Sunday, 27 September 2009

TV Chef

image from

Food – as one of the staples of human life – has a great deal of cultural significance. This is apparent in its appearance throughout art and its constant reference in literature throughout history. A more immediate indicator of food’s continuing prevalence at the forefront of our minds is its ever-changing aesthetic and appearance on television.

There was a time (the entire middle ages) when the status of an aristocrat would be judged by how alien and exotic the dishes at their banquets were. This represented man’s power over – and separation from- nature and is echoed in such ritual acts of the placing of great oaks upside down in the soil (a supposedly druid practice). Desserts in particular would have looked entirely inedible to the working classes of the 18th century.

Humanity’s divorce from nature culminated in the industrial revolution and the scientific ambitions of the 19th and 20th centuries. We wanted to explore space, eat astronaut meals – meals in pill form looked very attractive to us. Finally the formality of meal times would be a thing of the past.

However, there was of course a backlash to this. It probably is connected with the writings of John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement in general, but the rustic approach to cookery started to gain appeal. By the mid-1970s, people were dissatisfied with the broken promises of the futuristic and convinced that long prophesied post-modernity was upon them.

Delia Smith’s Cooking programme became popular in 1986, around the time Nuevo Cuisine (more art composition than meal) was popular among the super rich. This minimalist, style over content meal was combated with a revival of old fashioned cooking practise.

Delia led the way for Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef in 1998, who intensified the argument in favour of local, quality ingredients and simple, hearty preparations. In fact, as the founder of this TV food movement, it was inevitable that Delia would eventually fall victim to it when she produced her ‘cheats’ programs, apparently cheapening the campaign.

Ethical food practices started to gain notoriety over those decades. The Soil Association had been a politically left wing and progressive institution since the 1960s and over the last 30 years have become a major charity and mark of genuine quality food. As intensive farming lost popularity in favor of cheaper farming abroad, British farmers directed their produce at the Organic market. This market emerged in earnest in the 1990s, when the movement had been going long enough to capture the attention of the middle classes. The Vegan diet is still a mainly side-lined sub culture, but that too is gaining in popularity.

It is my belief that the post-modern panic of the 70s and 80s was not real post-modernity. Only now do we have total access to the past and the future. Heston Blumenthal is aware of the humanistic values of meal times. He’s also aware of the principles of privileged dining and futuristic space meals and he’s combining all of these aspects into a kind of food museum in his restaurants. Shows like The Supersizers Eat…are a testiment to our understanding of the foods place in our cultural heritage. The past is now a continent we can explore, bringing back exotic and weird fruits.

Friday, 25 September 2009

The Oxen Lake

The Oxen Pond in Newfoundland is circled by a wooden boardwalk. Dotted along this path are plants with short descriptions of their names and quotes about their uses. Evocative names like ‘The Creeping Snowberry’ are detailed with details of how indigenous people used them for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. This is part of an ‘Ethnobotany’ project being run by the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Botanical Garden. Ethnobotany is the study of how people and plants interact, often with a focus on the practices of the past. What interests me about this discipline is how it blends cultural study (ethnology) with more traditional scientific study (botany). Crouching by the water, reading these signs made me start to wonder how Ethnobotany could give a perspective on food.

Recognising and learning about the links between people and plants is clearly relevant for the study of food. There is much to be learnt from this discipline, to open up old knowledge and adapt this for today. The Creeping Snowberry mentioned above, can be an antiseptic but also makes a jam or maple syrup enriched drink. This gives a tiny indication of the wealth of hidden flavours, medicines and practices there are. Using this knowledge is perhaps a luxury but, in a world of decreasing biodiversity and more uniform diets, could be a way to reimagine the plants we might normally walk past.

It is important not to use this as a way of creating a patronising image of ‘the noble savage’. These knowledges could be ‘fetishised’ and become a badge of ‘right-on credibility’; yet another lifestyle choice. Instead Ethnobotany needs to be used in a way that shows plants as resources and tools that are both fragile and vital.

A quote from Food Facts For The Kitchen Front is of help here. This 1940s book was a present given to me by Henry and starts with the two facts that:

“what we can get is good for us”
“a great deal of what we cannot get is quite unimportant”

These statements show a simple way of viewing food as a resource that has collective benefits but that is constrained. It is appealing as it sees that constraints may be beneficial: that we can use food in a better way. This reinvigoration appears necessary in today’s context.

I would argue that food needs to be seen in this utilitarian way not simply as a lifestyle choice. Going back to historical uses of plants gives practical examples of this occurring. Framing these knowledges into the constraints of food security and climate change will prevent them from being irrelevant.

Looking at the natural world as a collection of artefacts that need conservation, rather than a living environment that needs stewardship is potentially as disastrous as seeing it as an unending source of human fuel. Perhaps this is what ethnobotany could help teach us.