Nothing is more telling of the times in which we live than our relationship to food. People will always need to eat but the mechanics of how this most basic necessity is serviced nowadays plays a significant role in hurtling humanity to the edge of the abyss. The foodie culture of our globalised world is distinguished by the complexity, chaos and contradictions it generates. Bon appetit, my friends! Welcome to postnormal gastronomy.
Foodie culture comprises a great deal more than what we eat. It is the accessorie of refined living. Foodie culture is not one option. It is a plethora of choices available in multiple versions to suit a diversity of styles and budgets. It is the commodified accessorie that betokens a lifestyle, a set of attitudes, ideas and preferences. And like all accessories it is a fashion choice, which can be both pick and mix and mix and match. Fashion is simultaneously art, passing phase, fad and fancy, and of course moveable feast. Fashion is a concept, a total look, a personal style. The accessorie of your choice entails a host of further supporting accoutrements. When it comes to food one does not choose mere ingredients but a whole paraphernalia of condiments and equipment dictated by how the ingredients are to be prepared, cooked and served. Foodie culture is consumer culture writ large and all pervasive.
The range of foodie choices runs from prehistoric eating to foraging from hedgerows and seashore to alchemical refashioning of food by wizardly mechanical means. All the way to Michelin-rated restaurants around the world where one can wait months for a seat at a table to sample eighteen-course tasting menus where ingredients from the humblest to most exotic are luxuriously transformed into fantastically presented morsels with inordinate attention to minute detail, sophistication and gargantuan cost. In between these options it is possible to eat one’s way through the entire history and geography of the globe via restaurants, takeaways or recreated at home. Each choice comes with the supporting appropriately styled gadgetry, cutlery, crockery and beverage. In the world of gastronomy cost betokens taste, not necessarily of the food consumed but most definitely of the paying customer, the consumer. The complexity of the supply chain that makes this cornucopia of choice available at a supermarket or restaurant near you is riddled with contradictions. As more and more people attain the ability to make foodie choices the sustainability of the world’s food supply and the natural balance of food ecology becomes more and more chaotic. Before long we will be staring into an abyss and our food choices rendered in constraint to nature’s man-made ailments. The food we will be eating tomorrow is uncertain but fear not, our list of foods we will be eating in the future promises tasty premonitions involving locusts and algae.
Foodie culture is the construct of affluence, the essence of abundance. It is not eating to live but living to eat in style – a lifestyle of all-enveloping commodification. Feasting has always been part of human culture. Born and brought up in Azerbaijan, Gunel Isakova links to her Caucasian roots through the traditional food made by her grandmother for the family; comfort food that reminds her of chilly winters in the mountains of Dagestan. The presentation of festival foods in Dagestan and throughout the world mark high days and holidays of religious and social significance for different cultures; occasional times of indulgence were not uncommonly preceded by fasting to underline the importance and exceptional nature of excess. Feasting has always been the presentation of power: where people sat at the table, when and what they ate indicated status. In other social arrangements power had a redistributive function. An obligation of the powerful made manifest through making food available for all with regular communal dining – when the powerful ate, everyone could join the sitting. Alternatively, eating together or feeding all who came expressed common bonds of fellowship communion and belonging as well as charity. Foodie culture is something quite different. It is perennial, everyday abundance for the masses, at a variety of price points made possible by industrialised production supply chains and delivery. It is marketable feasting conveniently available for ready money – or alternative means of payment. Festival foods are no longer occasional and seasonal but on the shelves year round. Actual festivals are marked by increased food consumption and the search for ever more luxurious and exotic dainties to titillate the palate and confirm that the good times are truly here. Feasting has become entertaining which is not so much a show of power as a way of showing off, which masquerades as sharing with family, friends and neighbours.
The very naming of foodies is the mark of this new global dispensation. The foodie is one who delights in not only the taste of finely prepared indigenous food but glories in the variety and diversity of food cultures it is possible to sample. The foodie wants to ingest the ambience and culture of food in ways only attainable thanks to globalisation. What shall we eat today is a complex question with multiple answers. Should it be French, Italian, Spanish, Mediterranean, Greek, Moroccan, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Korean, Malay, Japanese or fusion, a mingling of styles, ingredients and techniques?
