by “fortifying” vitamins, something has changed. Sales of Crunchy Nut are down 15% by volume in the last year alone, Special K by almost 10%. Even Corn Flakes have suffered a drop.

Instead, people are apparently buying yoghurt drinks, cereal bars, pastries and “breakfast biscuits”, ingesting these in front of computer screens in what one execrable specimen of humanity has shudderingly termed a “deskfast” (the term is contradictory as well as stupid: a “deskfast” would of course mean not eating at one’s desk). Nonetheless, opines a spokesman from one cereal manufacturer: “The culture of eating breakfast at the desk is on the increase. Recession always leads to longer office hours, so with workers spending more time at their desk, products need to be fast.”

There are two possible factors at play here. One is the explanation offered by the cereal industry: that so shackled are we to our precariously held jobs, none of us have time to tinkle some flakes into a bowl and slosh a bit of milk on them (this thesis is somewhat undermined by the fact that porridge sales have increased over the same period: even speedy microwave porridge takes longer to prepare than a bowl of Coco Pops). The second explanation – and the one I prefer – is that more people are realising what overpriced, unhealthy junk most breakfast cereals are.

The codes that tell you what your waiter is really thinking

‘Hmm … QF. HAF. And very possibly a PIA.’ Photograph: Alamy

Like many stressful working environments, restaurants often develop their own language, full of abbreviations that save staff time and customer egos. Thanks to the New York Times, who recently published a list of “secret codes” used in the city’s kitchens and dining rooms, we now know that in one Manhattan restaurant, “O” is code for “a plump guest” , and that “balls to the wall” means a certain meatball joint is packed.

In the majority of London restaurants, the most useful terms tend to be the ones for difficult customers. “HAF” stands for “had a few” in one restaurant, to indicate boisterous diners. This is far preferable to “PIA”, shorthand for an individual “pain in the arse”, employed by the staff of the Ship in Wandsworth. Tables of truly awful customers at that pub are designated “DBC” – Douche Bag Central,

If you’re looking to avoid becoming a DB, make sure you’re very polite when booking your table. The Ivy will write “VNP” (Very Nice Person) next to your name in the book if you seem particularly pleasant on the phone. “It just tips off the maître d’ that the prospective customer made a good impression,” says the restaurant’s managing director.

Often staff will need to discuss specific customers once they arrive, but without knowing guests’ names, they have to resort to physical descriptions. Russell Norman of Polpo uses “Assisi” as code for bald customers – St Francis, like many monks, is supposed to have been hairless. He also uses “LAL”, which stands for lookalike, then writes the name of a famous person. “Sometimes you get a Keira Knightley lookalike, but more often it’s Mike Leigh. Anybody with a goatee I would notate as Noel Edmonds, and bald accountants wearing thick glasses would always be Michael Fish.”

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Chips in the Olympic Park

Fries v chips. Photograph: Alamy / Getty

Workers at the Olympics site in Stratford have won a small battle against the hamburger tyrant: staff working on the Games’ opening ceremonies are now able to buy non-McDonald’s chips. The ban (which gave the chain exclusive rights to sell chips in and around Olympic venues, the only exception being for caterers serving them with fish) was lifted yesterday. Before the ban some samidzat potato products had found their way into the park under Ronald’s red nose: dauphinoise, which resembles a chip in no way at all; and waffles, which could, I suppose, almost be deemed a species of chip.

There are no reports of how miniature roast potatoes, hash browns, crisps, game chips, sautéed spuds or mash fritters (OK, I might have made those up) might have fared in this dictatorchip, likewise chips made from parsnip, cassava or other floury roots. But it seems pretty sneaky of McDonald’s to have claimed the exclusive right to sell chips and fries in Stratford. The world of chips is a varied one, with endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.

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