Watching Jamie Oliver’s latest series, Jamie’s Great Britain, the interesting, and perhaps noble, idea behind the programme seemed to be compromised by the vernacular used by Jamie. If you haven’t seen it, the series examines various aspects of British food, with a particular emphasis on the impact and influence that immigration has had on British cuisine: “In this series, I’m not gonna stop at the usual British stories. I want to seek out new immigrant communities too, and acknowledge their contribution to Great British food”, the presenter tells us during the opening montage. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed it makes for quite an interesting programme, questioning the notion of ‘Britishness’ and embracing the idea of Britain as a multi-cultural society.
Indeed one of the particularly interesting issues is the way in which history, and particularly the implications of Britain’s diplomatic relations with foreign powers, has influenced our cooking, but also how food itself reflects this history. The programme is not afraid to address contentious issues of this country’s past head-on: the latest episode, for example, is very open about the impact that the (triangular) slave trade had on Britain (and Bristol in particular) as both a social and culinary culture.
However, what I found particularly problematic about the episode dealing with Britain’s “special relationship with the Indian sub-continent” was Jamie’s constant use of the word ‘Empire’ as if it inherently held some kind of nostalgic, positive value. Indeed his introduction to ‘The British Empire’ is worryingly slight, in its blinkered celebration of British trade routes. (See 5:45-6:30)
The programme is all about the culinary combination of traditionally ‘British’ elements with aspects informed by immigration and British foreign policy. In the clip below Jamie makes a batch of the traditional Indian chutney piccalilli to go with his ploughman’s lunch. No problem there, but the wishy-washy way in which he references ‘Empire’ is, I think, really striking. (If you’re pushed for time just watch 4:20-4:45 and then 8:05-9:00).
It is entirely in line with the programme to discuss the implications of Britain’s Empirical past, and indeed to address the valuable trade of ideas (whether political, social, cultural or culinary) which emerged from the British Empire. However, unlike the distaste for slavery evident in another episode, referring to the Empire as if it is something to look back on fondly, without any mention of the more oppressive negative aspects, is highly problematic and seems to go against the overall ethos of the programme. If your message is that the multi-cultural Britain of today is valuable and worth preserving and admiring, then does it not go without saying that a good deal of your audience would be first, second, third (or whatever) generation immigrants, who would surely not see Britain’s past Empirical tendencies as something to remember fondly over a nice ploughman’s lunch and a pint of beer? In this episode Great Britain and the (Great) British Empire are not really seen as particularly distinct, apart from being temporally distant – indeed Jamie seems to relish talking about the ‘glory days’ of the British Raj and the “incredible period” when “our little island ruled over a quarter of the World’s population”. Jamie’s romanticising of the Empire seems to muddy the waters of what the show is trying to say, and smacks of somebody not really thinking through the implications, not just of what they are saying and how they are saying it, but also of what they are leaving out.