The foodie gurus have much to say about lifestyle, what food is for as an accessorie of lifestyle as well as an ethos directly related to the kind of food we buy and eat. Let us begin with the ingredients, a very fine place to start. The foodie gurus are unanimous in the quest for authentic fresh and first rate fare. Never a blemish, bump or bulge mars the photogenic excellence of the ingredients they slice and dice. The produce must conform to the exacting expectations of the foodie consumer who finds his or her self so far removed from the un-airbrushed process of food production. Ugly Food, as Misha Monaghan laments in her review of the book with exactly that same title, is a thoroughly Western vision. Having been brought up eating haggis bonbons and cow brains courtesy of her respective Scottish and Indian heritage, this is a sheltering she cannot quite reconcile. Even when the foodie goes shopping to high end artisanal shops and markets where they engage the proprietor in earnest conversation about the provenance of the food being sold, aesthetics remain paramount. Nevertheless, the superior quality of their ingredients is the hallmark of how to achieve the true foodie experience. The ingredients betoken the seriousness of one’s determination to be a genuine foodie acolyte and this choice has consequences. The artisanal food shops where the gurus sample and taste before they buy are not available to the masses who aspire to acolyte status. The pressure is on the purveyors of mass consumption, the supermarket chains, to respond. The result is a beauty contest for vegetables and meats – if it doesn’t look good it will not sell. The pressure falls most heavily on producers, the farmers, who end up ditching perfectly edible tomatoes, potatoes or whatever, before they can even enter the supply chain. Size, colour and form all matter in the aesthetic of foodie culture.
The artisanal craze goes much further. The gurus regularly venture from their picture perfect homes where they manipulate picture perfect ingredients. When this is not an excursion into their manicured gardens to harvest the freshest of fresh seasonal ingredients it is more extensive travel to search out small scale producers who lavish personal care on their products. Be that animal, vegetable or mineral. The dream of self-sufficiency, even in the case of window box herb-growing, is a lovely idea of immense impracticality. Aspirational the audience may be but the mechanics – city dwelling, modern homes, plot sizes and the innumerable demands of quality living – just do not compute. The gurus always assuage audience anxiety with the familiar formula that such items or passable substitutes are easily available at your local supermarket. Even the populist moral philosophers of our age are allowed their little white lies. It all depends on where one lives and true foodie credentials will be assessed by how far one is prepared to travel to buy the must-have product. On the other hand, creating demand is precisely why the foodie gurus exist and supermarket supply chains have felt the pressure. In Britain, for example, there was the memorable goose fat Christmas when one television cook insisted the sure-fire way to the perfect roast potato in a nation of roast potato fanatics was to cook them in goose fat. What stocks existed (highly limited) were quickly exhausted leading to panic, complaint and sullen discontent the length and breadth of the country. In consequence goose fat has now become a staple and is included in the mechanics of producing and advertising frozen roast potatoes.
While the adult population is being seduced by the diversity of foodie culture, that culture’s sustainability must be questioned. The question revolves around a gaping generational contradiction, or is it just a time lag conundrum? In Britain it is not uncommon to find children traumatised by broccoli or unhinged by cabbage. It is normal for restaurants to provide children’s menus, separate and different orders of foodie treats for tiny tots while the horror stories of the child that simply screams at the mere presence of an unfamiliar food, we need not be blunt and name it vegetable, are commonplace gruesome details of the rite of passage awaiting all young parents. Choice is the watchword and choice must be extended and indulged to empower even the most perverse mini emperor. The child-friendly choice centres around the burger, sausage, fish finger, fries and baked beans end of the spectrum and barely if at all touching the fresh vegetable end of said spectrum. The entire production chain of manufacturing, marketing, advertising is dedicated to the idea that children are a distinct order of homo sapiens requiring a particular food culture including snacks such as crisps, popcorn thickly coated with sweetening agents, chocolates and candies, all manner of biscuits and cakes and anything else that can be laden with sugar. Starch and sugar, the premium food groups of immaturity, are of course prime suspects in the obesity epidemic afflicting the world. Is this the whole story when it comes to fast food? Hussein Kesvani argues there is another narrative. He describes the way in which halal fried chicken shops have created spaces where young, impoverished and marginalised members of society can find a ‘home’. Halal fried chicken shops are as much a feature of the High Street as that ultimate sign of gentrification – the coffee shop. Tahir Abbas has found his own ‘home’ in the world of coffee, his travels so closely informed and enriched by memories of encounters with beans from around the world.
