Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Infantile Appeal of the Organic

The things that drain you off and drive you off the hinge, part 842. I am not, as very assiduous clickers-on of my hyperlinks will be aware, a well man. Food is a particularly difficult thing for me. I'm torn between an extreme laziness about cooking, leading to the temptations of the Hong Kong Garden and the famous Mr Fast Fry, and a medically-based avoidance of anything that will make me even worse. The combination of these two with a liking for the comforting, enveloping smell, taste and general atmosphere of food exceptionally greasy can become a major problem. If I could, I would no doubt subsist on roast dinners, suet dumplings, crispy seaweed and sausages in batter, and before my early 20s I could. As things are, whenever out of doors and in need of a meal, the only sensible choice is usually Japanese food, which is both lacking in gastroenterologically aggressive spices and is half way palatable, although often prohibitively expensive. However, in torrential rain today I swallowed my pride and momentarily, the chip on my shoulder, and entered Planet Organic, on Torrington Place.

Now, as we know, the middle classes tend to have a fairly high estimate of their own usefulness to society at large, and by association of their intelligence and generally mature outlook on life, politics and food, as opposed to the fried chicken or Findus-munching underclasses. Look, for instance, at the interviewees in this feature on 'chav-free holidays' (ta to Bat for the link). So the supremely middle class phenomenon of organic, gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free food would, one might imagine, be a matter-of-fact milieu of straightforward, non-patronising food choices, where ingredients are listed without recourse to flashy marketing etc. Quite apart from the fact that when going to these places I tend to arrogantly and embarrassedly assume I'm the only person ill enough to actually need to eat this sort of guff, as opposed to doing it out of perverse consumerism, I thought I'd examine the labels and packaging of the items in question. The Impostume has already done this with great skill on the ideology of the Living Salad and the 'Innocent' smoothies, but I might go one step further, onto the list of ingredients and other extraneous matter. My packaged and pasteurised Organic, Gluten-Free Brownie, purchased out of grim necessity, lists a variety of things, from emulsifier, lemon juice (lemon juice! Good god, that's like pouring hydrochloric acid down there!), soya lecithin, 'golden syrup, and love'. I do not look for love in my gluten-free brownie. Similarly, the water I purchased, which turned out to be 'Carpe Diem Botanic Water', full of everything from quince to galangal, lists among its ingredients the grammatically interesting 'fruit-sweetness from pear', and additionally informs us that 'the Ancient Greeks were already studying the effects of herbs and plants'. Indeed they were.

It's an easy target to mock the vaguely spiritual or pseudoscientific approach often used by such consumer items, given their distant heritage in new age, which no doubt originates distantly in a politics, albeit a wrong-headed one. Rather, it's the infantilism of these objects that is most irksome of all. This is food aimed at a desperate people, in need of soothing babytalk from its packaged foodstuffs lest its hard-faced, 60-hour-week, underpaid, insecure, un-unionised world would collapse into thousands of tiny pieces. In a sense this is little different from my own liking for warm, stodgy food that fills a dissimilar but equally gaping void, but done with rather more dissimulation. What is more infuriating, especially given that surely a fair few of the purchasers of these perishables could be as ill, if not more, than myself (though I suspect we're outnumbered by those suffering from the disease profiled in Todd Haynes' Safe), is the confirmation of Philip Marlow's thesis that as soon as you suffer from deficiencies in your body, the world assumes you're similarly deficient in mind. Could we have a health food with sachlichkeit, I wonder? A way of not eating shit that didn't go alongside cutesy labels, contempt for the lower orders and the delusion that shopping choices can become moral? Perhaps the kitchens of the world's social centres and anarcho or autonomist enclaves could lead the way here, pioneering a straightforward, no-bullshit approach to feeding the masses (or in my case the gastrically afflicted)? The kind of food one might imagine being (but probably wasn't) made in a Constructivist communal neighbourhood kitchen, perhaps?


Anonymous Juvenile Dwarf said...

A way of not eating shit that didn't go alongside cutesy labels, contempt for the lower orders and the delusion that shopping choices can become moral?

