May 7, 2014
In association with the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Jonathan Meades will be reading from An Encyclopedia…
The supper club has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the dinner party. Up and down the land, people are welcoming paying strangers into their homes to dine. And with Rachel Khoo’s Little Paris Kitchen airing on BBC Two, such ventures are hotter than ever.
Supper clubs sell themselves as a grass roots, more democratic alternative to eating out, a crafty way for budding chefs to circumvent the cost, bureaucracy and risk of opening a restaurant. In pedigree, they have counter-culture roots, taking their inspiration from Cuban paladares: family-run, once illegal businesses, set up in competition to state-run restaurants. In Britain, they ought to be the Banksy of the eating out scene.
But has this radical concept been hijacked? Sign up for the latest fashionable supper club in your locality, chances are that your genial host, not necessarily the cook, welcomes you to his or her desirable kitchen with its large dining table. An aspirational living space of the type that features in weekend supplements is preferable, although a quirky, picnic-in-my-sitting-room vibe is also de rigueur. The typical ticket price is £25, not an inconsiderable sum in these hard-up times when restaurants proper offer astonishingly keen deals.
Likely candidates at the stove include chef eccentrics who have yet to demonstrate the discipline and staying power required to run, or indeed, hold down a job in a restaurant proper, and well-intentioned amateurs who dream of being on Masterchef, currying favour with Gregg and John.
While paladares showcased domestic home cooking, supper clubs too often serve up the amateur’s take on fine dining, never a dish to relish. Let’s just say that quality control is an issue, and to date, there’s no Tripadvisor or Good Food Guide for supper clubs. Under the heading ‘Qualifications for running a supper club’ one website reads: ‘None whatsoever. I love to cook, eat, feed and party. I’m hoping that this will be enough to wing it.’
If the food isn’t good enough (whisper it) to justify the price tag and make you look fondly on the makeshift nature of the operation, then what’s the etiquette? A supper club takes your money but it is only a quasi-business. Good manners dictate that when the cook emerges from the kitchen for that customary round of applause, you must join in enthusiastically, even if the pigeon was half-raw, the panna cotta had the texture of a stress ball, and the people at the top of the table had nearly finished their food by the time yours arrived. After all, it’s churlish to grumble when you are eating in someone’s home.
Whatever happened to the authentically indie supper club with its faintly anarchist roots? In its current trendy form, it seems to appeal more to those who lap up culinary novelty, bathed in a coulis of cruise ship ‘captain’s table’ banter.
But if you aren’t thrilled at the prospect of eating unreliable food and making chummy come-dine-with-me small talk with people you don’t know, and will most probably never meet again, then the supper club bears an uncanny resemblance to the old dinner party from hell, only with a bill attached.
Return to the world of ‘Notes From An Exhibition’…
Patrick Gale’s new novel ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ returns to the Cornish setting of his earlier bestseller ‘Notes From An Exhibition’ and catches up with some of the characters from its sister novel.
“Do you need me to pray for you now for a specific reason?”
“I’m going to die.”
“We’re all going to die. Does dying frighten you?”
“I mean I’m going to kill myself.”
When 20-year-old Lenny Barnes, paralysed in a rugby accident, commits suicide in the presence of Barnaby Johnson, the much-loved priest of a West Cornwall parish, the tragedy’s reverberations open up the fault-lines between Barnaby and his nearest and dearest. The personal stories of his wife, children and lover illuminate Barnaby’s ostensibly happy life, and the gulfs of unspoken sadness that separate them all. Across this web of relations scuttles Barnaby’s repellent nemesis – a man as wicked as his prey is virtuous.
Returning us to the rugged Cornish landscape of Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale lays bare the lives and the thoughts of a whole community and asks us: what does it mean to be good?
To win a copy copy of ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ you need to answer the following question:
What is the title of A Perfectly Good Man’s sister novel?
You can tell us your answer in three ways:
Tweet us your answer @FourthEstateUK
Like Patrick Gale on Facebook and post your answer to his wall
Competition closes Wednesday 21st March
Patrick Gale, author of the Richard and Judy book club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition, has a new novel A Perfectly Good Man which he describes as a ‘companion novel’ to his previous work.
Set in the same area of Cornwall, A Perfectly Good Man hold many similarities with Notes, including a few character cross-overs and narrative structure, but is also a beautiful and distinct novel in its own right.
Released at the beginning of March, the book has getting rave reviews across the broadsheets with Julie Myerson describing it in the Guardian as ‘a novel which managed to upset and uplift me in equal measure, and which kept me company – and kept me guessing – right through to its slightly bitter and heartfelt end.’
Salley Vickers in the Observer said: ‘he is skilled at creating intimacy between a character and the reader. By the end of the novel, we feel we really know Barnaby, warts and all, and his wife and children, and our sympathies for them are not unlike our sympathies for ourselves leading our own imperfect lives.’
