We are what we eat: an amalgamation, a conglomerate of bacteria, enzymes and various other microbes that connect us not only to other people but to the world, to nature, to plants and animals, and other living things. We are taught this in bite size, in biology classes at school, environmental literature and films that now seem to proliferate a global scene that is awakening unto the damage of our consumer capitalist society. While progress has been made to stymy our human depredation, to decrease our carbon footprint, not much is being done to preserve primordial flavours, the kinds of food people were motivated, beyond the throes of hunger, to work for hours upon hours to produce.
Dan Barber, in his incredible book The Third Plate, writes that one of the biggest issues with us as consumers today is that we have forgotten the taste of wheat. We are willing to consume inferior varieties of grain simply because we cannot remember what it was like before industrial adulteration. While the chef talks about corn and wheat, meat and other staples, he is in essence, referring to most food that is produced and sold to us. Items down supermarket isles, even in the produce and meat sections, have all been altered, contorted and experimented on for the sake of higher yields and homogeneity. Since the industrial revolution, in an effort to make human life easier and more efficient, the food we eat has experience tremendous change. What we eat now, what is incorporated in the fast food that we consume, the jar and packets we tip into pots when we ‘cook’ at home, is so far removed from the real, truest form, that access to delicious, pure ingredients is becoming increasingly difficult to attain.
When I ate bread as a child, it was almost always sliced, processed bread. At school, I used to hope that the sandwich my mum would send for tiffin was white and stretchy bread, instead of crumbly and with a hard crust, because I liked it when it stuck to my palate and didn’t break as easily. As I grew older we started getting browner slices, still processed, and soon loaves with seeds which we eventually learned to like. But when I got to London, and started walking by bakeries redolent with the inviting smell of fresh bread, I was converted by a loaf of freshly baked rye, a life-changing delicious loaf of rye, and have been buying fresh bread ever since.
Recently, however, having cooked my way through my cupboards and fridge, in a state of absolute hunger, I bought a sliced loaf of Hovis Granary because the Tesco Express that I went to does not sell fresh bread. When I got home I tasted a slice with some butter, and after a bite or two, could not bring myself to finish it. The bread was revolting. It was like chewing on soft grainy cud, or a soap sponge after scrubbing the bottom of a scorched pot. What had happened to my taste buds? I’d tasted this bread before. Or was it that I had spoiled myself with good bread, real bread, bread that would go stale in a couple of days, and finally had the flavour veil lifted after years of conditioning? It was indeed a revelation, and probably why writers like Barber and Michael Pollan have become so important to me.
The enemy, as we all know but continuously ignore, is the processed food industry. The people that produce the stuff that is standardised, and sold to us as cheap and easy to consume. These products are everywhere now, and are even insidiously manipulating trends under the guise of convenience, and health consciousness. They’ve got the calorie counts, some even incorporate conventionally considered nutritious ingredients, but all have undertaken a quality controlled, sterilised process that has effaced the little things that contribute to robust and wholesome flavours. These processes change our human relationship with food, adulterating our perceptions and expectations in a way that drives us towards a certain kind of consumption.
I do not think many of us would be able to kill an animal unless we absolutely had to, and even then, some might decide it would be better on their conscience to starve. There is a sense of responsibility that is felt when you take a life, at least the first time it is done. But for us, the whole process: the breeding, the rearing, the killing and now even the cooking, is all someone else’s burden to bear. The value that is attached to ingredients, to crops, to the animals, depreciates in direct proportion to the length of the process. It is our ignorance, and our avoidance of responsibility, if not for the sake of our planet then for the sake of taste that is causing the trend to proliferate. We know about bad farming practices, animal mistreatment and most negative occurrences in food production, but we do not change our lifestyles because we have forgotten what it is like to eat a properly grown ear of corn, or the meat from an animal that has lived well, and has had ‘just one bad day’.
