I’ll See Your Organic Free-Range Chicken and Raise You a Tin of Lamb Mince

While the name Delia Smith is familiar to me, I’ll have to admit that I’m not especially familiar with her cookbooks. Given the recent fuss about her newest cookbook How To Cheat at Cooking, I sort of assumed she was one of those slack-assed Rachel Ray types with the canned goods and bagged greens, teaching fans how to spread salmonella in three easy steps.

But it turns out that Smith is more well-known for being the UK’s answer to Martha Stewart. She spent years teaching Britons how to cook real food, teaching them basic cookery techniques and classical dishes. How to Cheat at Cooking is apparently a rewrite of her first book published in 1971, but from there, her work was all about cooking with real, fresh ingredients.

Any new book sells better with a wave of press, and there is some speculation that Smith’s recent public comments about Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign against battery chickens might simply be desperate publicity spin. Smith claims that her recipes are designed to feed the poor, especially the chyllldrunnn (who will think of them?), but even poor kids are likely to turn up their noses at some of the stuff in her new book.

Last week, UK paper the Guardian reported on a dining event where some of England’s top chefs cooked up some of the recipes from How to Cheat at Cooking.

It is time, though, to taste. Out, first, comes the steaming risotto. “This,” remarks Giles kindly, “is like having a pig piss in your throat. It tastes of freezer and plastic. I don’t understand. If you can’t cook and you can’t afford to go out, eat a cheese sandwich.”

Granted, UK food writer Giles Coren isn’t the most tactful guy, but he has done spots for Gordon Ramsay’s The F-Word where he’s eaten out of dumpsters and cooked up squirrels. He’s as familiar with bad food as he is with the good stuff.

The article goes on to point out the difficulty of tracking down many of the prepared ingredients, as well as noting that the dishes don’t actually take less time than cooking up a version from scratch.

Which begs the question of why, and why now?

“She’s after the money,” says Giles, charitably. “I think she’s jealous of Jamie and Nigella and Hugh. It’s like old footballers who bemoan the fact there was never any money in the game when they were playing: Delia was a food star when food stars weren’t big. It’s like some old boxer coming out of retirement, Rocky Seven up for one last slugging match. But what she doesn’t realise is that the rules have changed, that nowadays people are motivated by different things: the environment, quality ingredients, nutrition. She’s come back for her slice of the pie – that’s her motivation.”

Other tasters were divided on the effect of Smith’s crusade, with a few citing the same explanation given for her US counterparts like Ray and Sandra Lee – that getting people back into the kitchen, even if they are cooking out of tins is better than nothing. But based on the tasting notes for the items prepared (which included cupcakes made with frozen mashed potatoes, and risotto made from… frozen pre-cooked risotto), most of the dishes are likely to send people running to order some take-out anyway.

So is the UK’s cookery sweetheart really thinking about the poor folks who can’t afford the organic produce and free-range chicken, or is she just a teensy bit jealous of the fame and fortune today’s celebrity chefs have experienced?

All I know is that lamb shouldn’t come from a can, yo.