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.