Eating above my pay grade

I can only think of three ways of being able to eat fine food most of the time: being born filthy rich; being fiercely ambitious and earning a pile yourself; and finally- teaching yourself to cook. Mulling over this thought today a quotation floated into my mind from heaven knows what remote corner of my memory.

When the painter was in funds he put mushrooms, fried eggs or tomatoes on top of the cheese; being very young when he evolved this recipe, he often smothered the cheese with fried onions, but this would be too much for most digestions

Recipe for ‘painter’s toasted cheese’ from Elisabeth Ayrton’s “The Cookery of England. Published in 1974.

Michael, if you hadn’t guessed, was Elisabeth’s painter husband, and the book isn’t so much a recipe book but a work of serious historical scholarship covering many centuries of cooking. What I loved about the quotation from the moment I first read the book decades ago, was the tremendous encouragement it gave me, knowing that there existed other people who understood and loved good food but were often reduced to cheese on toast when funds were tight. Most creative people; artists and writers particularly, would understand the challenge. If you love the thought of eating well on a cheese on toast income, you need to roll your sleeves up and get cooking.

Many years later, and with two of our sons working as professional chefs (the other is a fine cook too) I’m all too familiar with the cheffie tricks and shortcuts that make the provision of good enough food, night after night from a small kitchen – almost tolerable. If you want to pay for the kind of dishes you read about in the food porn magazines, you’d better get a better paid job – but it might come as a surprise that the best way of all is to forget about restaurants, because you so often come home thinking to yourself ‘I could have cooked that better for a third of the price’ – and remind yourself that the other 2/3 of the price of a meal out is to pay for the owner’s Porsche and all those well trained staff fussing over you.

Anyway, that’s the conclusion that Madame and me reached when we first moved in together and, every day, passed a classical French restaurant that boasted the sort of dishes I had to look up in my (then new) copy of French Provincial Cooking. Since then, the skills and the knowledge have grown and now growing our own vegetables and cooking all our own food has become a way of life, and when I don’t know how to do something, one of the boys will know exactly how. I have still never tried to cook calves brains, however, and it’s not a bridge I want to cross. I will have a go at most things and occasionally come well and truly unstuck – like I did with the andouillette I bought in a French motorway service station and which tasted and smelt of colon; oh and a raw seafood salad in southeast France that gave me toxic shock and my first encounter with complete fasting as a cure.

What this means, of course, is that the greatest challenges of the present anthropocene age are a bit less frightening to us than they might otherwise be. For instance it wouldn’t break my heart if I never ate another fillet steak because I can’t remember the last time I tasted one. Very occasionally we share a single sirloin steak but circumstances have taught us how to get the best out of the cheapest cuts.

What has changed irrevocably for us is that once we decided that wherever possible we would only eat locally farmed, organic produce our food bill increased and even the cheaper cuts of meat got a whole lot more expensive. That’s the downside I suppose, but the upside is that the flavour really is better. Less can be more it seems – for instance, if you’re a cook, you will almost certainly recall trying to brown chunks of meat before casseroling them – and watching glumly as a copious amount of added water seeps out and broil the chunks to an unsavoury looking grey colour. Supermarket pre-packed meat is especially prone to this and it’s because the processors are allowed to inject up to 10% water into their products – allegedly to make them more acceptable to the customer. So already 10% of your cheap meat is water, and it gets worse when you start to add in the environmental costs of intensive farming which have often been subsidised by the government – i.e. by the taxpayers, you and me. In fact if the environmental costs were added to the total the ‘expensive’ meat would almost certainly be cheaper than the cheap meat from the supermarkets and if you only eat meat occasionally you get the best of all possible worlds, while the world gets the best of all possible inhabitants.

