WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- Not so very long ago the words "British cook" would cause people either to fall about laughing or to grimace in disgust. Images of rotund middle-aged ladies, gray hair thrust under a mobcap, working greasily "below stairs," were conjured up. These days, British cooks are riding high at home and abroad.
In the U.S., "zaftig" domestic goddess Nigella Lawson not only has her own show on the E! channel, but a regular column in no less venerated food pages than the Dining In section of The New York Times. The British TV series of cheeky mock-Cockney (called Mockney) lad Jamie Oliver, guiding British chums and celebs through the pleasures of sexy, do-able home cooking with cheery panache, appears on the Food Network.
Nigella makes much of the finger-lickin' good approach to drumming up a casual feast, inserting sauce-smothered digits into her generous mouth while gazing at the camera from beneath carefully combed brows. There are few men in Britain of all ages who haven't by now goggled the show at least once.
Food writer and television cook Nigel Slater, author of one of the ground-breaking food books of recent years, Appetite (Clarkson Potter), is admired enough for his recipes to have been featured in the Food Section of the Washington Post.
Gary Rhodes, 2 Michelin-star restaurateur and owner of a haircut that suggests a rectangle of mown grass had landed on his head, hosted PBS's "MasterChef," which in its very first season in 2000 beat cooking show veterans Julia Child and Jacques Pépin as the most-carried PBS cooking series.
Where on American television are the new American cooking media stars? Or the French? Jacques Pépin has not been supplanted by any younger aspirant. The small screen is still monopolized by Emeril. And besides, he is a restaurateur.
Jamie Oliver, like Emeril, has his own line of cookware and recently launched hot restaurant Fifteen in London's increasingly trendy East End, a venture to instruct and employ young men and women who have never set foot in a kitchen. He may have trained at one of London glitterati's favorite watering holes, The River Café, but how he and Nigella Lawson have positioned themselves for the television market is as home cooks.
Emeril may protest that he too is teaching home cooking, but there are few home cooks who produce recipes requiring hearts of palm, lobster and morels quite as readily and regularly as Emeril. (In his defense, though, it has to be said that no one on The New York Times food pages has pointed out to Nigella that while passion fruit at $1 a sack in the UK may produce a cheap "glamour" dessert there, at more than $1 for one in the U.S. to run a recipe using 16 is reckless on a household budget. Nor is the British staple smoked haddock in common supply on the U.S. side of the pond. And her favored Indian spices are by no means as ubiquitous in American supermarkets.)
What makes the current stable of British TV cooks stand out is that they seem to cook like us. Their cooking shows are not, as for the most part U.S.-generated shows appear to be, entertainment on the cheap. These accessible cooks make a point of conjuring stylish meals from the kind of ingredients most of us can find either in our refrigerators or at the local supermarket. Besides, Nigella can't reduce a clove of garlic to mulch in seconds with a flashing kitchen knife to save herself! If she were to attempt any of Emeril's recipes, she'd probably take twice as long as he.
Their common theme is the same as it was two centuries ago, a time well before the Victorians delighted in boiling the flavor out of English produce. A time when the French nicknamed the English "les rosbifs" on account of their unadulterated beef-eating habits, while they themselves were forced to learn saucing to disguise the quality of their own prime meats. That is, that the ingredient must be the best of its kind and messed with as little as possible.
The adverse British response to genetically modified foods is in part due to the new and almost evangelical insistence by food writers and TV home cooks on quality and purity in foodstuffs. British street markets around the country are now packed with purveyors of artisan farmhouse cheeses and breads, cuts from heritage breeds of pork, organic meats and vegetables. Regular supermarkets allocate a major part of their space to organic produce and fresh and frozen organic ready-meals.
While in the U.S., home-cooking -- billed as 'comfort food' - has become the vogue in restaurants, in Britain home-cooking has returned to the home.