Authentic? Or just expensive?

The quest for ‘authentic’ cuisine is an exercise in nostalgia. With our culture in a state of constant flux, authenticity has become the holy grail whose sacramental promise is the recapitulation of lost absolutes. In Marshal McLuhan’s famous metaphor, we accelerate into an uncertain future with our eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, scouring the planet for once-plentiful foods that have become priceless, i.e. both scarce and expensive.

The linguistic root of ‘authenticity’ is ‘authority’. Its Greek source, αυθεντικος [authentikos], is derived in turn from αυθεντια [authentia], which Liddell and Scott defines as ‘absolute sway’. French restaurateurs exemplify it by forming associations to dictate the precise ingredients of ‘authentic’ bouillabaisse or cassoulet, peasant dishes that originated as catch-alls. ‘Lor’, there ain’t no recipe for soup!’ a southern cook exclaimed to my father almost a century ago. ‘It jes’ accumulates!’

When we attempt to arrest or reverse culinary change, we become mired in logical contradiction. The search for absolute authenticity is problematic even with a dish ‘invented’ by a single chef using the ingredients of his own era; but when it is simple fare born of stark necessity and constantly varied as abundance or scarcity dictated, the quest becomes an arbitrary and empty ritual.

Generations of migrants have taken their culinary traditions with them into geographical areas where familiar ingredients were unobtainable, thus making compromise imperative. Fortunately for human pleasure as well as survival, our palates are infinitely adaptable. Calvin W. Schwabe’s admonitory encyclopaedia, Unmentionable Cuisine, reminds us that the most unlikely of comestibles may be judged not merely acceptable but even delicious—De gustibus in spades!

HAUTE cuisine, like haute couture, is a badge of status that has evolved from a sine qua non of human survival. Together they determine the face and figure that the affluent present to the world. Today’s massive shift in culinary emphasis from the vital to the cosmetic has had three interlocking effects: (1) Never before have so many consumers aspired to be gourmets. (2) Gastronomy is now a major industry with a large and prosperous clientele, requiring a complex network of specialist producers and suppliers. (3) This network is globally interactive, so that any country’s most prestigious restaurants are likely to be as ethnically indeterminate as its airline terminals.

Reacting against ‘fusion’ cuisine, purists have launched a crusade for authenticity, demanding the utmost fidelity to tradition. And yet culinary tradition has always been fluid: many of the foods they attempt to preserve or recreate were in the first instance a utilization of the ingredients that were most readily available, prepared with the simple tools that were at hand. The substratum of peasant cuisine is grinding poverty. As John Berger observes at the beginning of his profound study of global peasantry, Pig Earth, ‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival.’

Two remarkably similar memoirs of life in southern French villages were written by expatriate Englishmen. Unlike their fellow-countryman Peter Mayle, who achieved fame and fortune by transforming a Provençal ruin into a redoubtable playpen, Peter Graham and James Bentley were fully integrated into their respective communities. Graham identifies his in the title: Mourjou: The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village. James Bentley, in Life and Food in the Dordogne, chose not to reveal his locale, and so it took a certain amount of detective work, together with GPS navigation, for us to reach the tiny village of Turnac, at the end of a cul-de-sac within a horseshoe bend of the Dordogne known locally as the Cingle de Montfort.

Both Graham and Bentley devote their opening chapters to demonstrating that until recent times peasant life was a struggle to wrest a living from limited resources. In his second chapter, ‘Seignurial Extravagance’, Bentley writes,

Looking at the food of the Dordogne inevitably plunges us into social history, a history of resentment and bitterness, self-indulgence and deprivation.’

Graham is equally unequivocal:

[T]he Auvergnats…were poor. Before that again, they just about survived at the subsistence level; and before that, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they often starved.’

Survival through the winter was precarious. Joyeuse in the Ardèche has a Musée de la Châtaigneraie devoted to what was virtually its only plentiful year-round food. These weren’t the marons that are glacéed and packed in pretty boxes, but the more common châtaigne, a multiseeded variety that challenged a housewife’s ingenuity. As an edible souvenir, the museum sells cakes made from chestnut flour; even loaded with sugar (which no peasant would have had in the larder), they are a taste most easily acquired through dire necessity.

THE transmutation of peasant lead into gourmet gold is a complex and fascinating story. It could be said to have begun in the 1860s when the phylloxera aphid, an accidental but ultimately profitable American export, threatened the very existence of the French wine industry.

