Coffee Shop Musings (What is food?)
We all need food and water to live, it's the fuel that lets us live, breath, function, (pro)create and die within our designated operating life-cycle. So why do so many of us do it so badly, and why does it take us so long to get a grip of eating well? How much of your health battery are you giving away with every bite?
Context: I am writing this as a late 40's, overweight child of the rise of processed food. I would guess I could be classed as middle-class (though I can't afford any sort of Bohemian lifestyle, more's the pity). I live in a suburban setting of a very small city, with a small garden I am incredibly shit at making productive.
Talking from a UK viewpoint we have had, when I was growing up, a constantly bad reputation for the quality of the food we produced. Cooking shows would barely go a week without some reference to 'how much better the standard of UK menus are now' in earnest terms, with serious nodding and deference to French cuisine. There is still the inevitable rise and fall of keen assertions that traditional UK beef and suet cooking is actually not stodgy and brown, really; please don't say it is - here, look at this broccoli I have charred - eat Jerusalem artichokes! HORSERADISH DAMMIT!!! Then chefs will get a grip and do what Britain does best, adapting food from the rest of the world into something the UK palate can handle - full of sexy colours and Mediterranean miracles. But that's restaurants and has no effect on us, right? Interesting question...
As with many of the questions I am asking in these posts, everything needs to be looked at through the lens of Social Media. 'Oh dear, here he goes again..' - yes I'm sorry, but it's the age we live in so get used to it. My mother (for she was the cook I have for reference in my household) was always up against the twin
challenges of lack of sources and money. The lack of sources was self-inflicted as both were vegetarians in the 1980's, in Scotland - insert pithy Scotland and vegetables joke here. There was no internet, little in the way of vegetarian food supplies and certainly no Instagram feed with a steady source of recipes. Money was due to relocating north from Coventry during high interest rates, negative equity and a truly aspirational house purchase - they could only afford to carpet and heat one room. Before the 'snowflakes these days don't understand struggle' brigade jump on this comment as proof that the current state of living in the UK somehow isn't that bad 'because it was bad before, and it turned out fine for my parents with their inside ice windows' I would point out that in comparison I am going to be that generation that is comparatively much worse off in my old age and working longer. Statistically, I am more likely to have a lower life expectancy than my parents, and my pension is utter crap compared to what my father receives. The one advantage I do have, however, is that being vegetarian is a lot easier, though the pitfalls of food industrialisation are not to be avoided with a plant-based diet any more.
The rise of processed food is linked to the Industrial Revolution and started with the increase in disposable income of the middle-classes in the 19th century. Combined with people moving from the countryside (food source) to cities (work locations, pretty stinking) necessitated processing and preserving of foods that could be got from source to market without turning into a gooey, maggoty mess. Colonialism also had its hand in the process with the accelerated production of sugar in the 18th century due to the slavery fuelled triangular trade (it first appeared on our shores in the 13th century and Jamaica started producing sugar as a colony in the late 1600s), it moved from well-off cure-all to an ingredient for the masses. It was promoted in some circles as a miracle food, that should be used in absolutely everything, even going up your nose or being used as toothpaste... It has been the basis for a lot of our recipes since, and we are at the mercy of hundreds of years of sugar-based thinking that took off with the rise of the supermarket in the 1950's and 1960's. It's no longer limited to fish fingers and crispy pancakes - the twin threat of sugar and salt balancing each other out in a crazy palate tickling arms race is staggering- they've managed to get into processing the living daylights out of vegetables, and I firmly place the blame for recent acceleration of this at the feet of lazy vegans!
