Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Supermarket Psychology and the biography of my pumpkins

I am sitting in a rather sterile cafe in a supermarket in Darlington. Darlington has a small and rather obscure claim to fame - it is not only one of the few towns left in Britain which does not have a Tesco, we also officially saw them off - nearly 90% of the population rejecting Tesco's bid for planning permission. This is all well and good, until you realise that instead of Tesco, we have two Asdas, two Morrisons, Sainsburies, two Icelands, LIDL, ALDI and two Nettos. And Darlington is not a big town by any stretch of the imagination. It is, supposedly a market town though. And we do have a local market, the indoor one open 6 days a week, and an open market on Mondays and Saturdays. But no-one goes to it. Many stalls do not last very long, and those that do are hardly make a great deal of money. I had a stall for a while, and can vouch for the idea that being a market trader is neither fun nor profitable, and I know I wasn't alone in thinking that. There are various excuses for this decline in the market - recently restructuring of the town centre has meant that the bus routes no longer go close to the market to bus in the old ladies, the weather is usually pretty appalling so nobody wants to shop outdoors etc etc.... but the real problem is that people selling food on a small scale, and selling locally produced, seasonal goods, cannot compete with cheaper, mass produced, exotic and year-round food available conveniently from supermarkets.

Market forces! This is what capitalism is about! I hear ye cry. Supermarkets are phenomenally successful and popular for a reason, and that reason must be that people actually want to shop in them. If they didn't, then supermarkets wouldn't make any money, much like the market stalls. But is it really as simple as that? Supermarkets disconnect people with the produce they are buying. They are easy, convenient, entirely because you don't have to think about the shopping. Its merely a chore to be performed each week, hopefully as quickly as possible and with minimum fuss. Everything is in one place, and right in front of you. There is no hunting for the right things, no running between different stalls to get meat, veg, fruit, dry goods, cleaning materials...just trundling up and down the neat, accessible aisle, equipped with an oversized basket on wheels to help you. People go to supermarkets to get 'food for the week' or to 'pick up something nice for dinner', not for the experience of finding a new foodstuff, or even to enjoy the task at hand. Not, in short, to connect in anyway with the food on offer.

Today I am in Sainsbury's. I walk in - this in itself is unusual since the whole place is designed to be driven to - and I am greeted by a giant cardboard pumpkin, holding shelves full of edible pumpkins, and the slogan, "Try something new this Halloween". Along with my oversized squash, I am invited to pick up a free card detailing Jamie Oliver's recipe for pumpkin soup. Its not exactly original. Pumpkin boiled up with onion and chicken stock and a bit of ginger so it sounds exotic. Mine is far more interesting, in my humble opinion. On the back, there is another recipe for Rice Laska Soup which does involve pumpkin, along with lime leaves, chinese five-spice and coconut milk, all of which are available in a British store, in late October, obviously. The pumpkins are enormous, mine is a good foot across, and all for 99p. The Halloween sticker on it gives no clue as to where it was grown. When I did get it home (its weight providing another good reason why most people drive to supermarkets), it carved beautifully, and there is now an evil looking Jack O Lantern in the window. I also cruelly turned its innards into soup, and even with my extra spicy Carribean recipe (with chilli oil, ginger, nutmeg and orange juice) it tasted very very bland indeed. The pumpkin didn't even roast well, just turning to mush in the oven. These pumpkins were grown specifically to be enormous as Halloween decorations, not to eat. They were pumped full of water, size and price at the expensive of flavour and quality.

This pretty much sums up the whole supermarket experience for me. A great deal of literature has already been written on the topic of how evil supermarkets are; I have already mentioned the threat to smaller food retailers, but on top of that there is exploitation and domination of third world producers, sweatshop and child labourers, the energy and resources wasted in the 'food miles' associated with shipping, for example, strawberries in October, all the way from 'Israel' (read: occupied Palestinian territories). Commodity chains get longer and longer and more and more complex, and the consumer is removed even further from the producer. And you really do not want to know what they do to chicken... (adding beef proteins, for the record, which help the meat absorb and retain nearly 50% added water. Legally, too. Note to the reader: reading Felicity Lawrence's 'Not On The Label' can make you anorexic)

I do not want or need to reiterate any of that. What I am more concerned with is quality, or lack of it. I am not denying that supermarkets are cheap and convenient, nor that they offer a great deal of choice and variety. What I am questioning is their ability to provide consistent quality and value for money. Of course, it always looks so tempting, all the exotic, colourful fruits that are intentionally placed at the front of the store to seduced you in, or the enticing aromas of freshly baked bread that are deliberately blown around the shop... and it works, I always spend more money than I intended, and get really into the idea of cooking, every time I go in there. I am weak and gullible and naive.

