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"Fairly good on the whole"

"tolerable; acceptable; adequate; passable; satisfactory; decent; respectable; alright; sufficient; allowable; average; fair; presentable; admissible; indifferent; mediocre; middling; OK; ordinary; run-of-the-mill; unexceptional; amateur; good enough; not bad; so-so; sufficiently good; undistinguished; unremarkable; workaday; amateurish; bog-standard; fairish; fair-to-middling; fine; good; moderately good; serviceable; vanilla; half-pie; not too bad; common; goodish; livable; reasonable; tidy; unexceptionable; unimpeachable; no great shakes; not much cop; plain vanilla; not up to much; pretty good; better than nothing; nothing to write home about"

The above is a list of synonyms for 'fairly good on the whole'. The photograph is of me looking somewhat ruefully at my slow-roast lamb with roasted vegetables, which featured in one of our Zoom cooking lessons. I think the expression my face says it all really - not happy. To illustrate my ruefulness, below are my grandchildren's results - rather better than mine I have to say. A double whammy - beaten by children!

Mine tasted alright - 'alright' is one of the synonyms in the list, maybe even 'fine'; 'moderately good' even 'pretty good' but really it was 'average'; 'passable'; 'unexceptionable'. On the plus side I don't think it was as bad as 'not much cop'; 'mediocre' or 'bog-standard' Well I hope not. It did, after all, taste better than it looked. It certainly wasn't 'satisfactory' though - well to me anyway.

But isn't the English language wonderful? So many synonyms for one phrase, and with such a range of meaning too - from 'mediocre' to 'good' and 'pretty good', which makes me ponder on whether that phrase 'fairly good on the whole' which was virtually the only comment that ever appeared on any of my high school reports - no matter which subject, actually meant more than it seemed to. Why for example didn't they ever say (well I don't think they did), 'could do better'? Just as damning in a way but also recognising possibility, that there was more that could be achieved. 'Fairly good on the whole' is sort of hopeless isn't it? It not only damns me to a life of mediocrity, but it also, it seemed to me at the time anyway, showed a complete lack of interest in my capabilities. A dismissive giving up and consignment to a life of 'nothing to write home about.'

And yet I have had plenty to write home about in my subsequent life. Good heavens I was only one of two people in my year to go to university. Surely a result my teachers hadn't expected. Maybe that seemingly damning with very faint praise comment, stirred me up to show them that I was better than they thought. But then again it was probably just that I tried to go to university and others didn't. Maybe they gave in to the verdict of 'fairly good on the whole', because there were many other students who were, in fact, much cleverer than I. So why didn't they go on to higher things?

I could go on an on about this with reference to myself. It obviously meant more than I realised to see year after year 'fairly good on the whole' from teacher after teacher on my reports. Let's just say that I was a late bloomer and they didn't recognise it. But this is a food blog, so let's turn to food.

I probably consider that my cooking efforts are 'fairly good on the whole' occasionally rising above this to absolutely delicious, though that is usually when I have followed somebody else's recipe to the letter. As with these treats: Robert Carrier's Jerk chicken, Tess Mallos' Baklava and Valli Little's Vintage cheddar and quince paste tartlets.

I don't think I can lay claim to anything genius that I have invented myself. Maybe my Smoked trout and beetroot quiche or my Sausage, pepper and tomato stew - but neither of those can really be considered original, even if I did think they were at the time.

And none of my efforts will ever match haute cuisine - whether it be just an exquisitely cooked classic dish in a Michelin starred restaurant, or the true genius haute cuisine of something extreme such as is found at Heston Blumenthal's, Ferran Adrià's or Rene Redzepi's restaurants. (and all of the other innovators at the top of the tree). Not that I shall ever be visiting any of them. They are the change makers, the geniuses, the people who regard food as art. The ones who are pushing the envelope. Slightly mad? Well they do say that genius is akin to madness. Look at these few examples: - Heston Blumenthal's Egg in Verjuice, which is not egg at all - it's chocolate and panacotta; Pea jelly lime and banana ice cream from Ferran Adrià; and Sweet water pike grilled with summer cabbage from Rene Redzepi from Noma. I doubt even these great chefs cook like this at home.