It is interesting to note that it is with conscientising the taste buds of children that one comes to a great bifurcation of culture. The divide is between the Anglo-American influenced and the continental, or should we say the French in particular, although it would be churlish not to point out that both are united by their love of coffee. Notwithstanding, childish food obstinacy is not unknown in continental Europe, it is however ignored to eradication no matter how much fuss and racket the child initially offers. Soon enough, well behaved little gourmands without a murmur are munching smaller portions of what the adults are eating (minus the caffeine and alcohol of course). When this became a topic of op-ed debate it seemed the French way was considered almost tantamount to child abuse among British commentators. We can presume that French observers would find incomprehensible the actions of organised mothers who banded together to throw bags of chips over the school railings to save their children from the nutritional healthy menu of entirely unfamiliar foods newly introduced for school dinners. The subversive menus were an attempt to counter the rise of obesity. To the mothers and their precious charges, choice of the unfamiliar was positive lack of real choice to eat only what they wanted – the things they were used to eating, even if the chip butties were diabetes-inducing or incipient heart attacks. In this vein, Kesvani illustrates that the halal fried chicken shop is also an emblem of choice. Amongst loud disdain for the cholesterol-infusing, life-shortening, cheap and cheerless, definitely non-organic offerings, these outlets represent a symbiosis between chicken shops and youth sub-cultures that are already considered to be deeply problematised, according to societal norms. Just as Vicky Bishop describes in her Last Word on the Halal Snack Pack, for Kesvani and the mothers of youngsters deprived of their beloved chips, foodie culture becomes symbolic of communities, cohesion, geopolitics, alienation and empowerment. Foodie culture is politicised.
The British, for all the embrace of foodie culture evident on every chicken shop-filled High Street and shopping outlet, are nevertheless also infamous for knowing what they like, and liking only what they know, as northern mothers and generations of British tourists to the Spanish Costas prove. This contradiction leads us into some of the unexplored depths of foodie philosophy. Much to Jeremy Henzell-Thomas’ rancour, celebrity chefs have expanded their horizons from the kitchen to the world. The new genre, no bar to commodification whatsoever, is the foodie travelogue. Instead of touring around their native heath for the finest and freshest, the gurus take off to uncover the secrets of another food culture. The Mediterranean, where so many Europeans take their holidays or choose to retire in search of the good life, unsurprisingly is the most familiar and well-worn path. The audience can realistically aspire to finding the artisanal preservers of timeless tradition, the bursting markets of freshness where only locally-made produce is to be had and sitting down to eat in the ravishing locations frequented by the celebrity chef tour guide. The travelogues also venture much further afield – India, Thailand, China – places on the long haul tourist routes. It is a basic premise of these tours that food is culture, rooted in tradition and the age old relationship to the land from which it hails. It is the uniqueness of the relationship ingredients and the recipes that the celebrity chef is searching for and about which they seek to entertainingly educate their audience. Much that stands as tradition is the legacy of poverty, a peasant existence making the most of what is available. Thus the mantra, for example, that Mediterranean cooking is simplicity and locally sourced produce. Boyd Tonkin’s interview with Claudia Roden reveals that, apart from this, food has been greatly influenced by history, the history of encounters between different cultures that have occurred in a particular region. ‘In Roden’s cooking, and her writing, three layers of remembrance seamlessly interact,’ he writes. ‘Her recipes, and the deep background she invests in them, allow personal, family and cultural memories to converge. With those memories come the emotions that particular foods carry in their rituals and their tastes, often over frontiers of time and place.’ In this way our would-be foodie philosophers, a pale imitation of the likes of Roden, miss the most profound implications of how diet operates with their soundbites and platitudes.
Our stomachs appear to be the most multicultural organs of the human person. Our stomachs embrace opportunity and can readily adapt to new tastes and flavours as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown movingly explores in her food memories of a twice removed migrant. Even the recalcitrant northern mothers more than likely enjoy the occasional curry or Chinese takeaway, it has become part of the British way. True chicken tikka masala, a bland concoction with a creamy ‘tomato-ish’ sauce, has become the nation’s favourite dish while having only the most tangential relationship to ‘Indian’ cuisine. The recipe was invented purely for the British palate with no interest in authenticity, but a yen for minimally spicy taste. The importance is less in the nature of the actual recipe than the speed of the transformation of the British diet. It is argued that the first tandoori restaurant opened in Britain in the mid-1960s and was located in Charlotte Street, a renowned multicultural eating venue in London. In which case I ate there very soon after its opening. A small enclave of anthropologists located at nearby University College among whom I counted myself, were dedicated participant observers frequently to be found among the diners experiencing the newness of tandoori chicken. The timeline from that to tikka masala becoming a commonplace favourite is little more than a decade. British stomachs have adapted and integrated far quicker than a true accommodation between the bringers of this taste sensation and the rest of the population just as Australian stomachs have welcomed the Halal Snack Pack into their culinary routine. Racism, prejudice and discrimination do not vanish as ‘Indian’ restaurants proliferate and ‘curry’ products become normal items on supermarket shelves. The foodie influence is a record of encounter, not a guide to the nature and content of that encounter.
