TV learning how to feed the masses

Caroline Frost | September 28, 2009 11:39AM

"I HAD the worst hangover. I stumbled round to see my new girlfriend, she put a steaming shepherd's pie in front of me and I fell completely in love with her."

In the week that the phenomenally successful MasterChef is back on our screens, my friend Joe's true story provides further clues to its unmistakable appeal. There's a reason it doesn't suffer from the sniping that cheapens other TV reality contests -- its stage set is the kitchen, a forum for nurturing over needling, ritual over rivalry.

This week also sees Meryl Streep back on the big screen playing Julia Childs, the woman who brought beef bourguignon and duck a l'orange to the American masses, via her 1960s TV show.

The film Julie and Julia tells the story of a fan working her way through Childs' recipes to ease her own heartbreak -- it's a case in point of comfort eating. If the kitchen is the engine room of the house, we can see why all the best parties take place here, in closest proximity to the food fuel supply for energy, conversation, laughter, love -- and also repair.

Eating a delicious meal -- it's an impossible-to-beat combination of doing something essential for survival and going on a journey of sensory pleasure. This is actually quite a rare combination -- it's up there with sleeping in a clean, fluffy bed, drinking cool water from a mountain spring, or scrubbing up in a warm, bubble bath.

We thrive on being warmed, pampered, but above-all nourished, and TV has finally caught up with this fact. Never mind celebrities learning how to ballroom dance or skate backwards, it's feeding ourselves and others that goes to the heart of the matter.

It could also be why we forgive star chefs their tantrums. Gordon Ramsay cooked for friends of mine once. He apparently locked himself in their kitchen for hours, used every utensil, pot and pan in the house and left without clearing up -- sounds like his ego took over on that rare occasion. But what he served up means he will be forever welcome back.

He was also working much harder than he needed to -- personally, I feel completely cared for if someone pitches up with a bowl of corn fritters in one hand, a bottle of ketchup in the other.

No wonder men seldom leave their wives for their mistresses -- why would you? A lover's flimsy lingerie and powerful perfume are all very well, but can they really compete with a macaroni cheese washed down by an apple strudel?

I don't think Nigella Lawson's husband is going anywhere, while she dishes up cheesecake and licks the cream off her spoon.

And it's never about the price or the poseurs. I've dined at Raffles in Singapore, and the Ritz in London. But the best meal I've ever had was somewhat cheaper, but infinitely more valuable -- a spaghetti bolognaise, cooked on a gas stove by the side of a Scottish mountain.

The MasterChefs, the Julies, Julias and Nigellas of this world, are simply more proof of the pudding -- that those who reach our stomachs find and keep our hearts.