These are top of the tree - the Chanels and Diors, Monets, Da Vincis and Van Goghs of food. Not food for the common man. Nobody is going to cook like this at home. This is special occasion stuff for the very rich. Although - as with fashion, and every form of art, their experiments inspire those lower down the scale, albeit in different ways according to where you are on the scale. Down at the bottom of the scale are people who don't cook at all, and people who cook frozen meals. They will never even know about such things. In between are the rest of us and the cooking influencers - from your supermarket magazines, through the Instagram influencers and food bloggers, to the cookbook writers. Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall, in the introduction to his book Everyday, believes that you can divide people into two categories -"Those who care about food and those who don't", although he later says that it's not quite as definite as that:

"I see not two firmly entrenched camps who can never meet but rather a continuum with those who are already thoroughly involved with the story of their food at one end and those who are entirely dependent on anonymous, industrially produced food, the origins of which are largely unknown to them at the other. Everyone, and every household, has a place on this continuum."

He sees his job as pushing those at the bottom end in the direction of the top. Jamie Oliver, in his book Jamie's Dinners - written at the time when he was grappling with the British school dinner system - says something similar:

"I'm really proud of this book because it's full of recipes for great family dinners, and what I want is to get you all cooking and enjoying them together at home. I've noticed, as I continue to work as a chef and grow as a parent, that there a whole bunch of people who just don't cook at all, or do very rarely. But I truly believe that anyone can cook and love it - and that everyone has it in them to hold great dinner parties, family occasions or everyday meals that are remembered for a long time. What I hope this book will do is show that anyone can have a go at cooking."

That was written way back in 2004, and it's a task that he has continued to work at. There was nothing daunting in that book - it was based around dishes that everyone knew about. things as common as fish and chips and sandwiches. And since that time people must have become more adventurous. You only have to look at the supermarket shelves, and the supermarket magazines to see this. A quick look at the index of the last Woolworths Fresh Magazine of 2021 brings up Cheddar cups with hummus and dill, Onion bhajis with coriander yoghurt, Cheat's roast chicken with spiced sour cherries, and Prosecco jelly cups - exotic sounding but oh so easy to make and impressive to look at, not to mention delicious to taste:

Now you could say "fairly good on the whole" of these examples - after all some of them use prepackaged products like beetroot hummus but think how far we have come from post-war Britain. These dishes would have been much further along the scale than they are now. So not even the scale is an immovable thing. The bar is being pushed constantly higher.

You can probably place those cooks you know and are influenced by along the scale, although you might need to think carefully about some. For example do you give Elizabeth David genius rating because she changed the way middle-class young women cooked, and therefore what the supermarkets stocked, even though she was mostly just bringing classic, mostly peasant food, not of her own invention, to our notice? Are Yotam Ottolenghi's twists on more recognisable dishes more original than Delia's? Should Jamie, Nigel and Hugh also be far along the scale because they are trying very hard to make it super simple, and fast to produce more than edible food even if that food is uncomplicated? I mean it has to be really tempting to get people to cook it.

I wonder also how any of the celebrity chefs that you might follow wish they could do better? Do they consider themselves as nothing better than 'fairly good on the whole' on the food creator's scale? Would they like to be Heston Blumenthal deep down? Is the scale the same for everyone in fact? Is the top of the scale the ability to be able to think outside the box and create something amazing and somewhat esoteric, or is the top of the scale the ability to be able to bring people along with you into a better world of cooking and eating?

That book I told you about yesterday had at its heart two characters competing to produce the ultimate work of art - in the world of the book it was a somewhat vague and esoteric game - but a work of art anyway. One was a genius to whom it all came relatively easy. The other perhaps had it in him but was inhibited by his competitive spirit and an inability to throw caution to the winds as it were. He wanted to win too much. But nevertheless they complemented each other, and ultimately co-operated. They learnt from each other.

So perhaps those mad genius chefs spur those lower down the scale to learn new ways of doing things and apply them in a more practical way which is then modified and passed down to the masses at the bottom who will never reach those rarefied heights. Besides if you reach the height, then surely the only way is down - as those at the top of every conceivable tree must find. Some earlier than others, but everyone, sooner or later. Maybe it's best to never get to the top of the tree, but constantly try to get there. But then again, some of us are never going to get there, so must learn to adapt to that range of abilities wrapped in 'fairly good on the whole' - from 'mediocre' to 'pretty good'. And you can say 'not too bad' in such a way that it actually sounds as if it's almost great.

Besides it's lonely at the top.


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