Take another example with considerable contemporary relevance. The American diet, especially in the western states has been massively influenced by Mexican cooking. Chilli, burrito and taco are such staples that they have become fast food chains across the nation. The food supply chain that stocks American supermarkets with its vast array of produce would be neither so abundant nor cheap were it not for Mexican migrant labour. Of course in the western states of the United States the Mexicans were residents before the territory became American. Today the American President fulminates about Mexican illegal immigration and demands a wall to keep Mexicans out and looks forward to deporting as many Mexicans as possible. And all the while the general populace keeps on ingesting Mexican foods with thankless relish.
The Mexican case brings us to the other profoundly important but undervalued reality of human history. The face of the planet has been regularly reconstructed by the transplantation of plants and animals to service human dietary needs, tastes and fashions. No region has contributed more with less recognition than Mexico itself. Think of Italian cuisine without tomatoes, or indeed virtually any style of cooking sans the aptly styled love apple. Think of Thai cuisine without chillies, little if anything comes to mind. Both tomatoes and chillies were unknown in either locale before Cortes landed in Mexico. Potatoes can be added to the tally along with squash, avocado, maize – one wonders what anyone ate before the horticultural genius of the Americas became known to the wider world. Though I have to ask if it was entirely necessary to transport manioc/cassava. In fact it was to provide a cheap source of uninspiring calories that could be grown easily, especially by those pressed into service to grow more valuable cash crops or those forcibly settled to an agrarian life. Having spent some time living off manioc porridge I can report it smells like damp hay, tastes of nothing, but any leftovers are indispensable as glutinous glue. Can be used to secure a car windscreen is hardly a foodie recommendation – but should you need the recipe manioc is just the thing.
The transportation of crops and animals is a complex story of food for the haves and food for the have-nots. The mutiny on the good ship Bounty occurred on a voyage designed to transport breadfruit plants to the West Indies as a food crop for the slaves. The Moors brought oranges to Spain and Spain took them to Florida. The Amazon rainforest is cleared to make way for grazing cattle to supply the burger bars of the world. It is not always the refined foodie tastes that lead to scouring the globe for the suitable crop. The complex shuffling of species has not resolved the enduring contradiction of dietary inequity. Recurrent technological improvements since the dawn of human history keep on increasing the total amount of food produced yet human society has signally failed to ensure it can be distributed sufficiently equitably to avoid endemic hardship, hunger and periodic famine. As studies have demonstrated down the ages it’s not the food supply, stupid, nor is it simply a matter of population numbers – the Malthusian arithmetic of more people meaning not enough food was simply wrong. The great famines of history were disasters of poverty not collapse of food supply. People do not starve to death because they are too many. The rich always eat, it is the poor who starve because they cannot sustain the increased costs of acquiring food which is readily available even in times of crop failure. Ireland continued to export food at the height of the potato famine because the rich were never dependent on potatoes for their principal diet. The same is true for India in the serial cereal famines before the Green Revolution increased crop yields.
The hungry poor are always with us. The postnormal contradiction is where they are located and how they relate to the abundance that has become the norm for increasing numbers of people around the globe. It is not just food supply which has grown – so has wealth. The grotesqueness of islands of wealth floating on seas of poverty is now chaotically endemic in developed and developing nations. Increasing insecurity of the middle classes in rich nations has produced the unedifying statistics for the rise of child poverty. Food banks, which should be termed vicarious charity, have become the familiar last resort of the working poor in the richest nations. In the richest country on earth, the USA, it is reported that one in six Americans struggle to get enough to eat. In 2013 the USDA reported that 14.3 per cent of American households did not have sufficient food. The farrago of so-called global economic crisis, the collapse of the banks, provided the unedifying spectacle of the richest fat cats being secured from harm while the generality of the population made up the losses and suffered the consequences of austerity, which ate into living standards. The only moral hazard left is not having enough money to be worth protecting from economic failure. The food poor can watch the television cooking shows, press up against the screen and imagine. But they are mere onlookers unable to participate in foodie culture. Wealth has been created by agricultural revolutions that have made abundance possible. Yet in the most advanced countries the poor still survive on bad food mass-produced cheaply, making use of the entrails of the food production system.
