This issue’s guest columnist is Jenny Linford, author of The Missing Ingredient. She argues that our obsession with speed and instant gratification undermines the simple joys that can be found in food
In this frenetic, hyper-connected world, with information and entertainment available at our fingertips, our obsessions with speed and instant gratification have entered the world of food: witness the ever-growing market for ready-meals, the proliferation of fast food chains, the success of restaurant meal delivery services and the fashion for speedy cookbooks that promise meals in mere minutes.
Researching and writing my book—which explores the idea of time as a universal, invisible ingredient in the food we grow, make or cook—brought home to me how time has been squeezed out of food production. Perhaps the most striking example is the Chorleywood process, invented in the 1960s, which uses additives and agitation to considerably speed up traditional breadmaking. It now dominates British bread production.
Time spent eating is also being compressed, as the quest for a ‘meal pill’ continues. Soylent, a recently invented meal-replacement product sold in drink, bar and powder form—invented in California by a tech start-up entrepreneur to save himself time—is one example. Its pitch is: “If you’ve ever wasted time and energy trying to decide what to eat for lunch, or been too busy to eat a proper meal—Soylent is for you.” Its central idea is that food is fuel—nothing more, nothing less.
There is tragedy in all this. Food is, of course, something our bodies need in order to function, an absolute necessity of life. But it is also, I firmly believe, one of life’s fundamental pleasures. There is a reason why the world’s great festivals are usually based around the shared consumption of special dishes, which require time and attention to prepare. Over the centuries, human beings have conjured up a diverse range of cuisines and foodstuffs, rooted in our geography, climate and landscapes and the raw ingredients naturally available to us, but also shaped by religion, trade and society, and endowed with deep cultural significance.
Eating these foods should be a joy, and so too should seeking them out. Instead of a prosaic trudge around a supermarket, taking the time to shop at a food market such as Borough Market is a wonderful reminder of the pleasures to be found in food. Beautiful displays of produce—British outdoor-grown asparagus, glossy cherries, an array of apples—remind us of the joys of eating seasonally. Genuine freshness, too, is required when buying fish and seafood, such as gleaming mackerel or oysters or hand-dived scallops.
Here, the meat often comes from native breeds that gain weight slowly (as opposed to modern continental breeds which bulk up far quicker), creating intra-muscular fat in the process, with succulent results. Much of it will have been carefully hung in order to develop its flavour and tenderness.
Shopping this way allows for encounters with the stallholders and other customers. Those small, pleasant social interactions—a simple smile, a request for advice, an exchange of recipe ideas—are endlessly cheering. Food is so much more than fuel. We are blessed with a rich, life-enhancing food heritage which deserves maintaining and celebrating.