Compare this kind of adulterated industrial meat with the locally produced pork shoulder we bought on Wednesday for a dish including shallots and cider. Browning the meat was a total dream – no fuss and lovely results. The meat in the finished dish hadn’t shrunk to half its original size so we could have probably bought less; bringing the price down again. You just have to be careful how you buy food. Our chosen suppliers get only one chance and if they try it on we don’t go back. We do the research, visit the websites and make some exploratory purchases because not everything with a locally produced label is perfect. Cheese is a particular example and although our local supplier of blue cheese is brilliant, ironically the Cheddar cheeses are very variable and some of them taste extremely mass produced in spite of their price – and Cheddar is only twenty miles away!

But we don’t cook simply in order to help the earth or save loads of money; we cook since we’re greedy and love eating good things – and this is the only way we can do it; the way we’ve had to do it all our lives, because the wealthy parents and highly paid jobs seem to have passed us by. The lifestyle changes that we need to embrace seem to us to be a far better way of being human than the stressful, dog eat dog, and endless slavery of vulture capitalism. Buying locally means we get to know the producers and we are becoming part of a whole new community of shared values. Come on in – the water’s lovely!

More sourdough experiments, bread and butter pudding and Cornish pasties – well, it was raining outside.

* “But a voice sounds in my ear. Why so fast, mortal?”

The moon rising over the apple trees behind our borrowed cottage in Lleyn

Full marks if you already know the title and author of the quotation at the top of this post. RS Thomas of course; poet and once parish priest of Aberdaron, just down the road from here. Sometimes when I feel completely dry and empty from too much reading and too many hopes squandered by politicians, RS is the one I turn to because he was one of the few poets who dared to stay in that mindspace and wrestle a blessing from it.

Coming back yesterday from our apple scrumping expedition we drank cider and sat peacefully in the sunshine, looking westwards towards Ireland. I’d struggled through the first 100 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and I was finding it difficult to see a way forward beyond his gloomy picture of a technological future that seemed to grow like a tumour; vascularizing and metastasizing until the life systems of the earth collapse. Are all the greener, more regenerative alternatives I’ve been happy to read about really just distractions from the only show in town?

We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution

Quoted in “The Technological Society”

So that Syngenta factory in Huddersfield that we drove past three years ago, and which produces Paraquat to sell in only in the developing world because it’s banned here – is it there by virtue of some iron law of technological development? How do I know what they make there? Because of a case in the High court in which they were fined ¬£200,000 for a leak amounting to three and a half tons of the deadly stuff. How do I know what it does? Because a friend from art school committed suicide with it, and also I was once called to the bedside of a woman in hospital who was lucid and just about conscious and waiting for her organs to fatally break down. She was sedated but the nurses were in pieces.

Ellul seemed to think it was a logical error to suppose that any individual could alter the course of technological development but history has challenged his pessimistic view. In fact paraquat was responsible for so many deaths, both deliberate and accidental that it was banned across the developed world. That it’s still being made in Huddersfield is due to the continued sale of the weed killer in the developing world where, lacking regulation and safety precautions, the company wilfully allows the sale of a mortally dangerous compound. That’s no kind of iron law of technological development but a sign of corporate greed and moral failure at the same level as arms manufacturers who absolve themself from any responsibility for the use of their products to kill and maim. Printing a warning not to ingest a product on the side of a large container that will almost certainly be broken down into unmarked bottles is of no help to a semi-literate subsistence farmer.

