Here’s some thinking out loud I did last year when I was working with Invisible Dust on their three-year Surroundings project, writing about vegetables. A strange but fulfilling commission. Rather than let this little essay gather digital dust on the hard drive, I’m sharing it with you, here.
A world of plenty
We live in a world of plenty. Yet still there are people that have nothing. We live in world where there is an abundance of food, yet still people starve. There are a shameful amount of people now reliant on food banks. There are growing rates of ‘food poverty’.
We live in a world that is divided into the haves and have nots. And we accept this as the norm because we choose to and a lot of us are greedy individuals, or rather we’re programmed to ensure our survival at all costs and, thus, we cling on to what we have. And tabloid newspapers and governments are rather keen to persuade us that poverty is the fault of those that are in it, rather than something that we could collectively change.
I have been poor, and not just during my time as an artist, and there have been times when I’ve been down to my last few quid but have had young children to feed. For those stuck in a poverty trap – and believe me, when you are poor, everything suddenly becomes more expensive, as anyone that has had to pay for electricity or gas with tokens or keys can testify – making ethical and educated choices regarding food purchases suddenly drops down the priority list, no matter how ethical and educated you might be. So piling a couple of baskets high with turkey twizzlers and smiling potato faces and lots of fatty, processed items from Iceland or Farmfoods or the like that will fill up plates and youngsters for a week, for hardly any money, is seductive. And it’s also about survival. Storing up fat in and on our bodies for the leaner times when we might have no money at all. Imagine that. Maybe you can’t.
I don’t recall the last time I couldn’t afford food. And that I couldn’t afford good food, and all the things that are rich in the right nutrients. Foods that will help me reduce the risk of heart disease, foods low in saturated fat and trans fat, and those that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils. I know what real food is; things that grow in the ground, on a tree, come out of the sea, run on the land, or fly through the air.
Humble brag but I am educated and, also, middle-class. I know what’s good for me. Yet such is the complexity of my relationship with food that I am often tempted by naughty things that will do me harm. Late night kebabs and curries, those packets of 20 (approx.) German meatballs you can get for a quid, a Peperami stick from the corner shop. Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodles. A Ginsters pasty. Not only should I know better, I do.
About five years ago, when I was heartbroken after a failed relationship, I hit food and drink hard in the way that Keith Richards hit heroin in the late sixties and seventies. Wild, enjoyable, hedonistic times but then one morning I woke up alongside someone I didn’t recognise, feeling fat and bloated. And, having looked in the mirror unable to recognise myself, had a revelation that if I was to go on living, and was ever to have another long-term relationship that would end in heartbreak, rather than a string of casual flings that involved eating unhealthy food off other people’s bodies, I had to do something about it.
And so, literally overnight, I did. I bought some cook books and applied the knowledge that I had stored at the back of my mind – my personal food knowledge larder, if you will. And started to purchase vegetables with regularity from a local greengrocers, and revelled in food preparation and cooking with fresh ingredients. I ate my five-a-day. Cut down on the booze. Consumed sensibly. Stopped eating after 6pm. Actually concerned myself with ethical farming, local farmers’ markets, and reconnected with the food on my plate, and where it was sourced.
I became a cliché, yes, but one that may live a couple of years longer. Interestingly, as I returned to something resembling an average weight for a man of my height, and my body fat reduced, people asked me if I was ok. Which they hadn’t when I’d needed them too. And lots of people thought I was ill. Very ill. And possibly dying. Which I wasn’t. And they were relieved when I explained my regime, and sometimes congratulated me, but I often thought that their reaction to me revealed that they had body image issues, and food-related issues, of their own. Which, of course, we all do.
All too rarely do writers open their emails in a morning to find that someone has commissioned them. An email to me from Invisible Dust offered me the chance to “write a new piece of writing on the theme of food and food sustainability” for their three-year Surroundings project. An offer so wonderfully vague that my positive response was pretty instantaneous. I could, within a certain remit, do whatever I wanted. Which isn’t always possible.
