Warning! Cheese contains milk

20Apr09

It’s been one of those days today.

potager-08-2

I took Honey and her best friend into town to see ‘Race to Witch Mountain’ – I enjoyed it rather more than I expected I would, which is a bonus, but it still wasn’t the greatest film I’ve ever seen – I thought that both The Last Mimsy & Nim’s Island were better both in terms of acting and storyline, but as an introduction to your general blockbusting thriller, it was pretty good. (The girls both had a wonderful time, which I guess is the main thing).

Anyway.

What bugged my bear was the immediate demands that we visit McDonalds, almost as soon as we’d arrived in the town centre. I was appalled. Not so much by Honey’s friend, but by the fact that HONEY wanted to go there – I’m blaming advertising and peer pressure on that one – and not all my arguments about the unhealthiness of the food, the environmental impacts of the production processes of that food, the unnecessary packaging &c held any weight with them. It got to the point where I thought that if I held out on them, then I’d have a major scene on my hands & I didn’t feel up to coping with it, so I caved in and we went in. It was every bit as bad as I remembered, and the handful of healthy options didn’t actually bear much resemblance to the cheery pictures up on the walls. They both had Happy Meals (I wasn’t happy, I can tell you) & I had a coffee. The coffee was like dishwater – just vile (the only coffee worse than that I have ever tasted, I had at Brooklands Museum last week) – and the food they got was horrendously oversalted (I use *no* salt in my cooking, ever) to disguise the fact that, actually, it had no taste. Honey’s friend wanted coke, and I actually phoned her mum to double check because I was so horrified by the request. IMO, children shouldn’t drink it, but her mum was fine & seemed a bit puzzled by my call. So, she had coke and I kept my opinions to myself. I don’t think Honey really enjoyed her meal (and she was hungry again 2 hours later), but I don’t think she’d ever admit that.

After the film, Honey’s friend came home to play for a while, and we were all out in the garden enjoying the sunshine. I was sowing seeds and generally puttering about in the garden, and Honey’s friend was watching me …. I invited them to help, and they both joined in quite happily with putting in the seeds and watering them and sticking in the plant labels on the end of each row. But I nearly knocked myself out falling over backwards when Honey’s friend announced that she didn’t realise carrots grew in the ground, and on that basis she wasn’t going to eat them any more ‘because they are dirty’. WTF?!?!?!? I know not everyone has the advantage of outdoor space to the same extent that we do, but we’re not a deprived inner-city urban area by any stretch of the imagination, and the school is quite hot on environmental issues and gardening etc – the children have their own veg garden at school, and suchlike. So it amazed me that the child was so ignorant of where food came from. And it took me aback that she viewed anything coming out of the ground as ‘dirty’ and hence not edible.

So, when it came to tonight’s dinner, and desert of apple-pie, with cheese on the side, and cream, and ice-cream, I was gobsmacked to see warning labels on the cheese, cream and ice-cream: “This product contains milk”. No kidding. (Do people really not know that?)

The whole sorry series of events has got me thinking, and drawing some pretty big pictures in my head. Firstly, about how detached we, as a society, are from food production, and secondly about a sort of squeamishness around dirt and food and our bodies which is, I think, connected to the first and not entirely healthy.

When children don’t know that carrots grow in the ground, something must be wrong with how we are buying our food. When food that is produced to the lowest possible cost, stuffed with fat, anti-biotics and growth-hormones, and then oversalted to disguise the bland taste, there is something wrong with how we are thinking about our food. When you can buy a whole chicken in the supermarket for £3 and no-one stops to think about how little it must have cost the farmer to get that chicken to the supermarket for so little money, there is something wrong with the way we produce our food.

All of these things make me feel that there has been, at some point, a fundamental disconnect between the production and consumption of food. It has ceased to be a means of fuelling our bodies, and has become …. I don’t know what. A leisure activity, that competes with other leisure activities for our time and financial resources? But somehow joyless, when flavour and texture and variety are replaced by some kind of homogenous paste calculated to be somehow inoffensive, rather than a healthful delight, and when it becomes more about consuming as much as possible of a given item, rather than anticipating and savouring rare and seasonal delights.

My asparagus is just starting to come up. I will have a month, maybe a little more, of asparagus frenzy, and then it will be over for another year. It’s worth the wait, and that single month of ecstatic gorging on my tiny harvest sees me through. I don’t get the same pleasure from supermarket-bought asparagus, forced on out of season and flown in from who-knows-where, and ultimately flavourless and unsatisfying, because it has been robbed of its unique rarity value. The same goes for strawberries, raspberries and the other soft fruit, and though I do preserve some of it, there’s little that can beat the joy of a sun-warm strawberry straight from plant to mouth. It seems to me that in our quest for instant gratification, we’ve lost both the pleasure of food, and the connection between ourselves and the earth.