Having inadvertently created the need, enterprising American vine-growers were quick to meet it by supplying French vintners with aphid-resistant root stock. This necessary importation called into question the unique excellence of French wine, and so a ‘vin du terroir’ strategy evolved which declared the locale to be more important than the vines and took the form of a geographically based certification called appellation controlée (AC). Applied to foodstuffs, it would become the stratagem for promoting French culinary tourism, aided and abetted by the rapid growth of the auto industry; thus Michelin with its Red Guide was able to capitalize on both the object of the journey and the means of transport.

Coming up with a cuisine du terroir to go with the vin was problematical: to bourgeois taste, peasant food was repugnant. Jean Pierre Poulin, in Manger aujourd’hui, reiterates that

The peasants ate mainly bread….Meals mainly consisted of soups, where a fundamental feature was a piece of stale bread left to soften in the stock….Sometimes a little meat or, even better, fat or oil, was added for taste.

It was counterproductive to strive for an authenticity that prospective consumers would find distasteful, and so tourist-motivated traditions were invented which gave familiar bourgeois dishes some semblance of local colour. Hermann Bausinger, quoted by Denis Chevalier in Vives Campagnes, Autrement, states unequivocally that

From the 19th century onwards, there were a great many typical villages in the Alps or around the Mediterranean which were devoted to reconstructing and even inventing examples of the past.

The fruits of this Orwellian revision might have been titled The 1984 Cookbook. Rachel Laudan summarizes its ingenious machinations:

It made no sense as history. But the French Terroir Strategy was a brilliant marketing device that satisfied modern yearnings for a romanticized past by advertising tradition and exploiting modern methods of production and distribution….The strategy did wonders for big wine growers, restaurant owners, and those producers who could upgrade their products to appeal to sophisticated urban tastes.

This imaginative proliferation of bourgeois gastronomy had no effect on the still meagre diet of the peasants: ‘Well into the twentieth century, they…continued to eat a diet that…had nothing to do with the food served to culinary tourists.’

The peasant diet—undernourishing and unappetizing—remained unchanged until the rise of what Laudan calls ‘Culinary Modernism’, which applied the technology of mass production to the propagation, preparation and distribution of food. It is this, she asserts, that ‘brought to an end, at least in the West, a two-tier system of eating’, in which the wealthy ate the best that was available and

the poor who made up more than 80% of the population…survived [on] grains perceived as less desirable…with only the occasional bit of meat….Not until the large scale arable and livestock farming and efficient distribution networks associated with Culinary Modernism brought down the price of white bread and meat did their diet become richer.

Unfortunately, the new refinement would eventually replace one set of ills with another. Hungry French peasants would discover that the long-envied white bread with its diminished fibre was a mixed blessing—and now the Third World’s bowels are having to deal with it. Meanwhile, sweet drinks have replaced white bread as the leading source of calories in the average American diet. In Britain, sugar manufacturer Tate and Lyle, one of the country's most prolific engines of obesity, is rewarded with the biggest share of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies: at £227m, it gets four times dairy producer Meadow Foods, the second on the list. (Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate and Duchy Originals—models of sustainable and organic production—get a measly £680,835.)

Laudan acknowledges in passing that Culinary Modernism had its problems:

Migrants often suffered a decline in living standards, even if in the end they or their descendents ended up better off. The increasing distance between producer and consumer, between farm and kitchen left room for the careless or unscrupulous to adulterate food. Newly ploughed land lost fertility without careful husbandry. More highly processed foods were calorie-dense and obesity began to replace deficiency diseases. And many people worried that the world simply could not produce enough wheat and meat for all those who wanted it

There has been progress, of a sort—adulteration is now acknowledged microscopically and incomprehensibly on the label. Over 30 years ago, Dr. Benjamin Feingold presented extensive research to the American Medical Association linking food additives to children’s learning and behaviour disorders. There were follow-up reports, some confirming Feingold’s conclusions, some rejecting them. Then in 2002 a UK government-sponsored MAFF study came to light that had been conducted by the Asthma and Allergy Research Centre, stating unequivocally that all children could benefit from the removal of certain specified artificial food colourings from their diet. Having come to this embarrassing conclusion, the report gathered dust for two years until the Food Commission obtained a copy, brushed off the cobwebs and reported it in their Food Magazine.