I write this having written this new piece of writing. And as I sit here having contemplated food and food sustainability in order to get that new piece of writing written, I realise that I’m still gathering my thoughts on what is an incredibly ‘big’ subject. Which might sound odd. Writers, especially those given open briefs, flounder and flounce about not really knowing what they’re doing, attempting to grasp at something mercurial and, well, non-existent, because of course until you get something down nothing does exist.
Initially, for no reason other than I thought there might be comic potential in concentrating on vegetables and because I only had a vague sense of what I was trying to achieve, I decided to keep a log of my vegetable intake. I mistakenly presumed that this long list would then simply result in an automatic poem that I could submit to Invisible Dust and we’d all be happy. It didn’t; it just resulted in a long list that revealed that I eat a lot of peppers, chillies, shallots and, erm, chips. With no poetic merit. Although, as a non-poet, it was better than a lot of my previous attempts at poetry.
There was a point when I considered the personification of vegetables as the way forward. You know, Keith the Carrot, Paula the Potato, ‘Arry the Artichoke. We’d all dress in funny veg suits, sprout from the ground, waving at the sun, and it would all be like a bad children’s TV show. This is, I think, based on my main childhood relationship to vegetables formed by the BBC television show That’s Life, on which Esther Rantzen used to flash her marvellous teeth and hold up various root crops and make us laugh at how they resembled genitalia (the root crops, not her teeth). Which is why I would never go near turnips and carrots when my mum served them up on the dinner plate.
Thankfully, I didn’t head down that innuendo-laden, waving cucumbers around as phallus weaponry in a fight scene cul-de-sac. I have, rather predictably, written a love story. Partly because the word ‘seduced’ kept coming up when I was reading and talking and thinking around the subject – we’re seduced by supermarkets to buy their ‘finest’ and ‘taste the difference’ products, we’re seduced by community food networks, container gardens, urban food projects, we’re seduced by the Fair Trade mark, we’re seduced by middle-class values that might lead to us buying boxes full of organic fruit and veg, we’re seduced by marketing, we’re seduced by the earth and all that nature offers, we’re seduced by local food producers and market stall traders. Some of these seduction techniques will transform our lives for the better. At other times, we’re being seduced by manipulative devils. How I wish I was a movement director and could cover all those bases via the medium of interpretive dance.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about our relationship to food. Thinspiration, a 2007 play, was about a young woman with an eating disorder who had come to view food as her “enemy”. She was in the midst of a battle but we didn’t present all that as binary conflict, because it isn’t. But it is interesting looking at the oppositional nature with which we regard foodstuffs and food production. Good food versus bad. Winter leaves wear a white hat in the cowboy movie, hot dogs clearly rock up head-to-toe in black. Factory farming is Darth Vader, organic veg Luke Skywalker. The whole world of food production and global resources is a battle of good versus evil.
A meeting with Dr Lewis Holloway from the Geography department at the University of Hull, who conducts research into food, farming and technology and most definitely wears a white hat, confirmed that my thinking was along the right tracks and also, ahem, gave me more food for thought.
When I worked in higher education I taught a module on semiotics but I’d never considered semiotics in relation to vegetables, until Lewis told me he taught a module on that. And, of course, I felt a fool that the cultural and religious significance of food, as well as the social, buying and sharing relationships we enjoy as a result of food, had barely registered on my radar. Even when I’ve broken bread with people I’ve barely known across a dinner table. Even when I’ve picked up unusual oddities from the world food store round the corner and they’ve explained various meanings that went with, say, the ingredients of Rendang for the people of Minangkabau, for whom the chilli symbolises ulama (the learned ones) and sharia (prescribed religious and secular duties). So, of course! Food is cultural as well as nutritional.
I left Lewis feeling wiser, as one should after having a cup of coffee and a natter with a leading academic. A lot of our conversation revolved around trust and how people currently have a need to rethink their relationship with food. For instance, supermarket food is intentionally disconnected from the soil, and their packaging and the clean, hygienic goods within were developed to gain consumer trust. But for others, that can’t be trusted at all because the dirt on something you’d pull from the ground yourself is a guarantee of authenticity and connects our food back to the earth.
