An existential crisis followed by a list of excellence (as a direct result of making genuine effort to be excellent - my pick for behavioural trend of 2023)
Isn’t it always the strangest things that end up bringing you joy?
In a wonderful piece on the ‘Blokes of Blair’s Britain’; in The Fence magazine a few months ago, an American is quoted as stating, 'The problem with you English is you fetishise mediocrity.’
And I suppose we do, don’t we? And maybe inherent within is much of our potential for joy?
The statement above was in relation to one of Britain’s favourite (and most wonderfully mediocre) sons, Tim Henman, but is perhaps pinpoint accurate in categorising so much of British society. Our food included.
‘I don’t want any of that fancy muck,’ the refrain of the down-to-earth Brit virtue signalling by rejecting anything better, more interesting, more complex or pleasurable than pishy milky tea, a moisture-sucking biscuit or the plainest melange of carbs and saturated fats possible within the context of a meal.
There are downsides to our fetishising of mediocrity, of course there are, (Brexit would never have happened, for instance, if we weren’t so desperate to reposition ourselves as the plucky little Island once more, instead of the relatively sober economic success story with a rightful seat and preferential terms at a table full of adults that we might have remianed) and if I weren’t riding the artificial adrenaline buzz of trying to hammer home a thinly worn point, I would expand on those, but instead I want to explore, for a minute, the sheer wonder of a nation that might hold Ainsley Harriot in higher esteem than Marco Pierre White; would refuse to modernise or try any harder than the Greggs sausage roll or a relatively mediocre pie and mash whilst also poking fun at poor old Heston as he tries his damndest to harness every bell and whistle in the search for something better with his output; who canonise the fry-up whilst sneering at breakfasts that aim at being varied and pleasurable and perhaps marginally more finessed; who make idols of characters like Peter Crouch and Danny Dyer, whilst sending up swots like Gareth Southgate, Gary Nevile or Gary Barlow (perhaps one could also make the case that it is in fact the name Gary that we as a nation have an issue with, as opposed to the ridiculous notion of trying hard and striving to be better; although Gary Rhodes was always faintly laughable for his sincere enthusiasm whilst we lioninsed Keith Flloyd for his plucky mediocrity (a statement within a statement which itself is a little unfair)).
I know you’re reading the rambling list above and thinking, yeah, but that’s not me, I’m an LRB, New Yorker and Guardian reading free-thinker who finds reductive notions of stereotyping, well, reductive. It’s hard to argue against the fact though that we ‘love an underdog’, have made a national characteristic of the ‘stiff upper lip’, and celebrate the ‘plucky amateur’ as a national sport.
I want to reject this stereotype as much as you do. I subscribe to the Paris Review, The Fence, to The Guardian, and to The FT Weekend. I’ve dedicated a career to considering, cooking, writing about and seeking out foods worth making an effort for. I almost exclusively cook everything from scratch at home, I could easily save myself time and money by settling for the mediocre easy out of the pre-made, pre-packaged and the ready-to-reheat, the nexus of which I suspect many people’s day-to-day existence revolves around. And does mine, sometimes, but most of the time I make the effort. Most of the time I am resiliently trying to resist mediocrity.
Until, that is, resilience drops. When the chips are down I crave nothing more than sheer unbridled mediocrity. And I’m not necessarily talking about seismic life-altering events here. Get an emailed rejection for a story pitch? I’ll immediately pop to Ricky’s on the corner and pick up a can of corned beef and a loaf of thick-cut white bread for a corned beef and salad cream sandwich to soothe. Late payment of an invoice after repeated polite chases? Orient Flame will receive a little ding from Just Eat for my self-care order of crispy chilli shredded beef, fried seaweed and ginger and spring onion chicken. Overwhelming Monday morning? I’m two-thirds through a very poor fry-up and an acrid sugary coffee before I even consider what I’m doing. Another cancelled train home due to the strikes? Cheap bacon and a couple of eggs become a very mediocre carbonara for supper that no one should really admit to making, let alone craving.
The list of mediocre cravings I regularly give into includes, but is not limited to, tinned ravioli, mini pork pies, cocktail sausages, singles cheese, cheap sausage rolls, frankfurters, tinned rice pudding, chocolate hob nobs and diet coke. The thing is, each and every one of those things brings me untold joy. And they are occasional treats, not daily staples, so they’re fine, right?
The problem is, in banging on about celebrating mediocrity I’ve made myself want to reject everything I’ve said above and take on a culinary project of excellence. It makes me want to perfect laminated pastry at home, or become a dab hand at tempering chocolate, or become a master at curing and smoking niche sausages in a homemade smoker box at the end of my garden; but then, the minute my mind goes that way, it experiences a bungee-ping in the opposite direction and I’m back craving supermarket brioche buns and singles cheese so I can make high-pleasure-low-quality grilled cheese sandwiches like a wastrel from a straight-to-Netflix food-based rom-com.
A chronic contrarian who overthinks his own lunch might be one assessment, a cook alive to the nuance of human experience might be another.
It’s clear to me that my own internal prejudice does lean towards fetishising mediocrity. I find it embarrassing to try too hard at something, or to put it better, I find it embarrassing to admit to trying hard at something. I find it moderately embarrassing to admit to wanting something to be excellent. That I find the notion of the plucky amateur endlessly charming is surely a reflection that I too hope to upset the odds and one day achieve something groundbreaking just by simply being lucky or in the right place at the right time, or plucky and better than expected, but certainly not because I’ve worked tirelessly and improvingly on something in the stated hope that I might become very good at it one day.
That’s no way to live one's life, though, is it? I can see that now. And I don’t think my waffled list of assumptions above does talk to a national psyche. I fear it does not reflect a broader consensus. It is dawning on me as I write that most people are making a decent effort, the majority of us are not celebrating mediocrity and relying on being plucky or lucky, at all. Tired tropes of a nation celebrating pie and mash as a national identity are not reflective of Britain today and I will stop making the case that they are.
By way of rocket fuel to my own intention, below is a list of people, places and things that are antithetical to the concept of mediocrity, very much the results of hard work, skill, intellect and plenty of serious and deliberate effort to produce something very good indeed. I hope to take a leaf out of their book in my future endeavours. They’re all certainly doing their utmost to ensure that lazy stereotypes of celebrated mediocrity in British food have fewer hooks to hang themselves on. And that’s got to be a good thing for us all. Hasn’t it?
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