Poignant power of cheap food

Would I read it if the subject wasn’t famous? One has to say yes, with chips and curry sauce


This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Every so often one of the national restaurant critics will take a break from visiting the latest buzzy joint in Shoreditch to review a place where ordinary people go, like a Wetherspoons or a Harvester. It’s a great opportunity to shoot some fish in a barrel though the exercise often leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and not because of food.

It is not something one can imagine Grace Dent, restaurant critic for the Guardian, doing. In fact, much of the action in her splendid new memoir Hungry takes place in a Toby Carvery. As she puts it: “The hottest, most talked-about food in Britain is actually only accessible to about 000.1 per cent of its population. Everyone else has to go to Café Rouge. Or Toby’s.”

Hungry: A Memoir of Wanting More by Grace Dent, Mudlark, £16.99

What makes Dent such a good critic is that she delights in the sort of food that people really enjoy. She writes: “Give me a chip butty covered in vinegar and so much salt I can feel my heart valves clogging. Give me pizza so inauthentic that it would make a Neapolitan weep. Give me food that helps in the short term but in the long term reduces my lifespan.”

She’s aware of the potency of cheap food and, as the title suggests, Hungry is about her own not always healthy relationship with eating: “In my twenties I began in earnest my lifelong war against weight gain. The pounds slid on and I took them off again.” Her upbringing in Carlisle was decidedly non-foodie: “The Dents’ trolley contained virtually no spice, heat or evidence at all that Britain was part of the global commonwealth.

Or that we even had much to do with Europe. We fried in White Cap lard. We ate Presto medium-sliced, slightly plasticky white bread. Our cheese was orange, almost always Cheddar,” she writes. Her father’s trademark spaghetti bolognese involved tinned soup in the sauce and boiling the pasta for half an hour.

Her culinary awakening came not from the taste of a perfect tomato in Puglia but with the arrival of Asda in Carlisle. Post Asda, Dent family Christmases become increasingly lavish. She writes: “It’s difficult to explain the seismic change the new Asda superstore had on the lives of the Dent family. Or, for that matter, on Carlisle itself. Forget Princess Diana’s death or the Sex Pistols on Today with Bill Grundy — every Carlisle person of a certain age can remember the day they set eyes on the big new Asda.”

Her relationship with her parents is heavily tied up with food: “They’re never happier with me than when I am eating,” she says. She sketches them brilliantly, her father a Scouser who worked as a van driver after leaving the army, and her social-climbing mother, frustrated by her troublesome family. There’s even a mystery about her father’s other family, or possibly families, that is never fully resolved. She writes about her parents with raw honesty leavened with tenderness and humour.

And with a great ear for language. At one point in the book, her mother, always keen to take the family upmarket, embarks on a series of home improvements, including a vestibule which becomes the talk of the neighbourhood. Dent writes: “News of the vestibule spread,” like something from Alan Bennett or Victoria Wood. She describes the sound of her Carlisle meets Liverpool accent as “like an angry cormorant on Morecambe pier swooping to steal chips”.

Dent is a “bright spark” and, despite the raves, casual sex in bus shelters and neglect from her teachers, gets into Stirling University, and from there a foot in the door to journalism in London. Here she finds herself painfully out of place. There’s an account of an awkward lunch at the Groucho Club with the features editor of Cosmopolitan and a group of girls with names like “Taffeta Flinty-Wimslow and Araminta Losely-Glossop, and the one in the cape is Laurence Chevalier-Ducarte”. In misery, she goes for a fry-up afterwards.

Of course, she makes it both as a journalist and television personality, a regular on Masterchef, no less. Here, the story dips somewhat. Reading about the emptiness of success isn’t as much fun as her madcap childhood. She gets married, she gets divorced; her cat leaves her; she parties with John Leslie and Mick Hucknall. There’s even an awful moment when she’s nice about Piers Morgan.

But when the book returns to her now ageing parents, it, ironically, springs back into life. She notices her father’s always odd behaviour becoming increasingly erratic and, eventually, he is diagnosed with dementia. There are some of the funniest and saddest descriptions of how the role of child and parent becomes reversed with age. Dent wipes away the tears, pulls herself together and cooks a no-holds-barred Christmas lunch complete with Paxo, gravy powder and Liebfraumilch. It might be their last together as a family.

One of the things you have to ask yourself when reading a celebrity biography, and as Dent is on the telly I suppose this is one, is, “Would I read it if the subject wasn’t famous?” With Hungry, one has to say yes, with chips and curry sauce. I doubt there will be a funnier or sadder memoir published all year.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover