Disgusting. That’s what they are, those slovenly types who eat lunch at their desk, says Anna Soubry, the British Tory MP and health minister, in the sort of ticking-off that Nanny probably gave Christopher Robin and Pooh after one too many forays into the honey jar.
The problem is that pretty much all of us who work at a desk, eat al desko. It’s not that we wouldn’t love to pop out to a café for a respectable sit-down dinner, but who’s got the time or the money to lunch out every day? Instead we slurp noodles over our print-outs, munch on a sandwich while number-crunching, or graze on lattes and muffins between phone calls. If we do take a break, it’s probably a lonely bit of web-surfing rather than a hot meal in the office canteen.
Social interaction over a cup of tea? Social networking on Twitter more likely. Foodie polemicist Michael Pollan would agree with Soubry. In his book Food Rules, which includes such gems as “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food”, rule number 58 is “Do all eating at a table.”
Your desk does not count. Most work surfaces are pretty squalid. Crumbs lodged between the computer keys, cups of half-drunk coffee congealing by the monitor, grease stains on the reports. Try to be healthy and it all gets worse.
Hummus is a nightmare to get out of a disk drive. This is a modern phenomenon. In the Fifties, lunch might not have been more than half an hour, but no one ate it at their desk. My friend Rachel, for instance, who worked for the Post Office, took in lunch — a curry or a pie — and would heat it up in the staff-room oven and eat it there. Her husband would go home for lunch, from his work at the police station, and so would their children, from school. Lunch was the main meal back then. It’s easy to blame the shift to desk meals on the distances we travel to work.
Travelling home at midday is unthinkable for many. But, as I know, working at home doesn’t necessarily help with sticking to civilised eating habits. When it comes to mixing business and biscuits, I am a serial offender. Sitting down at my desk (the kitchen table) the first thing I think of is food. The horned Nigella perched on my shoulder murmurs seductively: “Just a little something would make you so much more productive.” One cookie quickly becomes a packet.
I had assumed chowing over the keyboard was simply a displacement activity. After all, I can’t be typing away while I’m buttering toast, greasing the keys and spraying telltale crumbs in the process. But rather than a simple slide in our collective morals, it may be that our high-stress lifestyles are at least partly to blame.
After one too many bars of chocolate had vanished, leaving nothing but a faint queasiness and a film of cocoa butter on my fingers, I was shamed into a bit more research. And — don’t you just love science? — it turns out that it’s more than simply a way of shirking work. Working for most of us is pressurise, and when we are under stress our adrenal glands produce extra cortisol, a hormone.
Now, in the good old days of mammoth-hunting and cave management, a cortisol spike would have given us the energy to fend off hungry jackals or keep those pesky Neanderthals from pinching the wife. And after that fight or flight, it would give us the urge to recoup our energy with as many calories as we could. Nowadays, that’s likely to translate into a craving for fat and sugar — a packet of biscuits.
Mind you, we can’t blame everything on stress. We have become a nation of snackers, which starts in childhood, when under-fives are encouraged to eat not to slake hunger but boredom. Parents thrust “car snacks” into their toddlers’ hands as they fasten the safety seats. Whining children are given bags of sweets to shut them up. A visit to the cinema for teenagers seems to be as much about mindlessly filling their faces with bucketfuls of sugar-encrusted popcorn as watching a film. Eating in the street has even been given a veneer of respectability, with the increase in gourmet burger vans. All of which has been bad news for a proper weekday lunch.
Colin Spencer, a food historian, reckons that its demise started 15 or 20 years ago when manufacturers increased the availability of snack foods. Nor does he regret it, when it comes to top-end executives anyway. “A lot of time was wasted on lunches that lasted half the afternoon. I think it’s a good thing.” All the same, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when the ordinary office worker could take time away from the desk. And there may be a drift back. There are rumours that when Labour-controlled Camden council in London moves to its new offices in Pancras Square next year, eating at desks will be banned.
Soubry will be delighted, and we can all celebrate a rare bit of cross-bench agreement.
The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013