Woah! Carrumba - why are you wailing on vegans? As a vegetarian, surely you should be more supportive? Yes I am, though I am slightly salty at bad restaurants assuming that all vegetarian options need to be vegan, replacing any cheese with versions that taste of sadness and punishment; props to Vandal & Co. who know how to distinguish between vegan and vegetarian worlds. The laziness I am referring to here is symptomatic of how food is treated, and we are now entering the age of ultra-processed foods where recipes are constructed with extracts and chemicals. Vegan food is in a stormy place as it feeds mass appeal generated through initiatives such as Veganuary coupled with heightened awareness of how the industrialised production of meat is destroying global habitats. As carnivores are tempted away from their traditional burger, the trauma of not having bacon makes them calm their quivering lower lip by seeking out created meat replacements; they're all the rage but often contain soya which is a little like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Soya is often grown on rainforest cleared land to feed cattle and is switched to being sold to feed humans instead, with 57% of UK imported soya beans coming from Brazil through Liverpool docks. The industrial food machine has reacted to a new market and is wringing all the cash it can out of it with merciless efficiency, with the consumer paying the cost with their health battery. But at least Richard and Sonia feel righteous, tucking into their fake bacon and sheese rolls, righteously shaking a lettuce leaf over their oat milk flat white while posting grinning pictures of their breakfast joy to Instagram #vegan #notmiserablehonest. These are the lazy vegans of which I speak, not ALL vegans!
Our Ultra-processed reality means that the food industry are so committed to firing out delicious food at as low a financial cost as possible that foodstuffs are now so padded out with extracts that they are convenient and appealing but of questionable benefit to anyone that eats it. The old adage that 'you don't get something for nothing' needs to be taught in school and taken as a default mindset when thinking about food, not just dubious offers by email. The cheap, convenient and engineered tasty food balances out its cheapness by having the consumer pay through their health battery - how often have you eaten a McDonalds (other fast food is available) and very quickly felt hungry again? Your battery is never full, and you buy more food; if you're buying more ultra-processed food, you're never fully recharging your battery and there is increasing evidence it is damaging your ability to hold charge.
We need to get back to using raw ingredients and not relying on processed alternatives. This is not easy to do in our fast, processed, 'click now for life' TikTok reality. Even with my slightly privileged position set out at the start of this article, I am time poor during the working week. Working from home has made it a little easier and my diet has improved with the lack of a staff canteen to buy hash brown rolls from in the morning (mmm... hash browns...) but the challenge is real. Which brings me back to my mother who now, in retirement, is a one-person bakery, preserve maker and batch cooker. She grows so much veg in their back garden between May and October, I am in regular receipt of runner beans and cucumbers for a fabulous month each year; if it can't be turned into a chutney, it makes its way to me. I grow more veg now than I used to, and am currently enjoying wild garlic and perpetual kale in my cooking. I have also signed up to a local growers collective where I can get organic, chemical free veg weekly (with minimal production miles) to try and improve my diet and eat a bit more seasonally - the initial purchases have passed the Mrs C. cost versus supermarket test, but I am under no illusions that it is pricier.
As I have aged, and parts of me have started to malfunction due to my processed lifestyle (gout, arthritis, crappy memory, pre-diabetic) the importance of what I put in my engine has become clearer, and I am trying to be more like my mum. There are still tinned (processed) foods in there such as lentils, beans and coconut milk, but I am trying to get away from being tempted by frozen pizzas and veggie sausages. I've become a bit of a stir-fry evangelist and have moved away from ultra-processed Quorn to use tofu which, though processed, doesn't have stuff added.
Gaining confidence to take cookbooks as a starting point to free-wheel off and create food I enjoy rather than a performative piece to grace Master Chef makes cooking fun. It's difficult and only going to get tougher with UK farmers currently objecting to the price supermarkets pay them for food that will push up costs, regardless of what inflation is doing. UK residents pay the lowest proportion of their household budget on food, cmpared to other EU countries, but have the highest rates of obesity and poor health with current UK government approaches to free market ideology doing little to change our reliance on cheap, processed calories.
It's a complex issue with so many consequences for the health of ourselves and the planet linked to the food we buy. The global food industry and UK local ideology makes it more confusing and difficult than ever before to know what is the best thing to do.