I enjoy writing about food for many reasons. It is far more than just the experience of taste sensations. At one end of the spectrum it represents life itself and at the other it reflects our identity. Along the way it is an expression of love, a leveller, and part of our history.
At its basic level food means life. Before the inventions which transformed our lives, food and shelter were the essentials. We are animals and the animal kingdom to this day continues in a daily quest for survival around these two main elements. The challenge is to use less energy in food acquisition than can be gained from the food acquired. When the oil dries up and the economy goes to rack and ruin we would do well to remember we will still be left with that basic equation.
Our evolution as a species and our way of life was driven by the basic economics of food production. We wouldn’t live in communities if it weren’t for the simple truths that we can produce food more efficiently together (whether due to production methods or communal safety) than we can as individuals. The hunter-gatherer recognised that hunting was more efficient and that better searches for foodstuffs could be carried out by families and therefore in larger groups too. Nature is full of communities doing exactly the same thing.
The next step, and something which separates us from most of the animal kingdom, is the domestication of livestock and growing crops. Rather than hunt and gather we can rear and harvest but this is much harder to do in isolation. The economies of scale are enormous. The more food we produce, the more healthy we become and we produce more children while living longer – it’s the recipe for the growth of tribes and then nations.
As nations grew, so too did the opportunities for trade or warfare. The food we eat today has benefited from both and our diet would be pretty limited without it. Even the most diehard British tattooed bigot thrives on eating “foreign muck” every day. Whether it is the cup of tea, the pint of beer (with hops from Europe), chips (with potatoes and the tomatoes for ketchup originating in South America), our most recognisable food and drink icons aren’t British at all. I’d probably accept roast beef and Yorkshire puddings as “local” but obviously not the roast potatoes, the mustard (introduced by the Roman invaders) or the carrots (from Asia long before the chicken tikka masala). The truth is that the British table would offer very poor quality and variety of food if it wasn’t for foreign imports courtesy of invasion or commerce.
The underlying success is British horticulture and farming. To import a product from a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern climate and cultivate it to grow in an English field is no mean feat. After many days at sea the seed, tuber, or cutting will not be in the best of condition but someone not only kept them alive, but used them to find a way to mass produce them in British weather.
Our skills as British chefs are less inspiring. The Romans were great cultural exporters. They brought a huge variety of new tastes to Britain during their occupation but sadly as soon as they left their knowledge and range disappeared with them. Without their help we went back to the Dark Ages in food until our next conqueror tried to educate us again. The Normans brought new flavours to Britain. This time the conqueror, and therefore the food, stayed. The truth is that we have always been happy to embrace foreign food and make it our own with very little British cuisine being worth exporting in return. Despite our regular warfare with France the British have spent a lot of time trying to catch up with the French kitchen. It is only very recently that a true British cuisine is emerging and gaining credibility.
My point is that we are in danger of valuing form over function. Ultimately, in a post-apocalyptic world, it won’t be our skills in financial services, law or e-commerce which ensure the ongoing survival of our species. As viruses ravage the planet it will be the communities who can feed themselves that live on.
Why do I like writing about food? Because it is at the heart of life itself. What could be more inspiring?