The cauldron of ethical, responsible eating has been bubbling away for a while. Advocates of various issues throw in their own chunk of passion while others try to package this pot au feu in a pastry case, as if consumers could carry it around as a dish of good conscience. The thin broth and pieces of irreconcilable ethical directions make for an impossible dish. A lid of statements about correct lifestyles and how people should comport themselves when it comes to their food life leaves consumers in justifiable trepidation about what lies in this pie. All the while, the pie leaks its broth through the many fissures in the increasingly soggy pastry.
Many concerns about ethical eating and food/cooking knowledge have been receiving attention in the Australian blogosphere and some recent posts revealed both common goals and some tensions between the experiences of a diversity of bloggers and the broader eating population. [Purple Goddess: 1, Stickyfingers: 2, The Gobbler: 5, 6, 7 all contribute opinion, wisdom or personal experience (and the comments on their pieces are interesting too).] [UPDATE 27/07/08, 20:42: links 3&4 were removed as the person in question objected to being referred to in this article. They insisted that my reference to other bloggers here is insulting. That was not and is not my intention. I thought that linking to relevant posts by Australian bloggers would help readers to understand what SOLE is and what many of the issues arising are.]
Issues love advocates and advocates love bold statements. Consumers endure a number of conflicting causes that clamour for their support and most of these use a good dose of punitive rhetoric to make the consumer act.
A slightly exaggerated summary of the SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) or Ethicurean issues, plus a few more:
- Eat organic because anything else is poisoning you and the earth (only the fewest consumers will be enticed to spend considerably more on produce just because it might taste better)
- Eat local because anything else is unpatriotic, bad for the environment, economically or socially irresponsible
- Eat seasonal produce because anything else is unnatural, environmentally irresponsible, ignorant
- Eat Slow because anything else is part of the evil multinational fast-food complex
- Eat unprocessed because anything else could make you obese and/or kill you
- Eat non-GM because GM might cause you to grow scales, extra limbs or have deformed offspring, or because it's just a perversion of nature which must be a bad thing
- Cook with unprocessed ingredients because anything else means you're a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.
- Don't buy produce at supermarkets because it means you're a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.
- Don't eat simple food when dining out because it means you're a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.
And we can add to this:
Most normal consumers haven't a snowflake's chance in hell of navigating these issues and chastisements successfully. When confronted with too many challenges people stop caring. Issue fatigue. You lose them. Many more intelligent consumers will also be lost if they can see that a cause is not as cut-and-dried as the campaigners choose to claim (GM, local, organic) — a situation often exploited cynically by reactionary opponents of ethical eating.
There has been valuable writing recently of how little it can cost to make great food and how unreasonably restaurants get away with charging a premium for simple dishes (see links in the second para). But what seems simple or absurd to one passionate commentator may be quite the opposite to another, and to the average consumer. It's easy to forget Jo(e) Eater when writing about one's passions for a largely likeminded food-enthusiastic people. Let's remember what many cooks/eaters/diners are like:
Many people cannot cook very well because they:
- didn't learn to at home
- find the combining of ingredients conceptually challenging
- may be poor at understanding textual instructions
- were discouraged by better cooks who had no sympathy for them
People may choose not to cook because they:
- may not enjoy food enough to get beyond a food-as-fuel perspective
- have little time spare for cooking
- need to clear their head before preparing food because it isn't something they find simple
- may actually prefer to eat out with friends for the feeling of community
- live alone and don't find joy in cooking for one
- prefer to eat food which requires a minimum of effort
- live in modern shoebox apartments without enough storage space for a range of ingredients or implements
- hate washing up so much that even takeaway is preferable
Consumers shop largely/exclusively at supermarkets because they:
- have little choice locally
- do not have the time (whether objectively or subjectively) to shop at multiple places
- only have alternative local access to overpriced or poor quality greengrocers or butchers or other suppliers (Hawthorn or Daylesford in Victoria, or many parts of London, and numerous places in North America, spring to mind as occasional examples of this, either now or in the last ten years)
- find shopping unenjoyable or have enough other chores in their life
- find the neat, structured supermarket environment easier to deal with (physically, logistically, psychologically)
- don't have a freezer large enough to hold bulk purchases from distant suppliers
- find farmers' markets overpriced, hypocritical, class-ridden, or impractical
Many people do not convert to local or seasonal because they:
- have been exposed to largely unseasonal variety for so long and have not grown up with a seasonal mindset
- have little concept of local food and rapidly realise that 'local' can only ever be a partial change, so why bother?
- perhaps actually know that local isn't necessarily better for the environment (the 'food miles' concept is flawed in many of its basic assumptions about environmental impact, except in the most simplistic scenarios)
Consumers are so bombarded by scaremongering, warnings, confusing marketing and aggressive campaigning that they are lost. They are misled by TV cooks and food media that make out that expensive or fancy ingredients are necessary for the lifestyle self-image. They're chastised for choosing shortcuts ('cheats') or fast food. They face more decisions on every level than is humanly manageable: issues, product choices, status validation.
And, increasingly, there's the household budget to worry about, as petrol prices and food costs creep upwards. Fear, difficulty and helplessness will challenge the habits of a decade of food-as-status consumerism.
Now look at whether any of this applies to you. I know many people for whom the above would not apply at all, but their numbers are insignificant in comparison to the broader population's understanding, fears, experiences, preferences or opportunities.
The passionate food world can encourage consumers to cook more, make wiser food and nutrition choices, and think more about what types and sources of food they could prefer. Encourage, not insult. Help, not cajole. (Thankfully this is another strength of many food blogs.) If we forget this, we just add to the noise, pushing Jo(e) Eater down the road of confusion, frustration and further manipulation by vested interests.