So I was one of the 264,000 people watching Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food on Channel 4 +1 last night, after Mutual Friends on BBC 1 clashed with both Jamie and Griff Rhys Jones Losing It on BBC 2. I told you there was lots of great TV on in the autumn. Thank god for the iPlayer, +1 channels etc etc. Although it all feels terribly piecemeal and difficult to navigate. Come on, Office of Fair Trading, just give our jolly old broadcasters the go-ahead for Project Kangaroo and everything will be available immediately after TX online. Won’t it?
But back to Jamie. I do fancy him, probably because he reminds me of an old boyfriend. Cripes – two terrible confessions in one line. I digress. Whether you find Oliver and his outsize tongue strangely attractive or not, you’ve got to admire his sense of higher purpose. Not content with making millions from the sales of his cookery books (it’s the books, publicised by the TV, which have made the man), he really wants to put something back into society, first by changing the way schools serve hot food and now, with his Ministry of Food, by getting real people to cook and eat real food. That way, he reckons, real people won’t be so fat and unhealthy.
And who could possibly argue with that? Needless to say there’s a four-part series documenting this self-initiated movement (he didn’t want to call it a campaign, when talking about it at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August – it’s a movement coz it depends on people doing this for themselves, not on government money or anything like that).
The first ep of Jamie’s Ministry of Food aired last night and it was a belter. Families on benefits spending 12 quid a night on takeaways then pawning jewellery to pay a bill. Jamie wouldn’t walk away coz he could tell he was changing their lives by showing them how to cook meatballs with spaghetti in tomato sauce. And he did change them, especially the woman with an eight-burner cooker who never switched the thing on. She was panfrying salmon in a basil sauce by the hundredweight within a few days.
Thing is, when Jamie from time to time had to leave Rotherham – where his real-life Ministry of Food was focussed for a full six months – the eight cookery novices he’d recruited went back to their bad old ways, ordering in chips n cheese n kebabs for the under fives.
This programme has it all – real life, as lived by people who might as well be a million miles away from those who make TV and snack on bags of mixed Fair Trade nuts; it mirrors our contemporary obsession with food, whether it’s relatively cheap and nasty or relatively cheap and home-made; and it has Jamie Oliver, leading the charge for better eating and wearing all manner of hoody tops and sneakers in the process.
Who else is doing this? Who else – apart from RDF, makers of Wife Swap, and maybe Gillian McKeith of You Are What You Eat – has bothered to go into several kitchens in Rotherham, where local mums famously revolted against Jamie’s drive to improve school dinners, and seen the two fridge trays packed to the gunnels with sweets to be thrown at the kids whenever they start squawking?
Changing the day-to-day eating habits of the masses (my father would call them the great unwashed) is a massive task. But Jamie Oliver’s attempt to tackle Britain’s obesity rates from the grass roots up by teaching ordinary people to cook and asking them to teach others, as mums once taught their families, is admirable in the extreme. Rock on, Jamie, I’m with you and loving your chicken/lemon zest/cheese/proscuitto number, which I learnt from the demo up in Edinburgh.