Why Masterchef might make you miserable

Man I smacked down my dinner tonight – Sometimes there’s just nothing like a good old plate of baked beans and eggs on toast – In fact a couple of times a week  it’s the perfect evening meal (given that I generally eat my fruit and crudities at work) – Nutritious (being a veggie I need the huge amount of protein it provides), extremely cheap (which is good, as I intend to pay off my mortgage as quickly as possible to make sure the bank earns as little as possible for basically doing nothing), and it’s quick and I think delicious – as I said, I smacked it down, with only one lone bean stain on my shirt too – go me!

It’s also reasonably easy to make this meal ethical in the environmental sense of the word – free range eggs, home-made bread from locally grown flour, ditto for the butter, with beans being the only thing that you have to ship in – but organic and fair trade varieties exist and they come by sea not air – so all in all, not quite hardcore localism, but not bad either.

Just recently, I’ve developed a penchant for eating such wonderful nutritious, cheap, delicious, practical and ethical meals (in varying combinations of these criteria) and laughing at what I now regard as the morons of Masterchef, in which the contestants invest an enormous amount of time and effort and subject themselves to an enormous amount of stress to construct a meal that is just marginally ‘better’ in terms of flavour balance and texture than their competitors’ – I cannot think of a better illustration of the concept of ‘diminishing marginal utility’ – My meal took me 10 minutes to prepare. The finalists’ meals tonight will, I think, take them 2 hours, can one honestly say that their meal is 12 times nicer than mine plus all the additional stress?

Seriously now, my  ‘Pan heated baked beans and d’huile olive fried eggs on crisped wholemeal bread, served with a cup of tea, bag still in’  really hit the spot – so I can’t imagine anything tasting 12 times nicer ; and I really can’t imagine anything tasting 48 times nicer – which is the amount of ‘utility’ that the chefs in last year’s professional Masterchef final would have had to have added to each of their individual courses when they spent eight hours each preparing one course for a Michelin starred restaurant.

Now I’m not suggesting that all of our meals consist of anything we can conveniently chuck together, I’m not suggesting that an ‘all in’ of bananas and Shepherd’s pie wouldn’t make me gag like the next man – there are clearly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food combinations – but the level of ‘Foodism’ displayed in Masterchef is, I believe, actually the antithesis of a balanced, healthy, practical and wise attitude towards food, which I believe would encourage the following three principles (broadly inspired by Buddhism)

  • Firstly, when we cook and eat, we should do so with awareness, focussing on what we are doing, thus cooking and eating are both quiet, simple, meditative acts which are part of the daily routine of meditative awareness. The end result is simply not especially that important, it is the process that matters.
  • Secondly, the Buddhist way encourages compassion – so where food is concerned this means considering how the whole process of sourcing and cooking food effects others – and there is a very strong case that locally sourced, in season, raw food, has the least environmental impact and is thus the most ethical. Also, when there are 900 million people malnourished in the world – a real act of compassion might be to eat more simply so that others might eat more. Finally, a good example of ‘compassionate cooking’ comes from the Sikh practise of feeding masses of people at religious centres – the food tastes good, yes, but there is not the extreme attention paid to nuanced ‘perfection’ – food is made cheaply, relatively simple, and served to all.
  • Thirdly, happiness in Buddhism involves renunciation and restraint – so we shouldn’t be too attached to things – Buddhist monks eat once a day and get what there are given – OK too extreme for most of us, but not a bad model to aspire to – think about it – so what if the shop doesn’t have cheese sandwiches, just have egg – it really isn’t that big a deal. We will be happier, ultimately, if we learn to be less fussy – because this will allow us to be happier in a wider range of contexts and while expending less effort on getting what ‘I’ want. If we can be free from attachments – we are truly free.

Masterchef is often (although not necessarily) the antithesis of the above wise and pragmatic approach to food –

  • Firstly, you might think that cooking on Masterchef, being so involved, is a truly ‘meditative act’ in which they go on a journey and discover themselves – and no doubt our chefs are really engrossed in what they are doing – but the context of why they cook reveals a darker reality – nearly all of these chefs are cooking ‘as an act of self-expression’ – they cook food for others to consume hoping for a positive reaction – their very identity, sometimes career aspirations are tied up with this act – they cook because they want to be known as ‘the best cook in town’ – typically their cooking is an act of self-construction rather than a meditative vehicle for self-awareness.
  • Secondly, Masterchef style cooking isn’t about Compassion for others – it’s about feeding your close friends so they praise you – and as a general rule, there is no attention paid to ethics of sourcing of food. Vegetarianism is strictly off the agenda, and if any Vegans dared brave the show I fear they may end up being the main course.

 

  • The third reason why Masterchef might breed long term human misery is because it’s very essence revolves around encouraging us to attach our very being to the ‘experience of food’, so that we ‘live to eat’ rather than ‘eating to live’ – it encourages us to be more fussy about what we eat, basing notions of superiority around slight nuances of taste and texture. The end result of us coming to expect exacting and high standards of food is that, over time, we come to be more disappointed with what we now regard as acceptable food.
  • Fourthly and finally, Masterchef does not encourage a ‘calm and meditative’ approach to cooking – it is fraught and desperate as the contestants strive for perfection – judged by panels looking to find fault.

So call me a philistine – but surely we should resist (as no doubt many do) the messages about food put out by Masterchef (and a whole host of other ‘Foodie’ programmes out there!) because we are encouraged to use cooking as an act of self-construction rather than self-awareness, we are called upon to push all thoughts of ethics and broad-compassion to one side, we are called upon to be more discerning, more judgemental, more fussy and particular, and we are then encouraged to stress ourselves out trying to please others in the process of perpetuating all of this.

Far better to give it all up and just settle for basic, simple food, so if you ever come round to mine, you can expect as much. On the plus side, you’ll find that there’s not that much washing up to do following a meal of  pan heated baked beans and d’huile olive fried eggs on crisped wholemeal bread, served with a cup of tea, bag still in’.

Some recent comments on Masterchef 2012 (The Professionals)

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2012-12-10/masterchef-the-professionals-2012-finalists—keri-moss-biography

 

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