Archive for March 13, 2009

An ancient Jamie Oliver-inspired musing on food and urbanisation

I realise that this was months and months ago, but I was clearing out my drafts folder and found this. I recently visited London and went to a talk on food in China and the Docklands Museum which reignited my interest in food and urbanisation. Since I am too busy and too lazy (it’s a bad combination) to write a new post a propos of these experiences, you’ll have to make do with this thing I wrote in response to Jamie’s Ministry of Food last year instead. Sorry. 😉


(Originally written in November 2008)

Firstly, I do not feel that (short of a bit of childish sniping against supermarkets and the planning systems that encourage them) I can make any social critique of Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food that can add anything to Felicity Lawrence’s wonderful article in the Guardian about class, poverty and food in Britain. I thoroughly recommend you read it.

I was, typically, interested in it from a more esoteric perspective as I was at the time reading Hungry City by Carolyn Steel, which was flawed, I felt, but an utterly fascinating read nonetheless and a brilliant idea. It’s another book about the industrialisation of our diet and various concomitant evils, but as she’s an architect by training it is quite tangibly situated in real, physical spaces and I am now plotting a tour of London based on the history of its food supply. The first section, ‘The Land’, underlines the reliance of urban areas on the countryside to feed them and how, before the railways, it was impossible to ignore this as feeding cities was a challenge, a logistical nightmare. Cities were, necessarily, smaller and full of markets, gardens, vegetable debris, animals and slaughterhouses, making it obvious that what you eat has to come from somewhere even if you don’t grow it yourself, but once it became possible to transport larger quantities of food more quickly and from further away, not only did the urban population increase exponentially, but also lost that some of that connection with the land that sustains them. In the 16th century, for example, a city would have relied (largely) on a belt of farmland surrounding it, but now that footprint must look less like concentric circles and more like a set of lines snaking in from all around the globe – corn from America, coffee from Kenya, cotton from Mali, made into clothes in China, vegetables from Leicestershire, fruit from Kent…

Another thing that was made clear in the book (although I was aware of it before), and which Lawrence refers to as well, is the fact that the urban poor in Britain have always lived mostly on takeaways and/or processed crap. Most Victorian workers’ houses were built without kitchens and they mostly bought food from street vendors, although these were at least plentiful and accessible and the food deserts that many deprived urban areas are today are a modern phenomenon. Similarly, many evacuees during the Second World War came from the docklands area of east London, which was of obvious strategic importance and largely inhabited by unskilled workers and their families, and many of them had never eaten anything but fish and chips, white bread and tea and didn’t know the difference between sheep and pigs or that chickens laid eggs.

It’s the scale of it, now that 80% of us live in cities, that’s most shocking, and many of the comments of the people featured in Jamie’s Ministry of Food bear this out. There was a lot of squeamishness about touching raw meat and fish, but also about onions, and also a general disbelief in one’s own capabilities – ‘Me? Cook? Nah, I couldn’t do that…’ as if it was something strange and outlandish.


I always liked the name of the ‘Eat the View’ programme because it seemed to encapsulate the impact of our individual decisions and actions on the landscape. (Do you like looking at pretty green fields with hedges or dry-stone walls round them and a smattering of sheep in them? Does the food you choose to eat reflect that?) The more I think about it, the more I think our dysfunctional food culture is a product of alienation from the land more than anything else. Not that we should all necessarily go back to being peasant farmers (more of us do need to become food-producers of some description, but that’s a different story), but the stories we are told and tell ourselves about food are sharply in contrast with the reality of what we eat. Hedgewizard mentioned this last week (see especially his third paragraph) and the recent Chicken Out label competition touched on it too. Subsidies, ‘externalities’ and supermarket pricing distort our perception of the costs of food – labour costs, environmental costs and social costs are all picked up elsewhere. I bet most people imagine their food comes from a ‘farm’ a bit like the toy farm most children have – a farmhouse, a barn, a few sheep, a few cows, a horse, some chickens and a little tractor – yet in most cases, even with a lot of organics, this is far from the truth.


March 13, 2009 at 2:04 pm 1 comment

Food in the news 9th – 13th March 09

Since this week’s veg box, once again, arrived just as I was finishing lunch, my own meal was a little short on vegetables. Still, spaghetti with chilli, garlic, chorizo and olive oil was perfectly adequate and I read a couple of interesting things on my break.

Firstly, there was this article about the Michelle Obama championing local food, soup kitchens and community gardens. Whether it translates into actual progress in these areas remains to be seen, but I did love this quote:

“It’s like: How do we keep the calories down but keep the flavors up?” said Mrs. Obama, who also praised a healthy broccoli soup prepared by White House chefs.

“That’s one of the things that we’re talking a lot about,” she said. “When you grow something yourself and it’s close and it’s local, oftentimes it tastes really good.

“And when you’re dealing with kids, for example, you want to get them to try that carrot. Well, if it tastes like a real carrot and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy. So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they’re fresh and local and delicious.”

(My bold.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I love to hear people talking about food – normal, everyday food, that is, not just fancy-schmancy restaurant/telly chef food – and mentioning words like ‘taste’ and ‘sweet’ and ‘flavour’.

Unlike this story, which made me want to bang my head against a wall repeatedly. Taxing chocolate? Why just chocolate? Why not fizzy drinks, Chorleywood-process bread, crisps? I could go on… I don’t deny that, along with other incentives and public health measures, increasing tax on tobacco played a vital role in tackling smoking, nor that policies to change the fact that our cultural, economic and physical landscape does not encourage healthy eating, or indeed a healthy lifestyle, are desperately needed (and thus far woefully inadequate), but singling out one particular product seems rather… well, bizarre, is the best word I can come up with. And yet more punitive taxes for the general public which ignore the larger forces at work. Have our policy-makers no imagination? You can’t solve the obesity epidemic without hurting companies like Tate and Lyle (biggest receiver of farm subsidies in the UK), Nestlé, Coca Cola, Tesco et al. It just isn’t going to happen, because their business model relies on acquiring cheap raw materials, padding them with water, air, salt and nasty chemical additives and selling them at a huge mark-up, because we humans are hard-wired to crave sugar and fats and the fruit, bread, cheese etc on sale in supermarkets taste like paper. You choose: ready-prepared spaghetti bolognese that is so loaded with sugar and salt it, y’know, actually tastes of something and takes three minutes in the microwave, or simmering tough, tasteless mince for ages and chopping pale pink water-bomb tomatoes for the sauce, a meal that feels vaguely virtuous but doesn’t taste of much and having to wash up afterwards?

Dear god, someone help me write 300 words on why a MA in the Anthropology of Food will help me develop my career to persuade this nice trust fund to give me some money so I can STOP THIS MADNESS. (Or at least, y’know, help.)

March 13, 2009 at 1:31 pm Leave a comment

Most recent ramblings

March 2009
« Feb   Apr »
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."