World’s Greatest Food Markets: New York

“God throws dice. Fate plays chess, and you don’t find out until too late he’s been playing with two queens all along.”

Terry Pratchett

I…don’t know quite what to make of this.

I thought it would be a sort of travelogue-type documentary, with lots of pictures of nice food and Interesting Foodie Facts that you can trot out at dinner parties in order to sound cultured. Which is why I was somewhat surprised when the BBC iPlayer age warning thing popped up on screen.

World’s Greatest Food Market actually turns out to be a sort of weirdly charming cross between The Apprentice and one of those interminable C4 “documentaries” about, I don’t know, people watching telly or whatever. Essentially, BBC2 has, for reasons of its own, given £5000 of licence payers’ money to Roger Barton, a London fishmonger with a criminal conviction for selling out-of-date fish and the ominous nickname “The Bastard of Billingsgate”, and packed him off to the roughest fish market in New York to try and turn a profit.

It’s funny, because Roger Barton is essentially an earthier reincarnation of Alan Sugar, complete with London accent and all the swearing (hence, it turns out, the aforementioned age warning), yet by the end of the programme everyone seems to have decided that he’s basically a teddy bear in a battered straw hat and stained white coat. “He’s Yahweh!” says one large American fishmonger, hyperbolically. And, indeed, it’s quite sweet watching him bumble his way through the programme, asking buyers if they’re Chinese or Korean, trying to sell a thousand pounds’ worth of jellied eels to New Yorkers with an admirable if ineffective fervour, naively assuming that his fellow fishsellers will be pleased with his competition, and waiting for hours on a freezing dock for a load of fresh fish. There’s something very olde worlde about it all; very Victorian pulled-up-by-your-bootstraps. It’s probably all editing lies, of course, but that isn’t to say it’s not endearing.

Of course, the effect of all this is to suggest that even the most ruthless of British salesmen are somehow nicer and more honourable than their totally commercialised and cynical American ones, which is not true at all or at least only true in a very limited way. Barton may be being made out to be a sort of lovable rogue, but let’s not forget that he did have a criminal conviction. Food poisoning is, after all, actively dangerous. We may say, “oh, it’s all right, it’s only a fiction,” but it’s precisely this kind of fiction that makes us forget realities. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked, dodgy sales practices are still dodgy sales practices.

Having said that, I will probably be back for more of this particular fiction. It’s simply too good to miss.

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