A Theory About Food

Food and especially its preparation are becoming ever more of a fetish. As we all (should) know by now, the moment something becomes a fetish, it’s on its last legs. It’s time to take stock of our relationship to food.

Why has food become so emblematic today?

We lack confidence around food.

We measure ourselves against standards set by Masterchef, not grandma’s home cooked food where flavour and honesty mattered above presentation.

We’re divorced from food production, having little idea of what’s seasonal, fresher and more nutritious. We expect perfect strawberries at Christmas for goodness’ sake!

Our culture is built on fast food and fast consumption; a restaurant culture where the virtues and pleasures of home cooked food are denied. This creates a disempowering dystopia which disconnects us from food, its production, and ultimately nature too.

I wonder how many people sit in front of Masterchef with a ready meal or a take away, or a dish prepared with ready-made or cook-in sauces? Even one is one too many.

As we develop this fetish for food while not actually making it ourselves, so we get fatter, develop diabetes and high blood pressure. Malnutrition is on the rise. No surprise in a time of escalating poverty and income differentials perhaps, though utterly unacceptable in our society.

It’s time to get real about our relationship to food and why it matters.

Why making food matters

When you make food you are forced to stop, to think differently, to relate to the world around you in a much less ‘hyped’ way. Step out of the machine and ask yourself:

  • What’s fresh, seasonal, tasty, affordable?
  • Then, what else might you have at home which could enhance the flavour?
  • What else might make a good companion to what you’ve just bought?
  • Is the balance of veg to protein and carbs right? Do you even needs carbs? Doctors are increasingly linking an excess of carbs eaten at night to diabetes and obesity.
  • And then, as you muse along the supermarket aisle or through a market place, where did the veg originate from? Why do different stall holders hold different stocks, some of veg and fruit you’ve never have heard of or seen in a supermarket? What’s the cultural imprint behind all of this? How would you cook it?

I cringe when people say tomatoes originated in Italy – they didn’t. Though Italian cooking uses tomatoes in profusion, this wasn’t the case till at least the 17th Century. Ditto the chilli and its use in Indian, Chinese or South East Asian cooking.

Making food connects you to history, to the earth; it’s grounding.

I’ve covered that in more detail in a previous post.

Seasonality

There is an irrefutable logic to certain things like weather, and farmers’ capacity to provide certain crops in in the first four to five months of the year. Eating seasonally ensures optimal nutrition, and also saves food miles and helps the environment.

Let’s break that down.

In the UK, salad crops, fresh greens and the like, are usually imported throughout winter or produced in glasshouses or LED lit ‘growing factories’ – this kind of produce is no less good than that which is naturally grown, but it comes with environmental costs too.

The first outdoor sowing in the UK takes place in late Spring. So we have limited UK grown sources of greens until March or April. By April early veg like Kale or Spring Greens are spent or going out of season.

Warmer weather fruit and veg won’t really show up again till the crops have matured, been picked and distributed, assuming there is labour to achieve that aim. It will be summer before we start to see decent English strawberries or soft fruit. And veg like tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and courgettes won’t be with us till summer either as they need sunshine to truly ripen – even industrial scale greenhouses can only produce so much.

Here’s a great chart of what’s seasonal – click here. It covers the basics, but should give you an idea of what might be nutritionally optimal at various times of year.

BREXIT brought some of this to the fore.

We might start to grow our own food out of necessity. In terms of our relationship to food, how it is grown and what is seasonal, that’s probably not a bad thing. But that approach can’t deliver scale. Can you imagine a city like London, now at the density of population it last had on the eve of World War 2, sustaining itself from produce from increasingly scarce allotments and back gardens?

So, what’s the answer?

Plan recipes

Once you know what’s seasonal (see here), start to plan meals. I’m a great fan of the one-pot weekday supper, it saves time and washing up!

There are lots of soup recipes to which you can cook from scratch, adding a stock cube as a base (not a cook-in sauce mind). You can get some excellent stock cubes or pots these days, made from natural ingredients with no unnecessary additives. Let’s face it, no one has hours in the day to make stocks from scratch. But cook-in sauces, no; they’re an insult to the the ingredients and your body, too over priced for what they claim to be, and contain too much sugar, salt and other additives.

Don’t fight shy of flavour, be inventive.

Lemon zest can really pep up a peppery soup, likewise lemon juice. A soup rich in brassica (cauliflower or broccoli, say), works brilliantly with cheese and a dash of mustard or mustard powder, or a blast of blitzed watercress, and is ever so comforting with toast on a winter’s evening.

Batch cooking and freeze

Made more than you need? I do, frequently. Freeze it.

For me, one of life’s delights is getting produce from markets. Those £1 a scoop deals can sometimes mean that some of what you buy goes straight to the compost bin or needs trimming, but most is largely OK, cheap, and usually seasonal. The reason it’s being sold off cheap is that there is a glut of it and people aren’t eating enough of it.

I usually cook up a storm when faced with a glut of veg and then freeze the results. I tend to avoid adding garlic, ginger, onions, herbs or other delicate flavours at this stage, instead cooking and adding these as I unfreeze each batch and then combining the two as I reheat.

Delicate flavours like lemon zest or herbs are best added in profusion, fresh, each time you unfreeze a batch.

By way of example, I bought a box of tomatoes for a £1, three were ‘off’ and were composted, the remaining 40 or so were absolutely fine. So, I chopped these, cooked them down with a little salt, pepper and tomato paste, blitzed them and then separated them in to batches and froze each one.

One batch served as the base for a bolognese sauce, another as the base for a tomato curry, a third as a base for several home made pizza ahead of a party. To each I was able to add the flavours and ingredients I needed to make the dish unique.

Masterchef is good TV, not good food.

Making food from scratch is an act of rebellion, perhaps of a gentle kind, but rebellion nonetheless.

Free yourself from the tyranny of what you ‘should’ be doing and do what you want to do.

Make good food. Enjoy it.

Escape … breathe.

Don’t feed the machine; feed yourself. We all need nourishment.

Oh, and by the way, I have nothing against Masterchef. It is super TV.