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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 123 - Hungry for the old, bold meals of yesteryear

WHEN you look at me, you see not only a piece of the empire writ small, but also one who, during the Second World War, bit the food-rationing bullet and helped to lick Hitler. As a solid, four-square, imperturbable, true grittish citizen, I do not scare easily. I donít mind admitting, however, that a cocktail of events has, if not scared, at least shaken and stirred me. My level on the Richter Scare Scale has shot past that of a turkey in November and a Transylvanian peasant seeing Dracula slide out of his sarcophagus.

I can only take one scare at a time. I had just finished adjusting to the shock revelations about the Sudan 1 dye and the shelf-clearings in shops of products containing it, when I reeled at reading that the world faces a pandemic from bird flu.

Frankly, I donít know what to do, where to turn and whether to sit, stand or pile the furniture against the front door and lie prone until the world sorts itself out, or, for that matter, what to eat and drink that will not gum up my arteries, increase my blood-pressure, cause hyper-activity or turn me bright blue all over.

When I venture out into this dangerous world, my body bent at an angle that presents the least resistance to the universe, I am aware that ultra-violet rays, punching from the sun through the thinning ozone layer, are probably increasing my baldness and turning my scalp into a simulacrum of a lunar Sea of Senility and that the air I breathe is likely to be a bracing mixture of traffic-fumes, industrial effluent and catarrhal bacteria that brings the roses to oneís cheeks.

BRITAIN, these alarming days, swings from scare to scare like branch-travelling Tarzan. If it is not the terrorist menace it is the danger of allegedly dodgy foodstuffs. Remember the fear-stirring days of the salmonella in raw eggs scare in 1988 that led to the resignation of Edwina Currie, a Health Department minister. Then there were the BSE and CJD scares in the early 1990s, and the E-coli outbreak that reached a peak in 1997 in Scotland.

And so the scary scroll unfolds, with outbreaks of listeria in 1989 - an infection that can cause meningitis and other serious illnesses and - you canít have forgotten - the finding, three years ago, by Swedish scientists of "significant levels" of acrylamide, a probable cancer-causing chemical, in many cooked and processed foods such as potatoes, crisps, crisp-breads and breakfast cereals. It could also be formed naturally in fried, oven-baked and deep-fried potatoes and roasted, grilled and barbecued food.

Frightening, certainly, and investigations by the Food Standards Agency into the chemicalís prevalence in food and its reduction are continuing. Meanwhile, its scientists say that it is too early to advise people to change their diets, or the way they prepare food, and that they should eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.

So let us munch on, crunch on and hope for the best and spare a sigh for the old, bold meals of yesteryear, when a balanced diet was a bacon butty in each hand, consumed by "hearty trenchermen" who, without fearing that "slap-up" meals, possibly at "knock-down" prices, could menace their health, plied knife and fork like sword and lance.

FOR myself, the fuss about genetically modified food no longer worries me when I consider the witchesí brew of preservatives, emulsifiers, surfactants (detergents) and sequestrants (ion-removing substances; theyíre a closed book to me) that are found in food production. Are you aware that some 2,000 permitted additives can be used to sweeten your burger bun or colour your ketchup? If these bring some eaters out in spots, exacerbate dandruff, and stimulate hair loss, they are hazards of the chemical food age and people must just eat their hearts out.

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), French jurist and gourmet, said, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." He said a mouthful. As a veteran eater of the old empireís camel meat outposts, Iíll tell you what I am, and millions are like me; a masticating maelstrom of hydrolysed vegetable protein, tetrasodium disphosphate, tricalcium phosphate, permitted colour, sodium ascorbate, bleaches, anti-caking agents, non-nutritive sweeteners, moisteners, thickeners, thinners and what else. Scientists are telling us, and the revelations could turn us pale at our plates and make us reach, as a famed Fleet Street columnist used to write, for the sick-bag.

Recently, I threw caution and cholesterol-counts to the wind. In a restaurant, after my possibly potassium nitrite and monosod-ium-glutamate-enriched chicken and chips, I ordered a doubtless chemical-crammed, sherry trifle with three scoops of vanilla ice cream. I rejected the artificial cherries on top; who knows what the next food scare might say about them? Bon appetit.

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