Review by Julia Coyle
Ed Balls is a man of many talents. Economist, former politician and, most recently, documentary maker. Many people will recall Balls’ despondency on election night in 2015 when he lost what was assumed to be a safe Labour seat; for others he is best known for his memorable rendition of ‘Gangnam Style’, which will go down in Strictly Come Dancing history as one of its most amusing performances. However, what you are likely unaware of is that Ed Balls, former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, is also a pretty good cook. Once you know this, it is perhaps less surprising that his autobiography, Appetite, focuses not on politics, but a love of food.
Personable and an entertaining raconteur, Balls’ writing style is comfortable, like a hot cuppa with warm, buttery toast. His stories resonated with the listeners at Durham Book Festival, as tales of Sunday roasts and the quirks of family eating awakened the audience’s collective memories. Who can forget those childhood comfort foods; the smell of the kitchen as your favourite dish was on the stove? Balls recounted his mother’s Shepherd’s pie, a recipe that he has stayed true to (aside from the addition of a splash of Worcester sauce). His stories of early childhood, from eating pureed roast beef at just three weeks old to his first experience in a restaurant at 13 years old, cast light on how the social norms of our eating habits have morphed in a mere 40 years.
By contrast, his reflections of food in Westminster were somewhat cynical, where meals with the likes of Tony Blair or Peter Mandelson were almost weaponised as platters became political. Posh restaurants, small portions and a la carte menus were deliberately selected as power moves. It was, however, his recollection of Gordon Brown’s unadventurous take-out menu preferences that proved most entertaining. Steak and chips or spaghetti bolognese seemed to be staples throughout his years in office.
However, the primary purpose of Balls’ memoir is not political, but rather a celebration of the joy of cooking in family life. Ed reminds readers that food is more than what we eat: it’s also the memories it evokes, and the conversations that ensue from all-important family meals. Whether you recognise Ed Balls from the Commons or as a cook, Appetite will leave you full of anecdotes and hungry for more!