After 10 years of turning every meal into an argument, How to eat is calling it a day – The Guardian

For a decade, the Guardian’s How to eat column has been patiently and infuriatingly laying down the law on everything from baked beans to avocado on toast. As the series draws to a close, its creator explains what it’s taught him
You might imagine a column that ran for 10 years at the Guardian would have had some sophisticated conceptual origin. But How to eat – the series exploring the best way to enjoy Britain’s favourite dishes – was simply a hunch that stuck.
Periodically, I and Susan Smillie, then editing the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog before becoming food editor, would get wound up by examples of pompous food writing in which someone (usually, a posh, ruddy man in salmon trousers) hectored the reader about the correct way to eat oysters, quails’ eggs or English asparagus, as if it were a matter of life and (social) death. The superiority, the seriousness, the idea people were eating langoustines for tea on Tuesday nights, struck us as ridiculous.
Would there be mileage, we wondered, in sending up such high-handed advice in a clearly tongue-in-cheek, OTT way? But by flipping the subject matter and talking enthusiastically about everyday foods – beans on toast, lasagne, pesto, Magnums, pasties, hummus – in a way that would generate engaged, friendly debate below the line (BTL)? Note: the bottom half of the internet was less toxic then.
Fittingly, for a food column, How to eat wanted to have its cake and eat it. The views expressed were sincere and, in their finicky detail, reflect how we all develop idiosyncratic food habits. But its “rules” were not meant to be taken seriously. Florid language (“gustatory” in a tribute to Magnums), tortuous metaphors (why bacon on avocado toast is as unnecessary as the LCD Soundsystem reunion), and awful punning (offering readers “a penne for your thoughts”), were all whimsical nods and winks to treat How to eat with a pinch of salt.
The series launched in March 2012 by dissecting the roast dinner, announcing that it would “fail but hopefully enjoyably so” in its attempt to settle on the meal’s ideal form. “The aim is not to establish rules but an informal code of good gastronomic conduct and have some fun while doing it,” ran the column’s mission statement.
Immediately, we split opinion. And not just below the line. “It’s like a perfect satire,” wrote one anonymous Reddit user. Tim Hayward, now Financial Times restaurant critic, then a Guardian regular, complained to Smillie we were “trolling our own readers”.
Naturally, some people got very angry. The implicit How to eat vibe was: please yourself, each to their own, crack on. I wasn’t going to come around and shout through your letterbox because you were serving (grotesque, medieval) bread sauce with Christmas dinner. But personal taste is sensitive. A cohort took How to eat at its word and saw any criticism of their dishes as an insult. Even under mildly amusing pieces about crumpets or coleslaw, the Guardian comment moderators had work to do.
But, equally, lots of people got it – lots of people with fiercely held opinions about foods generally ignored by gourmet bores. The BTL debate (1,000+ comments about chips or lasagne, for example) was lively and exacting, fuelled by regulars such as Kizbot, tyorkshirelass, wjelly, Alexito, Nepthsolem SonOfTheDesert and Sybil Sanderson, without whom How to eat would just be an idiot shouting into the void about macaroni cheese.
For some, the column offered genuine enlightenment. In an internal Guardian newsletter in 2020, then strategy manager Dominik Ebner, an Austrian, described the crisp sandwiches entry (the most talked-about ever; 1,729 comments) as “a key component of my education on all things British”. Forgive me, Britain.
The philosopher and writer Julian Baggini, an early contributor BTL, finds it fascinating how, when discussing food, rather than holding true to the Latin maxim de gustibus non est disputandum (in matters of taste there can be no disputes), rational people “find themselves acting as though … the whole point is to dispute”.
“Philosophers are drawn to aporias,” he emails, “two or more individually compelling but collectively incompatible claims. How to eat is the Platonic form of such a contradiction. It is absurd to say there is one right way to eat a food, and also obvious that cream before jam on a scone or pineapple on pizza is wrong. In philosophy such contradictions are torturous. With food, we get to enjoy them.”
Or we did. For, after 10 years and 120 entries, How to eat has burped its last. With the exception of How to eat Creme Eggs (tip: teaspoon handle), I feel I have exhausted the items I can reasonably advance strong opinions about. But before I put my knife down, looking back on a decade of How to eat, what have we learned?
1 If you bravely challenge the cream tea orthodoxy of clotted cream (sickly density, curious, almost-curdled notes) and suggest topping scones with whipped cream, people lose it. “Sacrilege”, “heathen madness”, “death is too good for [him]” was the general tone.
2 Raw bell peppers, ruin of many a pizza or tuna sandwich mix (particularly, those bitter green vibe killers), have fewer supporters. Rise up, Britain, rise up!
3 Only psychopaths bite ice-cream.
4 Pushing pleasure over health, choosing butter and cheese over low-fat compromise, is controversial. The grilled full English is still wrong – no grease, no fun.
5 There is a sub-set of people who insist they can make perfect pizza or fish and chips at home, despite lacking a commercial frying range or a wood-fired 500C oven. This is baffling. Yes, you can make pizza at home but in the same way karaoke singers mimic Frank Sinatra – it may be enjoyable, but it is not the real thing. See also, making your own ketchup, artisan-craft arrogance that disregards the wonderful world of affordable sensory pleasure that industrial food processing has given us.
6 That said, the gastro-industrial complex is now running on fumes of novelty, endlessly fusing and abusing foods not because they taste good but because they sound exciting. That is why we have 1,001 supermarket “twists” on mince pies or sausages produced, it seems, by some random ingredient generator. But people seem to love it. Enjoy your Korean fried sprout hummus, Britain. You deserve it.
