EATING FAST FOOD SLOWLY

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

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.

 

 

 

FOOD PUNK

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.

MONTPELLIER | A FINE CITY

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

 

MAKING DOUGH | LOOKING FURTHER THAN A CHEAP LOAF

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.

CULTURE | PEOPLE | FOOD | STORYTELLING | TAKING FOOD PUBLIC

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.   

 

Bibliography

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 (19860, (eds) The Anthropology of Experience, University of Illinois Press, USA

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