On average, we spend about 10% of our incomes on feeding ourselves. This is not a great deal, and in fact, is less than we did 30 years ago. But the poorest fifth of the population still spend over 30% of their incomes on food. Significantly, the lower your income, the more likely you are to be overweight, or have diet-related illnesses. This seems to be because, the cheaper the food, the more more processed it is likely to be. And the more processed it is, the more fat, sugar, salt and additives it is likely to contain. Here are some examples from Sainsbury's.
'free range' chicken breast fillets - 350g for £3.99, and tikka masala cooking sauce, £1.49 or:
Chicken Tikka Masala (canned, serves 2) for 89p
Fresh Mango (from South Africa), 99p each or
canned mango slices in syrup, 39p
Lincolnshire sausages, 2 packs of six for £4 or
frozen Toad-in-the-Hole, microwavable for £1.99

Depressing, isn't it? This is not to say, however, that the more money you spend, the better the food will be. Skinny celebrities seem to be able to spend a great deal of money on eating not a lot at all. My 99p pumpkin was not processed into pre-made, salt and fat-ladened soup, (43p per can) but it is highly likely that it was grown outside of this country, shipped or even flown in, and given its size and lack of flavour, grown using a lot of unpleasant fertilisers and pesticides. I could go to the indoor market and buy one for 60p, but it would be a lot smaller, the skin might be blemished, and worse still, the market doesn't have a conveniently located car park and I would have to carry the thing home. On the up side, I can be assured that it was grown up the road on a farm near Richmond. About 8 miles away. And it might even taste like pumpkin!

I am now, for the first time in over two years, in a position where I can afford 'decent' food. I've always managed to save money on food because I love cooking, and prefer, for instance, to make sauces than to buy them in jars. I am finding myself being a bit more liberal with the food budget now- buying *good* meat from the market, which is fresher, local, less stuffed with nasty things, but twice the price of Sainsbury's. This does not however, mean that I am price-blind. Supermarkets have to make their money somehow, and going on the assumption that the majority of customers want to find what they need quickly and easily, means that supermarkets are likely to play tricks. Take, for example, last weeks Christmas pudding experience. Immediately in front of you as you walk in, is a rack of "snacking nuts and seeds." A snack sized bag of whole almonds (100g) will set you back £1.89. But walk to the back of the store to the 'baking' section, and I can get 100g of 'baking' almonds for £1.09.... which is not only daft, but infinitely frustrating, and totally deliberate on the part of the shop.

Basically, in supermarkets, you are paying cheaper prices, but through clever marketing and gratuitous trickery, you are paying for convenience and speed and packaging, not for quality or piece of mind. Supermarkets have taken over the country entirely because this is a compromise most consumers are willing to make.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Proof is in the Pudding

