I watched a fascinating talk the other day about the mating habits of dolphins. The thing that really captivated me though wasn't the fact that they arouse each other using sonar, nor even the fact that the scientist observing them had inadvertently experienced this phenomenon first hand (she claims it was a case of human/dolphin confusion). No, the thing that really blew my mind was who had funded this research in the first place. For the last 26 years. Clearly the effects of the global downturn haven't reached the secluded inlets of the Bahamas just yet.
From dolphin courtship it was only a hop and a skip to another piece of perplexing research published earlier this year in the British Medical Journal. The men in white coats took 100 recipes from the most popular celebrity cookbooks and laid them alongside 100 randomly selected brand name ready meals, then went to town on them with their slide rules. The conclusion to this culinary Pepsi Challenge was that on almost all nutritional counts, from fat to fibre and everything in between, the ready meals came out on top.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for a bit of meaty research now and again. When researchers from the UK and Switzerland recently discovered that, digestively speaking, fondue is better eaten with water rather than white wine, I'm pretty sure we all felt relieved. But can anybody explain to me the virtue behind this, the most pointless study since the age-old comparison of apples and oranges? If you took one person and fed them ready meals for a month, whilst their identical twin ate nothing but the manna of Lorraine Pascale's Baking Made Easy (one of the cookbooks in question), then no doubt you'd see a nutritional difference. But if you compared the fuel consumption of my Nissan Micra* with my identical twin's Formula 1 car, you'd probably see a difference there too. And just as I'm not likely to do the school run à la Jenson Button, it's fairly unlikely I'd be baking cakes for dinner every night of the week either.
Extolling the virtues of ready meals goes against pretty much every principle I hold dear. In fact they sum up just about everything that's wrong with the way many look at food today. Their plastic trays are a physical manifestation of our increasing detachment from raw produce. Their "pierce film and microwave on full for 2 minutes" cooking instructions deny us the chance to discover new culinary skills and feel the satisfaction of creating a meal from scratch. Their single portion servings make us forget that dinnertime should be social and their taste insidiously perpetuates the subconscious association of "food for fuel" rather than contemplative pleasure.
"Oh that's easy for you to say Patrick", decry the lab coat armoured soldiers of the fast food revolution "you get to cook for a living, while the rest of us toil away at our desks". Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but this impassioned foodie used to be a lawyer at Goldman Sachs, so I'm acutely aware of the time-starved temptation to buy your week's food packaged into neat, polyethylene bento boxes. I left that life behind on a mission to get people re-acquainted with their kitchens, so it's small wonder this research really grates my lemon.
Wouldn't it make sense for the great minds of food research to work out how we can reverse the national trend towards obesity instead? Wouldn't it be a better use of resources if they supported the celebrity chefs they're bashing, so that they can inspire new generations of enthusiastic home cooks?
And so the million dollar question bubbles to the surface: Who the dickens pays for this kind of research in the first place? Cynical people, or those with a penchant for Miss Marple, might more pointedly ask "who has a vested interest in seeing sales of ready meals rise?". I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
Incidentally, I am just about to embark on my groundbreaking new thesis entitled "Life in the Freezer: A Study of the Relative Viscosity of British vs Italian Ice Cream". If anyone has any spare grant money going please reply in the comments below.