An excellent idea and one that the recession itself might make suddenly commercially viable, (assuming anyone wants to eat out at all rather than crouching in their cold, dark houses wolfing down unheated tins of looted baked beans with a spoon etc etc).

Notice, vaguely on this, that Wetherspoons (excellent social barometer that it is) is now offerring a "New Deal" menu, consisting of cheap(ish) and cheerful(ish) soss egg and chips, burger and chips, ham and chips type combos that they used to offer about 10 years ago, before attempting to creep upmarket into faux-gastropub territory.

10:50 am  
Blogger Mario Ballesteros said...

Great post. I agree mostly, except for the "fried chicken or Findus-munching underclasses" bit. Maybe it applies to Anglo contexts, but believe me, there is a great food conscience and culture (both in political terms and just for the plain love of food) in many countries of the Tercer Mundo, regardless of class. Maybe the middleclass snobery of Brits and Gringos (or Germans, for that matter) has something to do with limited popular eating habits, or the lack thereof. "Proletarian" cucina in Mexico can beat one-star Michelin fare (according to a recent WSJ article), and it's not uncommon to see rich fat cats and yuppies lunching in street puestos and markets. Eating in Mexico might be one of our few actually democratizing habits.

11:40 am  
Blogger Giovanni said...

Yes, Mario, totally subscribe, and can happily report that my atavistically poor ancestors always managed to eat beautifully. There is in fact in a village not far from where my mother was born one of the only two restaurants in Italy with the top number of Michelin stars (don't tell me how many it is, nor ask me why it should matter) and what they did was quiz the local grandmothers and build the menu from there. (In fact, if you excuse the horrible self-linkage, I might have posted one of said recipes here).

On the urban side, I grew up next to the Alfa Romeo car factory and their canteen - where, had it been a polling booth, the communist party would have walked away with 80% or so of the vote - was open to the public and a fantastic place where to eat.

8:43 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

Plus I want to wrap my house in that Seneca poster... it's magnificent.

9:04 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

I get the impression that, for the store chains with an "organic" USP, providing "gluten-free" and other items for people with special dietary requirements is much like the way that pubs aspiring to a middle class clientele in the 80s used to offer a token real ale with a good rural name such as "Old Speckled Hen".

Most customers will still buy their usual choice of product (posh sandwich on multi-grain bread or international lager brand respectively), but would feel that they were patronising a more "authentic" establishment.

11:47 pm  
Blogger avvakum said...

You'll notice that the little marquee on the communal kitchen (fabrika-kukhnia) whose snapshot you've inserted in your post reads, "Planet of Sport." I haven't been round that way (the Vyborg district of Petersburg in a long while), but I imagine it's a high-end sporting goods store. A few years ago, I took my students on a tour of the constructivist wonderland known as Narvskaya Zastava (Tractor Street, School of the 10th Anniversary of the October Revolution and other assorted wonders). When we got to the fabrika-kukhnia there I started to give a rousing speech about all the forward-looking ideas of the early Soviet period. Soon, however, I realized I was talking to no one: my students had spotted the McDonald's that now occupies the first floor of the fabrika and, famished by their encounter with such pointless exemplars of "non-beauty" (they're not bloody Tsarist palaces after all), they had dashed in for a quick snack.

2:10 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Oh no...still, contemporary Russia in 'unbelievably depressing' shocker

You know, I've never made it to Petrograd - my knowledge of constructivist architecture comes from reading everything by Catherine Cooke rather than actual experience - but Narvskaya Zastava is the first place I want to visit when I finally do. I suppose you've read the Chto Delat drift through the area (a constructivist drift! It's like I dreamed it)? Unless you are yourself one of that particular collective...

12:31 pm  
Blogger Sukhin said...

Having ate at this very factory kitchen in the days back, I cannot but recall it being rather tasty. It should have had a full-size canteen once, yet in the later days it was nothing but a huge kitchen, selling takeaway meals.
As for the sports shop, it only moven there in the gorgenous 90s.

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