Monday, June 04, 2007

A Shopper Writes...

Just back from my local supermarket (a Sainsbury's, since you ask), which, like most, is becoming ever more self-consciously 'green', organic and 'ethical'. What dilemmas shopping poses for the caring shopper these days - I know, entire sections of the Guardian are given over to these thorny issues, which are always getting complicated by stuff like this.
I can't help thinking that if we Brits had a healthy relationship with food - i.e. appreciated it for taste, quality and what it does to our bodies - we wouldn't be in any of these pickles. We'd be eating mostly locally as a matter of course, and eating vastly better. We'd be, in fact, French - Zut alors! There's always a downside... Perhaps our sick ideas about food - notions of food as mere 'fuel', suspicion of taking pleasure in eating (and drinking), the prevalence of eating disorders and dieting (they go together) - are all a legacy of our Protestant deracination from nature, alienating us from our bodies and the simple pleasures of living. Time for lunch.


  1. Local, in-season produce is all very well and good but unless it is leavened with stuff we can't grow here, it can become monotonous. Winter would be unbearable without imported green-stuff. I live in the fens - turnips, anyone?

  2. Well quite, Sophie - a British winter without imports from warmer countries would be pretty unbearable. The French don't (quite) make a fetish out of local produce and they use far more imports than they used to - but I reckon if you value taste, freshness and quality this will naturally lead you towards seasonal and local produce much of the time.

  3. I always eat locally, except when I travel. All my food comes from the local grocery store.

  4. But seriously, folks. Has anyone done the math to figure out whether a large factory farm with its economies of scale just might be able to deliver produce with a smaller carbon footprint per pound than a couple thousand small operators each with their small, outmoded, inefficient tractors and their antiquated, oil burning pickup trucks? Is the organic food/locally grown craze really about carbon economics or is it just a religion of aesthetics?

  5. philip wallingJune 04, 2007 5:28 pm

    That Pelagius is to blame for this - separating the body from the soul, this world from the next and making us suspicious of (if not downright hostile to) sensual pleasure. We British therefore can't distinguish between really good food (which is also a pleasure to eat) and rubbish because we can't really get pleasure from food - to most people it's just fuel, as you say Bryan.
    And as for locally grown food being boring, Sophie, it is precisely because we have the above attitude that nobody grows anything much out of the ordinary because there's little British demand for it and the idea of food in season has been lost. Here in Northumberland I grow, and we eat, all manner of vegetables in their due season. There's nothing wrong with the British climate for vegetable growing, it's the British attitude that's wrong and has got worse, despite the recent 'eat local' and 'organic' campaigns.
    Damn the Reformation! The Protestant tendency seems to be to narrow down and reduce diversity and that's what's at the heart of it all.
    As for the silly 'Duck' person I really don't know where to start. Factory farms producing what? And how do you make it grow? Best to do away with people altogether, eh, 'Ducky', because it just comes down to math [sic] in the end.

  6. Some good points in Protestantism though ultimately, anything in favour of iconoclasm would seem to be pretty life-hating.

  7. Mr Walling,
    So you concede my point that it isn't about reducing the carbon. That's why we have math, to figure these kinds of things out.

    Yes, of course, you've uncovered the dirty little secret of the factory farm. 150 years ago some 90% of people farmed. Nowadays only 3%. The other 87% had to be sacrificed. They were redundant, after all. The survivors who didn't end up in the death camps were put to work at soul-killing jobs in teh information industry where they suffer under large incomes and mandatory vacations and roomy suburban homes. Ye who eat from the factory trough have the blood of those farmers on your hands!

  8. Good stuff Philip - but the original post was me, not Bryan. I'm the other end of the pantomime horse.

  9. that article was vacuous, nige. why on earth did you link to it? did the writer not think to include some of the evidence?

    poor people have never ate well, there is no tradition for them to follow. I have no idea why the well-off refuse to eat well. maybe it's just accidental - you know, rationing, end of empire, the rise of the new middle-class...

    fact is, you can't feed the whole population on locally produced, organic food, so it's okay that those people choose not to bother with it.

  10. apparently, poor people in the 16th C used to eat oysters, their equivalent of a Gregg's nasty. Later people decided only the rich could eat oysters, and the poor went back to eating mud and snails.

    In time the Gregg's nasty will become a refined pleasure, like caviar, and people will wonder that they were once available to the poor and humble.

