Britain's television chefs sling mud along with recipes

In the culinary battle of Britain, it's boiled eggs versus creme brlee, steak-and-kidney pie versus kimchi and sushi.

Britain, which brought the world tripe with onions, is witnessing a ferocious struggle over where its cuisine should be heading in the 21st century.

On one side of the confrontation are television superchefs who take a strict constructionist line. Headed by the nation's most famous and richest food guru, they insist that "back to basics" should be the war cry of housewives and others eager to excel in the kitchen.

Opposing them are militant culinary revisionists who think the basics are about as tantalizing as yesterday's brussels sprouts. The renegades believe cooks should look to France, Italy, and the Far East to awaken the nation's palate.

In short, British palates are the latest battleground in a larger struggle over national identity and multi-culturalism as the influence of new immigrants is felt in all aspects of life in the United Kingdom.

It's steak-and-kidney pie versus cassoulet. Hot porridge versus kimchi.

In competing television food shows, both sides demonstrate recipes to audiences numbering in the millions - while dishing up disparagement of the culinary opposition.

For anyone coming from abroad who thinks the British still regard food merely as fuel, the current controversy may come as a huge, and perhaps agreeable, surprise.

Temperatures began to rise two years ago, after Delia Smith, who has been presenting cookery programs on the BBC for 27 years and is English to the marrow, ran a series called 'How To Cook' as a "back-to-basics guide."

Clad in her trademark pastel-colored sweater and speaking in a deadpan, no-frills manner, the superchef revealed to viewers the mysteries of how to boil an egg, and followed it up with a 30-minute seminar on mashing potatoes.

Rival TV chefs sneered.

Antony Worrall Thompson, who describes his TV series "Food and Drink," as "a running adventure for the taste buds," called Ms. Smith's menus reliable but dull.

Gary Rhodes, an expert in Cornish pasties and other British classics who appears on screen with spiky greased hair and punk clothes, dismissed the 'How To Cook' series as "insulting to the intelligence."

At first, Delia, as she is known to viewers, who have purchased 11 million of her hardcover books, appeared to be keeping her Britannia cool. Many thought that having made an estimated 26 million pounds ($37.8 million) by demonstrating her skills in front of a kitchen hob, she had no need to answer her critics. Delia, moreover, appeared to be on solid statistical ground.

Audience surveys had revealed that 60 percent of 14-year-olds had never boiled an egg, and that the same percentage of teenagers believed a burger was as good as a home-cooked meal.

But as Delia began to prepare a second "How to Cook" series, she was in fact simmering. And on Sept. 25, her temper boiled in an interview with London's Daily Telegraph, in which she lashed out at the shows of Mr. Thompson and Mr. Rhodes, and dismissed the efforts of Jamie Oliver - a young telecook known as "The Naked Chef" for his "strip it bare then make it work" philosophy of preparation.

Thompson responded with an offer to "put on oven gloves" for a bout of on-screen "culinary fisticuffs."

For centuries, food wasn't much of a talking point in Britain. It was, quite simply, something you ate and necessarily had to be prepared. But then, says Hungarian-born Egon Ronay, who produces a much-visited Web site restaurant guide, in the 1970s Britons started vacationing on the European continent and discovered that food was "not limited to shepherd's pie." And new immigrants opened restaurants offering fare from abroad.

Although the traditionalist Smith eventually included a smattering of European and Asian dishes in her repertoire, she bristled as a starburst of on-screen celebrity chefs in the 1980s championed the virtues of French haute cuisine and Japanese sushi.

The spotlight on the kitchen triggered other TV series, such as "Ready, Steady, Cook," in which amateur chefs were encouraged to compete with each other against the clock.

Appalled, Smith decided that the best thing she could do for British palates was to bang her saucepans together and make the on-screen case for meat and potatoes and other traditional fare, from soup to sweets. A friend says Smith is apt to "edge towards the lyrical when describing the crisp crust of a rice pudding."

The staunch traditionalist has influential supporters.

Chef Gordon Ramsay, whose London restaurant commands two stars in the French Michelin guide, declares: "British food is a serious issue, not something for joking around. I buy my wife Delia Smith's books at Christmas. I have a lot of respect for her."

Smith, meanwhile, has things other than TV cookery on her mind.

She holds a majority 4 million ($5.8 million) stake in Norwich City Football Club, a prominent English soccer side, and describes herself as a "fanatical supporter."

Will she ever stop cooking?

She talks of "taking a rest for a while," but the BBC, which likes the fact that she can draw some 4 million viewers simply by picking up a frying pan, has other ideas.

A spokesman described Smith as "one of the most important jewels in the BBC's crown," adding, "I can't see her staying on the back burner for long."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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