Off Piste: A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise
Off Piste: Eggs, egos and economics
Gary Day chews over our fascination with foul-mouthed chefs and scary diet pedants and wonders if their ubiquitous TV presence is a symbol of social harmony or disharmony
Why is that no one ever sees God, even though he is everywhere? The only entity I seem to encounter at every turn is Gordon Ramsay. Turn on the television. There he is. Open a newspaper. There he is. Go to the station. There he is, looking belligerent on a billboard. If the Almighty wants more recognition, he should have a word with Mr Ramsay - providing, that is, he doesn't mind having his name taken in vain. Even the Australians, who couldn't give a XXXX for most things, blush when Mr Ramsay opens his mouth. Jack Dee summarised his cooking instructions as "take two eggs and fuck off". But, should he persevere, the Almighty will not only raise his profile, he will also learn how to whip up a raspberry souffle. And, encouraged by Mr Ramsay's volatility, he may even revert to some of that old-time smiting so beloved of fundamentalists who believe that modern man is in dire need of a plague or two.
The celebrity chef could also give the Lord a few tips on product endorsement. Mr Ramsay advertises a certain brand of gin. What do they have in common? A "passion for perfection". Clever stuff. But words are like meals - they don't always turn out as you want them to. For this advert also suggests that a slug of "mother's ruin" will improve your culinary skills. So I tried it. For 20 minutes I thought I was Nigella Lawson. I wonder if, after a couple of glasses, she thinks she's me? The end result of that little experiment is that I am now known as the Bedford Poisoner.
The Deity is not perfect and so cannot be photographed next to the G that put the G in G and T. But he could always join June Whitfield in advertising life assurance to the over-fifties on daytime TV. Or, better still, accident insurance. After all, it was he who made the world so dangerous in the first place.
It may be unseemly to compare God to Gordon Ramsay, if only because God never signed for Glasgow Rangers. But the history of religion reveals a relationship between divinity and food and drink. Drama grew out of harvest celebrations, and the Great Dionysia, the Athenian festival of tragedy and comedy, was in honour of the god of wine, agriculture and fertility. The tradition survives in Christianity, whose followers dine on the flesh and blood of their saviour. The Church did its best to break the link between eating and erotica but, even in Britain, which is not noted for either, it still lingers. Look at those adverts for Marks & Spencer ready meals.
Perhaps cooking programmes are an echo of those ancient rituals. The culinary creations of the TV chef mimic the fertility of nature herself. The wine glass reflects the grin of Bacchus. Sadly, these shadows are all that's left of our earliest ecstasies. The Dionysian mysteries have become codified in the recipe book. That, at any rate, is one way of looking at it: food and drink as lifestyle, not communion with nature.
But there are other ways of seeing the matter. Mr Ramsay represents this culture's fascination with food, and how to catch, prepare and eat it. One episode of The F Word featured him in the backwoods of Texas warily eyeing a hog caught in a trap. His guide instructed him on how to approach and shoot the animal. Apparently, it's important that we should view such things, but being one of those who cannot bear too much reality, I turned over. Dog the Bounty Hunter never seemed so appealing.
The citizens of the Roman republic would not have flinched from such sights. Indeed, they would have delighted in them. Pompey the Great once arranged for 20 elephants to be speared to death in a show that Cicero lauded as "the most lavish and magnificent of all time". I wonder what the greatest orator of the ancient world would have made of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. He would probably have approved of the humiliation but lamented the lack of bloodshed. All those knives and not a single cut. Most of all, he would have been disappointed by the language. It is hardly the kind of thing you would hear in the Forum.
Many complain about the poverty of our political rhetoric. Is it linked to our pursuit of haute cuisine? Who knows? Certainly, some of Cicero's contemporaries, as Tom Holland shows in his thrilling history of the Roman republic, Rubicon (2003), were scandalised by the fashion for fancy dishes. How was it that cooks, the least valuable of slaves, had become celebrities? Historians, nostalgic for the sturdy, virtuous life of the early republic, were appalled that a mere function should have been elevated to a high art. Something had to be done and in 169BC the Senate banned the serving of dormice at table. But no one took any notice. Contact with the East had created a taste for delicacies. Why suffer homely fare when you could savour the vulvas of sows?
Commentators on the British cultural scene are remarkably relaxed about our attitude to food. The fact that we have such a variety of dishes is a symbol of our vibrant, multicultural society. Eating together is an expression of social harmony. We may not share each other's opinions but we enjoy each other's food. But the story is more complicated than that. The abundance we can heap on our plates reflects our consumer culture. Affluence has led to indulgence. Nothing wrong with that. Most Britons, for most of history, have lived in uncomfortable proximity to want.