Sixty years on from the publication of Ellul’s book we’ve experienced decades of economic growth, and nuclear weapons are way down the list of most peoples’ preoccupations. What bothers us since the Berlin wall came down is that the iron laws of history turned out to be no such thing, and the iron laws of economics have left most of us wondering what all that economic growth has actually brought us in terms of human happiness; and why is there always an enemy worth fighting a war against. And of course, now the earth’s vital systems are closing down; fatally poisoned. But only technology remains untouchable; the shape-shifting beast of the apocalypse like the one with the body of a lion and the head of a man that *Yeats saw in his vision and *RS Thomas mentions: ” …. [whose] hour come round at last,¬†¬†slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Well, not so fast! RS says to himself, and weighs the power of the religious past against the power of the “spiritus mundi” – the consciousness, the culture, the spirit of the age. Are we that much in the thrall and power of a technology that watches our every move, predicts and shapes the choices we make to steer us away from dangerously insurrectionary thoughts. Do we really love that technology which impoverishes our lives and takes away jobs without the least scruple and sends the victims to the food banks. Do we really love the technology that feeds us with industrialised food that makes us sick and obese and then blames us. Do we really love the technology that disseminates lies at the speed of light and corrupts democracy. And when we talk about freedom isn’t it usually the trivial kind of freedom to choose between a dozen identical small objects of desire in a supermarket? If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd it probably is a turd and sprinkling a few sparkles on it won’t change its nature.

Of course technology’s principal beneficiaries would like us to believe that there is no alternative, but we’ve seen organic farming and gardening grow and grow. We’ve seen rewilding schemes demonstrating that life without chemicals is possible. We’ve seen regenerative farming gain serious support at government level. We’ve seen the power of vegetarians and vegans to force change in the offer of the food industry. We’ve seen the extraordinary growth of awareness of the coming linked crises of economic collapse, global climatic disaster and the mass extinction of pollinating insects. More particularly we’ve seen how nervous the industrial food complex and the agrochemical industry have become; spending millions on disputing with and then and trashing scientists who challenge their autonomy; funding fake experiments with fake results and spending more millions on lobbyists to bypass the science altogether and knobble the politicians directly.

Why shouldn’t it be true that the writing is on the wall and they know it. All epochal changes or paradigm shifts are like one economist described going bankrupt – it’s very very slow and then it’s very fast.

So now’s the time to hold fast.

And if you’ve stayed with me all these thousand or so words here’s a picture taken today at Porth Neigwl in the teeth of a south westerly gale and sheeting rain at times. Known in English as Hell’s Mouth the wide bay is the scene of innumerable shipwrecks; and reading the information board today I discovered an ironic reference to the fact that a small schooner named The Twelve Apostles was beached and completely wrecked by a fierce storm. Luckily the crew all survived. The problem is that there’s no escape from a southwesterly gale and so the ships – and there were many of them – were inexorably blown in to their doom. Can’t think of a better image of a paradigm shift!

* The WB Yeats poem that I refer to is “The Second Coming”; and RS Thomas wrote the equally marvellous poem “The Moon in Lleyn”.

Drowning in the wrong metaphor

St Ives in January 2016

I do lot of reading – you may have noticed if you’re a regular reader – and occasionally I come across a truly daft example of letting a metaphor run away to the point where you can only ask WTF? On one occasion during the formal prayers in church, one of my colleagues who always prepared immaculately, was working up a long metaphorical improvisation on the spiritual power that can inspire creativity and, thinking to finish with a flourish, entreated us to “all fertilize one another”. A request that the congregation, mostly over sixty, chose not to follow up. After a bit of merciless teasing he conceded that he could have chosen his words more carefully!

I don’t retell this story because I disliked him, in fact he was my most trusted friend and something of a surrogate father to me. I tell it because, as I think (I think from memory) Paul Ricoeur once said, “we live in a story shaped universe”; and the stories we tell, the metaphors we use and the pictures we paint actually shape the world we live in and so we have a huge duty of care when we employ them.

Here’s an example from Thomas Berry’s “Dream of the earth”, which I’m re-reading at the moment. I greatly enjoy his writing and in the current climate it’s a book that – if you’re at all interested in any kind of green spirituality – you should read. However here’s an absolute zinger of a metaphor that’s overextended so far it must have ruptured its achilles tendon: “…… without the gravitational attraction experienced throughout the physical world, there would be no emotional attraction of humans to one another.” (Chapter 5 – The ecological age.)

Try as I will, I can’t get my head around the idea that human attraction is related in some material way to our mass. Would I become even more fatally attractive if I gained fifty pounds? It’s just the overextended metaphor escaping and taking on a life of its own. Would we be far less attractive in the low gravity environment of the moon? Ah well, a better editor would have put a blue pencil through that one.

