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In Defence of Culinary Eccentricity

A while ago I happened to receive a packet of stock cubes for Christmas. I’m no particular fan of stock cubes, even less this particular brand, but my brother had kindly inserted them into a hamper of otherwise delightful grub as something of an inside joke. For these were not just any stock cubes, but the infamous Knorr Stock Pot, advertised so memorably by Marco Pierre White, whose delivery is so bizarre, so sneering and so frankly unsettling that he’s become a source of infinite hilarity in my family ever since. We would shuffle around, promising you could ‘make your meals as good as mine – almost’, or insisting vegetables weren’t ‘quite big enough for me’, laughing at his freakishly heartfelt pleas to use stock cubes in anything from pasta to butter to steak. And so, finally coming face to face with this exalted Stock Pot was an experience of almost religious intensity.

Where did it all go wrong, Marco?
Where did it all go wrong, Marco?

Of course, I never used them – they’re probably sitting at the back of the larder as I write – and indeed Marco jokes fell somewhat out of fashion. Imagine my delight, therefore, when the other day I chanced upon an article that brought me into contact with the great man once more. Interviewed in The Guardian, the increasingly reclusive White affirms yet again his passion for the Knorr cube, suggesting they are far superior not only to other brands, but to homemade stock as well.

When it is pointed out, however, that rather than the ‘real ingredients’ he promises his cubes are in fact ‘composed almost entirely of salt, MSG, and hydrogenated oils’, he changes his tune, arguing ‘but then, I look at the flavour, not the colour.’ This, strangely enough, I found an interesting point: if White genuinely believes that Knorr offers unbeatable flavour, should the fact that they are made of industrial filth have any bearing on his decision to use them?

Here’s a delightful stock photo of a man tasting something. Who says you can’t have fun without infringing copyright?

This isn’t a question of health: MSG may be unhealthy, but then so too is the finest organic butter. Instead, I am wondering whether the objective quality of food ought to invalidate our subjective response to it: does the established fact that White’s beloved cubes are nothing but processed refuse mean that his instinctive enjoyment of them should be disregarded?

This quandary reminded me of another scenario: I recalled reading that, in the 80s, Coca-Cola had tried to introduce a new recipe for their signature drink, the inventively christened ‘New Coke’. I’ve no idea if this was a good idea, since I can’t stomach the stuff at the best of times, but the new formula was overwhelmingly approved in every blind tasting it underwent. The objective taste, therefore, was superior. However, when the bottles hit the shelves, they proved an unmitigated disaster: those very same tasters who had loved it blind excoriated it once they knew the recipe had been altered.

Here’s another one! And observe the burning concentration as he weighs the objective merits of the tea against his subjective response… ClkerFreeVectorImages / Pixabay

Quite clearly, then, there is more to Coke that the flavour: the idea of an unchanged formula, the sense of unadulterated heritage, was at least if not more important than the specific, scientifically quantifiable sensation it offered in the mouth. Executives ranted and raved: the new recipe is better, they insisted, even its harshest critics prefer it blind. But New Coke couldn’t be saved; it barely lasted a year, before the classic brand returned.

So did Coke drinkers have the right to reject the certifiably superior taste of the new brand? Does White have the right to indulge his creepy Knorr fetish no matter how foul it’s proved to be? I think the answer lies in a simple truth: food should be enjoyed. And enjoyment rests not only on taste, but on a whole range of factors.

Take local food, for instance: can I taste that my strawberry was grown in Cheddar, not Andalusia? Sometimes, I can. Sometimes, perhaps, I cannot. Sometimes, dare I say it, the Spanish strawberry might even be superior. But I can say without hesitation that if I know the strawberry is English, the fish caught only a day ago, al di lamb British, I will derive greater enjoyment from the native nosh than any continental impostor. For me, it is the idea that counts, the often subconscious belief that I am eating in a more authentic, more natural, more traditional way. This belief is no doubt highly delusive, but don’t go around proving that English fruit is worse than imported stuff, or that New Zealand lamb wins in a taste test. I don’t care about the facts: breaking the illusion reduces enjoyment, and is therefore counter-productive.

Who'd want to stop him?
Would you really want to tell him the exciting hints of rosemary and Norwegian spruce are all in his head?

It’s like wine critics. Can they really taste the vineyard, the soil type, the particular slope of the vine? Who knows? But their belief that they can heightens their enjoyment, and thus serves its purpose. Does organic really taste better? Does homemade stock really beat a cube? Can anyone really taste that lone bay leaf I put in the marinade? Who knows? Who cares? If you can, brilliant. If you think you can, just as good! Pat yourself on the back, tell yourself how clever you are, how lovely and complex your food is. Why would you want to prove otherwise? Why would you want to ruin an illusion that brings nothing but pleasure?

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that when it comes to food – and many other things, I imagine – the demonstrable fact is no more important than our psychological perception. New Coke is a better product in a blind tasting, but that doesn’t mean it’s a better product. Because in the real world, our memories, expectations and delusions are all tied up with the food we eat, and they affect our enjoyment of it just as strongly as the arrangement of molecules that dances a jig on our taste buds.

So don’t be ashamed to steep your tea for exactly 47 seconds. Don’t worry about whether you really can taste those mulberry notes in your wine. Don’t shy away from buying that overpriced local carrot (not quite big enough for you or otherwise). If you think it tastes better, it is better, no matter what they tell you.

And Marco, if you really must eat Knorr, don’t let me stop you.