(Image credit: Kathy Slack)
The other week, I took my mum and aunt to see Anna del Conte in conversation with Nigella Lawson at the FT Oxford Literary Festival. It was Mother's Day and I had a quaint mumsie outing planned. You know - cake, Oxford in the springtime, a nice chat about recipes, that sort of thing.
But it turned out this wasn't going to be the innocuous day I had imagined. Not at all.
Yes, there was cake, Oxford's spires gleamed in the sunshine, we all wore Laura Ashley (ok, we didn't, but you get the picture) and Nigella and Anna were just as fabulous as you'd expect them to be.
But they were more than that. They were political. Deeply and actively and militantly political.
In the space of an hour, they talked about fascism, socialism, capitalism, sexism, feminism. But not just the 'isms'. They spoke about identity, the environment, guilt, mental health, literary snobbery, class, death... basically the works. And it wasn't as if they wandered off the point, that being food. What was revelatory to me was that all this stuff came up whilst they were talking about eating - it was all part of one conversation.
And it struck me - a plate of food is not just a plate of food. It is representative of an almost infinite list of political issues. And that means that when we sit down to eat or cook or grow food, we aren't just fuelling our bodies, we are making surprisingly political choices.
For example, Anna and Nigella discuss food writing. Nigella quips, "it turns out that it is possible to have a thought and cook" - seemingly off-hand but it brings the house down. Why? Because she hits the nail on the head - until recently, cooking in the home was exclusively women's work and, as such, imbued with almost as little value as the cookbooks that catered for these home cooks. As the role of women, and men, changes, cookbooks are no longer instructive guides for the fretful housewife but can be beautiful works of literature in their own right (as, I think, How to Eat demonstrates). And, by the way, literary craftsmanship does have a place in cookery writing and even, heaven forbid, in commercially successful cookery writing. Feminism, identity, sexism, the literary/commercial divide, capitalism, art... I could go on. All right there. In that one exchange about food writing for home cooks.
Next, someone asks for the writers' thoughts on so-called clean eating. Anna and Nigella both agree: there is no food of the sinner and food of the saint. Anna talks about the deprivation of the war years and how the consumerism of modern life has changed attitudes to food. Nigella suggests that clean eating is often nothing more than a way of legitimising eating disorders. Both advocate balance. Both see it as a mental balance - a healthy respect for yourself that engenders a healthy approach to food rather than purely nutritional balance. And clearly, Anna hasn't made it to a sparkling 92-years-old by avoiding pasta now has she? It was just a question about food trends, but the answers opened up discussion of mental health, guilt, body-image, identity...
I could go on, the examples are endless, but you get my drift. They talked about food. But in doing so they talked about life and politics.
Back in my own little corner of the food world, it makes me think, as I weed the veg patch: the politics of my plate of kale are greater than I might first have thought. Sure, there's the obvious environmental politics of organic growing, food miles, low impact farming. But there are also more 'Capital P' political debates at play. Debates about how/if capitalism requires us to relinquish control of looking after ourselves. Turns out Michael Pollen put it very succinctly (doesn't he always):
Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labour... It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing while others grow my food, sew my clothes etc... Specialisation is undeniable a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves... Perhaps what commends cooking [And I would add, growing] to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being ... taking back the production and preparation of even just some part of our food is to take back a measure of responsibility... to undo our learned helplessness. (Michael Pollan, Cooked)
So, as you sit down with your supper tonight, take a moment to think about all the topics of debate and politics sat there on that plate. Even if it's just baked beans on toast. Discuss.