The Pleasure of Eating
Life, for the modern man, is a very lonely affair. We travel to and from work alone, we generally work alone, we eat alone, and we spend the majority of our recreational time alone. A plethora of devices/tools/technologies exists almost entirely to reinforce this state of being. The metal capsule we call a car, the office cubicle, headphones, mobile phones, the television, books, laptops, and closed doors all work in tandem to further cut people off from each other.
This loneliness is a reflection of a larger pattern as the separation between people and the forces which govern their life. The government, aside from the manufactured images repeated to us on our screens, is both physically distant and psychologically distant. The decisions are made in Parliament house, a place so geographically disconnected that most of us have never been there. Those who make the decisions themselves come from another world it seems, at the least another culture; a culture of elite education, aristocratic proclivities, and power. They operate and work, speak and think, in a way far removed from the common man.
We do not partake in the organisation of our economy. Rather, we take orders from bosses who one rarely sees and these bosses are accountable, generally, to shareholders, who one will likely never see. Here, again, the separation is physical because one often works on a specific floor in a specific building, away from others; but also psychological, as those who command your job appear as nothing more than abstractions, shadowy silhouettes known as shareholders.
This is compounded by the multi-layered and complex levels of separation we experience between ourselves and the clothes we buy, the material sources of our technologies, consequences of throwing out our trash, the sources and consequences of our fuel, and what I specifically want to talk about, where our food comes from.
Much like our politicians, the production of our food is a psychologically and physically distant affair. Locally produced food is becoming an object of nostalgia rather than reality. The first point is most interesting because it depends on how you slice the data. If you ask the Australian Farmer Federation – a lobby group for farmers – 99% of Australian farms are Australian owned. True. However, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 13.6% of farmland is foreign owned[i]. Furthermore, food is predominantly produced on the outskirts of cities, if not in distant rural towns whereby the cultivation of food is a distant memory to most city dwellers.
As people in cities have drawn away from food production, media-manufactured images of food and farming have come to replace real knowledge. The average person has not visited a farm, and if they have, it has not been for many, many years. The conception of farms that occupies their imagination is likely something akin to a single chicken on a green pasture basking in the sun, rather than a disabled bird trapped in a small cage, unfit to live and soon to be slaughtered once the hormones and antibiotics do their work. It is likely the gleeful moo of a cow as it basks comfortably in pasture, rather than the cow strapped into a loading dock, knee-high in its own shit, being fed a steady diet of grain and sadism.
It is not exclusively animal farms. I am likewise certain that most people have not visited a vegetable farm either with the monoculture, extensive spraying of chemicals, and artificial ripening. Picking a vegetable can at least provide one with the certainty that the Zucchini is at the very least, a Zucchini, which is more than one can say for the ‘meat’ in a meat pie. However, fruit and vegetables suffer from the same industrial abuse as that we inflict upon animals. One need only be reminded of the Chinese bleaching of garlic[ii], their penchant for methyl bromide[iii] and the Ethylene Australian food workers spray on tomatoes[iv] to get the point. The abuse meted out to animals, fruits and vegetables is a product of our physical and psychological separation. We have lost the capacity to cultivate and take responsibility for the life force that sustains us, and as food has receded from our consciousness, the metaphysics of cultivation is replaced with the metaphysics of industrialism and its fetish for production and volume.
Hitherto I have been using the word ‘separated’. Implied here is that there is a ‘whole’ from which we no longer are a part. I would like to substitute another word now which, while belonging to the same family of words, strikes at the heart of the next issue I wish to speak of.
Our separation can be thought of as isolation. Isolation is to be by yourself. A fairly banal observation. But in a culture which praises individualism, the cult of the self, and the idea that you should look after nobody but yourself, this isolation takes on an entirely different texture. In our society, isolation is the equivalent of powerlessness. A single unit of power, cut off from the broader community which strengthens it, cannot do much.
Isolation implies passivity and ignorance. One is passive because an isolated unit of power cannot do anything against the entire force of a society. The metaphor that reflects this is being one drop in an ocean, a Shakespearean sword against a tidal wave of troubles. One is ignorant because an isolated cell is not connected to any others, cannot give or receive information from others, and therefore, subsides on whatever information so happens to wash ashore his lonely box. If anything, in isolation, one is passive because one is ignorant. If we know nothing, how can we be expected to act?
We are physically isolated from a food production which is increasingly occurring overseas or far away from urban centres; and psychologically isolated through our passivity and ignorance. The manner in which we eat food mirrors this schism.
There are those whose treat food as mere energy, an ‘input’ into the system which keeps it going. Such a mechanistic and industrial metaphor for food at once signifies the depersonalising attitude one has to oneself and the cadavering of the metaphysics of eating.
There are those who eat fast food. The unctuous fluffy buns, the pathetically soft grey patties, the corrosively acidic soft drinks; these are the staples of any fast food joint. Here, the separation of the food from anything faintly resembling food is obvious. It is hardly a simulacra of food, or even a semblance. It is a token of food, a mere gesture that is food in name alone. What people are going for is the grease, the salt, the fat and the sugar. It is hardly food because food is meant to sustain and give life, fast food does not.