To listen to Patrick reading from his new novel, use the soundcloud player below
I have received the inevitable letter from a body that calls itself Sugar Nutrition UK, from its Nutrition Communication Manager, a Dr Mary Harrington. She is perplexed by statements about the impact of sugar on health that I made in an article on breakfast cereals in the Daily Mail:
“I would therefore be keen to understand the research behind some of the statements… in particular, ‘It is now accepted scientific fact that eating too much sugar increases your chances of suffering from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and liver problems’.”
Let me introduce you properly to Sugar Nutrition UK. Until this year, it was known as the Sugar Bureau, but it has renamed itself. The old title gave the game away: it is a lobby group for big sugar companies. Change of name notwithstanding, Sugar Nutrition UK continues to be funded by the same UK sugar manufacturers.
Would you trust such vested interests to give you an independent view of sugar and its impact on health? Would you trust it to give you advice on how to prevent children’s teeth rotting, for instance? Probably not, but some more gullible people might. After all, Sugar Nutrition UK now promotes itself as a reliable source of the latest nutrition research on sugars:
“Our job is to provide science-based and up-to-date nutrition information on sugars and health to academics, health professionals, media, public and Government.”
Sugar Nutrition UK doesn’t take kindly to journalists who dare mention to readers that sugar might not be very good for us. After all, it’s on a mission to improve “knowledge and understanding about the contributions of sugar and other carbohydrates to a healthy balanced diet”. Perish the thought that sugar should ever be considered unhealthy. The mission of Sugar Nutrition UK, of course, is reiterate that “no foods should be considered as ‘good or bad’ as all foods play an important role in the diet.” Does this sound familiar?
Sugar Nutrition UK goes further. It argues that not only is sugar not bad for you, you positively need it:
“Carbohydrates (including sugar) help to switch off hunger …… So boosting the level of carbohydrate-rich foods in the diet not only fuels your muscles, but helps to prevent overeating.”
Let’s be clear, Sugar Nutrition UK’s executive summary of sugar science is that sugar can be included ‘as part of a normal, healthy balanced diet’. Next thing we know, Dr Harrington and her colleagues will be presenting it as a health food.
I could invest time and energy in engaging with Dr Harrington. I could quote back to her the recent article in the highly respected journal Nature, entitled ‘The Toxic Truth About Sugar, wherein (independent) scientists conclude that an excess of sugar contributes to 35 million deaths a year worldwide, making us fat, changing our metabolism, raising blood pressure, throwing hormones off balance and harming the liver. Or I could refer her to any number of other pieces of research that testify to the damage sugar does.
But I choose not to waste time in pointless interaction with the PR wing of Big Sugar. It’s more important, I think, to explain how the sugar lobby tries to muzzle journalists.
Let me tell you about my last set-to with the UK sugar lobby. In a distinctly bullish manner, its representative wrote to the editor of a certain publication demanding that I provide scientific evidence to justify every statement I made in an article about the negative impact of sugar on health. He even asked, without any hint of irony, that I back up the statement that sugar can cause tooth decay. All this I duly did, at some length, and in time-consuming detail.
Not satisfied by my response, the sugar lobby representative in question then referred back the matter to my editor. This editor batted the complaint upstairs to the department that deals with legal affairs. It was already well acquainted with Big Sugar complaints as a result of the industry’s habit of stamping on any journalist, editor, or publication that dares to suggest that sugar is anything other than good for us.
Eventually, the sugar lobby gave up. But the Big Sugar strategy here was typical. Its lobbyists are paid to silence critics by keeping them tied up in lengthy, work-intensive exchanges of letters, constantly refusing to accept their very credible sources and demanding that letters ‘correcting’ the ‘misleading’ and outlandish notion that sugar isn’t good for you, be printed.
It’s a strategy that gets results. Knowing how combative and demanding the sugar lobby is, editors and journalists tend to self-censor, by avoiding the subject, or writing about it in a softly-softly, inoffensive way. To do otherwise, would likely mean getting caught up in a protracted, seemingly interminable battle. In other words, journalists soon get the message: ‘Don’t say anything negative about sugar. It’s more bother than it’s worth’.
I am reminded of Jason Reitman’s witty, black comedy, Thank You For Smoking, which starred Aaron Eckhart as a high-earning lobbyist for the tobacco industry. In the film, he is seen in cynical conversation with fellow professional lobbyists (for the alcohol industry and the guns lobby), debating who amongst them has the toughest reason and evidence-denying job. Reitman might well have thrown in a lobbyist for Big Sugar. He, or she, would have fitted right in, justifying his or her fat salary through sheer effort, if nothing else.