“Time is my ingredient”, a baker called Martin explained to me during my five-year research on the work of small-scale craft bakeries in Britain. The modern world of speed, uniformity and mechanisation has delivered many cheap products—from clothes to medicines or cars—that have arguably improved many lives. However, to consider food as having value because it is cheap bares a great cost to society. In every mouthful we eat it is our relationship with time that we experience. Oliver de Shutter, United Nations ex-Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, believes that time poverty is a significant cause of cooking skills disappearing, and with that disappearance the dependence on a industrial processed diet expands and the disconnection between us and food and those who prepare our food grows (de Shutter, 2013). From the soil in which the wheat grows to the plastic wrapping around an industrial loaf, each stage has been planned and engineered to speed up and increase productivity. The societal and health costs of an industrialised staple food are great. Numerous additives and large amounts of sugar speed up the proofing process, a de-skilled workforce push buttons instead of shape dough and consumers never meet the baker who provides their daily bread.

Against –and within—this background of haste and artificial taste the power of bread to bring us together challenges industrial eating. The power is evident in the solidarity of grassroots craft bread movements that further the work of the international Slow Food Movement, the British Real Bread Campaign, and local and organic food organisations. The craft or artisan bread movement is most noticeable in the countries that embraced the industrial bread of the Chorley Wood Process in the 1960’s. Britain and the America can claim the unfortunate accolade of the most significant in this industrial trajectory. These two countries—alongside many others like Australia, Japan, Denmark and Canada—are now experiencing the greatest shift in the form of thousands of small-scale bakeries and bakery social enterprises that seek to redress the negative impact of the past 50 years of industrial bread. Examples such as social enterprise ‘Luminary Bakery’ in London, England that is “transforming women refugees’ lives, one slice at a time” or Scottish ‘Freedom Bakery’ who “welcome applications from people with convictions without prejudice” (Guardian newspaper 2015).

The craft bread movement brings a vast range of people and groups together with a myriad of motivations. From health conscious consumers who demand bread fermented naturally over two days so as not to cause their stomachs to bloat, to those who revere the craft of the hand-made as a signifier of post-capitalist food systems.

Most craft bakeries are “communities of practice” as the bakers learn and share skills that re-imagine new traditions through sensory engagement, observation of others at work, creativity and ‘espirit de corps’. Their baking skills include craft by hand, the harnessing of the ethereal ingredients of the wild bacteria of natural fermentation and the respectful patience that gives dough plenty of time to become wholesome bread. Therefore, the ambiance within a craft bakery is one of togetherness—with the ingredients, the fellow workers, and the consumers—parallel to this is the therapeutic feeling of the total absorption of making.

This powerful ambiance nurtures the cohesiveness and well-being of togetherness and is evident in many craft bakeries embedded in their communities and social enterprise bakeries. The premise being that the simple act and art of making slow fermented bread gives skills, trust and confidence—and consequently companionship grows too. And as the Latin root of the word companion is cum (with) pane (bread), ancient knowledge confirms “with bread” is togetherness—whether it is making or eating it—and so recognises the importance of patience and consideration as all good things take time.


The Plate

From non-descript and forgettable to distinctive and memorable a plate not only conveys the regard given to a meal and its diners, it also displays our relationship with making, functionality, beauty, material culture and ritual. As a piece of tableware, it is the ultimate cultural, stylistic and practical component of the meal however tantalising the food.

The plate determines the etiquette, culture, epoch and social status of the diner, establishing and explaining how, what and where we eat. It interacts with its surrounding tableware and others around the table, in small but important ways. These can range from swapping bowl-loving chopsticks for a flat-bottomed ceramic spoon, to its use as a formal table placeholder assuring ‘absolute sovereignty of every diner over his or her domain’[i]. Plate faux pas can be enlightening and sometimes amusing. Anecdotes of confusion include a twentieth century French diner scrutinising a British table laid with only unfamiliar bread and butter side plates, with the resulting horrified anticipation of a very tiny meal. The plate is a functional, governing and symbolic aesthetic.