The squeamishness and overly-fastidious obsessions with cleanliness seem to go hand-in-hand with that. Any number of friends think it’s appalling that I generate my own compost rather than buying it (sterilised) from the garden centre. Honey’s friend thinks it’s appalling that carrots grow in the dirty ground. My neighbour is appalled that I let my children pick and eat the (dirty) blackberries growing wild in the wood the other side of our garden fence. People don’t like to think about the food they eat coming from the ground, or walking about on it. They want it neat and clean and with no trace of a natural origin on it. They want it processed and neat, so that it gives no clue to its provenance. A friend of mine won’t handle raw meat unless she’s got latex gloves on her hands, won’t make stock because it means handling the bones.

These are not particularly enjoyable tasks, but they are not as disgusting as she makes them out to be, and what bemuses me is that her attitude is not untypical. The preference is for the ready-meal, so that the consumer doesn’t have to think about or handle the food in order to eat it; so that the food bears little resemblance to the plant or animal from which it came and the consumer doesn’t have to think about where it came from and what’s been done to it to get it to the table, totally divorced from the production process.

The fact that there even *is* a “production process” is appalling. Food is *grown* not *made*. It comes from the ground, not from factories, and the more steps there are between ground and plate makes it *worse*, not *better*. Just because these processes disguise the food so that our squeamish sensibilities aren’t offended by the identification of plant or animal matter on our plates doesn’t make it better – each step reduces the healthfulness of the food, both in the process itself, and in terms of the quality requirements of the original product. Arguments that there is insufficient land to support greater simplicity in the food chain simply don’t hold water – large-scale industrialised agriculture is massively inefficient in both land-usage and yields, and unsustainable in the longer-term because of the need to compensate the efficiencies with increasingly toxic chemical fixes.

The best food is the food that has not been messed about with, that comes off the land and onto our plates with the minimum of distance, time and interference, that has not been subjected to artificial growth enhancers and/or disease inhibitors and that takes account of natural growing rhythms, seasons and locality. I think we need to fundamentally rethink our attitudes to food and set aside our squeamishness to recognise that we cannot divorce ourselves from the growth of our food: we are all part of a great circle – from dust we came and to dust we return. The compost cycle is the quickest and easiest way to grasp that ….within a short period of time, plant matter is broken back down into earth, it goes into the garden and nourishes the food we grow that in turn nourishes us, and the plant waste is composted. And so it goes on. If it can’t be composted, then we shouldn’t be using it, IMO.

To make that connection again, to return to that sustainable cycle of knowledge and understanding  that the earth supports and sustains us rather than offering us a disease-ridden threat is something we need to do, urgently. To change our thinking so that we view food as an essential part of nourishing our minds and bodies rather than a leisure activity, is something we need to do, urgently. To turn away from over-processed zero-benefit food to fresh, healthful alternatives benefits us, and it benefits the planet. 

It’s time to change.

Cook from scratch, eat local food, in season, bought from local producers and *not* the supermarket.

It doesn’t take a lot of time, it will save you a lot of money, and it might just save your life.

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3 Responses to “Warning! Cheese contains milk”

  1. I agree with everything you’ve said, but I have to add one more point that immediately struck me. The idea of someone refusing to eat carrots that come out of the ground “because they’re dirty” – yet clamouring to eat at McDonalds – is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard. I am very sure the “food” there is far dirtier than any carrot I’ve ever eaten.

    And it isn’t just children; my wife has an acquaintance – a teacher, no less – who gave her a blueberry bush. Why didn’t this woman want to keep the bush and enjoy the berries? “They’ve been outside and squirrels and things have touched them.” Did she think all the produce in the supermarket was grown right there, in those nice “clean” aisles?

    A terrifying number of people have grown so out of touch with nature they have no idea about, well, anything at all. Sorry, I do them an injustice; they know exactly what the latest “in” celebrity was doing five seconds ago, and every second of their lives before that… They find me strange when I don’t know as much.

  2. 2 Seismicshed

    I coouldn’t agree with you more. Food is now much more about marketing than anything else. I humbly refer yerhonour to such travesties as Cheezestringz, Dairylea Lunchables, Frubes and other such utterly deplorable as proof that we, kids especially, will follow the heard led by the brand managers. My kids know about food, about 5 a day, about free range but the power of advertising still makes them crave burger king and packets cakes with Wall-e on them.

    I have spent more time than I care to admit in Mcd’s over the years. Sometimes being on the orad presents you with little choice. I’m not proud. The coffee should be banned under the trade descriptions act.

  3. Hi nice blog 🙂 I can see a lot of effort has been put in.


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