Christmas, above anything else, is a social phenomenon. Whether you are religious or not, , love it or hate it, that time of year is always significant. There is a social obligation to spend Christmas with family, friends, loved ones. Even if you have disowned your family and are sick of your friends, you are still required to fake enjoyment of the season or take pleasure in stubbornly ignoring it. It does not go away easily.
Quelle soprise! Christmas is also a time for feasting. For a supposedly Christian festival (and I use the term lightly so as not to offend my Pagan friends' Yuletide celebrations) it does do a lot to encourage the breaking of nearly all the deadly sins. There's anger at annoying in-laws, envy of other people's presents, greed at the sheer capitalist commercialism of it all, lust running rampant at office Christmas parties, and of course, gluttony during the feast, followed by sloth when you can't move having eaten too much. I forget the seventh.
Last weekend, that is, the 21st October, we held the Annual Family Christmas Pudding Making Ceremony. This event usually occurs at around the same time every year, not, I hasten to add, because we subscribe to the supermarket-inspired idea that Christmas starts on the 17th September, but because a good pudding has to be fed. This means, alcohol is added to it every week for the next two months. In more over-enthusiastic years, our version has been less of a pudding and more of a pile of fruit stuck together with brandy. But it is amazing, honestly!
The Construction of the Pudding is quite a lengthy process. I swear when we were younger, it used to take all day - which it probably did when my mother was faced with two young children, plenty of things to measure at once, and plenty of sticky sweet ingredients to protect from being eaten pre-cooking. Chopping up glace cherries was obviously the favourite job, although I loved playing the hard kid by daring to put my fingers in the hot water used to blanch almonds. Grating lemon and releasing that glorious smell was a prized job as well.
I don't know if it was the wisdom of maturity, or the fact that I bought all the fruit in pre-measured bags, but this year it took less than an hour. We all helped, Mum weighing our flour, grating lemons and handling the alcohol, Dad chopping cherries, beating eggs and restricting alcohol, and me adding copious amounts of spices and chopping the almonds. We even invested in a huge bucket from B&Q to mix it all in, since my own mixing bowls were inadequately small. When all the ingredients are in the bowl, everyone has to have a turn stirring, and making a wish. This is obviously, the most important part. My wish from last year did actually come true in a vague sense - be careful what you wish for! The Power of the Pudding is uncanny.
Last year, I was startled to discover that this annual ritual is not actually a universal affair. Apparently, not everyone makes their own pudding! So, in order to correct this quasi-religious apathy, I endevoured to bring Christmas pudding making to the masses - that is, the Teenage Fanclub who occupied my cafe.
Making a pudding (or, three puddings) on that scale, with a dozen teenagers "helping" and even when I had prepped everything , measured everything and chopped everything in advance, still took most of the afternoon. Even uber-cool cynical adolescents are somehow awed by the simple task of stirring fruit in a big bowl. Most still refused to admit they like Christmas, but once again, the time-honoured tradition of preparing food together won over the desire for street cred. Nothing to do with the mulled wine I fed them at all. I just hope all their wishes came true!
For the record, the teenagers' puddings turned out beautifully, and disappeared from the cafe very quickly indeed come December. Hopefully, they also turned out better than shop-bought ones. Although the supermarkets own designer puddings aren't actually that bad, they are nothing like as alcoholic. They are also not as sentimentally valued. Nothing compares to the festive spirit, sociality and genuine enjoyment of a family cooking session; that is not something you can package in red wrapping and flog at Tescos.
At great personal risk, I have decided to include our family'stime-honoured recipe. This makes three large puddings, suitable to feed a gluttonous family for an extended Christmas feast.

Ye Olde Terrill Family Christmas Pudding Recipe

…approach love and cooking with reckless abandon….

500g raisins
500g currants
500g sultanas
250g breadcrumbs
250g flour
125g mixed peel
250g brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
3 eggs
500g chopped suet
100g chopped almonds
200g glace cherries
Peel & juice of 1 lemon & 1 orange
1 tbs black treacle
2 tsps mixed spice
100g ground almonds
Large slosh of sherry/whisky/rum
Large slosh of dark beer

Mix all dry ingredients together. Beat the eggs with the treacle and pour into middle of ingredients, add enough liquid to bind everything together. Add all fruit, nuts and zest. Stir and make a wish! Put into greased pudding basins and cover with greaseproof paper & silver foil (or clingfilm if microwaving)
Boil for 4-5 hours.
Store in a cool place and re-boil for 1 hour just before serving (or microwave for 10-15 mins)
Have fun and don’t eat the cherries!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A hedonistic approach to the anthropology of food.

Several of my more academic readings have led me to ponder what we really mean by 'food'. To me, it *means* a lot. I enjoy eating it, I enjoying cooking it, a lot of my social life somehow revolves around it, I love exploring it, I used to be employed as a professional preparer of it, and now I spend a great deal of time writing about it and studying it. It also gives me most of the nutrients I need in order to survive and function as a human being, but for me, that is not the reason for my interest in it.

