“What are you having for dinner? I want to know!”
I ask people all the time. I want descriptions, I want pictures. I want inspiration. I’m not the kind of person who rolls their eyes at the perfectly portioned plates on Instagram. I’m the type that looks up the menu of a restaurant well in advance of going there and meticulously plans every mouthful. I’m curious about food, I’m passionate… but honestly? Mostly I’m just hungry.
Right now, in this very precarious moment, it is a curious time to be a glutton. We are simultaneously doing food innovation at a breakneck pace and facing a catastrophic climate-induced global food crisis.
COVID-19 has accelerated the conversation around food insecurity and cracked open a fear that’s been rumbling for a long time. The idea that our food supply is incredibly fragile. In any kind of crisis or emergency, the systems we know and trust are pushed to breaking point. Stockpiling and demand can leave shelves bare, workers fraught, and the most vulnerable in society exposed.
I think on some level, we all know that we cannot go on and continue with business as usual. Choices need to be made because eventually, that choice is going to be out of our hands. I, for one, have never done very well when I’m told what to do and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
What I believe we need to do, with urgency, is address the conversation around food sustainability and broaden it out. Make it accessible too all, and most important of all, we have to make it exciting.
So how do we do that?
1. Recognising that creating ‘moral food’ narratives only fans the flames of division.
Food is not a battlefield, and dividing us into camps of good vs evil isn’t useful. I think we know by now that the industrialised meat and dairy industry is destructive to the planet but we need to be compassionate and realise that not everyone wants to go vegan. At least not right now.
I was a vegetarian for years, and then I wasn’t. I would hope that I wasn’t one of the judgemental preachy ones, but I probably was. What broke me was a plate of Texas BBQ at SXSW festival, and though I promised myself I’d go back to the meatless yonder eventually the lure of cured ham was too strong.
I did start to make better choices about the meat I ate because it made me realise that if I was to continue to have nice things then I needed to reassess my relationship with the food I took for granted. That will mean that yes, meat intake is reduced overall, but also maybe we need to reconnect with the land on a deeper level and be more in tune with the process of farm to table.
There’s something about going back to some of the older ways and having a direct relationship to the meat we consume. I’m fascinated by the tales of the Italian Norcini, the legendary travelling butchers who would drive in pairs from town to town in rural Italy. The butcher cut up the meat and broke it down, and the salumiere cured it and turned that meat into salumi. Together, they made the salumi for every season, from fresh sausage for the next day, to prosciutto for the following year. Returning to the loyal farmers and families that it serviced year again and again.
Do we all need to raise and butcher pigs at home? No. My landlord wouldn’t be too keen for one… but it would be all need to moving in the same direction together if we are to create a sustainable future.
Divisions aren’t helpful, but compassion and understanding is.
2. Good food should be accessible to all, and we need to recognise privilege.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth…class privilege and ‘sustainable’ food are deeply interlinked. Jamie Oliver can tell a single mother on £690 in universal credit to buy an organic chicken all he wants, but really unless he’s walked a mile in her shoes he has no place to point a finger.
Much like using morality in food to sew seeds of division, we need to realise we can’t exclude people from such an important narrative by blaming and shaming them. Post COVID we are heading for another huge recession and food scarcity will be a part of that. I don’t know how much value I can add to the discourse but there is someone who can. So I’ll refer you to Jack Monroe, who’s blog post ‘Hunger Hurts’ went viral in 2012 and now spends their days developing healthy, delicious, very affordable recipes using tinned veggies and fruits ‘bargain-bin’ ingredients and cutting down on waste. For many, they have become a beacon for those on fixed incomes but they also straddle the line of being able to talk about class and wealth privilege and mouth-watering food in the same breath so beautifully that I could not do them justice.
3. Nourishment isn’t just about nutritional value, it’s about the way our food makes us feel.
There’s a scene in the film Ratatouille where a notoriously harsh restaurant critic comes to review a fine-dining joint. Instead of being presented with luxurious asymmetric squiggles and micro herbs he’s instead presented with a simple ‘peasant’ dish of vegetable Ratatouille. With the very first bite, he is instantly transported back to his childhood. In a warm kitchen in rural France, a Summer glow streaming through the doorway, a steaming bowl of comfort coupled with a pat on the head from his mother. It’s time travel in a mouthful.
That’s what food does, it transports us back to the people and places we love and connects us with one and other.
I can still remember vividly the taste of my great Grandmother’s bolognese and her roast potatoes, and the smell of her cake tin. I remember the heady aroma of her greenhouse, stocked with tomatoes, and the warmth I felt playing in there, holding her hand, picking some and eating them straight off the vine. She passed away years ago but she lives on in every single moment I happen to get a waft of fresh tomato. Suddenly I’m there again, right with her, in the warmth.
The conversations that we have around food need to take into account how deeply emotive it can be for people, and how it goes beyond our bellies but feeds our souls.
If we are to build a food future that isn’t just sustainable, but also delicious we need to look at food from a place of abundance and excitement, not scarcity and fear-mongering. That healthy balance of knowing what we’re up against if we don’t change how we look at our supply chain and the environmental impact of our desire for consumption, and the joyful excitement of embracing what comes next.