Tables turned

As yet, food is one of the things without which, as Sir Winston Churchill would oh-so-grammatically have said, we cannot do. At some moment every day everybody likes to open his mouth and push something edible into it, the idea being that bread - or at any rate its equivalent, such as a jumbo hamburger or perhaps a meringue Chantilly - is the staff of life.

Food is so basic, so utilitarian, one wonders why the cooking of it has become an art and how it is that the world is now knee-deep in cookery books, waist high in recipes, with every housewife titillating her family's appetites with ever-tastier dishes, and restaurateurs' imaginations running riot.

In the old days there used to be something called good plain cooking. The average Englishman was intensely, indeed obsessively, fond of it, so that every menu in every eating establishment read like Sunday lunch at home: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or roast mutton and mint sauce, followed by apple tart and cream, or a roly-poly pudding. And lots of cheeses. It is true that in the past two decades Windsor soup, that dark brown, glucose, often tepid ''starter'' which was non-pareilm for so many years, got ousted by upstarts such as shrimp cocktails and avocado pears, but up to quite a short time ago if you stopped to have lunch in a country pub you would get plain roast lamb and a steamed pudding covered in custard.

Not so today. Influenced by his holidays abroad, which have opened up to him a whole new world of exotic foods, the present-day average Englishman evidently no longer yearns for good plain English fare. This must be so because wherever you stop off for a meal nowadays you are offered a menu of truly astounding inventiveness. The dishes are apt to have local names, such as Shropshire Special or Exeter Wallop, but so as not to leave you guessing for an instant as to their content, beneath each the ingredients are minutely described - not always, as far as I am concerned, to the dish's advantage.

For somehow I cannot believem that I am going to like Cream of Broccoli Soup ''sprinkled with walnuts,'' or Norfolk Pork Cutlets ''steeped in cider and garnished with prunes and raspberries,'' or Brown Bread Ice Cream ''flavoured with a green peppercorn sauce and topped with rosemary leaves.'' Sometimes, indeed often, I think it would be better to keep it all a secret and leave me to muddle through, for some of these strange dishes are delicious if you can bring yourself to eat them.

How it is that the ordinary Englishman - reared on meat and two veg., no sauces thank you, and lots of rice pudding - brings himself to do so I cannot conceive. Possibly he no longer exists. It is true I am a mite out of touch with things these days, and unbeknownst to me he must have developed into a lover of kidneys doused in maple syrup; yes, if I had a grandson no doubt he would be ordering sardines with an apricot puree and think nothing odd of it.

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