There is financial as well as chemical adulteration. Developed countries protect their indigenous agriculture with trade barriers and tax-supported subsidies such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The Third World is justifiably resentful of this economic discrimination; but when the barriers are finally broken down, it will not be in order to widen the margin of subsistence for Asian and African farmers, but rather the profit margins of the multi-national food industry: they will invest their capital wherever the farmers can most easily be swindled.

If present economic trends continue, Western agriculture will surely follow the pattern of Western manufacturing. As the agro-industrial giants shift their production to countries where cheap farmland and even cheaper farmers are ripe for exploitation, small farms the world over will become as scarce as small factories. The only ones to remain viable will be those that process their own products and are maintained by artisans who are able to climb aboard Slow Food’s Ark of Taste before they are drowned in the flood of ever-cheaper mass-produced imports. Thenceforth their hand-made output will be affordable only by the rich consumers of gastronomic luxuries.

IN her earlier ‘A World of Inauthentic Cuisine’ Laudan’s enthusiasm for Culinary Modernism is boundless: ‘[T]he industrialization of food got underway in the 1880s….A disaster? By my lights it was a triumph.’ If triumph it was, it would seem to be turning into tragedy. In the gormandizing First World, even the media are waking up to the fruits of our cornucopia consumption; but since their raison d’etre is compulsive shopping, the solutions they offer are not those of dietary restraint but of alternative excesses. Laudan takes umbrage at a Slow Food spokesperson’s remark that ‘our real enemy is the obtuse [obese?] consumer’, but the observation would be echoed by many analysts of human behaviour. It relates to our collective greed, an instrument upon which the food industry has become a virtuoso performer. Those who supply us with virtually everything we eat have learned to manipulate our biological instinct to over-consume today in anticipation of hunger tomorrow. Goaded on by the constant stimulus of advertising, we fatten ourselves against the famine that never materializes.

The threat is greatest in the long-deprived Third World, who are beginning to suffer the ill effects of fast-food feasting. The world-wide prevalence of obesity is already above the critical threshold set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for epidemics needing intervention.

Paul Zimmet, an Australian physician and researcher who specializes in the study of noncommunicable diseases, wrote in 1996 that ‘the [non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus] global epidemic is just the tip of a massive social problem now facing developing countries.’… Rates of obesity and diabetes have skyrocketed around the globe, but particularly among traditional peoples in transition… [T]he rapid introduction of processed foods and other conveniences is certainly the proximate force behind this trend.

So much for the transitory and illusory benefits of Culinary Modernism. The saddest cases are those native societies to whom post-colonial policy or an abundant natural resource has brought both prosperity and habitual leisure. Micronesia, a U.S. protectorate; Nauru, grown rich from the mining of phosphate deposits; and certain Native American tribes that a loophole in the law has allowed to open Vegas-style casinos—all have seen gross obesity and its attendant diseases proliferate by geometric progression.

IN our own time, terroir has been adopted by the Slow Food movement and made a strategy for identifying, preserving and promoting artisanal foods throughout the world. Its aims are ambitiously multicultural and egalitarian: Terra Madre 2004 in Turin was a unique gathering of four thousand small farmers and food producers from 130 countries on six continents. Such a rallying of the world’s threatened artisans had never been achieved; alas, by the next attempt much of the diversity may well have vanished.

In collaboration with the regional authorities of Piedmont and Emilia Romagna, Slow Food has established a University of Gastronomic Science with campuses in Pollenzo and Colorno. Its purpose is to turn out graduates capable of directing food production, promotion and marketing, as well as humanistically trained teachers who understand and can communicate the central importance of food in cultural history.

The Pollenzo campus is housed in a neo-Gothic complex built in 1833 for the first Italian Agricultural Association. Such massive expenditure requires massive support, which must come in large part from massively rich gastronomes. The magnificently restored buildings also house a first-class restaurant, a wine bank consisting of thousands of rare vintages, and a hotel of considerable comfort. Once settled in, the dedicated bon vivant need never leave the premises.

For the consumer, the products of ethical authenticity come at a price. Cheap food in an industrialized urban society is possible only with mass production and distribution carried out by virtual slave labour on the farm, in the factory and at the check-out—every supermarket bargain has been dearly paid for! Since a primary motivation of Slow Food is to provide a living wage for skilled artisans using the best ingredients, the relative cost of their products inevitably goes ballistic. This is reflected in the events organized by Slow Food’s local branches, or ‘convivia’, at which a tasting of comestibles certified in its Ark of Taste is likely to cost as much as an ample restaurant meal. These may have been authentic staples of the peasant diet, but you’ll find few peasants at the Slow Food table.