For three million years humans have explored plate making materials such as wood, unfired and fired clay, glass, metals, china, the crusts of bread, porcelain, slate, cardboard, burger buns and plastic. The choice of material is normally dependent on the available resources and skills, money and the function or occasion, though designers, hosts and stylists relish challenging these limits. From Palaeolithic burnished clay to twenty-first-century Scandinavian living moss, the imagination, and skills bestowed to make plates of different sizes, surfaces and shapes is remarkable. As is the contemporary compulsion to adorn tables, display food, affirm our social norms and perform cultural rituals, all with the obliging plate

[i] Visser, M., The Rituals of Dining, 1991


Stormy weather over a market town in south-west France. The beckoning glow from an illuminated giant ‘M’ habitually guided me through six weeks of beating rain to my unforeseen destination. I felt assured that inside the infamous burger joint would be obscurity, tepid warmth and—free unlimited internet connection. A newcomer to town the easiest backdrop for my digital schedule inadvertently led to a daily dose of watchful contemplation. Observations of performances—arriving, ordering, cooking, serving, eating and discarding— revealed inclusivity through docility.

A Sunday night and three young children bathed and groomed sit in their pyjamas alongside their parents. Snug inside a curved nest of a booth they munch silently through broad smiles. For countless hours the gaggles of teenagers uninhibitedly gossip, drink coffee and slurp ice-cream as they relish the sanctuary of communal neutrality. Lone regulars dissolve into ambiguity as they lunge, chew and swipe their iPhones and succeed to avoid eye contact. 

Teenage kitchen staff with netted heads and easy wash uniforms smile self-consciously as they murmur ‘bon appetite’ and deliver diners’ orders to wipe clean tables. Later on and off-shift they join their friends at the high-stool bars to slurp on soft ice cream and iced long sodas. The early morning shift clean the restaurant floor with a lethally slippery coating of water, soap and transposed grease. There is always a unique odour of cleaning chemical mingled with a slight dash of food, indescribable and constantly baffling.

The non-confrontational atmosphere offers its eaters an encounter with food that is easy and predictable—the menu, the packaging, the taste, the table settings and the visit’s routines all intensify a risk free and passive experience. There is no need to think beyond the initial food selection made at the fast track digital menu that suggestively asks, ‘Vous êtes un client?’ and ends with the functional query ‘Quelle zone assayer?’ enabling staff  to serve up your ‘I’m Loving it’ tray full. There is a reassurance that no ‘can’t stand’ ingredients will be included nor will the final bill at around €5.85 be a gasp of a surprise. The predictability offers cossetted security. The eating experience offers saccharine infantilism aiming to satisfy hard-wired tastes but not hunger.

The visuals of the meal are innocuous and unchanging block hues of brown, beige, pale yellow and red. The texture is of pulpy warm chewiness that offer little mandible resistance. The taste is an iconic and enveloping mix of salty near meatiness and sweet bun. The big ‘M’ experience was grotesque and glorious in equal ‘no questions asked’ measures. A place of flat-packed food puffed up into cartoonesque tastiness. Served from a theatrically lit preparation area that unashamedly offers consumers an easy-going obscurity that makes few social demands.



For hundreds of years a city centre was alive with an economy and a workforce based on manufacture. The making and transporting of what was made to an elsewhere in the northern hemisphere. During the twentieth century Fordist era many of these workers lived close to their manual work in run down inner city rented homes whilst wealthier managerial workers and company owners lived in the suburbs or in the green peripheries. But as the manufacture of goods was undertaken elsewhere in the industrially developing world the warehouses and factories were increasingly unused and so left empty. For a few decades in the northern hemisphere inner city life was the home of the poor. In places like New York’s Harlem or London’s Brixton or, Notting Hill living in the centre was rough and cheap—with food provided by street markets, local convenience and high street shops and a scattering of embryonic supermarket chains.

However from the 1980’s this model of desirable and undesirable places to live, inner city as undesirable and suburbs as desirable, began to fragment and increasingly swap places. Slowly at first the empty warehouses and factories bought by entrepreneurial developers were transformed into large floor plate apartments within mix use schemes, which included office space, restaurant chains and supermarkets, for people and businesses able to afford high rents and mortgages. This urban design style sped up in the 2000’s spurred on by and spurring on further the investment and dependence on the inner city companies using communication technology white collar workers in financial services work.

Centrifugal life began to take shape on a global scale. The poorer inhabitants moved out from the inner city to the cheaper exurbs and started their daily life of an expensive and long commute for a minimum wage to and from their supportive jobs, cleaners, shop assistants, bartenders, waiting staff or drivers, needed by the aforementioned workers of technological inner-city companies. This new type of service economy—the poor non-technological worker who supports the technologically skilled worker who in turn works to service the financial transactions of large global companies changed the fortunes and accessibility of good food and a job near home for everyone over the space of just 20 years.

Global cities are centripetal in that they draw everything to the centre, yet centrifugal in that they dispel elements of outsource or low-grade functions such as housing for the modest or low waged.

