There is nothing more soul destroying than watching people file past the café as they quickly make their way back to their offices holding a chain store coffee or sandwich.
If only they took the time to look at what they are walking past.
I never could understand why Britain, a country surrounded by such gastronomic meccas as Italy, Spain and France, managed to develop such a chain store food culture. It seems bizarre that anyone could find it acceptable, even preferable, to eat highly processed, pre packaged food and patronise bland formulaic food and coffee chains.
Chains exist in Australia too but they are largely confined to the lower end of the market, shopping malls and airports and are overshadowed by a multitude of independents that offer a better product and a unique experience.
A couple of months ago, on a grim, rainy Friday night I went to hear Carolyn Steel, architect, academic and author of the book Hungry City, talk about how the production and consumption of food has shaped London. As I listened to her talk, I wanted to leap out of my seat and hug her. Finally, someone was offering an explanation as to why chain stores are so dominant in Britain and why many people actually prefer processed and tinned food to fresh.
Steel argues that, unlike France and Italy where local food traditions and cooking are an integral part of life and fiercely protected if ever threatened (the opening of the first McDonald’s in Rome sparked a global Slow Food Movement), Britain underwent rapid mass urbanisation that severed British cooking from its roots. From very early on, the majority of the population became reliant on imported processed food and disconnected from the processes involved in food production.
Most urban dwellers have no knowledge, and no desire to know, where their food comes from: how it is reared, grown, slaughtered, harvested, transported, cooked, packaged and disposed of. It simply appears, as if by magic, on supermarket shelves and on restaurant plates. The legacy of this disconnected and industrialised food culture, Steel argues, is that “food is not valued or understood and is therefore open to abuse”.
You can see this as you walk down any high street.
Mass market supermarkets and restaurants are continually reinforcing the message that food is plentiful and cheap, consistent and quick, something to grab, reheat and eat, often alone. The impact that this fast and cheap food culture has on farmers, producers and the environment is conveniently ignored and invisible.
Could the credit crunch be what we need to make people reconnect with food? Eat less, eat local and put a higher value on what and how we eat. I heard on the radio this morning that growing vegetables at home and in allotments is becoming increasingly popular as people try to save money. With more and more people losing their jobs, maybe they’ll also have the time to sit down and share food at a table with friends.