The Dostoyevskyan Torment of Jamie Oliver

Harry Goodwin 2 February 2021
Image Credit: Creative Commons

After trudging through the ruins of my journalistic reputation – like Hiroshima without the inviting glow – I decided, stubbly and puffy-eyed, to review Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast. I mean, it’s filmed on Southend Pier, so that counts as ‘Travel’. And it’s a Jamie Oliver show, so the jokes write themselves – which meant I could have a few cans, rustle up some copy and piss off back to bed.

I can’t think of anyone with Jamie’s flair for spectacular unforced cockups in the public sphere. This is a man who, having criticised Gordon Ramsay for his profanity, was once evicted from his own house party for swearing. My favourite Scheisse – Trotzdem Jamie! moment is when Holly Willoughby made a joke about his dress sense and he replied that he was grateful for her candour because he thought checked shirts were symptomatic of a general emotional quandary in his life. There’s also that unforgettable video of Jamie, the chicken nuggets and the children.[i]And then there’s the time(s) when the tantalising Essex Chewbacca went bankrupt.

Only last week, he was condemned for praising a fish farm where, it’s transpired, workers pass the time by playing keepie-uppies with a live trout.


Of course, all the guardians of virtue hate him. In 2018, the Labour frontbench condemned him for concocting a dish called ‘jerk rice’. (Here I defer to the erudite and witty Tory MP who wondered aloud what the namby-pamby totalitarian wet-wipes will do when they learn Jamie’s Italian isn’t Italian.) Before that, he was condemned for suggesting that poor people might also like programmes about Sicily. And his whole anti-obesity thing has been condemned, in the usual Meccano jargon, for perpetuating something harmful myths something something. Only last week, he was condemned for praising a fish farm where, it’s transpired, workers pass the time by playing keepie-uppies with a live trout.

It is a great tribute to Jamie Oliver that he is a magnet for petty outrage of this kind. Still, I wanted to have a tilt at him. Yesterday, as it happens, my supervisor remarked that David Hume’s essays have the spareness of late Beethoven: the austerity, that is, of a great mind paring its ideas down to their essence. One could say the same of Friday Night Feast. Like Beethoven, it’s probably great if you’re a sophisticated and sensitive person; if you’re like me, however, you’ll find it kind of cool for the first five minutes until you decide it’s boring and shit.

To be honest, I wasn’t drunk enough to follow. The episode I watched was entitled ‘Danny DeVito, Korean Chicken & School’ and it was indeed about all of those things. Pitched tonally somewhere between a Harry Enfield sketch and ‘Tintin in the Soviet Union’, it should have been ripe HSE Goodwin material. Somehow, I couldn’t hack it. The way he laughs at his own scripted jokes; the way he strokes Jimmy’s forearm while Jimmy tries to steer Jamie’s muscle car; the way women beam forgivingly at him while he bores on about the ‘wonderful nutty quality’ of pork belly – I don’t know, it just got to me.

Watching the show was like that Larkin poem where Weird Phil runs over a hedgehog and feels bad about it. Even as Jamie did his valiant best interviewing DeVito (‘So, do you like really get under the skin of your characters?’) and pretending to get drunk off English sparkling headache juice, you saw through the cracks in his beer-and-bants persona to the unhappy soul within. Christ, he’s just trying his best and sure he’s flawed but we all make mistakes and the important thing is to learn from them and not let our failures destroy our passion for the one thing I’m any good at. Sorry, I mean the one thing he’s any good at.

Maybe I was prejudiced by watching the show at the end of a week where, among more conspicuous fubars, I made a girl cry by describing my morning nap. (This is traditionally the point in my articles where readers who haven’t met me tell themselves it’s just a satirical put-on and the real Harry Goodwin isn’t actually like this.) But there can be no denying the raw humanity of Jamie Oliver. Most recipes tell you to get a precise tragic flaw from the Greek deli but what you really need is the all-pervading human stain, intrinsic and indelible. Chop up some error and vanity and then mix them in with this beautiful recklessness we’ve got here – bish bash bosh! – but hold your horses for the real hero of this dish, which is disgrace. It’s not an everyday ingredient but you really want it for the special occasions. Cover the dish with the fantasy of purity – which, like salt in a sticky toffee pudding, is only more impurity – and hey presto, you’ve got a human being. Tuck in!

What astonishes about Jamie Oliver is his food – not its quality, which fluctuates, or its novelty, which is zero, but his conviction, affirmed in its enactment, that this field of impassioned excellence is a space unreachable by the human stain: that however fully you disgrace yourself in life, you can still justify yourself with a good dish. (Other people feel the same way about writing.) If public and professional failure proves that conviction to be vain in every sense, then behind it remains another, unspoken and unbreakable: that the way to efface a bad dish is with a good one. As a man and as a cook, Jamie Oliver teaches that passion is a thing better pursued than defended, and that we know it afterwards by the traces it leaves in puddings and paragraphs. But don’t forget that poor trout.