                                                Millington, 2012, 13

Food in a contemporary inner city such as London, New York, Paris or Edinburgh is a theatre of abundance and diversity. The regular consumers are invariably wealthy skilled service technicians or high up in the managerial structure of large global companies who are eating out at the hundreds of pubs cafés and artisan food shops in which the poor city inhabitants are working for a minimum wage. A wage so low that one third of 170,000 homeless Londoners are the people who serve and clean up in these inner city eateries, places such as “Starbucks, Eat, Pret: the list of employers of those at the [emergency night] shelter reads like a roll-call of Britain’s consumer economy (Chakrabortty, The Guardian, 20 December 2016).

When an inner-city worker can afford a city home it is in the exurbs because from the late 1990’s the cheapest homes in northern hemisphere countries are the ones with poor transport infrastructure and low investment in community services and local enterprise. Living in the exurbs there has been an ever-increasing spiral of local job scarcity because local inhabitants are too cash and time poor to add economic and social life to their community. Hence the prevalence of large-scale corporate food outlets who supply these city dwellers with cheap, nutritionally and culturally empty ‘non-place’ food.

The ten most powerful cross-border food corporates have accumulated great wealth and power by providing low quality, unethical and culturally bereft food.  These companies created and support the long food chain that for over 30 years used poor farmers from industrially developing countries to, grow, process and, sell food to the poor non-technical workers in the industrially developed countries. Essentially, at either end of the food chain the poor are suffering from food insecurity. The farmers are not paid enough and so live a subsistence life often leading to hunger, whilst the consumers do not have food justice and live in obesogenic environments on nutritionally empty high calorific food and are increasingly overweight or obese. Until the global food system changes the urban food system will remain dysfunctional. The marginalised workforce living in the exurbs commuting back and forth from the inner-city theatre of food to the outer city food ‘non-place’ of a centrifugal cities have little choice (at the moment) to step out of this food trap. Also trapped are the poor farmers at the start of the chain who experience great food and social injustices. The global food system needs to be radically addressed so, that these inequalities and injustices finish. Food centric city design planning is the catalyst to make this change happen.


Our urban lives are changing. And rapidly. But are we travelling toward an unchartered place, or a patchwork future stitched onto the old ways of living? What do we hang on to? And what gets left behind?

The dynamics of cultural change are complex, puzzling and elusive. What we eat is a glimpse into who we are and what we might become. Huge issues of economics, climate, society and politics are illuminated in a simple plate of food, through the provenance and ethics of the ingredients, the social coding held in the meal’s presentation, the price and, the style of cuisine. These are the end consumer’s window, the navigational markers, to the plateful’s journey. Food and eating tell a story that many believe is the most honest reflection of what it means to be a modern social human being. How we use, abuse or replenish the health of land and sea, whether we blithely or responsibly consume finite natural resources, if we pay respect or exploit the time and skills of others or, commit to appreciate or dampen cultural and historical idiosyncrasies. These phenomena are fundamental to defining a healthy society.

Food eaten out of the home, known as OOH in corporate and marketing speak, communicates a spectrum with contrasting extremes. The quality ingredients of exclusive dining smirk at the inferior industrial ingredients of fast food outlets. This urban food landscape mosaic has dominated our stomachs, palates, high streets and, pay packets for many industrialised decades. It has also ramped up the yield demanded of farming and fishing to behemoth scales.

But things are changing. And rapidly. We are going back to the old ways of feeding a city as meals out of the home, whether it is called street food, take out, pop-up, fast food, grab and go or, takeaway, is a mainstream urban food choice for millions. Research in England show this is especially true for those under the age of 30. And rather than demonise the lack of home-cooking, maybe a more reflective and realistic attitude is needed of these urban gastronomes?

The romanticised urban kitchen is a distinctly modern room with a meagre history. The notion that we happily pottered around a convivial kitchen daintily chopping carrots and gently stirring sauces is a myth. It simply did not happen for the majority. We could not afford an oven let alone a room to put it in. It is a construction of our prospective memory, an impulse to view the past through the dreamy eyes of the present. These wonderous spaces of skilful and contemplative food prepping were filled with small armies of urban servants who worked to feed their wealthy employer families.

The masses ate meals prepared for by others, or sometimes shared communal ovens to bake bread and stews. The forerunner of the OOH modern consumer has had a place setting sited outside the home for thousands of years. From Ancient Roman fast food outlets called Thermopolia where meals on the go were served from clay pots to, tasty titbits from piemen, oyster catchers or gingerbread market sellers to, the neighbourly growing of a pig to divvy up, share and eat. We ate what others freshly prepared and we ate out.

