The Grumpy Guide to the Grumpy Guide to Food: let’s try to have a laugh about nut allergy and lactose intolerance

Did you hear the one about the French coeliac? He could only count to seven because he was huit intolerant.

Groan. As feeble as you may think that joke is, hopefully it sort of demonstrates that I’m not someone who thinks some subjects must remain off-limits to humour, and therefore I don’t believe the topic of food sensitivities should be immune to gags... if you’ll pardon the pun.

So when I learned that the BBC’s Grumpy Guide to Food, which aired a few nights ago, had broached the subject, I tried to keep an open mind. Coeliacs Emma Pearson and Lee of the FreeFromG blog, had expressed some frustration on Twitter and warned me about some comments made. I felt annoyed, but let it pass before catching up on iPlayer.

The show featured a selection of averagely amusing celebrity rent-a-gobs sharing their occasionally diverting but ultimately unremarkable and unoriginal observations on matters gastronomic – all of which for me did little but reiterate the particularly poor state of food, food attitudes and food culture in this country.

Some of it I especially disliked. There was piss-taking of those who try to educate us about cooking. Obese people were targeted – coupled with those headless shots of them walking down the street, obviously minding their own business, but secretly hoping to have their wobbling midriffs filmed and paraded on TV for the nation’s entertainment. There was a joke about feeding lard to vegetarians – always hilarious, that. There was a general lack of appreciation of what makes good food good – perhaps best examplified by the segment on wine, in which the industry was panned, and which reminded me of issues I raised in a recent post of mine on the ‘no good or bad food’ lie.

Farmers’ markets produce was given a bashing: echoing its popular portrayal as overpriced just-as-good-as-supermarket fare, rather than higher quality produce worth paying a bit extra for, made by artisan producers and specialists who might just deserve our support, not least to try to divert some power from the all-conquering supermarkets. Is it only in our country that people who try to offer an alternative to the bland vegetables and over-salted ready meals of the major stores are sneered at in this way?

And so the food allergy and intolerance bits. “I’m intolerant of people who are intolerant,” declared somebody called John Moloney, which set the tone perfectly for what was to follow.

“Bullshitters” said Neil Morrissey of people who suspected they have monosodium glutamate (MSG) intolerance, recounting an anecdote in which some people who claimed to be MSG sensitive were unknowningly given MSG-free food (to which they claimed to react) and later MSG-rich food (to which they did not react). Assuming the legitimacy of this ‘experiment’ (I’ve not looked into it), it strikes me that these people might have a psychological aversion to MSG – which is a problem in itself, and something I’ll address in a future post.

Ed Byrne reported a Chris Rock gag: “Do you think there’s anyone in Rwanda with a lactose intolerance?” The joke here, of course, is on food sensitivity being a Western affectation, a ‘luxury’ that possibly food-deprived people in developing nations can’t afford to entertain. Yet the mundane truth is that most Africans are lactose intolerant (dairy farming being mostly absent throughout the continent) and that food allergies are an increasing problem there, something I only appreciated when I came to write Living with Food Allergies for the African and Asian markets. The recent announcement that coeliac disease may kill 42,000 children, mostly in Africa and Asia, every year may convince the sceptics.

It’s only chubby white people who have food allergies, I think someone else said. In reality, they’re “fat and lazy and eat too much”, I think it was. I could barely be bothered to listen by now. There was a remark questioning how bread can possibly be harmful. We were told to get ourselves an “imaginary illness” – a food sensitivity, of course – like we once may have had a childhood imaginary friend.

Humour is difficult to dissect and analyse. I struggled to find comedy in all this because there was so little truth or accuracy underlying the gags, and the attempts at humour seemed staged, occasionally laboured, tired, and too often yawningly boring. Perhaps I’m having a sense of humour bypass, but I could see it as nothing more than a one-hour parade of ignorance, and a depressing sign of how far we’ve still got to go towards understanding.

View the show here until Sunday 7th August 2011. (Scroll forward to 50mins for the five-minute food intolerance/allergy segment.)

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