Fast food, slow food and food changing gear

The production and presentation of food has undergone a revolution over the past half century, prompting health and environmental concerns, writes Roger Scruton. But more serious, he argues, is our diminishing appreciation for food, which has accompanied the convenience age.

The place of food in the moral, political and monetary economy has changed radically in the last fifty years – and the result has been a vast and potentially catastrophic loss of equilibrium. The global food producer, who can move from country to country, acquiring land, importing agricultural machinery and fertiliser, and selling his product in the global market, poses a threat to the environment of a kind that has never been seen before.

And the global food distributor, who can descend like Wal-Mart on the periphery of any town anywhere in the world, with a tempting array of cheap food wrapped in plastic, poses a threat to local economies and lifestyles comparable to that posed by a tribe of belligerent invaders.

Those vast disequilibriating forces did not come about because someone planned them. They arose by ‘an invisible hand’, from the developments in international trade, agricultural technology and food processing that have occurred since the end of the Second World War. Nevertheless, there has been little or no effort from our political elites to come to terms with, still less to moderate, their adverse effects, and the perceived indifference of our governments to forces which are not merely changing every aspect of our lives but also impacting on the lives and environments of people all over the globe, is one reason for the growing movements of protest against the global food economy.

Much that people lament in the decline of traditional farming results, however, not from the global food economy as such, but from the local imposition of regulations that only global producers and distributors can comply with. The strange illusion that food is unsafe until wrapped in plastic has promoted an explosion of absurd regulations designed to quell the anxieties of our increasingly risk-averse populations.

But, by avoiding the small-scale risks associated with local food, people expose themselves to the large-scale risks associated with obesity, environmental degradation and the weakening of the human immune system. It is not enough to protect people from this or that infectious disease that is transmitted through the food chain. For diseases transmitted through the food-chain are for the most part diseases against which people acquire immunity, as all who have suffered from traveller’s tummy will know. Present policies towards diseases of the digestive tract may actually be making children more vulnerable to those diseases in the long-run and also requiring ever greater efforts to ensure that we are presented from birth to death with the kind of sterilised food that our weakened immune systems can deal with. This is fine in the short term; but one major hiccup, in the form of war, epidemic or economic disruption, and the result could be a large-scale disaster.

All those issues, which have become major concerns among environmentalists in the West, are beginning to attract attention also in China. In a sense the Chinese are the originators of fast food – spring rolls, soya sauce and monosodium glutamate all spread around the globe in a frenzy of influence, displacing the ‘meat and two vegetables’ concept from the household agenda, and also introducing a cuisine so tempting that many Westerners came to think that the best food was never to be found at home but only in the take-away. For the Chinese themselves, however, their diet is not a restaurant diet, but the result of producing, in times of dearth as much as in times of abundance, and with whatever meagre ingredients have been to hand, a family meal that will renew the savour of homecoming.

As a young man I could afford to eat out only in the wonderful Good Friends Chinese restaurant in London’s East End, which permitted diners to bring their own wine by virtue of being unlicensed. And at the end of the evening, as the doors of the restaurant were closed to newcomers, the family who had cooked the fifty tantalizing dishes would assemble at their own special table, to sit around a single fish – a large grey mullet or sea bass – from which they would help themselves with chopsticks, always yielding to each other, always with faces wreathed in smiles. The sight was a kind of rebuke to the greedy English people who were stuffing themselves all around. It was like a theatrical display of what we had lost – food treated not as the object of individual appetite, but as the centre-piece in a social ceremony, an object of gift and gratitude rather than gluttony and greed. I went home to my bachelor flat with the knowledge that eating, rightly considered, is about social renewal, not bodily replenishment.

That, it seems to me, is the real meaning of table manners, and why people once had the habit of saying grace before meals. Why else do we wait to assemble at meal times, and why do we pay so much attention to maintaining a decorous disconnection between the two uses of the mouth – for absorbing food and for emitting conversation? In German the distinction is clearly made, between the swallowing that animals engage in – fressen – and the ceremonial partaking of a meal – essen. And the Chinese chopstick, waved towards a plate that is no-one’s in particular but everyone’s in general, beautifully symbolizes this distinction.

The ‘slow food movement’, which is gathering momentum, I fear, with no more speed than it recommends, is not just a protest against environmental catastrophe. Nor is it a protest against unhealthy eating, obesity or ubiquitous waste. It is, first and foremost, a protest against a new human type: the type for whom food is a solitary intake, on the hoof or on the couch, a refuelling of the body which has no connection with the soul. We have bred this new type inadvertently, through our unwary affair with television, our obsession with ‘getting and spending’, and our growing indifference to family life. But it is a type that – independently of any medical unfitness – has lost one important part of the feeling for home. And when people have no feeling for home, they do not build families. Around them society dies. The Chinese should be glad of this: it will leave a bit more of the world for them to take over. But I myself am far from glad, since it is a bit of the world that I love.

Homepage photo by Albert Hein

The Author: Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. He is now a visiting professor at Buckingham University, having previously been the Director of Studies at Christ’s College Cambridge until 1991. Over the course of his career Roger has written 32 books, including An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture (2000), The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat (2002) and also co-founded the Town and Country Forum with Anthony Barnett.