Archive for July 4, 2008

Unconventional Agriculture (or The Linguistics of Environmentalism)

One of Scientist Boyfriend’s sisters won’t eat lamb. Which is fine, and as dietary quirks go is pretty easy to accommodate, but it got me thinking about something I read in my first year at uni. English is quite rare among European languages in largely having separate words for animals and the meat they give you. So in German, you see a Rind (beef cow) in the field and eat Rindfleisch and in French it would be un boeuf and du boeuf; similarly you would have Schwein (pig) and Schwein (pork) or un porc (the animal) and du porc the meat. (For anyone who’s interested, the English words for animals generally come from German, through the Saxon peasantry, and the English words for meat are generally derived from French, via the Norman ruling class, who probably didn’t get their hands dirty feeding any of those animals and just ate the end product.)

Now, it would be fair to say that Scientist Boyfriend’s sister, L., has broader unreconciled issues with eating meat, much as I used to, and she definitely isn’t alone in having specific difficulty eating lamb, because if you say ‘lamb’ to anyone who isn’t a sheep farmer it immediately conjures up images of little fluffy white things skipping around the fields at Easter-time and it’s harder not to confront the fact that that’s what you’re eating, rather than the more anonymous ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ where it’s easier to ignore the fact that they come from cows and pigs.

I don’t want to dwell on this too much, as we risk straying into linguistic determinism; that is, the idea that language shapes thought. You’ve probably heard that the Inuit have 400 words for snow. Linguistic determinism would say that this modifies their world view and would give them a different mode of existence from a speaker of English. However, common sense would tell us that their mode of existence and world view are more likely to be determined by, for instance, the fact that they, unlike your average English speaker, live in a place with lots of snow and that, as a result of that, it might be sensible to have more words for it.

Reality comes first, then we describe it.

And in actual fact, the Inuit don’t have any more words for snow than any other language, definitely no more than expert skiers do. Sorry to burst that bubble. 😉

But it’s interesting (to me at least) to look at what the terms we as a culture have chosen to use for various things reveal about our own world view and mode of existence, or instances such as L. and lamb where language can enhance or exacerbate ideas or concerns that we already hold.

Like most people, I used to talk about ‘organic agriculture’ and ‘conventional agriculture’, but the more I read about it, the more I realise ‘conventional’ agriculture is only really conventional in the post-war West, and in the broad scheme of human history and geography, ‘organic agriculture’, which we mark out as being unconventional and somehow different or unusual by contrasting it with ‘conventional agriculture’, is actually overwhelmingly more usual. In the world view I’ve developed over the last year, there is nothing normal about a way of feeding ourselves that impoverishes the soil and leads to resource depletion, salinisation, erosion and tomatoes that don’t taste of anything. And at some point, I shifted and started talking about ‘industrial agriculture’, or ‘intensive agriculture’, ‘abused chickens’ instead of ‘conventionally reared chickens’, or in occasional sloe gin-fuelled rantings, ‘the oil-guzzling behemoth of agribusiness that will be the ruin of us all…’

Similarly, we used to have ‘the recycling’, ‘the compost’ and ‘the bin’. The bin was neutral, unmarked. It was the default place to put rubbish. Again, and as a result of knowing and caring much more about where my rubbish goes, and as so little (the exceptional part, God bless Bokashi) of our rubbish goes in there, it doesn’t seem like a neutral, default place to put stuff any more, and I’ve now started calling it ‘the landfill bin’.

Which I think is interesting, at least…

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July 4, 2008 at 10:47 am 2 comments

Apples and oranges

I had meant to go to the farmer’s market yesterday, but I dithered about a bit (i.e. decided to have lunch first as going when hungry could lead to financial ruin) and by the time I made it everyone had packed up and gone home except the indefatigable fruit farm from down the road. It was only about 2.30, so I hope this doesn’t mean rising food prices have turned everyone off local food. I wanted to get something nice for dinner (inc. inspiration!) and a joint of beef or something for Sunday when Scientist Boyfriend’s family will be here, but all I ended up with was some raspberries and strawberries and a money-off voucher for PYO for each of the next three months.

