You have to hand it to Ed Miliband. After bacon sandwich-gate, the former Labour leader might never have eaten in public again, but there he was, wolfing down cod and chickpeas, eggs and Za’atar on the chart-topping podcast Table Manners with Jessie Ware. Presumably he thought that audio would be a fail-safe medium in which to redeem himself. No cameras, no aggressive questioning (the show is co-hosted by singer Jessie Ware and her mother Lennie), no risk. Suffice it to say he underestimated this one.
An early part of the conversation, in précis, ran like this: ‘What’s your go-to dish?’, ‘I’m a recipe-box follower and a recipe follower.’ ‘Which recipe books?’, ‘That’s a good question.’ [Some minutes later.] ‘What would be your last supper?’, ‘That’s really hard. [Long pause.] I’ve been under-briefed.’ We had suddenly been plunged into a Gordon Brown favorite-biscuit situation.
Food podcasts with celebrity guests, of which there is a glut of new series this summer, tend to adhere to a fairly predictable format. The guest is invited in, treated to some nice food and wine, and prompted to discuss their gastronomical likes and dislikes as they stray hopefully into the territory of their career. Some come well-prepared. Physicist Brian Cox could tell Jay Rayner on Out to Lunch that to cook a steak medium-rare he uses a meat probe and waits for a reading of 56º Celsius. Other guests are less exacting.
Every journalist knows that the most revealing interviews are conducted over a hearty lunch. As Miliband sat down to deliberate, cogitate, and digest over his Ottolenghi-esque supper, he became more relaxed, even affable. ‘You’re not a foodie are you, Ed?’, asked his hosts. That much was clear, though he could name his favorite restaurants — Dishoom, Moro and Anima e Cuore. To which I could only whisper: hear, hear. As well as describing some harrowing periods in his family’s history, the self-confessed ‘flexitarian’ spilled some interesting personal beans, including the fact that he underwent therapy before and after his leadership bid; that he was disappointed, but never so crushed as to want to ‘go off and work for Facebook’; and that in his eyes the public are not so in love with ‘chancer’ Boris Johnson as has been supposed. ‘Got anywhere with your last supper, Ed?’ ‘I’m still working on it.’
Miliband was lucky to be treated to a home-cooked meal. In the first episode of Comfort Eating, Grace Dent’s new podcast for the Guardian, screenwriter Russell T. Davies had to describe his favorite snack to a producer. The dish was prepared and conveyed to Dent’s home under tinfoil. The deflation as Dent lifted the cloche to reveal Davies’s signature dish of ‘butter-pepper-rice’ floated comically down the airwaves.
Jay Rayner, for his part, has been circumnavigating COVID restrictions by supplying his guests with high-end meal boxes. Rafe Spall recently chewed his way through roast beef and chips from Northcote in Lancashire. Revd Richard Coles supped on salmon choux buns and guinea fowl from the Stafford. The tagline of the podcast — ‘Where famous people learn to talk with their mouth full’ — is inverted when a full mouth proves to be their best armor against impertinence. ‘David upped and died on you,’ remarked Rayner of Coles’s late partner. ‘I’m imagining you wrote it at some speed,’ he continued of the vicar’s book on bereavement. Gulp.
Food podcasts (call me biased but The Spectator’s own Table Talk is among the best) work on the psychology that we will always find something interesting in the details of celebrities’ lives. The Imperial War Museum’s new podcast, Conflict of Interest, makes a similar assumption. The first series sees actor Carey Mulligan rise to the challenge when Middle East expert Dr Lina Khatib welcomes her to the museum and begins, not a little intimidatingly: ‘So, Syria, tell us everything you know about it.’ In a separate episode, poet Inua Ellams is led through what he calls ‘a gaseous cloud of information’ to gain insight on modern Libya through objects in the museum’s collection.
The problem with educating celebrities rather than audiences directly is that, very often, the celebrities end up looking thick. ‘I never knew that!’, they’re made to exclaim of some obvious point. ‘I’ve learned so much.’ Mercifully, the ones on Conflict of Interest have been spared this ignominy, and come across as perfectly enlightened. The focus is very much on the expertise put their way. There’s a Newsround quality to the documentaries, which assume practically no knowledge of the conflicts they describe, making them as useful for the classroom as anywhere else.
As for Miliband’s last supper, if the suspense hasn’t killed you: moo shu chicken, Peking dumplings, chocolate cake and ‘some nice white wine’. Look out for the recipe box.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.