Ian McMillan: Why the best food writing makes your mouth water

One of my favourite musicals is Lionel Bart's Oliver; I saw a memorable performance of it at The Crucible in Sheffield a few years ago, and I had to restrain myself from belting out all the numbers at the top of my voice, and secretly hoping that a cast member would fall ill so I could leap on stage and give them my best Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two'¦

Ian McMillan

Thankfully for the future of musical theatre in the Western Hemisphere this never happened, but I still hanker after getting up somewhere, anywhere, and singing Food, Glorious Food, one of the greatest popular songs ever written: Pease pudding and saveloys, what’s next is the question? Rich gentlemen have it boys… Indigestion!’ Oh yes: I wish I could write lyrics like that.

I was whistling Food, Glorious Food the other day as I wandered by a market stall full of fresh fruit and veg and that got me thinking about the way people write about food, and the way that it’s mostly the famine or the feast, or the triumph or the disaster. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, some displaced people from Oklahoma, on their way to California for The Good Life, call at a wayside diner and the little girl of the family wants to buy a chocolate bar. The family can’t afford one but the kindly waitress lets the girl have one cheap, to the consternation of one of the people sitting at the bar like someone in an Edward Hopper painting.

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At the feast end of the spectrum, I turn to the great newspaper columnist Patrick Campbell, an inspiration for my own journalism, and who could paint pictures of food in words that made you want to chew the page for sheer pleasure, unless, of course, the food wasn’t so good and chewing the page would have been more nourishing. Here he describes a less than successful meal: ‘‘My kidneys’, I said, ‘are like used squash balls, and the bacon has been boiled in gear oil. Waiter!...’’ Campbell’s wife, who he calls Madame, continues: ‘This hare hasn’t been jugged, it’s been tortured, and it isn’t hare, it’s elephant.’ Now Campbell builds the prose with superb comic timing: ‘We shouted about old, bad strings, used squash balls and tortured elephant for a long time, bursting with adrenaline, exhaustion forgotten in our outrage.’ That phrase ‘bursting with adrenaline’ perfectly captures the self-righteousness of the complaining diner.

In a new book, Food Worth Fighting For, Josh Sutton takes in a spectrum of writing about food, including this exhortation from Food Minister Lord Woolton in 1941, that set the idea of the value of food in the minds of my parents: “This is a food war. Every extra row of vegetables in allotments saves shipping. 
The battle on the kitchen 
front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden.”

Tell you what: all this writing about food writing has made me hungry!