Politicians, of course, love a good metaphor because they understand that in this story shaped universe a well turned phrase can influence behaviour far more powerfully than a 20,000 word policy statement. “Fighting them on the beaches” and “finest hour” convey more emotional content for a useful group of older voters in a couple of words than almost any other phrase in British politics. The fact that they were both coined in times of defeat and failure makes no difference whatever.

So why all this pondering? Well it comes from a long and enjoyable reading of Charles Massy’s book “Call of the reed warbler” in which he frequently blames the “mechanical mind” for much of the critical damage we’ve done to the environment over the past two and a half centuries. I understand, just for the sake of clarity, that we humans started impacting nature as many as ten thousand years ago but we lacked the technological power to put the earth beyond repair. I know exactly what he means by the phrase; especially when it’s opposed to the “ancient organic mind” of our so-called primitive ancestors. He blames the enlightenment for the changing mindset that regards the earth as no more or less than an endless resource that is entirely at our disposal.

What I’m interested in is why? How, culturally, did we change from being stewards to environmental tyrants and how, given the urgency of the crisis, can we build a new culture? Somewhere within the answer there has to be a serious look at which forces most influence our core beliefs and behavior. There’s no point in criticising farmers without examining the agrochemical industry , the industrial food market, media and the marketing and advertising industry. Then we must examine our own role in sustaining these dangerous industries by buying and using their products. This week alone I’ve received three so-called objective reports praising the safety of glyphosate from different organisations which nowhere mention Monsanto or Bayer or indeed Syngenta but cite only evidence that was commissioned and paid for by the industry.

If we live in a story shaped universe then as westerners we need to understand the biblical story about humans being given dominion over all the earth and consider whether we should reject it. We need to understand how and why we talk about endless growth as a settled and universal constant; how and why we tell ourselves that all problems are soluble by technology; how and why our democracy fails to to represent the poor and marginalized – especially those in developing countries but here as well. We need to understand what form of cognitive dissonance allows us to follow a path that day by day which so clearly leads us deeper into trouble.

So thinking about the power of words, pictures and representations is a key task for those of us who want to pursue a different path and perhaps this will turn out to be a golden age for new and powerful stories that undermine the way we do things round here – always my favourite definition of culture.

We need stories that explain how caring for our loved ones can be a fulfilling joy, not a candidate for outsourcing to an underpaid and overworked carer. We need stories that show how non mechanised organic gardening and farming are not drudgery and that there’s more to cooking, eating together and building up our communities than grabbing a solitary coffee and a sandwich. We’ve got nowhere after years of explaining so why not steal the devil’s best tunes and do for the age of technology what Charles Dickens did for the cotton mills and bottle factories. We need to mock the false claims and laugh in the faces of the high priesthood of PR teams and their focus groups. We need to celebrate – in the words of a tremendous poster/poem by Thalassa Ting – all kinds of love. We need to stop looking for redemption through introspection and self hatred and find it on our everyday pilgrimages among strangers. We need to practice the kind of incontinent generosity that shames the ambitious and greedy into dipping a toe into these entirely new waters and we need to work up new opportunities for gathering and expressing thanks for all that we have, rather than shouting and throwing things at those who don’t yet get it. We need to become the hardest of targets; wily coyotes, sly foxes and punch and judy professors who appear and disappear leaving stories that can’t be suppressed but spread like benign wildfires leaving flowers in their wake.

Meanwhile I shall be reading Paul Ricoeur ( The rule of metaphore”) and Jacques Ellul (“The technological society”)who will hopefully break through the crust of the “mechanical Mind” metaphor at the cost of a good deal of head scratching I fear. Being French, and both what we call continental philosophers I had them smuggled through customs in a consignment of newly printed passports – but there it is. At least I’ll be looking at the Irish Sea again.

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