Rachel Laudan, in her review of Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food: The Case for Taste, dismisses Slow Foodies as Culinary Luddites who rewrite history to suit their appetites:

Petrini’s is an Italy as artificial as a Maui beach resort with its trucked in sand and palm trees or a Disney Magic Kingdom with its oversized Mickey and its undersized castle. Instead of white sand and Mickey, we have tiny rural restaurants that offer up wonderful food, shops that offer artisanal bread, cheeses and salami.

Taking the micky with a vengeance! Unfortunately for her argument, Laudan has singled out one of Slow Food’s more seductive attractions. These delightful inns, some a century old or more, have been searched out, not made-to-order, and you’ll find hundreds listed in its annual guidebook, Osterie d’Italia. After you’ve experienced their generosity, hospitality and general excellence—and at the cost of a nondescript autostrada rest stop—you’ll be in no mood to inform the management that Petrini’s theory of authenticity and sustainability is logically flawed and historically inaccurate.

But you may well have spotted Rachel dining at the next table. In her provocative essay for the first issue of Gastronomica, in which she plays devil’s advocate on behalf of ‘modern, fast, processed food’, she confesses to being a closet gourmet whose culinary tastes were formed under the tutelage of Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Paula Wolfert and Saveur. Her public rejection of their counsel is tantamount to biting the hand with which she feeds herself. But it should come as no surprise; more than one post-modern architect has chosen to live in a thatched cottage.

RACHEL Laudan’s conclusions may be open to doubt, but the seminal questions she raises remain largely unanswered by the Gastrocrats (which is why she necessarily occupies a disproportionate amount of space in this paper). Placating our consciences while titillating our palates is one thing; feeding the world is another. Genuinely sustainable agriculture on a global scale would be fundamentally at odds with the entire socio-economic system of which the existing food industry is a seamless part.

This fundamental contradiction appears to be not just a product of nineteenth century capitalism, but a part of our socio-economic structure from the very beginning. Agriculture has always been a potentially dangerous and self-contradictory solution to the problem of human sustenance. Ronald Wright, in A Brief History of Progress, summarizes the conflict with dramatic clarity:

The invention of agriculture is itself a runaway train, leading to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem…The food crisis…has merely been postponed by switching to hybrid seed and chemical farming, at great cost to soil health and plant diversity.

In other words, the multinational food industry is a primary impetus towards overpopulation, obesity, pollution and greenhouse gasses. The burgeoning Third World is about to place demands on the agricultural ecostructure going far beyond any that our planet has yet experienced. As fertile soil and unpolluted water grow ever scarcer, sustainable agriculture, long dismissed as a starry-eyed fantasy, will become the only game in town.

Some isolated efforts at sustainability, both individual and collective, have had a measure of success. In the depths of the Great Depression a best-selling American wish-book was Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management, which set out to free the family from the devastation of a mismanaged economy. Real independence was of course illusory: unless he were to return to the stone age, the solitary farmer was reliant on the tools, seeds and materials evolved by the very system whose control he sought to escape.

Sometimes a prosperous community with a leavening of campaigning intellectuals can produce a radical alternative. Berkeley, California is such a place: for well over a quarter-century it has furnished us with shining examples of local organically grown seasonal produce, prepared to a high standard. As with others that have followed suit, its success has depended in large measure on prosperity, geography and climate. And what is ‘local’? California, covering 770 miles of latitude and three miles of altitude, encompasses an infinity of ecologies. Living off local seasonal foodstuffs in Greenland would be, as it were, a different kettle of fish; and as for the Sahara…

Even in Berkeley, most food is still peddled in the same old packets. Demand for organic produce may be growing by an encouragingly large proportion of itself, but in Europe and the U.S. it has fluctuated within about 2-4 % of the total market. Fashion may raise it by a percentage point or two, but its significantly greater cost will continue to put it beyond the means of any but the comfortably well off. For better or for worse, industrial agriculture is likely to expand exponentially until the oceans rise, the oil is exhausted, the rivers run dry and the soil is depleted.