A large quantity of the food we eat outside our own homes, would not be thought of as fast food if we were to make them ourselves. Simple stuff like fried chicken and barbecue would become laborious and left only for special occasions. I mean think about it. Fried chicken requires to be seasoned, sometimes marinated and brined, then breaded, for the oil to be at the correct temperature and disposed of properly. The chicken then has to rest, then be drained before being served. Barbecue is less complicated but takes hours to cook well. When I worked for a month at KFC as a cook, a cog in a proverbially well-oiled machine, I realised how dangerous working in the process could be. We got frozen packets of chicken we needed to defrost, flour prepped in a tub before shift, and oil set at the perfect temperature for frying. All we had to do was toss the chicken in the breading a certain way, put them on trays and then bang they’re in the fryer for ten minutes or so (if I remember correctly), and then put in a heat rack until sold. Since the chicken came ready chopped, at no point did I ever have to stop and consider that the meat I was handling was once an animal. I was desensitised by the mechanism despite handling the ingredients before they were cooked.
Most people these days would rather purchase a ready meal than actually make anything in the kitchen from scratch. They’d rather spend their time watching cooking shows on stream or on the TV, eating vicariously through their screens. The end is so tempting and seductive that no one deems it necessary to bother with the means: just order the food over the phone or online and it is on your dining table in minutes. It is a matter of convenience, a more than a little laziness, but mostly it comes down to the ease of access to pre-prepared processed food products at affordable prices. While I understand that this allows more people to eat what they otherwise may not have been able to afford, we are slowly growing further and further detached from both the essence of the food we eat and ourselves. We are the only species on earth that consciously and deliberately cooks, making it a facet that identifies our humanness. If we stop cooking, does that make us less human?
There have been attempts to make a difference through the visual medium, from Jamie Oliver’s food revolution in schools to Gregg and Chris going into family kitchens to show them how to grocery shop. All are essentially trying to do the same thing, which is to explain that fresher, home cooked meals are more delicious, cheaper and better for you than anything that comes in a box or tin. I read a piece by AA Gill a while ago about how inmates on death row, for their final meal, ask for sodas, burgers, pizzas, and other forms of fast food. Almost no one asks for something home cooked, something their mother or father would have made, the truest and the best cooking they’ve had. He argues that it is probably because these criminals have no such experience of being cooked for, the love that comes as a not-so-secret ingredient when someone prepares a meal for you. It is perhaps because they have been deprived of this love that they’ve become the offenders they have turned out to be. And there is something for us regular law-abiding people to learn. Has our estrangement from the contemplative process of cooking, the meditative practices of recipe preparation, communal sharing and all the things that home cooking provides to us as a society, adversely affected us as human beings? It is a difficult question to answer, but one that we must all pose.
It seems it takes a personal experience with cuisine, the kind where you have an epiphany a moment of realisation, where the shades of automatised life come off and you realise that perhaps what you are doing, what you are eating, is not quite right. Take for example the great chef Alain Passard of the three Michelin starred Arpege. He first earned his stars cooking mostly meat, the French way, after years of training and perfecting his art, and then one day, decided that working with meat was proving too much for his sensibilities. For a man that works so close to his ingredients, the idea of so many animals being killed, the preparing of them for service in a way that was traditional, consistent and without empathy was beyond his capability. So, he took a break, and when he came back, he announced that his restaurant would only serve vegetables. A risk taken, but to his success, for he still managed to retain his three stars and has done ever since. But having danced with extremes, Passard now maintains a healthy balance in his restaurant. He admits in his episode of Chef’s Table that perhaps he was too harsh on his guests when he made the radical swap to vegetarianism. He still maintains a menu that is predominately vegetable, but he does serve seafood and other proteins on a menu that is ever-changing. Balance as always is key.
Arpege is an exemplification on the topmost end of the spectrum, one of the many. Look at Blue Hill, Noma and some of the other great restaurants in the world. There is such an emphasis on meticulous sourcing and quality ingredients that most have their own farms because of how little they trust the agricultural industry. But even us regular folk, in our own homes, at work, on vacation, we must find an analogous balance, reacquaint ourselves with things we take for granted and make more conscious decisions about what we put into our baskets and how we eat. The closer we get to the meal on our tables, the ingredients used, where they came from, the sooner we will find that our relationship with food changes for the better. These days we are persistently searching far and wide for that quick fix, that resolution to all our problems from climate change, to obesity when it may just be right under our noses. Once we remind ourselves of our roots, understand the flawed trajectory of our cultural and gastronomic evolution, we soon realise that if we are to affect positive change, then it is imperative that we go back to the kitchen.