Not that I’m complaining, though – my kitchen smelt wonderfully of raspberries! I think we’ll go and pick some more on Saturday and make raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake for pudding on Sunday. I rarely make anything with strawberries or raspberries, mostly because if you buy really tasty ones, I feel very little can improve on their fresh, gorgeous simplicity. I used to think that about meat, though, too – that marinades and sauces couldn’t improve (and might even detract from) a really good pork chop (or whatever), but after Scientist Boyfriend suggested it might be nice to have pork chops cooked in some other way than browned in the pan then baked in the oven with a glass of white wine and six cloves of garlic, I branched out into almost its polar opposite, some sticky marinade involving all manner of strongly flavoured ingredients such as ginger, chilli and various spices. We both agreed afterwards that actually the chilli enhanced it and that rather than masking the quality (I’ve long agreed with HFW’s statement that supermarkets sell you cheap meat, but you then have to buy their expensive marinades to make the spongy, watery flesh taste of anything) it actually brought it out.

So I’m going to apply the same principle to soft fruit. And marinade it in Chinese five spice powder. 😉 Hmmmm.

I also got a steak in the decadent Italian deli of which we had half each. Their cheese is really quite reasonable though and they sell seeds, exciting things like borlotti beans and yellow beans and romanesco, which it’s a bit late for now but which will be useful next year. Thursday (veg box eve) is normally ‘Uninspiring Dinner Day’ – usually a concoction of tired vegetables that don’t go together in any form of unified meal but need eating up – but we actually did rather well, with the new potatoes not too tired and the mouldy broccoli put into the compost and replaced by some salad and about 3 pak choi leaves each from the garden. Total self-sufficiency still quite a way off, I feel…

I must stop being surprised that the cheese at the deli is so reasonable. Every time I go and buy cheese I wince as he tells me how much it’s going to be, and then think, ‘Oh, actually, that’s cheaper than the supermarket,’ and I haven’t tried the goat’s cheese yet but the Parmesan is also vastly superior.

My friend pulled me up on something the other day. Apparently I have two arguments in favour of local food: firstly, that we should be prepared to pay more for decent food and secondly, that local food generally costs less.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but yes, that does seem rather contradictory.

I would now like to amend my statement to add emphasis to the prepared in ‘prepared to pay more for decent food’. 🙂 We should be prepared to pay an honest price for what we eat, and sometimes (in the case of chicken, for instance, or anything that someone else has to make, like cheese or bread or jam) that is a lot more than simply buying the cheapest option available (and although I’d add not comparable, not everyone would agree with me) and that we just have to live with. But at other times, like with vegetables and, apparently, cheese from the Italian deli, you might be pleasantly surprised.

I would also add that we need to change how we eat as well as what. If you eat a chicken breast one night, pork chops the next, steak the next, lamb chops the next and so on and so forth, yes, you’d get a nasty shock if you got all that from a local farmer! But if you buy meat in bulk and eat it less often (which is a damn sight easier when your vegetables taste nice) you can save a bucketload of cash. I’ve replaced the time spent shopping with time spent baking bread and making jam, so rather than paying for someone else’s time when they make my jam, I get the raw materials cheaply and do it myself, which again is easier when you haven’t got to go around checking the label of every single jar of jam in the shop and trying to find out where the fruit came from and why the hell they have ingredients other than just fruit and sugar in them.

You can’t compare like with unlike. It’s like saying ‘showers use less water than baths’ without looking at, say, my grandparents. They never shower, they always take baths, but they have about three baths a week and share the water (they take it in turns to go first), unlike most of my generation who all shower every day and feel disgusting if they don’t. I bet my grandparents use much less water overall. Nor have I personally ever noticed my grandparents smelling (other than of normal grandparent smells, like Old Spice or talcum powder). A shower uses less water than a bath, just as a free-range chicken costs more than an intensively-reared chicken, but the practice of bathing rather than showering doesn’t have to use more water, nor does the practice of eating sensibly-produced food.

July 4, 2008 at 8:55 am Leave a comment


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The Heritage Crafts Network

Rob Hopkins, Transition Handbook

“Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

"Food is that rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure."

Carlo Petrini

"A gastronome who is not also an environmentalist is an idiot. An environmentalist who is not also a gastronome is, well, sad."

Sharon Astyk

"I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…."

Raj Patel, at Slow Food Nation

"Biofuels, which is the preposterous policy that we should grow food not to eat it but to set it on fire."