Meanwhile, the mills of the gods grind ever faster and coarser. Twenty years ago my wife heard a food industry spokesman on TV who nailed his colours to the mast with a resounding thwack:

Two hundred years ago everybody made their own clothes. Nowadays nobody makes their own clothes unless it’s their hobby. The same thing will happen with food: I estimate that within about 50 years dinner will be something people will go out and buy, and nobody will cook, unless it’s their hobby. We in the food industry are working towards that.

With the global food industry setting the menu, our cuisine is being ripped apart and processed to anonymity as inexorably as is our clothing in the hands of the rag trade. Now that all of life’s needs and wishes are available under one roof, can we expect more than a few rebels to reject the food that comes pouring through the same floodgates as their clothes, their cars and their computers?

Eating healthily, ethically and aesthetically is not an easy option for the impecunious—and in the apparently prosperous West they are on the increase:

Over the past 25 years the lives of working Americans have become ever less secure. Jobs come without health insurance; corporations default on their pension obligations; workers lose their jobs more often, and unemployment lasts much longer than it used to.

Europe with its shrinking job market and swelling welfare rolls is not far behind.

UNTIL recent times, the primary means of transmitting culinary traditions from generation to generation was mother-daughter apprenticeship. Once the continuity was broken, as by the English Enclosures and the Scottish Clearances when peasants were driven off their lands and out of their kitchens, much of the legacy was reduced to legend. Those recipes that were written down became the gold standard against which authenticity was measured.

Traditional recipes are a part of history and, like other historical documents, they may be spurious. In the case of modern cuisine du terroir, many are the products of inventive genius—the art world would call them fakes. In Gertrude Stein’s succinct words, ‘History tells us history tells us.’

Even a genuinely authentic recipe is only a freeze-frame, a snapshot taken at an arbitrarily chosen moment in a spatial/temporal continuum. It is McLuhan’s rear-view mirror par excellence. As John Thorne shrewdly observes, it glosses over the ‘muddles and mistakes and wrong turns’ that have preceded every culinary advance, whether in the castle or the hovel:

[V]ery few cooks are willing or even able to evoke the ferment, the confusion, the groping before the moment that shaped the dish. What we get instead is a rationale that works backward from the finished dish, a rationale that makes everything seem as if it had all been clear and obvious from the start.

A by-product of this linearity is that authors of cookery books rarely cross-reference each other’s recipes. Thorne, taking as an example the simple Italian dish risi e bisi, compares in detail a number of authoritative modern sources in which the rice and peas, together with other widely varying ingredients, may end up as anything from soup to risotto. To add to the confusion, the further back one goes the more likely that the ingredients themselves would have differed in texture and flavour from their modern mass-produced equivalents—or even, indeed, from the latter’s luxurious gourmet-targeted alternatives.

Step-by-step stand-facing-the-stove recipes of the sort favoured in lifestyle pages are fundamental to the food industry, which requires that every stage in the manufacture of its culinary clones be carried out in accordance with a veritable encyclopaedia of explicit instructions. Skilled labour is superfluous. As Eric Schlosser documents in Fast Food Nation, supermarkets have phased out their trained butchers; many restaurants, working from freezer to microwave, no longer require even short-order cooks, let alone chefs. It is a system designed by geniuses to be executed by idiots.

BEFORE the era of celebrity chefs and food factories, how did recipes evolve? New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki argues in The Wisdom of Crowds that ‘under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.’ If we were to apply his principles to the evolution of cuisine, they might read as follows:

The ‘collective intelligence’ of a community of domestic cooks will probably result in a better dish than would be produced by most of them working individually on their own. But four conditions must first be met:

1. Diversity. A group of cooks with many different points of view will make better collective decisions than when everyone follows exactly the same recipe.

2. Independence. ‘People's opinions [must not be] determined by those around them.’

3. Decentralization. ‘Power does not fully reside in one central location, and many of the important decisions are made by individuals based on their own local and specific knowledge rather than by an omniscient or farseeing planner.’ In other words, there is no ‘boss cook’ whose word every housewife follows.

4. Aggregation; i.e. a community of cooks tasting each other’s recipes and learning how results were achieved which most of them prefer. If the end product of this interaction is preserved in manuscript, it may at some future date be pronounced ‘authentic’—and woe betide the cook who, through changing taste, ingredients or lifestyle, dares to alter it!

