I told you about our struggles with Norfolk prudery. Well, the EDP recently published half a page about Penny Wilson-Downe’s school leaving party (April 11 2011, p.12). The news photo  (by James Bass) shows her in front of the (nude) portrait she commissioned from Jane German. (somewhat faded in this picture).  The painting was on of the talking points of the recent Have I Got Nudes for You exhibition at the Harleston Gallery,  but because of its strict policy on nudity, you will remember, the EDP did not feel free to review the show. Once it became a matter of Old Mistresses (as opposed to Old Masters), attitudes were subtly changed.

 Competing Cooks and Sated Scholars

I watched MasterChef on Thurs 30 March – somewhat unwillingly, because I don’t like this television programme as much as Jane does. To be more precise: true, some of what is done is fascinating, and the people you watch are highly skilled and motivated.  The down-side is firstly the disrupting of fascination by the intrusion of a crude competition element – each time someone has to go, even if, to the onlooker, they have just the same potential as those who stay.  There is a ghastly sentencing to death routine which goes ” the person who will be going is….” (very VERY long pause)  “…Dogsbreath!”  And then you see shots of the downcast  person mourning, and leaving the promised land.  They were all good, and getting better – this elimination is an arbitrary procedure to fit someone’s idea of what the public wants.  “They can’t all win. ” Why not? Isn’t everyone winning what we want to see in society?

The second down-side is that the dishes they cook, incredibly elegant, and over-sophisticated, are ones which most of us will never be able to afford to eat, even if we want to. Of course it is art, but it  is also a refined  version of Porterhouse  Blue“s  “Swan stuffed with goose stuffed with duck stuffed with”….and so on down to wrens,. What would once have been called the sin of Gluttony.

In this episode the victims had to cook a meal for the High Table and Students of New College Oxford. In they trooped, the attractive young ladies & gents (there were no girls in my day), the tables laid out with silver candlesticks, and oh what a feast. If this is how they live, no wonder they want to charge fees of £9,000 p.a. I’m sure the programme will have stimulated envy from the working class (now of course known as the middle class). Of course this isn’t how they normally live, so it has done Oxford a great PR disservice. But the process shown completely undermined the ethos of the programme – cooking on that scale demands devoted team-work, which is what our chefs provided.  There was no star – there was a team which collaborated to produce the goods on time.

Here is my experience as an Oxford student at one of the smaller colleges (Corpus Christi College) in the nineteen-fifties. I can’t remember any banquets: the food in college was adequate, but never memorable. We never had silver candlesticks on the tables  I can remember three things about Corpus food: the soup was always Potage Garbure. Secondly, once a year there was a delivery into the middle of Thomas Quad of a mountain of Brussels sprouts, from farms owned by the college: our job was to eat our way through it.  The way we lived was how monks in a small monastery would have  lived.  The conversation was more interesting than the food. The third thing I remember is a batch of us having food poisoning – twice in two years (Cottage Pie) –  my introduction to projectile vomiting. I expect the kitchens are cleaner nowadays.

One indication of the vagueness of life in Corpus then was an occasion when I was living in a room on the main quad. I had a long window seat looking out towards Christ Church, next to the fire-place, which held one two-bar electric fire: it heated the room if you wore several sweaters. There can’t have been fires in the grates for years. One summer day on a whim I lifted the seat lid, and looked inside.  It was full of coal.

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