  11. no, it's bollocks to suggest that most Brits regard it as merely fuel. If that were the case, we'd be seeing sackfuls of soylent cubes on sale at Sainsbury's. Taste is everything - it's just not that sophisticated. Look at the British curry or pizza!

    Most, kids in particular, reject good food because they are unable to detect any flavours in it. they want obvious flavours!


    if you think eating oysters is three square meals a day then you're welcome to it.

  12. You should read the Independent more often Nige. In his weekly column Nigel Lawson revealed the beginnings of the organic fad - a horror of German fertiliser. It was german chemists who produced the first artificial fertiliser that modern farming depends on. I hope that doesn't spoil your appetite.

  13. A refined palate can only multiply one's dissatisfactions.

  14. philip wallingJune 04, 2007 6:54 pm

    Sorry Nige to confuse you with that Appleyard fellow; I thought you were one and the same person - ego and alter ego.

    Poor people have never ate [sic]well Ian Russell? Where do you get that idea from? Do you mean eaten fancy food, or good wholesome stuff? There is no recent tradition, I accept, but there was until we started importing from the Empire.
    And until refined and takeaway and processed (big-business food which makes huge profits out of pushing cheap un-nutritious ingredients like sugar and refined carbohydrate to people who don't know any better) poor people had no choice other than to eat well, (within fairly narrow limits, I admit). Poor people had to cook meals from cheap basic imgredients such as offal, bones, sheeps heads, and so on, combined with whatever vegetables they could get cheaply (usually in season, that's why they were cheap). It was the rich who ate refined flour and sugar, because they could afford it.
    Poor people (particularly women)made a virtue of having properly cooked wholesome food.
    To suggest complacently that because poor people have always eaten badly (which is not true) it's acceptable for them to continue to do so, is grotesque and, I should say, part of the Protestant attitude I'm railing against and which appears to have condemned vast numbers of people in this country to a lifetime (with decreasing expectancy of longevity) of illness, obesity and ultimately unhappiness. But the large corporations have to make their profits, and what does it matter if a bunch of chavs (growing in numbers) suffers?

  15. Philip,
    I would agree with you that most people follow appalling nutritional habits today, but you can't fault the factory farming industry for that. The blame is shared jointly by the food processing marketers and the consumers for promoting and purchasing the most addictive fares. As it is the food industry puts the healthiest and least healthy choices before the consumer, and anyone can eat as healthily as they choose.
    The rural poor of yesteryear may have made the best of their limited resources, and those limits may have worked to their advantage, but you aren't going to roll back today's consumerist bounty in favor of some equally limited menu of locally produced goods.

    If health and safety are your concerns, then there are further reasons to criticise the organic food industry. No pesticides means food with pests, and the nasty diseases that they bring with them. If hysteria hadn't killed the food irradiation business then we wouldn't have to worry about meats and produce with those nasty, preventable diseases.

    But again I ask, is the organic movement about health and safety or aesthetics?

  16. Health and safety OR aesthetics? Is there a difference, when it comes to food? Another Protestant distinction?

  17. Henry Ford King of the Production LineJune 04, 2007 7:37 pm

    Is the world & language of 'the consumer' a by-product of Protestantism also? Blessed is the consumer, for he shall inherit the shit the mass-manufacturers plonk in front of him.

  18. Nothing Protestant about it.

    Now lets be clear regarding aesthetics. There is the aesthetic quality of the food itself. Then there is the whole social aesthetic of the organic enthusiasm, about living authentically close to nature, yada yada. I think it is the latter that drives all the rage against industrial farming.

  19. Or perhaps it's a drop or two of humanity yada yada

  20. philip wallingJune 04, 2007 9:30 pm

    I agree with you Nige - 'health and safety or aesthetics' only a Protestant could have thought of that.
    'The whole social aesthetic of the organic enthusiasm' - what on earth are you on about Duck? Anybody who is capable of thinking in such words, let alone writing them, needs the kind of help that passeth understanding.
    'The aesthetic quality of the food itself' do you mean what it looks like or what it is? Marks and Spencer is only interested in what it looks like, but you can't separate form from substance - you can't have good food that doesn't both look good and is good at the same time.

