An ancient Jamie Oliver-inspired musing on food and urbanisation

March 13, 2009 at 2:04 pm 1 comment

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. 😉

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(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.

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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.

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Entry filed under: farming, food, pensiveness, ramble, supermarkets.

Food in the news 9th – 13th March 09 Chutney recipe

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. lettersfromwetville  |  April 13, 2009 at 1:53 am

    This is brilliant. I missed Felicity Lawrence’s article as I now live in wetville instead of London (and really, who knows what other excuses all the way back in last October). I’ve been thinking about class and food and this has really properly got me thinking more.

    Thank you sprouting broccoli!

    Reply

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