Food is nutrition. Humans need some form of food to fuel the body. On a purely reductionist/scientific level, I personally need 2000 calories, containing 5g salt, 70g fat, a little calcium, about 20 different vitamins and a certain amount of fibre and carbohydrate per day. All this is to be washed down with about 2 litres of water. That 'diet' in pill form if necessary, would sustain me, and keep my own four-buckets-water-and-a-bag-full-of-salt form mobile and functional. It would not, however, allow me to 'live' a fully human life.

Instead, and allowing for human interaction, culture, pleasure-seeking, and all round messiness, we choose a far less efficient method of fuelling our bodies. We have a huge range of edible susbstances in our world, and the variety is added to by a seemingly infinite number of combinations and cooking methods. So basically, we eat what we choose, based on personal preference, and social norms. Whether or not our chosen diet patterns give us all the nutrients we require is left virtually up to chance. I know I ought to eat fish to get my omega 3, I know I ought to cut down on my caffeine intake and stick to my recommended number of alcohol units, I know that fruit is far better for me than anything else I normally snack on, and I know that Friday-Night Drunken Kebabs have no useful content whatsoever. But in terms of what I actually consume, and choose to consume, nutritional value is almost irrelevant.

Should I take more of an interest in nutrition then? Is there a place for it in anthropology? Maybe, on some level. At least in the Western world there is a trend nowadays towards reconnecting with the food we eat. Spurred on perhaps by food scandals in the media, the situation European farmers find themselves in, food regulatory legislation, global warming scares affecting our crops, awareness of 'food miles', the Slow Food movement, Britain's rising obesity epidemic and so on. I'd like to think some of this awareness occurs because people are finally beginning to notice how awful fast food and convenience food actually is. There are very many fashionable schemes to eat locally, that is, to eat things produced in this country. Organic food is lauded as being healthier - for the environment if not for your wallet. We are supposed to eat our Five-a-day fruit and veg, McDonalds has even attempted to do salads, Smoothies are the new power-food, more and more Fair Trade products are on the shelves, obsessive dieters starve themselves to size 00 and celebrity chefs and diet programs are taking over our TV sets. It can be argued that we are now more aware of what is good for us, and good for the environment, than at any other time.

This is not to say, however, that because we are aware of it, we choose our food differently as a result. There is always an element of luxury and food-hedonism involved. There are very few people in the world who can stick to healthy, nutritional diets if they do not actually like the healthy nutritional food they are supposed to be eating. My three favourite 'luxuries' are coffee, red wine and chocolate, all served as dark, strong and as full bodied as possible. Despite reassuring claims from the psuedo-science community that a glass of wine a day is good for you, and that caffeine can ward off alhzeimers and dementia in women and that chocolate makes you produce happy-chemical in your brain, it is a pretty safe bet that none of these things are particularly nutrient-rich or 'good for me'. In nutritional terms, a standard (10oz) cup of black coffee on its own is 32 calories and 0.125g of caffeine. To fulfill my daily calorie allowance, I would have to drink 62.5 cups of the stuff, giving me 7.8g of pure caffeine. 10g is enough to kill me. All this is conjecture because, despite popular belief, I do not exist off coffee alone, and even on my most caffeinated days, I've never got anywhere near 62 cups. The point is though, that I am aware of the lack of nutritional content of my favourite foodstuffs, I am also acutely aware of the dangers of addiction and hypercaffeination. But I love coffee.

What nutritionists and hard-core diet fanatics don't take into account is the fact that foods serve other functions besides substinance. They have social meanings too. Throwing a dinner party is a social event, 'going for lunch' with someone shows friendship, tea breaks at work provide a welcome excuse to interact with colleagues. In a time when we no longer 'break bread' with new acquaintances, we have substituted the informal invite of 'come over for a cup of coffee sometime'. "Are you coming up for coffee?" asked after a date is a very useful euphemism; whether or not the coffee is drunk, or even actually made is irrelevant, but in this sense coffee is vital to the reproductive survival of the human race... (ahem).

It is short-sighted to ignore the nutritional aspect of our food when studying our eating habits, but it is equally pointless to focus entirely on that and not account for the social and cultural functions and customs. Our little luxuries in life may not be healthy, ethical or environmentally friendly, but cracking open a bottle of wine with an elaborate dinner party, queuing up or stuffing chocolate cakes in the cafe with friends are part of our culture. These actions have other, less scientific reasons behind them, and a little culinary hedonism is what makes life enjoyable.