Agribusiness on an industrial scale is the source of contemporary abundance. Large scale operation allows for complex mechanisation. It requires huge inputs of capital and the opening of agricultural land for the convenience of machinery. Cereal crops no longer nestle within hedgerows that provide habitat for insects, birds and animals that can give prudential service by containing or controlling pests. Cropping is now done in vast open areas of monocultures. The scale and scope of this system is most conducive to mechanisation but much more vulnerable to pests and far more likely to degrade the fertility of the soil. It therefore requires large inputs of fertilisers and pesticides. The chemical run-off of unnatural substances pollutes water courses and can kill off freshwater fish, wildlife and plants before it ends up in the oceans. There it accumulates, threatening similar toxic consequences for marine life. To circumvent the fertiliser pesticide conundrum botanical science is at pains to develop new strains of crops genetically attuned to the environments in which they are located and resistant to pest and blights. Advanced seed technology is highly productive but costly. The complex requirements of growing food at competitive prices squeezes out small farms making the system more dependent on large scale integrated mega producers who can keep up the supply of cheap food to manufacturers and supermarkets. Crop revolutions increase the total supply of food, concentrate the ownership of land in fewer wealthier hands, increase the number of landless labourers who lead more precarious insecure lives dependent on the vagaries of the market for their food. Both Timothy Bartel and Imran Kausar write about the food production process from the perspective of a family who run the UK’s first organic halal farm, to the doctor-turned-entrepreneur who founded the Haloodies range of halal food products. For both, the ritualistic approach to the term ‘halal’ that has seen it reduced to an insular debate over stunned versus un-stunned slaughter, proved extremely unsatisfactory. Motivated by a desire to raise standards in the farming and food production process, they set out to explore and embrace the holistic concept that is halal and infuse the Islamic values of sustainability, animal welfare, respect for the environment, health and safety and honesty into every step from the creation of an animal’s life to its consumption.
Their dedication to such lofty principles stands out because what prevails is a great imbalance between those who savour delicacies and those who can barely afford a meagre sustenance, which is only one element of the chaos that is now inherent in the food industry. Increasing pressures come from the rising numbers to have clawed their way out of poverty and suddenly can afford the delights of meat with every meal and a goodly addition of fruit and veg as well. All those extra crops and animals demand more land and especially water. And don’t forget the flowers to decorate the table, they occupy land and drink in enormous quantities of water as well. Water security is the great growing threat to food security worldwide. More marginal land has been brought into basic food cultivation. Marginal land was once the standby reserve, the prudential possibilities for times of difficulty. The prudential systems of subsistence agriculture and peasant agriculture have been overtaken by the imperatives of profit and need. There are few prudential systems that can stand against rising global temperatures and over-utilisation of water resources. Irrigation has been part of agricultural technology for millennia but the relocation of crops to new environments that demand intensive irrigation while the growth of population means increased demands for water is an unstable chaotic conjunction. Rivers that cross national boundaries are potential flashpoints for conflict over water. Water scarcity is the new reality. An insecurity heightened when one’s neighbour has the ability to literally turn off the taps and stop the rivers flowing. It is not the advance of desertification alone the world must worry about but the control and management of the water itself. Some years ago I boarded a crowded flight between Malaysia and Indonesia and could not understand why so many passengers insisted on taking huge plastic jerry cans of water with them. It was not post-hajj, it could not be Zamzam water from Mecca. Answer: a drought on Java, the equatorial rains no longer regularly deluge the land. Migrant workers always bring home presents when they visit, this time the best gift was water!
The business model that underpins foodie culture is not just about the relocation of crops, it is also the transportation of produce. To support the increased demand for exotic, as in not locally available foods, your meals may well earn more air miles than the average citizen can muster in a lifetime of foreign holidays. To feast like a citizen of the world, to explore the delights of some far flung cuisine more pollution must be created. As more and more producers become involved in the long supply chains of a globalised food market with the power to demand standards and set prices, complexity breeds chaos and incipient instability as part and parcel of profitability. It is not the artisanal produce beloved of the celebrity chefs that flies around the world but ever great integration of corporate systems in which the producers have less and less bargaining power.
The greatest contradiction of all is that as foodie culture spreads, as abundance is attainable by more and more of the haves, there is an ever great accumulation of waste. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption gets lost or wasted every year. That is approximately 1.3 billion tons of food, equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereal crop. Meanwhile 795 million people around the world were suffering chronic undernourishment in 2014–2016. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.