  21. Well, Philip, I guess I'm just at a loss trying to figure out what motivates you organic/locally grown types. Lets rewind: Nige posts to an article saying organic isn't necessarily better for the environment. I ask the question whether organic proponents have done the math to see if it really saves on carbon over flying in produce from factory farms in California or Chile. You take that as some kind of call for an anti-human dystopia. And by dismissing the math, it is obvious that you really don't care about the greenhouse gas issues, so the environment isn't motivating your passion for local organically grown produce. So it must be an aesthetic thing. But seeing as blind taste tests have proven that people can't tell the difference between organic and industrially grown produce, It can't be the aesthetic of the food itself. And as there is no safety or nutritional advantage to organically grown foods, what else is there to conclude but that you just like the aesthetics of the idea of locally grown organic food?

    Please enlighten me, I'm an American.

  22. A modest proposal: start baking your own bread. Aside from being satisfying in itself, baking your own bread will change your attitude to other foods and, perhaps, introduce a little calm since the process cannot be rushed. You'll want good, tasty, nutritious fare to eat with your delicious bread, and you'll soon find this rules out most of the pap that supermarkets sell such as "taramasalata" consisting mainly of breadcrumbs and beetroot juice or the lardy grey sludge these places call pate. The more you can do yourself, the less you'll need (and eventually want) to have anything much at all to do with supermarkets.

  23. "So it must be an aesthetic thing. But seeing as blind taste tests have proven that people can't tell the difference between organic and industrially grown produce, It can't be the aesthetic of the food itself."

    Is your experience of reality so easily decided for you, Duck, that as opposed to personal experience, blind taste test results dished out "prove" to you that people can't tell the difference etc? No condescension intended but that line, "Please enlighten me, I'm an American."
    seems to be calling out to be subtitled
    "Please enlighten me, I'm up my arse, stupid, and proud of it."

    I know, living here in a pretty rural area, that, for example, I ate a free range chicken a couple of days ago, which to my ignorant taste buds certainly tasted far far better than a factory chicken. This was no aesthetically motivated hallucination. This as opposed to being some New Age theory to justify a feelgood philosophy, is completely logical as the freerange animal is for one thing, getting a far greater diet etc.
    Though one thought strikes me is that perhaps the people in the blind taste tests' sense of taste were so atrophied by eating sub-standard food that they couldn't detect the difference between good food and not good food. I hope that's enlightened your American self. Though what being American should have to do with any of this, I have no idea, apart perhaps from a silly self-congratulatory notion of being impervious to bullshit that one imagines the rest of the world succumbs to.

  24. seems to be calling out to be subtitled "Please enlighten me, I'm up my arse, stupid, and proud of it."

    That wasn't my intent, just a little self-deprecating humor to take the edge off.

    Ok, if you're going to talk about chicken, at least you're getting close to real food. Believe me, where taste is important, I'm all for the old ways. But you guys were going on about produce. You know, vegetables. Vegetables! So what if an organic asparagus spear tastes better than something grown with pesticides and lovingly picked by migrant Mexican labor. It's like saying that East German female shotputters are prettier than Russian female shotputters. It might be true, but who cares!

    And what's with the whole humanity thing? Jeez!!

  25. philip wallingJune 05, 2007 7:47 am

    Duck, this is my last word on this post, but have you tried tasting properly grown food and comparing the taste with industrial stuff? I suspect not.
    'Please enlighten me I'm american' - I think I would start by advising you to think for yourself and believe none of what you hear and half of what you see. There is no point in (apart from it being boring) expressing views that are not your own. Make up your own mind, not somebody else's.

  26. but when making up your own mind it is even more important to distinguish between an opinion and a fact, philip walling. :o)

  27. That started to strike me, Duck, that maybe I'd taken that line the wrong way, which you've now confirmed. My fault- you know how it is with bare words on a page. Though I'd have to disagree with the idea of who cares if they taste better if that's your point. I'd hope it would be fairly self-evident how it is in everyone's interests to have their community thriving at a local level, and this should as much as possible involve food locally produced. In fact this is what democracy in its real form should be all about-"responsible freedom within small self-governing groups, which is the first condition of a genuine democracy" as Aldous Huxley wrote(a one man universal education system), and such respocsible freedom must involve as much self-sufficiency across fields as possible.

  28. Meat Delivery ServiceFebruary 27, 2008 4:24 pm

    I always buy organically produced food, mostly for ethical reasons rather than nutritional. I'm hoping one day, with enough people buying organic, that the price tag will go down a bit.