I am fascinated with the hierarchical values we give to the biological need and the social necessity of eating and drinking. Why are the most vital jobs connected to food dumbed down in our education and training system? How can it be that catering and agricultural colleges are seen as sheepishly inferior to analysing dusty manuscripts that few care for or, that tinkering with coding algorithms to speed up an on-line purchase by a nano-second is glamorous and aspirational? Food matters. As many thinkers and writers have loudly exclaimed from Brillat-Saverin 150 years ago penning, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges et je te dirai ce que tu es”, to contemporary folklorist Rahn with “We eat what we are”, food reveals us warts ‘n’ all. Eating and drinking is a complex physiological act of internalising the outside world, how remarkable is that? It can give us energy, health, love and inclusion, the lack or inferiority of it starves our body, soul, planet and kin. It is a simple equation.

So, what happens now when the exacting Guilds are a distant memory and there is sniggering when year 10 bottom set Danny says he is heading to study catering BTEC at the local tech? How can the modern commuting and time strapped workforce feed itself well on industrially made sandwiches and magical sweet coffee concoctions? Increasingly research is showing us that something is dramatically askew inside us. The lack of variety in our dominant wheat, sugar and additive enhancing diet is tampering with our hormones, our cells, our gut bacteria. It is making us sick because the body needs a variety of different foods to thrive. This means our mental and physically health is vulnerable because we simply do not have the time, skills or inclination to cook hearty meals and, the only time this romantic notion holds true is the gender biased years of 1950s.

If we accept our limitations happily and move toward a future in which food producers, be they farmers, apiarists, oyster catchers, chefs or cooks, are valued and supported. We can stop this mythical nonsense of cooking at home being the holy grail of nutritional solution. The knowhow food independents are not service workers but a top profession that is key to urban well- being. They need to replace the large scale, industrial supermarkets, pharmacies, canteens and chains. And fast. I aim to prise apart some conceptions and misconceptions bolted together by politicians, health experts, educationalists, community leaders and journalists. Notions of improved lifestyles that slip whistling past the reality of who we are because what we eat is wrapped up in history, physiology, emotions and society. I look at how we are moving out of the space that demonises or glorifies food, made ‘out of the home’, to a more realistic view of how we have good fast food that we can eat slowly.

Some of us don’t want to, or can’t cook and, some of us are exceptional at it. Increasingly, due to internet sharing platforms, the burgeoning knowledge economy, tourism and globalisation, those living in urban places have taste skills that far outweigh their culinary ability. The simple fact is that we are seeking an answer from an idealised past that empowers industrial food sales, because we cannot quite keep up with our home cooked half-baked dream, and so the large chains and supermarkets step in with their aspirational processed swine dining meal options. The wake-up call is our declining health and nature’s barren soil. The small-scale culinary movement, already happening in the artisanal genre of street food, bakeries, cheesemongers, farmers’ markets and independent eateries is the answer in so many ways. The belief is not main-stream but it is gaining traction. What are the difficulties and challenges? Do supermarkets and industrial food outlets have too firm a hold?

Motivated by the urge to contribute to a healthier, happier and fairer future that food can transport us to, I look at behavioural, historical, culinary, social, environmental and infrastructural stories. My public engagement programmes, food writing, behavioural analysis research encounters complex relational issues that define, empower and challenge contemporary living.


Drink and Think | Boisbuchet | July 2017 

Disturbed by recent global headline warnings of how we nomadic humans discard half of the million plastic drink bottles bought every minute I feel compelled to do more than moan. I want to explore practical and realistic solutions to drinking sustainably and join others who work to challenge the culture of plastic bottle waste. Before leaving for an international workshop that focused on this escalating issue—one that negatively impacts on our food chain, marine and land environments, community, health and economy—a visit to a local supermarket reinforced my resolve with its summer offer of six bottles of water for £1 ! An offer made possible by large international companies who are profiting from the pandemic of arguably our most harmful creation—plastic waste. 

Domain de Boisbuchet in France is renowned for innovative design and architecture workshops and events that sustainably harmonise with nature. As a social scientist—a food anthropologist—the workshop ‘Drink and Think’ with designers and architects from Taiwan, Norway, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and England provided an incredible insight into the power of cultural traditions that surround drinking. Francesca Sarti, an international architect with an ‘interdisciplinary attitude’, led the week long residential to consider a serious issue with a reflective and inventive approach. We drank, we chatted, we walked and we ate our way around the 150 hectares of Boisbuchet dipping in and out of the free flowing discussions of memories, re-collections, ideas and information.