7 Bowls are brilliant: encircling warmth, items conveniently confined in one place, a sense of nourishing depth as you dig in. Big plates are passé.
8 Mint sauce? Cranberry sauce? Bread sauce? Supporters will argue their case with an unrivalled vociferousness. Poor misguided souls.
9 Where practical, diners should be enabled to combine meal components to their taste. Rather than pre-sauced plates, How to eat pushed the gravy boat (currently as hip as skiffle or Trotskyism), and argued smoked salmon should be served alongside rather than pre-sliced and mixed through scrambled eggs. (This plea for greater personal agency in food largely fell on deaf ears.)
10 How to eat was often wrong but its 2012 backing of the all-conquering potential of Neapolitan-style pizza was Nostradamus-like.
11 Some of food’s biggest flashpoints: yorkshire puddings (generally), hash browns (on a full breakfast), tubs versus cones for ice-cream, pot “pies” and tinned mushrooms (OK, that was mainly me).
12 Talking of triggers, vegans and vegetarians are sick of meat-eaters questioning why they choose to eat dishes that mimic meat. I still don’t understand it. But I have come to accept it is not my business.
13 We all deserve “tantric chocolate”, whether that means lingering over a melting chunk or inverting a teaspoon of Nutella, lodging it in the roof of your mouth and slowly licking it clean.
14 There are certain foods – ice-cream, chips, cheese, crisps, toast – that, even at their worst, are still enjoyable. As How to eat put it in 2012: “With its killer combination of fat, salt and umami, it is impossible to be a snob about cheese.” This, it transpires, is not a universal view.
15 Structural integrity is essential. Tinker for weeks with your burger’s beef cuts and fat ratios, but if the bun falls apart midway, who cares? The best hotdog toppings drape securely over a sausage. Goujons may sound better on a gastropub menu but, in a sandwich, those slippery devils are less secure than rectilinear fish fingers. This stuff matters. You should not have to grapple with food. Yet, when How to eat suggested lightly hardening the yolk in a fried egg sandwich to a fudgy consistency, so it doesn’t squirt everywhere, it was treated as killjoy clickbait.
16 Talking of takeaways … if you read How to eat’s intros (did anyone?), you would have learned, variously, that the avocado’s original Nahuatl name, āhuacatl, also means testicle; that ancient Roman lasagne comprised thrush, tripe and raisin wine (tuck in!); Roger Moore (possibly, maybe) inspired the Magnum by floating the idea of a choc ice on a stick in a magazine interview; and that the Germans have a word, knack, for the crack of a hotdog’s skin. Those intros were a rich seam of useless, engaging trivia.
17 Hipster foods may be hyped but are they embedded in the nation’s heart? Avocado toast’s paltry 145 comments (lowest ever? 65 for chocolate brownies!), suggests not. Should How to eat have been on TikTok?
18 Make a mess. Proudly wear your dinner. Get the kitchen roll on the table. Or just wipe your hands on your jeans. How to eat spent a lot of time debunking the myths of good manners: tip that soup bowl towards you; eat on the bus; chill out about double-dipping (this was pre-Covid). Hopefully, we’ve moved on from the awkwardness of etiquette to a more informal enjoyment of food. How to eat was of course pro-dunking, in which the ginger snap and the milk chocolate digestive achieve perfection.
19 When you start talking about how acrid bitterness is a positive characteristic in food and drink (grapefruit, coffee, slightly burned jacket potatoes, west coast IPAs), people start looking at you funny.
20 Even when offered a rigorous definition (Are they sold in the crisp aisle? Would you eat them in a pub? Do you ever think about putting them in a sandwich? If yes to all three, that is a crisp), people will still argue endlessly that, because they are not made from fried potatoes, Doritos or Monster Munch are not crisps. In short, people really like arguing.
On pies: “You cannot serve a bowl of stew with a puff pastry lid, and pretend that’s pie. A pub pie without a bottom is like casual sex. It feels great after six pints, but, ultimately, it’s baseless, unsatisfying and leaves everyone feeling cheap.”
On biscuits: “Only the most patriotic Scots pretend to like shortbread. It’s like Runrig. And Rab C Nesbitt.”
On fish fingers: “Fish fingers were launched in the UK using a slogan that could be said to encapsulate the British psyche: ‘No bones, no waste, no smell, no fuss.’”
On ice-cream: “Like Jay-Z, I have 99 problems. Cold chocolate doesn’t work. The pleasure of chocolate is it melts in your mouth – which isn’t going to happen eating it, simultaneously, with ice-cream.”
On chips: “Jenga stacks, dinky stainless buckets, twee mini-frying baskets, fake newspaper cones, these all prompt one question: where are the rest of my chips, chef? I count eight. This is a joke.”
On lasagne: “Like a good U2 song, impressive vegetable lasagne is possible but so vanishingly rare as to be statistically insignificant. For every exquisite artichoke or wild mushroom [version], there are 10,000 lumpen veggie lasagnes layered with a ‘Mediterranean’ vegetable slurry that has all the sunshine flavour of an abandoned graveyard in Telford.”
On baked beans: “A word on homemade beans: no.”
On crisp sandwiches: “The idea on a crisp butty you would deny yourself butter on health grounds and instead subject yourself to one of the light ’n’ spreadable, sterol-and-stanol, I-never-believed-it-wasn’t-butter vegetable oil options is baffling. You. Are. Eating. A. Crisp. Sandwich … It is an all-in, sod-the-consequences commitment.”
On avocados: “The smashing must be done by hand using a fork to avoid a wet, fluffy, machine-processed texture. You want it smooth but dense, like Michelin-starred mashed potatoes or Dominic Raab.”
On cookies: “British biscuits are black and white TV. The cookie is Imax.”