There are those who gorge down food to get to work, gorge lunch to get back to work and gorge after work to enjoy their recreational time. They work to save money for the future, sleep to rest for tomorrow, and eat to survive for the next round of the day. Not only their food, but the life of these people is spent thinking of the future and not of the present. Food becomes a means to an end and not something which can be deeply satisfying in its own right.
How we eat signifies disconnection from the very thing which sustains life. We no longer grow our own food, it is hardly ever grown locally, and is increasingly grown overseas. It was once grown naturally, now it is increasingly mechanised, industrialised and inundated with chemicals. The average consumers proceeds to purchase almost everything pre-packed, processed, synthesised, pasteurised, homogenised and plastic wrapped.
In reply, people will tell me we have achieved milestones in productivity, efficiency, technological improvement and so forth. Indeed, but at what cost? What good is it to have increased the amount of apples we have when they are coated in wax, artificially ripened and emptied of most of their nutritional content? What good is it to increase technological improvement when these improvements benefit agribusiness, bankrupt farmers, mechanise the relationship between a farmer and his land, and in the process of all this, contribute to the suicide of the very people the technology is meant to ‘help’.
Our approach to farming betrays the capitalist impulse that has degraded so much of the rest of society. Everything is to be measured in quantities not qualities; food is to be measured in terms of volume and productivity, not nutrition and taste.
The production of food is a symbiotic process between the soil, the food produced, the animals, the farmer, and what is returned to the ground. It involves a degree of care, cultivation and importantly, responsibility to the Earth that capitalism does not allow room for. Capitalism is concerned, almost exclusively, with how much can be extracted, for the least cost. The mentality of extracting as much as possible is not harmonious with cultivating and treating the land right. Industrialism ends up destroying the land as it tends towards pushing the land beyond its natural limits and we see this in the declining yields and increasing soil erosion every year.
Our relationship to food is one marked by varying degrees of separation. This separation manifests itself in the physical and metaphysical aspects of food production. For the most part, food is no longer seen as the rich, transcendent, absolutely wonderful life-giving force that it is. It has been reduced to energy, profit, input, stimulus. In this, we have denied ourselves one of the greatest pleasures, the pleasure of food and of eating.
There is room for any household to purchase or build their own compost bin. Of course, it shall take a little bit of time and effort, but anything of value takes time and effort. The compost bin will not only remove many food scraps from landfill (which is an environmental disaster), but it will begin to reintroduce you to the life cycle of the Earth. You will begin to get in touch with the fine balances between nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon that are required in a compost, and the benefits of it on any garden. In doing this, you get in touch, literally, with the Earth, and this appreciation for life can only lead in a positive direction.
The compost bin is most eloquently supported by a small garden. Of course, those who live in rentals or apartments do not enjoy the same luxury, but when there is a will there is a way. A wheelbarrow, or garden pots provide sufficient room for small herbs or vegetables. These will function as the main beneficiaries of your compost. In doing so, you further draw yourself into a process of cultivation that teaches patience, tenderness and responsibility. More so, it grounds you in the lived reality of food production and teaches a respect for food.
Like the production of food, eating itself is an agricultural act. As a product of our isolation, we tend to think of ourselves only as consumers. But when you buy food, you are a part of the chain which reinforces its production. If you do not wish to make compost or have a garden, eat responsibly. Find out where the food comes from, what that country’s food standards are; and how much of the cost is related to advertising, transporting and shipping. In addition, buy local; a local farmer, gardener or orchardist. In doing so you remove the advertisers, processors, merchants, and transporters. Most importantly, learn what happens to your food. What happens to the cow, chicken, or cabbage you are eating.
Just as there will be great displeasure in learning how the food industry works, there will be great pleasure in doing it yourself. I dislike the thought that the chicken I would eat has been raised in a concentration camp, or that my cabbage has the toxicity that literally kills any small life form that comes near it on a farm. But, I very much like the thought that the chicken was well looked after, lived under the shade of a massive tree with lots of room with plenty of grain to eat; and that my vegetables were tended to by a calm and patient hand, carefully fertilised, and the soil treated with respect.
The pleasure of eating in this sense, is an extensive pleasure. It is a pleasure of the process which leads to eating. When one comes to the end, when he sits at the table to enjoy a meal which he has not only prepared by his own hand, but is made from vegetables of his own garden, there is a certain understanding and gratitude at that moment. A significant part of the pleasure of eating is an accurate appreciation of the lives and the world from which the food comes. To eat with the fullest pleasure – a pleasure, not of ignorance, but of understanding – is to shed yourself of your ignorance and take part in the cycle of life.
[i] INTHEBLACK. 2019. Who owns Australian farms? [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.intheblack.com/articles/2018/02/27/who-owns-australian-farms.
[ii] ABC News. 2019. Australian-grown garlic makes a comeback. [ONLINE] Available at: https://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2010-06-11/australian-grown-garlic-makes-a-comeback/863758.
[iii] The Age. 2019. Fresher and smellier. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/fresher-and-smellier-20050719-ge0j8o.html.
[iv] Melissa Fyfe and Royce Miller. 2019. What they do to food. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/what-they-do-to-food-20120608-201su.html.