Our discussions and the surrounding natural environment fused and we focused on three elements of drinking; the source, the vessel and the ritual surrounding taking a drink. The pathway to concentrating on these elements, which shaped our final presentation, was enlightening and playful. We shared experiences and knowledge of cultural rituals and nature from drinking with straws at communal water bowls in Africa to the sound of the Belguim Quack glass as it slaps the wooden stand, from the bygone urban water fountain—now so enviously coveted—to the way a butterfly sips nectar with its protruding tongue. What became increasingly evident from our discussions, explorations, designing and making is the vast loss of individuality, cultural ritual and human creativity the homogenous plastic water bottle causes. There is a European cultural identity of drinking from a plastic bottle as one based on health consciousness, independence and life at high speed—a culture that contrasts with countries such as Brazil or India with water scarcity, high temperatures and unsafe tap water. There are vast and complex political and societal issues regarding access to water which makes bemoaning bottling it in plastic seem trivial, yet—and it is a big yet—it does not always have to be water in a plastic bottle. The environmental price is too high and the plastic bottle economics—of making, moving, storing and clearing away—are an illogical financial cost.

I aim to take the vision gained at Boisbuchet—of exciting, responsible and sustainable drinking using communal urban water fountains or recycled or natural drinking nomadic vessels—to architects, designers, master planners, property developers and policy makers. They may champion a new direction that meets our water needs and lobby the water companies, land owners and governments to drink and think.





The heady days of the 1970’s surge of confrontation sit deep under my skin. I truly hope that this bubbling feeling of quiet outrage simmers for many, many others.

I believe it does.

Signature emblems of anarchistic torch bearing revealed in the music, posture and clothing came to a mortifying consumerist cul-de-sac with faux ‘punk’ fashion and hyped smiley faced band members. They underlined the antithesis of movement grown out of disgust for institutional power become hemmed in by corporate control. Bereft of freedom and individuality where to for the twenty-first century anarchists? Dumbed down and cynical, the corporate global monster fashions everything and everyone in its wake.

Yet there is a powerful weapon of rebellion in our grasp. Everyday we all gather, share, ingest and discard its remains. It is in our bowl, cup and plate: and in our hands. It is sustenance and togetherness. It is food.

The global and industrial food chain is powerful and smirkingly epitomises all that punks of old wrestled against, corporate control, divisiveness of money, gender inequality, ethical laziness and a homogenous society.

Eat food made on the industrial food chain, from supermarkets, coffee chains, large pharmacies and institutional canteens and every mouthful is not just submissive but helps to elevate the power of capitalism. But eat wild food, heirloom and heritage grown produce, food grown and made by independents, ethically traded food and through freegan and swapping ways and you will be part of the most powerful end to control ever.

Every bite counts.


What makes a fine city? Is such a question too subjective amidst hugely diverse populations, each of whom enjoy, value and engage with each other and a place in a multitude of ways. And yet maybe a fine city is a justifiable claim if it actively creates and nurtures that diversity, both human and natural. A city able to meet the needs of and, inspire the individual within a group. Whether they are working, studying, residing or visiting, they can collectively navigate and immerse themselves in city life.

And, if that is the case then Montpellier is up there on a fascinating world-class list of fine cities.

Diversity, a cure all assertion for the modern world. How does it grow? How does it manifest itself? What hinders it? The infrastructure of a place goes a long way in providing a stimulating and welcoming city, the layers of nature, circulation networks and economic governance, amongst other strata of significance, choreograph urban living. Enmeshed in the infrastructural tangibility is the cultural, behavioural and very human layer that floods into every aspect of the choices made and directions taken.

A jerky list of writers, city planners and urban initiatives dabble their fingers into my thinking, ones I admire and some I question. From Richard Florida’s, Who’s Your City, to London’s urban skills and food growing project Skip Garden by Global Generation to cities with trams, there are historic, cultural and political reasons some places tick better than others.

And Montpellier ticks. Steadily and confidently, working on many human levels that bound into every Medieval city crevice. Fine is not seeking perfection. There are inherited flaws, genetic dispositions and unwelcome doses of malaise, that a fine city manages, on a daily or long-term basis. But a fine city can adapt and forge ahead shielding and supporting the city masses.

A recent visit shy of three weeks allowed me a tiny glimpse of Montpellier’s finesse. Its landscape and scale are a steady place to initiate an investigation, although sublimely unaware of the gravitas of such factors, they assuredly set the pace and character of each city. Montpellier is blessed with the year-round comfortable warmth of the southern French sun, with predictable rain showers to quench life. A city of approximately 270,000 people, it sits a skip and a hop away from the Mediterranean Sea. Linguistically, culturally and economically tied to the eastern regions of Spain and Italy and, the olive oil region of France (as opposed to northern buttery France), this region of l’Occitane holds open a welcome door to all.

