I love Jamie Oliver. I love his watchability, his food, his brand. The coffee they sell in the Recipease up the road from me is delightful. I had a very nice pastry from there once. Sometimes, I wish my life could be tinted to a high-contrast color scheme to resemble a 30 Minute Meals episode.
As if my deep affection towards the icon of Jamie was causing me to see him everywhere, he recently popped up in a Grayson Perry exhibition I attended called “The Vanity of Small Differences.” Among the vivid, detailed and intelligent social portraits exploring the fine lines between the different classes and their tastes, I clocked one image that stayed with me. In the top left of a tapestry was Jamie Oliver, the “god of class mobility.”
It stuck in my mind because I found it hilarious. I laughed. Knowingly. Isn’t that funny har har Jamie Oliver the god of class mobility har. Those foolish people who thought they could transport themselves into the throes of middle class stardom, just because they had a Jamie Oliver pepper grinder! How silly.
I continued around the exhibition, unaware of my own sneering snobbery. I just felt smug that I had understood what Grayson Perry was getting at. Surrounded by art that drew attention to the performance of class distinctions, all I could muster in terms of self-awareness was a sense of growing hunger and thoughts about whether I could get a Perry postcard after the exhibition.
Perry’s depiction of Oliver as the face of social mobility is emblematic of the snobbery people harbor for the chef. The humor of this is lies in that Jamie is far too earnest for the educated middle class—his emotional investment in getting rid of childhood obesity, and the way he honestly believes that people can cook healthy and filling meals in 15 minutes, both lack that telling self-deprecating self-awareness that the “educated” middle classes have. To put it bluntly, he’s too stupid, in middle class terms, to be middle class. This is why it’s funny to those who deride and mock Jamie for being an aspiration to the lower middle class—because really, he’s not middle class enough.
That’s not to say that all middle class people dislike Jamie Oliver; he exudes a rustic farmers’ market aesthetic that is coveted by the bourgeois classes. Indeed, doing a bit of research on Jamie reveals a line that epitomizes his comfortable fit into a middle class lifestyle. “It might sound a bit mad,” Oliver has said, “but a solid bit of driftwood makes for a perfect chopping board, the kind you’d pay a small fortune for in a department store.” Amazing.
Deconstructing middle class signifiers is a struggle. Often it’s because they’re intangible. There aren’t rigid rules. And that’s sort of the point. The harder it is to define a middle class culture, the harder it is to enter it. Of course, Jamie Oliver could easily afford the department store Driftwood Chopping Board, but that would be far too obvious. Instead, he must individually select uniquely decayed bits of wood to garnish his home with. The proud middle classes would find it difficult to tell you what middle class culture actually was. This only compounds their advantage: the harder it is to define, the harder it is for those people you don’t want being part of it, to be part if it.
Middle class taste is self-righteously obsessed with a myth of effortless bourgeois consumerism—as if to give off the impression one has simply stumbled upon one’s £150 Le Creuset pot down the road, instead of ordering it off the John Lewis website. Condescension towards Jamie Oliver is couched in that focus on the intangible—a hatred stemming from the idea that the working classes think they capture this fleeting and ethereal middle class-ness, just because they’ve bought a Jamie Oliver™ Pestle and Mortar. In the 18th century, it was all about scoffing at the French for creating gardens that looked too perfect; now we just scoff at the working class for having middle class aspirations about their oil dispenser, and houses that are a little too clean.
Next time you feel yourself hating on Oliver, step back and take another look. Do you dislike him because you’re ideologically opposed to pasta dishes, or is it just because the idea of a working class man who has acquired the privileges of middle class life—and is selling them on—pisses you off? Sure, it’s utterly consumerist, but Jamie Oliver capitalizes on something that most of us struggle to define: transforming a desire to better yourself morally and culturally into a cast-iron griddle pan. That, I think, is at least something to admire.