Saving bacon

So I finally got a chance to watch Jamie Saves Our Bacon, part of Channel 4’s Great British Food Fight, which has now confirmed the previously unofficial canon of food vocalists, or chefs who shout at us about what and how we should be eating: Heston, Hugh, Jamie, and Gordon (to be fair, Heston doesn’t shout much, or swear, so he’s probably the odd one out. But that’s always been his thing).

I’ve watched a lot of Jamie Oliver over the years, for many of the same reasons that millions of others do: his food generally looks good, and he puts on a good show. But unlike many others, I am strangely indebted to him for giving me enough to think about to churn out an entire doctoral thesis on the celebrity chef phenomenon. I could even say that were it not for Jamie Oliver, you wouldn’t be talking to Dr. Rousseau today. (Scary, but true).

After all that watching, thinking, talking, and writing, I thought I’d seen it all. But after watching the bacon show, I was left pretty much speechless. What he’s done, and what he’s able to do, is truly astonishing, in all the best and worst ways.

The show is hosted in a studio fitted out with the usual podium for the star to stand on, surrounded by guests and fans. But this studio also hosts a number of pigs (no surprise there): there’s a stall with a sow who’s recently given birth; another with a sow who proceeds to give birth to thirteen piglets during the course of the show (the first piggy assisted by a vet who we watch sticking his entire arm up the mommy pig’s gwat), and perhaps most disturbing of all, a door leading to the “Pig Brother house”, in which four human beings are (voluntarily) locked in small cages that supposedly simulate the conditions of industrially farmed pigs under the worst welfare conditions (little space to move, bad food, and toilets. By the time we are introduced to the human piggies, Jamie’s friend Hugh has explained to us that contrary to popular perception, pigs are not only super-intelligent, but also very clean, and hate to shit where they sleep. So this set-up is decidedly unconducive to natural piggy behaviour).

The point of the show is to convince consumers to buy British pork, rather than the cheaper stuff imported from the EU, where pig welfare conditions leave much to be desired. The main problem, according to the wel(l)-farers, is the use of sow stalls – essentially the real version of what the human piggies were locked into: no space to turn, scratch, play, or do anything but gestate piglets while becoming fat, weak, and developing some combination of porcine depression and aggression. These contraptions were banned in the UK in 2003, but continue to be used in the vague space of the EU, which in this case was represented by Denmark, where 20% of pork production uses sow stalls (interestingly, this seems to be the percentage of Danish pork that is exported to the UK – presumably the Danes save the better stuff for themselves?).

It is about animal welfare – we were treated to some fairly disturbing footage (no surprise here), including a visibly horrified Joanna Lumley (whose face lends itself remarkably well to looking sad, despite her main expertise in playing the drunk) – but the bleeding heart stuff is really for British pork farmers whose livelihoods are under threat from the nasty EU, not to mention from British consumers who would rather buy cheap than happy pigs.

So that’s all fine and well. It’s a real problem, and therefore a good cause (and this is where Jamie’s bacon show trumps Hugh’s chicken spectacle, which never really made it about consumers and industry as much as trying to make everyone love their chickens before they roast them). And judging from the world’s reaction since Thursday when it was originally screened , the show was a major success. Sales of cheaper cuts of British pork had gone up by 20% by Monday, claims the Telegraph.  The very morning after the show, supermarkets were told to start revising their labeling policies (this was one of the major loopholes Jamie identified: consumers aren’t sure what’s British and what’s not). So what’s my problem?

Probably what it’s always been, and what I spent a bulk of that thesis trying to make sense of. Not that it’s Jamie Oliver (I have due respect for his various talents, including cooking good food and getting in people’s faces), but that it’s a chef. Five years ago when I watched him behaving like a rock star – just ‘avin a larf, bit of pukka this and that – I asked the question: doesn’t anyone think it’s weird that this is a chef? Now, as a climax to everything that began with school dinners, and his own chicken story, when a once-off 90 minute show can potentially save an entire industry, change the way people shop, cook, and eat, influence government legislation (and very likely wake up the Danes to something too), I’ll ask again: huh?

Of course it’s about much more than ‘a chef’, or even the power of celebrity, though it is about those things too. It’s also about media, and about trust: media as a platform to reach the kinds of numbers of people that need to act to make a difference, and the very strange power that media has to induce a sense of trust because it looks transparent, even as everyone knows it is a construct. I mean, there Jamie was wearing a SUIT in a studio with a bunch of pigs. But also with a bunch of very important people – government representatives, supermarket representatives, farmers, EU legislators – which he in turn got to pledge, on screen, in front of the 2 million people who were watching, to support British pork, so by the end of the 90 minutes he could sum up and say all these people have “promised” to do something. It was a piece of fucking first class bullying.

(Here we stop for an interlude of several hours, including lunch with a glass of wine, some decent limoncello, a nice massage, a good cup of home-brewed coffee).

So to wrap up, what I find remarkable about Jamie saving various bacons is not really the specifics of who’s doing it, or the fact that the most lucrative piece of bacon on the set is Jamie himself – these all confirm what I have suspected all along, and which brings us back to the issue of trust. The spectacle that he put on is just more evidence of a very real paradigm shift that is occurring at this very moment (but that many of us will miss because we are too mesmerised by the show). It’s about how things are mobilized in this society, and who we trust to be at the wheel.

We may be in the new age of Obama’s America, where millions of people have renewed faith in a politician’s powers of salvation (and real believers may even anticipate something of a revolution), but the powers of mobility have – or certainly are – shifting hands. There was a day when philosophers could write books with real power. Governments could, through generating fear or making promises, incite real change. And I sure as hell hope they still can. But I’m no longer convinced they’ll bother without being shamed into action by a figure who is now as likely to appear on the front cover of Newsweek as of People magazine. (Here’s an important non-trick question: which of those do you think has more readers?).

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is how something as momentus as this will slip silently into history as if it was meant to happen all along. I won’t be holding my breath for this year’s lists of the 100 most influential figures. I just hope that Obama at least makes it into the top 10.  (And I’m not talking about his action figure).