All the same, the desire to find ever more adventurous ways of titillating the palate when millions are teetering on the verge of starvation suggests a possible malfunction of our moral compass. As does a series such as Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. It's that "it" that is so unsettling. The aim of the show was to inform us how our food was raised, slaughtered and butchered. After such knowledge, what forgiveness, eh? I'm all for education, but here it seemed like an excuse to watch a snuff movie. Time for another dose of Dog the Bounty Hunter. But I did read a review of the programme. Apparently, it's difficult to establish the exact point of death. When the heart stops? When the brain dies? When the twitching ceases? Well, we shall find out.
Food is a highly condensed metaphor for how we see ourselves and our relation to the world. But, as prices rise, we are beginning to discover that food is not just an expression of culture but a matter of economics. And, among other things, that makes it a class issue. By and large, cookery programmes cater for those on £30,000 a year or over. They encourage Middle England to be creative, to embrace Europe in the kitchen if not in the workplace. And the sprinkling of spices suggests that even the East is welcome on a modern housing estate, as long as its inhabitants don't move in next door.
For those whose lifestyles do not correspond to that of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's, there is always Gillian McKeith, that scourge of the crisp-eating, cola-drinking masses. In You Are What You Eat, the Scottish disciplinarian eviscerates the freezers of those foolish enough to invite her into their homes. She confronts them with what they put in their mouths. She confronts them with what comes out the other end. Literally. Remarkably, they don't seem at all fazed by having their shit held up to the nation's gaze.
In that, they are similar to those who appear on The Jeremy Vile - sorry, Kyle - Show. The "guests", as they are called, seem quite happy for viewers to know that they slept with their father while they were supposed to be visiting their child who was dying in hospital after swallowing the crack they'd sprinkled over their cereal, thinking it was sugar. And the shouting, the swearing, the stamping of feet, the stomping off the set that are so much a feature of the programme are all in Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares too. All that's missing are DNA tests to find out who is the real chef.
In modern management theory it is no longer enough to be professional, you must be positively "passionate" about your work. Ramsay uses that word almost as much as the F one. He arrived in Haywards Heath to sort out The Priory restaurant. Is he a management consultant or a superhero? It's difficult to tell. One episode of The F Word borrows from Superman. It starts with Ramsay stripping off as he marches down a corridor, displaying a chest that would make a cannibal strike a match under his pot. Donning his chef's outfit, Ramsay slams into the kitchen ready for action. But it's hard to imagine mild-mannered Clark Kent telling head chef Toby he "couldn't run a fucking bath", never mind a kitchen.
Mr Ramsay seemed particularly exercised by Toby, slapping himself in a desperate attempt to stop him from slapping Toby whose "fat head" remained stubbornly "stuck up his arsehole". You need to "fucking ditch that gormless ... ", but the rest was noise. Very loud noise. Toby wasn't the only one Ramsay had in his sights. What were all these fucking pensioners doing at The Priory with their vouchers for two meals for the price of one? They could fuck off. Get in a "younger, wealthier crowd". Now that's what I call customer cleansing.
No one can accuse Ramsay of not making the most of his linguistic resources. He can be as creative with the word "fuck" as Shakespeare is with the sonnet form. It's a delight to hear his variations on the term, though perhaps not for a whole hour. Like Hotspur in Henry IV (Part One), Ramsay is indefatigably pugnacious. "You want to take a swipe at me, don't you?" he snarled at The Priory's owner, who was becoming more and more alarmed by Ramsay's plans for his restaurant. "Well, I'm fucking quick." He is, too. I once saw him cook something in under 30 seconds. It might even have been still moving when it was served.
The chef is capable of some gentle and even reflective moments. Moved by the religious history of The Priory - "Fuck me, where's Sister Wendy?" - he got a bishop to bless the grill he had installed. The bishop, who had obviously never watched Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, asked God to grant serenity to all those who worked at the restaurant. Predictably, the only peace the staff experienced was a piece of Ramsay's mind when he let rip at them over Yorkshire puddings that were like "King Kong's condom". In the end, Toby couldn't stand the heat and got out of the kitchen.
Ramsay's macho approach - breaking egos as well as eggs - is typical of many reality TV programmes. Like Jeremy Kyle, he is highly confrontational. He berates people who are not used to being in front of the camera. They don't know how to respond. Their humiliation is our entertainment. The message, like that of The Apprentice, is that to succeed in business you need to be a bit of a bully. Something else to chew on is that shows such as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares reinforce the idea that companies must look outside themselves for solutions to their problems. The voices of those who work there count for nothing.
Reality TV is making it harder to escape from reality. It is a form of training for the free market. The Jeremy Kyle Show is about self-discipline, The Apprentice about Darwinian competition. Even Big Brother is about making us all happy to watch and be watched. Celebrity is the show-business face of ideology. Ramsay stops our protests by stuffing our mouths with baked polenta. He embodies the spirit of enterprise. You could even say he swears by it.
Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.