And that open door brings in optimism and activity.

The myriad of ways that human navigate and move around a city such as Montpellier is impressive and defining. Many city planners herd systems of circulation together under the banner of transport, but it is essentially movement and therefore profoundly human and cultural. My architect dad, Terry Farrell, reimagined the hectic Euston Road that orbits central London, in his vision that saw the obvious through the bureaucratic hullabaloo. Rather like the story The Emperor and His New Clothes, Farrell points out what others fear to mention and, on the Euston Road it was the domination by cars that were the elephant in the room. Traffic was encouraged to dwarf the presence of pedestrians as it sped past the pavements barriered not to protect pedestrians but to let cars continue at speed. The barriers came down, the pavements were widened, a new pedestrian crossing was created and, street signage was reduced. The moral of the Euston Road story is the simple and creative ways that humans can reassert themselves in cities, an urge powered by our propensity and ability to move en masse, in many forms, safely around a city.

And, his observations resonate with Montpellier’s fractal patterns of hybrid motion. Montpellier has electric trams, teems of bicycles (with very few defined lanes, just respect and good hearing), personal electric scooters (on road, wide pavements and passageways), buses, trains, pedestrians, cars, car parks under the main city square, carless central city areas, mini electric delivery vans and an array of electric single wheelers. And it works. Everyone is respectful of each other and their space along the public routes. The periphery roads of commuting cars are not quite so fine, but if Macron’s plans continue there will be fewer diesel and petrol use by 2040.

Access to food in the city puts me in mind of a piece of writing by Richard Wilks that recognises that we frequently eat in, an in-between space, a middling reality. Consuming food sometimes slowly crafted and, sometimes speedily made by machines. Global cities are a blended place of foods of moderate speeds. In Montpellier there are central and in the outskirts’ supermarkets (with the usual large portion of their inferior industrial food, albeit with more local fresh foods), but there are also thriving food markets and abundant independent cafes and food shops. And these places are for all, not just for the usual gentrified urban echelons. What Montpellier has done with typical French style and nonchalance is flip over the Medieval city day to day infrastructure into a twenty-first century model of start-up size spaces that purr with pleasure beside the corporate bemouths of Carrefour supermarket or Macdonald’s.

With a mix of year-round tourists, from France and beyond, plentiful students and European entrepreneurs it is a prosperous city of many quarters. The ancient centre is complemented by modern apartment living further out, with plenty of parks, gardens and activity. The city is made spotless by small armies of mini electric street and rubbish cleaning vehicles and lots of recycling places, no doubt made achievable with the guarantee of copious numbers of tax payers, and under the mayoral effort of Phillipe Saurel, clearly a priority.           

Montpellier exudes finesse, it celebrates and kindles its togetherness and diversity. One example of diversity, unity and strength is a Remembrance Service choral concert attended by hundreds on November 11th. Hosted by Montpellier in a humble French church, the presence and talented performance of the Heidelberg choir of Germany, 100 years on from the ending of WWI, saw a gathering that embodied the richness of togetherness in diversity.

To my mind Montpellier models a city to learn from.



Farrell, T. (2009), Shaping London, John Wiley & Sons, USA

Florida, R. (2008), Who’s Your City, Basic Books, USA

Wilks, R. (2006), Fast Food/Slow Food: The Cultural Economy of the Global Food System, Rowman Altamira, USA



As a public food anthropologist, my work tries to interpret and communicate what makes us eat what we do—emotionally, environmentally, culturally, ethically and, economically. I like to work with city planners, policy makers, architects, schools, universities and community groups—they do not all like to work with me. For some, focusing on the ethical and environmental issues that surround how we feed ourselves is uncomfortable and challenging.

Millie Rahn, an American Foodways writer says, “We eat what we are”.

Are we fair, thoughtful, committed and responsible? Or are we greedy, selfish, careless and lazy? What are we as individuals? What are the institutions that run our country? What are the world leaders? What is the dominating factor of food production and consumption? Economics. This has been the case ever since the birth of food systems. Over ten thousand years ago the first farmers living in the Fertile Crescent—an area that includes modern day Egypt—used irrigated land to grow and trade the first commodified food—domesticated naked wheat. They knew that wheat berries were storable, transportable and, highly desirable as future food. These three factors made them a valuable exchange for labour and merchandise. Wheat was a currency. The land on which it was cultivated grew power and control. Anthropologist Van der Ploeg describes modern farmers as ploughing the land with one eye of the furrow the other on the bank balance. Farming has always been tempted to be this way.