Waste is part of the system. Much of it is a deliberate choice fostered by the marketing system and the ethos of foodie culture. There is waste implicit in the beauty contest on supermarket shelves. Some fruit and veg are just too ugly and ill-formed to be set before the delicate sensibilities of shoppers schooled in the idea of freshest and finest. What does not conform to stipulated supermarket standards is consigned to the bins. One third of produce is lost before it ever enters the supply chain. Then there is the great sell-by date debacle. I swear the only time to buy melon or passion fruit or varied other scrumptious items from supermarkets is well after their sell-by date. Acquire them only from the reduced to clear shelf before the supermarket gets around to putting it in the bin. Sell-by dates are manufacturers’ estimates of peak freshness, not deadlines for safe consumption. Then there are the contents of the burgeoning fridges of the world where good food goes to die before we, the finickity consumer, administer the smell test and close examination under strong lighting and consign it to the bins. For many consumers this is not waste, once past its sell-by date or having sat too long in the fridge it is considered spoiled and no longer food. Supermarkets do not help selling two-for-one offers, which only sound like a bargain – that second bag of spinach will go off before you find the opportunity to cook it, ditto the second bag of prepared salad leaves. Under no circumstances remove the wrapping from the airfreighted chilled broccoli and think it is possible to use some now and use the rest for another meal. By the time you return it will be yellowed and honking, fit only for the bin.
The figures for food waste are in typical contradictory fashion remarkably equitable. Responsibility is shared in roughly equal thirds by producers, supply chain and retail and household consumers. It takes some 28 per cent of the world’s agricultural area to produce the food that will never been eaten. And remembering the coming water crisis the total volume of water lost or wasted each year has been estimated as equivalent to the annual flow of the Volga river or three times the volume of Lake Geneva. While fruit and veg are the most likely candidates to be wasted a similar fate awaits 20 per cent of meat and dairy products and 35 per cent of fish. So when you are contemplating what kind of foodie culture you fancy tonight spare a thought for the complexity, chaos and contradictions that go into every food culture around the world today. As you plan your feast add a few prudential ideas such as composting your left overs or recycling as much food waste as possible along with all the packaging. Foodie culture has released demons rather than found the multicultural rapprochement of a globalised world where we can all share each other’s traditions and tastes. Don’t tell Jeremy Henzell-Thomas but I cannot deny that I enjoy picking up ideas from television chefs. However, at the end of it all I hear a small voice in my head. My grandmother, just like Gunel Isakova’s grandmother in the Caucasus, always said and still repeats in my consciousness: ‘anyone can cook with the best ingredients. It takes a real cook to make a good meal with whatever you can afford.’ My grandmother knew whereof she spoke having lived through the Depression and wartime rationing. Isakova’s grandmother found that all she needed was flour, water and some oil, to feed her family through the winter, my own grandmother always cooked from fresh. She could make anything including a non-alcoholic drink known as small beer (probably because it did have a tendency to be combustible or should I say positively explosive) to the most delicious peppermint sweets such as no shop ever stocked. Her repertoire was extensive and delicious but confined by the paucity of ingredients available in the local shops. I am sure it is a testament to her tutelage that my stomach ends up being a peasant in every culture though I have never lacked for sampling the finer refined luxury goodies. The trouble with abundant luxury is all the hidden costs and down the line troubles it breeds by just doing its thing. When I reflect on the commercialised foodie culture and all it brings in its wake I am minded of the lines from a Dorothy Parker poem: ‘With this the tale and sum of it/ What earthly good can come of it.’
When it comes to gastronautic activity I have been fortunate. I have dined finely, by which I mean I have had my share of fine dining experiences. Posh restaurants, Michelin-starred eating and I have not been strangers. What is more I rank my stomach as a citizen of the world: I have noshed my way through a plethora of cuisines with relish. And when I cook – did I mention I love to cook? – I have pleasure in bringing the gastronomic traditions of the world to my table and transport myself to the tables of those with whom I have dined, just as Sami Zubaidi’s personal account transports us to the kitchen of the 1940s Jewish Baghdad household he grew up in. And yet…
Every time I contemplate food there reverberates within me the voice of she who articulates the rules of the universe. My grandmother was a small, gentle, quiet and apparently undemonstrative lady. One should not be fooled by appearance, however. My Nan, as we called her, laid down the law definitively and indelibly – as she decreed so it must be and still is all these years later. Now my Nan was a superb cook and I learnt at her direction the processes and procedures and basic recipes of how to cook. And my Nan always said ‘you can call yourself a real cook when you can make something from what is readily available’.