Andy Lynes
 food journalist and writer



21 March 2008


Last month, I was asked to take part in a short debate on the Saturday morning BBC Breakfast show to talk about Delia Smith's comeback book How to Cheat at Cooking. While I have no wish to turn into yet another rent-a-gob, appearing on four hour-long "I Love Five Minutes Ago" programmes on Channel 4 waxing lyrical about Olde English Spangles and Smash adverts, I was happy to give my opinion on the sainted Delia.

I've never been a big fan of Smith's humourless presentation style or her dull but reliable recipes, although I will happily admit that her Complete Cookery Course was one of the first cookery books I owned and that I still refer to it on the odd occasion today.

My really big problem with Delia however is that in all the years she has graced our screens, she never seems to have derived any pleasure from either preparing or eating food. There isn't a whisper of gluttony or over-indulgence about her; more a stultifying sense of domestic duty and pride, as though preparing young wives for the first time hubby invites the boss round for dinner. Lay on an impressive spread, show a bit of leg and the regional sales manager job is in the bag.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Delia appears to have given up all pretence of enjoying the process of cooking and is championing the use of frozen mash and tinned meat. The recipes in How to Cheat are one step away from ready meals - little more than a collection of back-of-the-tin-serving suggestions. In the 1970's, Shirley Conran proclaimed that "life's too short to stuff a mushroom", now dumb-down Delia wants us to believe that even chopping an onion is a waste of our precious time and that we'd be better off buying them by the ready prepared bag instead.

Delia claims that her cheats are not for meant to be used everyday, but are aimed at "people who love to cook but don't always have the time; people who don't like to cook but have to; and simply for people who are afraid to cook." But the truth is that Delia has never been interested in teaching people how to cook, only in teaching them to follow her recipes. By emphasising their reliability, she hooked a generation by playing on their fear of culinary failure. Never stray from the recipe and everything will be ok. Now she's promulgating fear of cookery to a new generation in order to peddle her "Delia Cheat! Ingredients".

In recent interviews, Delia has been at pains to point out that she receives no kickbacks for her branded endorsement (stickers have been supplied by her publishing company Ebury to the manufacturers of the products mentioned in the book). But even if she is happy to take no part in profits resulting from the famously sale-boosting "Delia effect", the sticker campaign will no doubt shift shed loads of her book, which in turn will shift more of the products. I can almost hear Delia singing "May the Circle be Unbroken" as I type.

So is Delia Smith the new Wrecker of Civilisation? Is she hastening our end by encouraging us to eat fatty, salty, preservative and E number-packed processed foods? Will she alone be responsible for de-skilling us home cooks to such an extent that we won't even be able to pour ourselves a bowl of cereal in the morning for fear we'll miss the bowl?

Maybe not, but what is true is that a highly paid and extremely influential television expert is extracting license fee-payer's money for old culinary rope. Do we really need Delia to show us how to trick up a jar of fish soup with tinned lobster, or pour ready made tomato sauce over frozen prawns? I don't think so.

If I want to eat a TV dinner, or heat up a frozen steak and kidney pie then I'll do so without shame. And if I want to create a recipe on the spot for sea bream with mussels, saffron and parsley then I'll do that too. But what I won't do is spend £20 on a glorified shopping list of over priced convenience goods that will unnecessarily bump up my weekly food bill. Delia may be out to prove that cheaters sometimes prosper, but she won't do it at my expense.