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Reviews

Delia

Simon Jones

How many people can you think of who are instantly recognisable by one name? Oprah. Bono. Um, Lassie? And Delia of course. Dearest Delia, who likes to make sure we know how to boil water before letting us move on to putting eggs in it. At least, she did until she discovered that you can buy them ready-boiled at Waitrose. Since Masterchef we all know that anything more than that is 'seriously tough', though confusingly Ready, Steady, Cook seems to think we can knock up three courses in 20 minutes.

Much has been made of Dame Delia's conversion to convenience cooking, notably in The Guardian, whose food panel discovered that while in normal circumstances you can make a mushroom risotto in 25 minutes, with Darling Delia's 'cheats' version you can cut that down to almost three-quarters of an hour.*

It's the profile sections of the new series, however, that mark it out as different to anything the high priestess of the kitchen has done before. Devout Delia at daily mass. Director Delia at Norwich City Football Club. Being with daughter Delia and her ageing mum outside the confines of her kitchen is a disorienting experience. Are we meant to infer that regular contact with a priest - or chum Sister Wendy - improves someone's culinary skills? Or, as with Nigella Lawson's mad leaps into taxis, are we to simply recognise that we are dealing with someone who understands what it is to be busy? Either way, being stuck in a kitchen is evidently not the 21st-century way.

And yet it is surely here that the programme most misjudges the times. Take, for example, Heson Blumenthal's endless quests for the perfect ingredients. His Christmas show, in which he set off to the Middle East to construct a meal containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, turned putting food on the table into a quixotic search for the Holy Grail. Similarly, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's insistence that we grow our own cutlery requires serious commitment.

Ah, but boys, that's just showing off. Tasty food need not attain the qualities of art or engineering. Normal people don't have the time. Isn't the slow food movement just an abstract ideal, a misplaced nostalgia for the pre-microwave age? Peasant food only meant Iberico ham if you lived in?Iberia, and then you could only afford the trotters.

People do have the time, however, to spend half an hour watching a determined Delia teach them how to make meals in ten minutes. In the case of the pre-boiled eggs this can result in a dish that looks like it fell off a hostess trolley at Abigail's Party, but at least you didn't feel like a housewife when you were making it. Looked at in that light, the jaunts to church and football games are about empowerment, about not defining yourself according to domestic chores. For some, this may be liberating. Food freedom may be a feminist issue. Had our chef got this right (that is, had her recipes not needed ingredients from more than one supermarket, lengthening the process unnecessarily) one might be tempted to applaud. As it is, it rather suggests that viewers might be better off avoiding the queues, skipping the TV lesson and trying one the earlier books. Or making a sandwich.

An age ago one chap suggested that defining oneself through service isn't necessarily a bad idea. He was talking mostly to other chaps at the time. Then, it's probably unlikely that he would have damned Delia's book.

*'First, take your frozen mash', Guardian March 14.