by Mario Molinari
It is as if people were surplus to requirement. Rejects. Seconds. It starts with food and an assessment of what it is and how it affects us. The dimension of food to our understanding of the way we live and work is somewhat overlooked. Two dimensions stand out: food is for life and food is for learning too. Should we enter the food cycles first we would then be in a very fortunate and privileged position to enter all life cycles. Welcome to Life!
We reminisce at times and say that food is the produce of the soil. Has food lost its way and if so what is this substance we eat and drink? Can you think of any food you have said fervently ‘no’ to, apart from brussel sprouts? From junk to taboo foods there is quite a lot we turn down because we say it is not to our taste. We call food what we like, and is edible; and we call offal all the rest – what we dislike, and is inedible and yucky. But is what we like always good for us, or maybe even right for us? Can taste be our only guide? Food requires a more detailed definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) food is, ‘What is taken into the system to maintain life and growth, and to supply the waste of tissue’. There is no disguising one’s disappointment. Firstly, can we be sure that anything goes? Is there an optimum intake? On the specifics, when it comes to maintaining life and growth (no less!) food is in good company – air, water and carbon also maintain and support life. Food is not unique in this respect.
And secondly, the OED errs on the side of caution when placing food at the point of consumption onwards with the misplaced emphasis, we would argue, on what we take down and eat. Enjoy. The ambience is faultless but for one thing. Crucially, something has come off the menu … and it is not the hors d’oeuvre! What has come off is food production. How do we know that food does what it is supposed to? How is it being produced? Where? Should food production not be part of the equation? There are many good reasons why food production and food consumption should be covered together, and these are the same reasons for wanting to put two and two together. We need to bathe, blanch and immerse ourselves in that production process. Production evokes the making, creating and growing cycles. Of all possible food definitions one stands out head and shoulders above all others – food is the produce of the soil that is taken into the system …
Production is blanked out. Instead consumption gets all the attention, and accolades. As it stands, the OED definition is not an isolated case and, almost everywhere, the emphasis is on eating better, first bite, the 5-a-day promotions, healthy eating, the cuisines of the world, cream chicken risottos, and diets and waste streams. ‘Don’t Cook! Just Eat!’ pretty much sums up our attitude to food – eat, drink, and be merry. So cosy! Offal then becomes the unwanted, the undesirable and the uninvited guest. The wisdom of the day is the word of the day as recorded in the OED.
In their inimitable ways, the grand economies of scale have bagged food. Gone are the days when we could return to the soil what came from the soil. Return to the sea what came from the sea. Gone are the seasons replaced by shelf life. Gone is conviviality replaced by the festivity of coupons. Gone is substance for looks. Gone is texture for smoothies. Gone is full nutritional value for vitamin supplements, and, last but not least, gone is the sight of outdoor chickens for drum sticks. Animals are gutted and decapitated lest we make eye contact. Fish is filleted, sauced and peppered. White meat is lean and clean, almost polished, with any trace of blood removed. The battle still rages on. The equation is skewed.
The best part of food is left out, entrails and all, of our calculations. There are many a story of seeds we do not plant, of crops we do not harvest, of forbidden fruits we do not eat, and the half thrown away mayo sandwich we could no longer stomach. What grabs the headlines is a type of Alice in Wonderland bacchanal. Unsafely, floating waste laps at the plimsoll line. The shadows of the grand distribution, the sea routes, the industrial refrigeration and the spaghetti junctions loom large. They create and consecrate the prize winners – the benign big earners and spenders – and fashion too the many losers and health sufferers. They do not see it that way nor do they see uncommon queues forming everywhere and getting longer still. It is a tragedy, but they do not see it that way. Be that as it may, we fail to recognise that food is our consciousness. What is missing is an important oddment – the great pyrotechnics of food. Say food and the term transports you to the unfolding of life with its hues and colours, its waters and energy, and then meadows and caterpillars. The inclusiveness of food is exclusive to food, warts and all. Life can meet all our expectations.
But, alas, the very ground we stand on is a-groaning. The human costs are hushed. Talent is unrealised, dreams are shattered, journeys are interrupted.