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Food: It's Complicated
No product is more personal, or more social
At some point in the last few years, I gave up on food. I didn’t stop eating food, of course, or even enjoying it, but I stopped aspiring to any kind of skill or refinement in the matter of what enters my stomach. I enjoy a meal in the same way I enjoy a pint of Guinness or a walk: a simple, ritual pleasure. I am not trying to master a craft, scale an aesthetic peak or broaden my horizons. Most weeks I eat the same thing more or less every day (since you asked: pasta with aubergine, or fish with rice).
I sometimes wonder what this loss of culinary ambition says about me. When a man tires of food, is he tired of life? Should we not seek beauty in gustation as we do in the other senses? Is this how I begin my transition into an incurious bore who likes things a certain way, and no different?
Ok, maybe these questions aren’t very interesting. But I do find it curious that they can be asked at all: that such profound meanings can be looked for in the digestive tract. For the vast majority of people, there used to be just one salient question relating to food: do I have any? Now, thanks to modern agricultural productivity, that single pressing concern has been replaced by a range of often neurotic issues. Am I eating too much? How healthy is my diet? Can I impress people with my cooking? Am I bored of my usual fare? Am I causing deforestation? Have any animals been tortured for my weekly shop? How badly?
Food is bound to be complex because, to state the obvious, it is something every one of us puts down our throat on a daily basis. This makes it rather personal, but also ensures that it will be caught up in all sorts of social and moral considerations. Our attitudes to food are shaped not just by the privacy of the palate, but by the social aspects of the plate: by family, religion and class, not to mention beauty standards.
From a design perspective, food could be compared with clothes and buildings. These are all things people need to survive, which have also become mediums of cultural expression and identity. In their traditional forms, cuisine, fashion and architecture are vernacular: they have local accents, reflecting the history and conditions of a particular region. In their modern forms, all three have been transformed by mass production, on the one hand, and by notions of artistic creativity on the other. To oversimplify, the journey from homespun clothes to Nike and Alexander McQueen – or from traditional building methods to concrete, steel and Zaha Hadid – is echoed by the journey from local cuisines to McDonalds, Tesco and deconstructed cheesecakes.
To a far greater extent than buildings or clothes though, modern food continues to invoke an idealized image of its older, traditional forms. Authenticity and heritage are appealing concepts in many industries, but nowhere are they promoted as widely or enthusiastically as in gastronomy. Whether describing flavours and ingredients or the agricultural practices that produce them, the marketing of food skews heavily towards ideas of the time-honored, the local, the artisanal, the small-scale, and above all the natural or organic. Economists may classify food as manufacturing – the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, in fact – but the rest of us prefer not to.
There are all kinds of illusions at work here, some of which George Monbiot has tackled in a recent essay. In reality, traditional peasant diets were both meagre and dull. Places worshipped for their agricultural heritage have, in most cases, been transformed by tourism and commercial farming. “In the famous cheesemaking regions of France,” Monbiot writes,
you will scarcely see a dairy cow. Instead, vast tracts are cultivated for maize… to feed the cattle stalled in the vast steel sheds – cow factories – that have sprung up from Brittany to Savoie, a business as brutal and industrial as any other. Milk is trucked across hundreds of kilometres, trade fairs market the cheese from Dubai to Shanghai.
And the more industrial the reality, the more romantic the advertising, with its “close-ups of cracked and dirt-grained hands, chickens clucking through buttercupped meadows, girls in Heidi costumes and all the other autophagous nonsense of the Spectacle.”
But why does food demand this veil of nostalgia more than other, similarly brutal industries? We hardly expect fashion retailers to pretend their clothes are woven on handlooms, or property developers to make as though they are employing Gothic stonemasons. This surely comes back to the intimate dimension of food. The scary aspects of mass production – the chemicals, the pillaging of nature, the inhuman scale and the indifference to suffering – are that much more scary when they are directly connected to our body and the innocent comfort of eating. When it comes to the gut, our feelings are just more, well, visceral.
This is why the aesthetics, the emotional powers of imagery, play such an important role. I am probably less sentimental about animal welfare than the average British person, but I was revolted by photographs of the high-rise pig farms which have appeared in numerous Chinese cities. These buildings are enormous, extremely plain, utterly utilitarian; even if the horrors inside them are sadly not unusual, their unmistakably industrial appearance made my stomach turn. After that, I longed for the pictures of dirt-grained hands and Heidi costumes.
There are other, more subtle reasons that authenticity and heritage are so valued in relation to food. As consumerism erodes the traditional core of culture, it creates the idea of heritage as a way for tradition itself to be consumed. How do we consume it? Via the mouth, of course. And in the era of multiculturalism, there is plenty of heritage to sample. People from around the world can bring their identity to the marketplace in the form of cuisine, and customers can enjoy not just the variety and novelty, but the satisfaction of being the open-minded, cosmopolitan sort. Such transactions rely on the pretense that food somehow contains the authentic essence of a culture.
But maybe all these fictions are only possible because, while food may be just another industrial product, there is still something ancient and hallowed in the act of eating together. The shared meal, with its endless variety of settings and formats, is a rare survival from a much older world, and one of the few practices that retains the aura of a sacred custom. The conversion of countless British churches into cafés in recent decades could be taken as a metaphor: meeting and eating has a central place in what remains of associational life.
As for my relationship with food, the more boring I become in my everyday choices, the more I appreciate the role of a good meal in marking an occasion, grand or simple, elegant or trashy. At these moments, food becomes something different, something more than nourishment or satisfaction. It becomes an expression of joy.
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