Last night I watched two wise, reasoned and educated people talk excitedly about food. Joanna Blythman and Polly Russell explored personal food history, modern industrialised food, poverty, home cooking and much more besides at the British Library. An immutable fact of those who study food is the ability to talk with ceaseless enthusiasm, I’m sure we could have stayed all night as we dived into the rabbit hole of the food world’s ills.
The analogy of the rabbit hole from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is spectacularly apt for discussions about food. Food debates are characterised by fractious, diverse discourse about situations which gradually become ever more complicated as the surface dust is gently brushed off, revealing the complex, labyrinthine puzzle below.
At a basic level, solutions to food problems appear simple, because it’s very easy to see where an individual’s behaviour around food may be causing problems. Too much fried chicken, not enough veg, too many ready meals, not enough sleep. Easy problems to solve, on paper at least.
Let’s tell the person eating too much fried chicken to cook fresh food at home. Great idea. Except the chicken shop is a social club, because no other social, public spaces exist where they can chill with their friends after school or work. This puts a slightly different slant on it, as removing this person from the chicken shop is also ostracising them from their pals. It’s like suggesting to the rugby club guy that instead of hitting the pub for 13 pints of Guinness after training, he should go home for a quinoa salad and a kale smoothie. He’ll tell you to take a running jump, and if he doesn’t, his mates will. Even individual solutions can suddenly become very complex.
If you take a step back, look at communities, towns, cities or even whole countries. The diversity of situations becomes astounding, even moreso when you take a macro view and look at the entire world. Consider meat consumption for a moment. There are people in the world who would benefit from eating more meat and people in the world who would benefit from eating less. How do you reconcile that? Simple, catch-all solutions to food problems are virtually impossible on a large scale.