Friday Food Things, part V: the miracle of seasonality

I haven’t written in a bit because the past couple of weeks have involved the following: preparing to travel (including trying to finish off as much work as possible before leaving the office); travelling and enjoying myself enormously; recovering from travelling. My travels took me to New York, where I visited the Statue of Liberty, strolled around Central Park, and ate some amazing food. You can read the first instalment of my adventures in the Big Apple here.

IMG_2336Since back, I have absolutely devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s magnificently inspirational Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver is primarily known as a novelist, with The Poisonwood Bible probably being her most immediately recognisable work (true to form, I haven’t read it, but I’ve read The Lacuna which, if nothing else, introduced me to the concept of the lacuna). (That sounds flippant. It was very good). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, however, is something like a memoir, something like a work of journalism, something like a handbook for seasonal eating. It follows Kingsolver and her family as they move to her husband’s farm in Appalachia and agree to eat seasonally and locally for a year, as a family project. I’ve always been interested, in a token way, in locality and seasonality, and occasionally get so prickly about our general reliance on fossil fuels, a reliance embedded deep within the food supply system, that I wake up in the middle of the night and sit bolt upright, panicking. However, in recent years, what was once a passionate interest has seemed marginal when I have struggled to find time to cook at all on occasion. Even when you love food, the reality of cooking

Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)
Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)

when you’re home at 7pm, 8pm, ground down by a long journey deep underground in a rattling carriage, can be a prosaic and joyless chore at times. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was like that moment when I drink my third cup of coffee: an awakening. Kingsolver lives on a farm, so it’s arguably easy for her to eat locally, seasonally. But the advice is generous and understanding about the impact even a few cumulative decisions can have on the whole fossil fuel-dependent global supply chain of food, how it can reduce our reliance on them, and how a few small changes can directly benefit farmers. Yes, the book is a little dated now, and it’s obviously focused on the US, which doesn’t map exactly with agriculture in Europe. In the EU, we simply don’t have the same issues with growth hormones in milk, concentrated animal feeding operations and patented genetically modified crops, partly due to EU regulations and partly due to consumer rejection. Interetsingly, disagreements about food standards are one of the issues holding up agreement on the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

 

IMG_1162I can’t and won’t live without aubergine, but I am making an effort to eat seasonally and locally. In this I have been aided by two things. The first is April Bloomfield’s A Girl and her Greens, an ode to vegetables which bursts with creativity and ideas for beautiful, sometimes unusual, vegetables. Not all the recipes are 100% to my taste (like many professional chefs, she uses more butter than I am personally comfortable with!) but I feel genuinely excited when flicking through this book, inspired to cook new things in different ways. The quirky illustrations of dancing pigs and quizzical chickens are also a delight.

IMG_1166
These dancing pig illustrations in A Girl and Her Green never failed to draw a smile

The second aid to seasonality is Farm Direct, a website my friend Mehrunnisa directed me to. It’s effectively a virtual marketplace where farmers can list their produce; the food you order is delivered straight to your door. I browse the website like some people browse Asos or Tiffany’s: I just want it all, and everything is precious. So many wonderful things are growing around this time of year and I piled my online basket high, and then reluctantly took stuff out, bitterly acknowledging the fact that we are a two-person household who can only eat so much. The fantastic thing about the produce offered is that there are plenty of things simply not available in supermarkets: think sorrel, baby purple turnips, red spring onions. I find the prices competitive, too, especially for the unusual and organic produce, and I like the fact that farmers are earning more than they would if I purchased their food through a supermarket. I can’t wait for my next crate of baby turnips, gooseberries and Tiptree strawberries to arrive this weekend.

IMG_1172So immersed in my new love of seasonal, more local, eating (fresher! Directly benefitting farmers in my locality! Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels!) was I that reading Adam Johns’ opinion column ‘What’s so great about reating seasonally?’, published in the ‘A Good Rant’ section of delicious magazine was something of a shock. Johns describes encouragement to eat seasonally (though he intertwines this with the issue of eating locally – admittedly the two are very intersected) as an “absurd foodie dictum” and characterised by “piety, hypocrisy, and chauvinism”, not to mention snobbery and “culinary xenophobia”. He bemoans being unable to find South African apples in his local supermarket. I found the article pretty judgemental, but most of it was just his opinion, and I’m excellent at living and letting live on those (I just don’t have the energy to get exercised about how other people feel most of the time). However, there were two parts in particular where I thought Johns’ arguments were specious. Firstly:

Shoes and clothes are still made in the UK, but how many of those who insist on ‘buying locally’ make a point of wearing these items? […] why is that permitted if it’s not okay to eat an imported tomato?

My counter-point to that argument is the simple issue that fresh food is perishable. When it is imported via air, huge amounts of fuel are used to bring over produce which is, largely, destined to have a relatively brief shelf life. Coupled with the knowledge that UK households throw out 7 million tonnes of food items a year, half of which could have been eaten, the implication is that a lot of food is being imported only to be thrown away. A huge amount of non-renewable fossil fuel has been used to transfer out of season green beans to our rubbish (or perhaps compost!) bins. When importing clothes and shoes, there is no real shelf life (beyond the vagaries of fashion) as these are not perishable items, therefore importing them is not so risible. They are also much more likely to be shipped by container, and not a refrigerated one, either.

The second argument that Johns makes is as follows:

There’s also a mean-mindedness to the seasonistas’ stance. Every time you turn your nose up at a green bean from Kenya or a bunch of asparagus from Peru, you deny farmers in such developing countries the chance of a better living.

Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct
Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct

It’s been well recorded that the market distoring impact of the Common Agricultural Policy has had the unwelcome effect of flooding developing countries’ markets with subsidised food grown in Europe, resulting in the decline of local food production; in addition, the CAP’s subsidies mean developing-world farmers cannot compete with their European counterparts on price. While the CAP has been reformed, these structural problems remain and arguably will continue to do so. The idea that farmers in the developing world are making a decent living due to our appetite for their vegetables is risible. A lot of the growing is done on large-scale monoculture plantations or farms owned by local or international corporations.

 

The restructuring of developing countries’ food markets to grow crops for the Western world’s table is also having a serious impact on the local environment and is in some cases compromising local peoples’ access to fresh, affordable food. At the same time, I recognise that food exports will be an important source of income for many people in the developing world and that whole countries’ economies rely on export of primary products. My point is that the whole issue is complex from a range of perspectives, including human, economic, and environmental, and Johns’ reductionist argument, painting those reluctant to buy foreign-grown vegetables as xenophobic Scrooges does a disservice to this difficult issue.

As I said I am unlikely to be able to live entirely without products from the world’s larder: in my fridge and on my counter I have bananas, aubergines, tinned Italian tomatoes and herbs and spices from around the world (and when it comes to fossil fuels…I did travel to New York recently!). But attempting to tread a little more lightly on the earth by reducing my reliance on foods imported by fossil fuel is driven not by xenophobia or pettiness but by an attempt to live more responsibly in my day to day actions. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

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