Wheat, made edible in bread, established the commodification of all food. It largely supplanted the nomadic way Homo sapiens had been gathering and sharing food—as hunter gathers. So, our food fate sealed because wheat farming as an existence spurred on the keeping of livestock and growing supplementary crops such as flax and potatoes. In turn, there was a need to stay put to tend the land and so settle in one place. Busy growing a variety of crops to eat and exchange, the population size increased dramatically as the biological clock shifted to allow less time between children. It was easier to raise children when not always on the hunter-gatherer move. More mouths to feed and so more farming needed ad infinitum. Ultimately finding land to grow ever more food was vital. The search for new wheat lands was the reason the Ancient Romans invaded Britain. They introduced the increasingly global dominance of wheat to the native Celt cereal diet of millet, barley and oats.

The autocatalytic results of our ancestors’ fear of starvation sit on our plates today. Described by anthropologist and writer Jared Diamond, our food history is one of brash action and neglectful redress. Fittingly—by looking back in time at the first food item that was sold, the complex networks of all food systems today, defined by speed, uniformity and cheapness—and greed, madness and poor health, are illustrated in a loaf of wheat bread. The de-commodification of bread with its ten-thousand-year sales lineage, might offer a post capitalist economic model for all food. Making dough, looking further than a cheap loaf looks to a post-capitalist economy.

I worked alongside ten independent on-site British bakeries for the past six years. I studied and discussed their challenges and opportunities with them. I saw resourcefulness and their values of community, ecology and human health. Their social economic vision gave me great inspiration and hope. The economics of a loaf as part of a long industrial bread chain defers ecological and societal costs to future generations—so the 50 pence loaf in fact costs a lot more. The price of a loaf using True Cost Accounting instead takes responsibility for “the true cost of food” says Patrick Holden founder and chief executive of Sustain. There are the hidden costs in all cheap food. Visible in the state of the environment, finite resources, human health, community well-being and in the proper remuneration for food producers. http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/true-cost-food/ accessed 2017

But, can a loaf uncouple itself from its ten-thousand-year economic trajectory that has experienced a twentieth century mechanised acceleration? The commodified bread chain of farmer-miller-baker-consumer is not a new model. It started with the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs ruling over their peasant farmers and millers. Maybe the demand for bread made it too appealing an opportunity to make money at every stage. So, what if this demand powered social wealth instead of financial? It would provide a very significant improvement for human well-being, motivated by values that honour and, cultivate, productivity, stability, sustainability and equitability. The de-commodification might be equally gradual. We could be at the start. But, with a new and more considered aim, not money but well-being. A food transformation to develop and nurture a food economy. An economy able to thrive on core values such as stewardship of the environment, guardianship within communities, and a healthy life for citizens. A value led model of living and eating. I see bread as a catalyst to a value led food economy. One that has the potential to reimagine sustainable food planning. As a food staple, bread has a daily impact on millions of people and so can convincingly demonstrate an alternative and viable blueprint to planning communities, to look towards food democracy.

Food providence, the use of heritage grain grown organically, green energy to power milling, baking and transportation, the closing of energy loops, social reproduction of sustainable food skills and reducing waste are some typical features of the individualistic bakers I have studied since 2012. Short wheat replaced tall heritage wheat in the late nineteenth century. It is easier and quicker to harvest. Yet two issues surround that change. Firstly, there is less shade cast by short wheat and so insects thrive better—and thus have caused an increase in the use of pesticides. Secondly, there is less straw for thatching or animal feed and bedding—hence more manufactured building materials, animal feed and bedding (which use additional finite resources of land, water and labour) need to be produced. Looking further than a cheap loaf means being wise at growing crops. Making them useful for more than one reason. Crops are resource hungry, so it makes sense to utilise their multi-functionality and pest resistance by growing heritage and mixed grains.

The Austrian artist and architect Hundewasser believed that humans should tread lightly on the earth and be a ‘good guest of nature’. His architectural work demonstrated creativity and originality that was unconventional and pro nature and human individuality. His philosophy chimes well with many of the craft bakers I observed and talked with. Bakers such as Nancy Main, Ravi Moriandy, Martin Clarke, Ben McKinnon or Liz Wilson. These first- generation British bakers are largely self-taught and make a livelihood in ways in which are an alternative to conventional independent high street bakeries. Each one an entrepreneur not motivated by financial revenue but social wealth and ecological stewardship. A solidarity of a virtual and physical community of bakers—who are increasingly linking up with small-scale farmers and millers—has grown from the ‘bottom up’ in many countries. Their prominent values are the social reproduction of sustainable food skills, encouraging a healthier population, achieving greater carbon neutrality, nurturing closer communities, diversifying cereal breeds, reimagining livelihood models, using less packaging and reducing food waste.

