Food has long been an expression of our cultures and our way of life. That even prompts archaeologists to analyse the contents of tombs to understand how a civilisation lived and survived. The way we have shifted our search for food has fundamentally shifted our societies and the whole experience with food continues to define us till today.
When we travel we always want to experience the local food as a way of getting literally getting a taste of where we are. We call that experiencing the authenticity. The more adventurous of us want to go off the beaten track and try out the restaurants were the locals hang out. By doing so we get to savour a regional flair that tell us stories beyond what we read in the sponsored tourist books. It is even better when we get invited to someone’s home to taste the cooking served at that a particular family table. This not only gives us a taste of the culture of the country in general but also the flavours specific to that small microcosm that is more intimate and personal.
We have seen a lot of shows on the television that highlight that experience of hidden culinary treasures while travelling to new countries. Take an example Anthony Bourdain’s no reservations. It makes you want to go savouring your way around the planet, exploring unexplored territories and share lives through food.
In most cultures there is a reflection of your acceptance into its midst and home when you are invited to share a meal.
When we first move out of our parent’s homes and go off to live the adventure filled life of a student, it is food whose cost we cut the most. Yet we learn the art of cheap eats and cheap levels. We live by an austerity that somewhat joyous and glorious. We share our dime concoctions with our friends in these feast like events that were equivalent in our minds to Roman feasts, where boxed wine and laughter were abundant and discussions and plans grandiose. After all it is all a part of what is going to lead us to change the world…
Nevertheless austerity is not only something we enjoy as a glorious and romantic part of getting to adulthood. Austerity and hunger is experience massively around the world by people that can’t find enough to feed themselves and their families. This is not a problem suffered only by faceless sub-Saharan populations with whom we have no connection nor relation. This problem is felt by people around us, in the inner cities and in the suburbs of our big first world cities. Many a child and their parents goes hungry and cold to bed, whether it is in war torn countries or in major world cities.
In our aspirations we always think of the first sign of wealth is when we have plenty and more, when we can throw away. We aspire to become a throw away culture. We consume without retention and the first sign of our ability to consume is the abundance of food.
The other day I was at the Imperial War Museum in London and there is section in the museum about the austerity measure with food and rations during WWII. It is not anything that is unusual, nor was it an exceptional measure that the British government followed. Of course what is always amazing is the sense of inventiveness that immerges during these times to keep a sense of culture and taste alive. With the little rations of food supplies how can you change the recipe of pudding to still feed the whole family and try not to sacrifice on the taste. How can you become entrepreneurial and barter with your neighbour with what they have that you need and vice versa. How can you save by growing your own food. It was a way of thinking and a way of life that was adopted by everyone and survived even a few years after the war.
Today we have lost touch with that sense of urgency that had emerged during the war. We have also lost touch with where our food comes from. Our children have no connection with the earth as a source if their food and thus have no qualms on throwing away without understanding the repercussion of every thrown morsel and discarded scrap. In our sense of getting over the austerity we wanted our children to never feel the want and did not teach them the value of that abundance.
There has been a rise to green movements with varied degrees of involvement, from the policy driven to the militant who live what they preach.
Nevertheless sustainable thinking and way of life only works with an interconnection and an understanding of the cycle from the source to the end, and how it related to us, to our lives. We can’t get active about something that doesn’t touch us directly.
Mobilisation and austerity measures in WWII worked because the causes and effects were felt by every person in the United Kingdom. I am not romanticising the effects and saying everyone became diligent and did not try to profit of the situation. Profiteering is something you will see in every situation unfortunately.
In order for us to see a change in tide in relation to sustainable living and sustainable development we need to have to feel a threat to our ways of life and especially to our food. We also need to feel a direct cause and effect for us to perform changes to our life and make them sustainable. Of course the best ways to perform changes in society are to go through the children. We have seen its adverse effects on how political movements have been able to really take hold when they targeted the children and the young. We also have seen its positive effects when children were mobilised to help bring in a greener way of life into the home in places like Curitiba in Brazil.
For example having markets all over the city, closer to where we live rather than destinations to the urban initiated organic militants, is a way to help children and young people connect with food and its source. The food experience is an interconnected sensory and sensual experience. It takes us over and immerses us. If it is seen as just sustenance might as well just distribute protein pills to everyone. But our taste buds would protest. They would have us have craving and would water just at the thought of something that we know tastes good. These markets would spread the smell of raw foods and would connect it with the smell of the earth. As a child my favourite smell is that of the earth after the first rain of autumn. You could smell how alive earth is. You could feel it breathe. You could see it crawl with little animals. You see their trail lace over the brown fresh earth. And you could gather these little animals so that you could help your grandmother transform them into dinner. For me those snails are still probably some of the tastiest meals I have had. Same held true to every salad and every cake make out of the fruits and vegetables grown in my grandmother’s garden. She gave me my first lessons in cooking and showed me how it is about flair even in time of austerity.
Understanding that cycle what we need to understand how to help our planet not only survive but flourish in the future. Having our children experience and engage in it is a legacy we give them to the future. It should be the battle that mobilises all of us in a way that is intrinsic to our daily lives. It should not be something so hard for us to do that we just don’t do it. But in order to do it is should matter. It should make us do it. It should engage us like our grandmother and great grandmothers were engaged and mobilized without thinking of themselves as militants. This is what they HAD to do for US.
Food should be part of the education and the culture. There used to be home economics in schools which has now been removed. Home economics would teach us the basic logic of the economics of the home and how to make it sustainable. It allowed us to understand the connections with the food and the sustenance. It allowed us to bring in the creative solutions to solve the problems we might encounter in the home. I not only believe we should bring back home economics into the schools but I also believe cooking classes should be brought into the schools. It allows our children to understand the connectivity of raw food, its sources and the food that we have at the dinner table. But it also allows them to understand chemistry, physics and math in the most practical manner same as they are doing in the charter schools with the forensic experiments.
What if all those manicured lawns are also transformed into urban agriculture land. What if you could actually smell food growing closer to where you lived rather than having to have a trip to the countryside to connect with nature. What if the facilities and options to grow small plants were integrated into our flats and homes and onto the roofs of our buildings. What if we really created all these suspended gardens that made the fame of Babylon. Not only will we be more connected to the food we eat but literally we will be closer to the oxygen we breathe.
What if the austerity measures that the government was enforcing due to the economical downturn actually leads us to a richer life of health and abundance since it will teach us to be reconnected with the sources of our food and sustenance….
Museums also have a big role to play in all of this. Take the example of the exhibit on the mobilisation and the austerity of WWII. This could accompanied by interactive experiments and courses that teach us how our grandmothers and their mothers used their imagination and got through the though time while trying not to sacrifice on health. It could teach us how to prepare food. It could teach us about our tastes and culture through food. How it has been preserved or dissipated through the ages. It could teach us the meaning of truly being a community since cooking with someone and eating with them is not something you do with just anyone. You will not invite a stranger to your table to your kitchen, and if you do that person will not be a stranger for long.