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It's not the despair - it's the hope...
on 15 June 2008
Whatever its mercurial promise of bright lights, shared experiences and multicultural exoticism, the city can be an isolating place. However: everyone's got to eat - and therein lies the opportunity both for life-enhancing human engagement and for equally life-sapping process-led commercialism. Carolyn Steel's book, which interprets the city through food, highlights both the despair and the hope implicit in the idea of the city. By her clever tracing of food's journey from land to urban table and thence to sewer, Steel makes us reflect on past and present social satisfactions and injustices which our most basic human need can inspire.
Contrast the image of joyless contemporary supermarket shoppers - strip-lit lone prowlers debating forlornly with themselves about which highly packaged factory offering to microwave tonight - with the heady possibility of outdoor urban market-goers discussing food, tasting and learning. It's clear which one we'd all rather participate in, and yet Steel urges us not to be misty-eyed about the turn of the 21st century emerging market culture either. London's Borough Market is described as `food tourism' - laudable, but not affordable - a middle class aberration rather than a sustainable way of life for most of us. This typifies Steel's approach to her two-pronged subject: she is not afraid to slaughter sacred cows in her search for authenticity and meaning. This search takes her from London to the Middle East, from high flown ritual to domestic minutiae and from the mediaeval dining table to McDonalds without exhausting or overwhelming the reader.
As I read through Steel's journey, many similar food-inspired conflicts on the despair/hope axis spring to mind and make me feel at once revolutionary and impotent. Growing food locally could be such a positive collective activity, but the space to do it is scarce and prohibitively expensive. Selling and shopping for that food could rekindle the relationship between city dwellers and those who work the land, but the supermarket has become an unthinking way of life. Cooking and eating food are two of the few remaining ways in which urbanites can be hospitable, trusting and generous. But Steel's vivid descriptions of ancient cookshops and taverns offer a far richer vision of city-dwellers bawdily conversing over shared fare than Wagamama's ubiquitous but uneasy shared benches can ever do. Minimising waste is surely essential (and creative!) if we are to optimise increasingly meagre global resources. But as Steel points out, we currently throw away a shocking 30% of the food we buy. The massive reversals required in existing supply chains, educational priorities and even basic social interactions in the city are horribly daunting. One cannot but feel that a pan-national crisis will be the only possible trigger for a new, sustainable food market.
Steel's concluding chapter tenders myriad ideas, both utopian and pragmatic, about bottom up behavioural change and top down political leadership on food that might seek to avert such a crisis. Whilst her book is certainly a campaigning one, it is also realistic and discursive and not given to promulgating slick solutions to complex agricultural and societal problems. Potential readers will know that there are already a host of excellent polemics about contemporary food culture (Shopped, Fast Food Nation et al) and an equal canon about cities. What Carolyn Steel's book achieves is to bring these two axiomatic subjects together for the first time with a hugely enjoyable melee of academic care, passion and a jocular, accessible style. You feel like you would like to have her round for dinner to discuss further. And she would probably accept...