I believe bread and all those who are involved in the small-scale production, processing and, sharing of this food staple are a coherent and powerful sustainable food model. A blueprint for planners and policy makers to celebrate and develop further the actions needed to de-commodify food. Making dough, looking further than a cheap loaf.


I now tentatively call myself a writer, but the truth is I am and always have been a storyteller. As in fact we all are. My work now is performing through text my constructed stories. An internal narrative that is the synthesis of my interpretations of external shifting story lines. Taking food public is about the fundamental role the performance of storytelling plays in culture. Performance is the unity of the text and its enactment—or the message and its meaningful life. Perhaps what taking food public does is shine a spotlight on the context and the performance and then surreptitiously take centre stage.  

What is the intentionality of taking food public?

As a shared experience, an occasion—to express, define and modify our internally held narratives. We turn the consumption of food, a biological necessity, into a carefully cultured phenomenon. Through the performative experience, stories are told, and are then are re-told to consolidate or modify cultural texts. Going deeper into the subject there are linguistic and academic hierarchical understandings of ‘public’ as opposed to ‘applied’, linguistic determinism, the missionization of food, foodways, the anthropology of experience and the anthropology of performance. Thinkers and writers such as Victor Turner, Edward Bruner, Elizabeth Edwards, Carole Counihan, Psyche Williams-Forson, Margaret Visser, Edward Sapir and Lee Whorf helped me shape my ideas, alongside others who potently influenced my foundational thinking, such as Boas, Douglas and Durkheim.

Education, knowledge transfer of sustainable food skills, food heritage and community engagement were my work for 30 years. Community Engagement Manager on a Heritage Lottery Project, ‘Culture of the Countryside’, Education and Community lead for the ‘Woodbridge tide Mill’ and Project Co-ordinator for ‘Eastfeast Local Foods’. I had thought these were humble examples of ‘taking food public’ as a service. Upon reflection I see that I—along with my co-workers—were constructing our worlds and watching ourselves doing the construction, and then entering into our constructed worlds, and inviting or bringing others along too. Self-consciously we curated and managed culturally constructed expressions of food and eating, believing we gave valid opportunities for project participants to share and define their food cultures and identities.

If taking food public is the performative telling and re-telling of stories, how does the construction of the story-telling stage and the props used shape the closing remarks?

Can stories equate to unbiased units of meaning when those who provide a shared setting are both subjective and dominant? Western story-telling, described as linear, has a beginning, middle and an end or, a past, present and future or, challenges, resolution and moral. The ‘Culture of the Countryside’ project strived to be response led and ask good questions to inspire creative and lateral cultural thinking that was not linear. The project was very much an anthropological enterprise of how people experience themselves, their lives and their culture. We were essentially turning the mirror on ourselves, and the project participants, as we told and re-told stories of shared, constructed, public and private experiences. 

What became clear is that taking food public, in the funded domain, is determined by the tensions of prospective memory—of a hypothetical past and a constructed future—and by contemporary politics, equality and economics. In a fast paced and increasingly virtual world, is there a hunger for experience and a search for wholeness only found in social interchanges when people [to] transcend individual experience through participation in cultural expression.

Does this need overlook the dominant constructed narratives of taking food public?

In what ways and by whom are performative experiences being commodified? How is social media changing the social dynamics of performance and experience?

I ‘exist in the work’ of the taking food public as I subjectively invite others to make and re-make their internal narratives—and take part in collective story making. I am aware that each time I take food public my memoires are a modification of previous experiences. Ultimately, your story is made mine, and vice versa ad infinitum, as social actors we respond to and perform narratives to one another. Those who take food public or recast food in the public domain and, those who enable the performance often has a dominating and linear story, with a commodified or governing conclusion already written.   



Counihan, C. & P. Willaims-Forson (2012), (eds) Taking Food Public, Redefining Foodways in a Changing World, Routledge

Edwards, Elizabeth (2001), Raw Histories, Berg, Oxford, England

Turner, V.W, & Bruner, E. M (1986), (eds) The Anthropology of Experience, University of Illinois Press, USA

Visser, M. (1991), The Rituals of Dinner, Penquin