WHAT, exactly, is culinary authenticity? The very concept is caught in a pincers movement. On one flank, the food industry has hijacked traditional recipes, transforming them into artificial travesties in which only the names survive. In a counterattack to restore integrity, gourmet purists have taken simple dishes adjusted over the centuries to keep them practical and economical and frozen them in the past, converted into luxurious prescriptions requiring exotic and expensive ingredients.

Those of us who wish to eat well on limited means must redefine authenticity in accordance with new criteria. If the concept is to have any relevance to our daily diet, it must be founded, not on inflexible catalogues of rare ingredients and arcane procedures, but on an inventive, creative and adaptive attitude towards making and partaking. Beyond the recipes, we must strive for authenticity in ourselves. In other words, we must become culinary artists.

‘Chefs are artisans, not artists,’ Alice Waters protests. Or, as a Balinese once put it to John Cage, ‘We don't have any art, we just try to do everything as well as we can.’ But artists, like cooks, are good at muddling through. When they can't afford canvas, paint or marble, they come up with ‘found objects’. We regard Picasso’s post-war use of junk as delightfully witty and inventive, a mark of his originality and nonconformity, forgetting that conventional artists’ and sculptors’ materials had become extremely scarce. He worked with what was to hand.

So did Julia Child. In the late 1950s when she was writing her contributions to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, American housewives had access only to the most basic of ingredients. Making extensive use of the U.S. Army’s Post Exchange in Paris, she jointly authored a book which might have been called (as she says in her Foreword) French Cooking from the American Supermarket.

Now that the exotic is commonplace, Julia Child’s pragmatism has become a rod with which to beat her (cut, of course, from a locally grown pollarded organic birch). But let the purist whose cupboard is empty of inauthentic produce be the next to strike a blow. Gourmets with more taste than income have always lived in two parallel worlds. If we were always to eat by the uncompromising standards of cuisine veritable—nothing but the very best!—and of hygiene—nothing but the freshest and the cleanest!—we would spend a fortune on ingredients and then be forced to throw half of them away.

In practice, there is the sans pareil of which we sing the praises, and then there is what we can afford for everyday. On the one hand, Jeffrey Steingarten flies the seven skies with a bottomless purse, seeking out the rarest and the finest of everything edible; on the other, John Thorne tells us what he does with the mass-produced American chicken thighs that even the Chinese reject. He also confesses ruefully that for a while he had to give up his favorite mail-order coffee, brewing instead what came in cans from the local supermarket. For John, 2002 was not a vintage year.

‘WE have more than enough masterpieces,’ wrote Jane Grigson; ‘what we need is a better standard of ordinariness.’ Carve it on every kitchen wall! M. F. K. Fisher’s Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier, was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however unpromising:

Storekeepers automatically lowered their prices when they saw her coming…Up would come the trapdoor to the cellar, and down Madame would climb…[S]he would pick up a handful of bruised oranges, a coconut with a crack in it, perhaps even some sprouting potatoes…And yet…from that little hole, which would have made an American shudder in disgust, she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.

What was eccentricity in Madame Ollangier has become necessity for a growing army of the economically challenged. A friend surviving on an avant-garde musician’s income lives in an urban area with the usual mix of food sources. He buys his household’s fresh produce from neighbourhood ethnic markets—much cheaper than ‘bargain’ superstores. Both he and his wife cook well and his family eats with great pleasure and integrity. Most of their staples, however, come from Asda; shopping elsewhere, he has determined, would cost him an extra forty pounds a week. Though he believes firmly in eating locally and seasonally and supports artisanal producers in the various European countries to which he often travels, when he is at home, living day-to-day, he refuses to sacrifice his family’s comfort and well-being to abstract principle.

My friend exemplifies the dilemma facing those who must watch the pennies but are possessed of both a palate and a conscience. There are of course others worse off, such as those whose jobs have been exported or their pensions stolen. The trickle-down effect in our laisez-fairyland is draining more and more of the once-middle class into an economic slough. In the West our land-based peasantry has virtually disappeared, but a new proletariat is emerging for whom the manufactured environment is the unnatural world from which they must somehow wring a precarious subsistence. As the supermarket bargain bins become the last wilderness in which to forage, they must revert to the ancient pragmatism of peasant inventiveness.

©2005 John Whiting

My thanks to Rachel Lauden for her inspiration, encouragement and tolerance.

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