We’re taking back control via ethical consumption, but also this is happening due to the rise in the number of middle class people, or people who perceive themselves as middle class, and the perception that to be middle class means certain things. Such as the pressure to buy, say, organic, and rejoice in that and tell everyone you bloody know that is what you’ve done, wearing it like a badge of honour.
Still, there’s a growing number of us asking those big questions of our food. Where’s it from? Is it safe? What damaging chemicals have been used in the growing process? Has it been ethically produced? And what about labour relations and bad working conditions for farm workers in some parts of the globe where our produce hails from? What negative environmental issues have been brought to bear getting this stuff to our plate? What’s the environmental cost of importing all those unseasonal foodstuffs we now demand all year round?
Then there’s the Commodity Veil that shrouds our consumption where, for our own psychological reasons, we actually like not knowing where the food we consume comes from. Especially when we think about cattle getting slaughtered or radishes screaming when they’re pulled from the soil.
We are clearly living in a world of re-attachment, after years of being detached from food production. The rise of alternative food networks and people taking pride in their purchases from farmers’ markets, buying veg boxes, the number of people on allotment waiting lists or developing veg plots in their own gardens. That’s all back to want to trust in produce and these alternative food networks are bridging the gap between people, place and production. And along the way farmers are changing their knowledge and thinking relating to farming and animals in order to keep pace with consumers, while developments in robotics, IT, and genetic science are all impacting on the food sector globally in positive ways.
Which is all very nice, isn’t it? And it offers us all hope.
Vegetables are mind blowing. It’s very easy to take them for granted and to stop marvelling at their magnificence. I genuinely recall the first time I saw a Romanesco Broccoli. Mainly, I think, because it was relatively recently and it arrived in the food box we have delivered weekly. And I held it in my hand and got lost in it for quite some time. It was quite a work of art. Psychedelic. Visually stunning and a maths lesson all in one. Fennel’s always thrilled me. And I rather appreciate a beetroot colouring my fingers.
All of which is a long-winded way of writing that, if I were to now start writing the piece of writing that Invisible Dust commissioned, then it would probably be a different piece of writing altogether. Because I’m still thinking, and I’m thinking more, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own thoughts on the theme of food and food sustainability, never mind being able to take those thoughts and turn them into something that might be useful to someone who would read or hear them. So I wrote a love story. Girl meets market trader. Falls in love. He gives her a bite of the apple. It goes a big wrong. But she learns something along the way and is much the better for it. That old trope.
And that is a long-winded way to get back round to the beginning of this essay, because I do like circular writing. I only ask questions, I’m not claiming to have any answers.
We do live in a world of plenty. There’s more than enough to go round.
You’re probably so intelligent that you’re ahead of me but we can’t expect supermarkets and freezer centres to lead us to a better world of food sustainability and ethically sourced produce, or to worry about the exploitation of farm workers, or to present alternatives to current models of food provision; they’re too busy locking food producers into terrible deals, capturing and attempting to monopolise the food market and constructing the demand they tell us we are asking them to supply in order to perpetuate their own myths and boost their own profits.
And we most definitely cannot expect governments to do anything other than pit us against each other, and encourage us to blame the poor for their stupidity because being poor is the fault of the poor, right? And being uneducated is their fault too. And you, from your middle-class, boastful organic food buying position are happy to go along with that, right? Because that way you get to hang on to what you’ve got and not feel guilty that you might, just might, be part of the problem.
Maybe that’s what needs to change, then?
Don’t worry. You’re off the hook. I’m actually addressing myself. Unless, of course, you recognise something of yourself in all this, in which case it’s most definitely all about you.
Surviving on this planet has always involved working together. Give a woman a three-pack of courgettes, and you feed her for a day. Give her the keys to your allotment and not only do you feed her and her family for a lifetime, you change their relationship to every other living thing we share the planet with, and we all get to live happily ever after.