Reading time: 11 min.
Hello again, and welcome to the first post in what might become a short series on the theme.
I: Good food
A friend and I were chatting this week about what our mums used to give us for dinner when we were kids, and warmed-up frozen pizza came back to us both.
My friend remembers this as the family meal at Christmas and Easter, while I remember it as my working-class mum’s answer to my middle-class pretensions to vegetarianism. At just seven inches wide, wrapped in plastic and sold in fives, the Safeway Back to Basics cheese and tomato pizza over-promised and under-delivered every time.
Much later, when friends from boho veggie families told me they’d grown up on lentil stew, I literally needed to have ‘lentil’ and ‘stew’ explained to me. Stew would have been cheaper and healthier than pizza – and better for the earth – but mum had never cooked lentils and nor, as far as I know, had her own mum.
Reminiscing about those days, I wonder when I first had an inkling of what ‘good food’ means, and what springs to mind is the time I tried Nigerian yam potage. The cook, Lola, said the potage pot had always been the heart of her family, its recipe kept and passed down through generations of mothers. I remember how keen she was for us to taste the meal that brought her own family together.
I remember, too, the cooks of a Dutch anarchist collective called Rampenplan. To feed a fieldful of activists, they’d work together, say, kale, peanuts, and seitan – tofu-like chunks made from flour – and sometimes some foraged wild plant that most of us had never heard of. The cooking was all pleasure, the eating was all pleasure, and the cost to ourselves and the earth was almost nothing.
Then I remember hearing about the Sikh langars – volunteer-run community kitchens – which for five hundred years have been serving up free vegetarian meals to all-comers, whatever their religion. The meal is eaten communally as a witness to the equality of everyone there.
If these are examples of good food, then we’re talking about more than tasty eating. For the Palestinian cook Mirna Barmieh, food carries Palestine’s story of politics, geography, history, and solidarity, and it keeps a connection with the land that Israel has stolen. For her grandparents’ generation, and still for Mirna now, to know how to forage, farm and cook from the land is to ‘practise your being as a human being, as a Palestinian, as a culture, as a lineage of ancestors’.
In the land-and-food traditions of Mirna’s Palestine, and those of Lola’s Nigeria, Rampenplan’s wild foraging, and the Sikh langar, the sensuous pleasure of eating is folded in with the social pleasure of companionship (literally ‘bread-sharing’) and a kind of existential pleasure in the earth – what it has given. ‘Good food’ is not just what’s on the plate; it’s a good relationship with the body, with other people, with the earth, with times past and times to come, and of course, finally, with the present moment of eating pleasure. It’s all this – the ecology of good food – that makes it ‘good’.
It barely needs saying that this is nowhere to be found in the frozen, factory pizza, but posh food can be ‘bad’ too. While Britain was on rations, Winston Churchill would tuck into tournedos steak with foie gras, topped off with a truffle – food that is squarely turned away from people and planet alike. And Mirna says that when a top Israeli chef uses a Palestinian recipe stripped of its story, it’s stripped of its goodness, too.
II: ‘Ecological crisis’?
For most people today, ‘ecological crisis’ means ‘climate change’. It’s less well known that our societies’ harmful relationship with the earth is also bringing other, equally urgent ecological challenges such as soil erosion, global pandemics (like the one we’re in and others to come), antibiotic resistance, and the general degradation of the earth as a home for all life. All these are a natural consequence of a human society pathologically at odds with the ways of the earth.
So too is humanity at odds with itself. Economic injustice, for example, and ingrained racism and the war system, all show where the ecology of human society breaks down. Our persistent, collective failure to find a healthy system of human relationships is as much an ecological problem as the climate emergency. Without facing it, all human life is set to become ever more diminished, especially the life that civilisation has pushed out to its edges, which is most of the world.
Yet few of us talk about climate breakdown, for example, as if it were pointing to a fundamental problem with how societies relate to the earth. Instead, climate stress is said to be caused by too much carbon, which civilisation’s ingenuity will fix using some technical invention… someday. It’s like expecting gastric bands to save society from obesity, as if it had nothing to do with McDonald’s.
Awkward though it is for any society that fetishises ceaseless economic growth – and few politicians or journalists dare say so – the ecological crisis is driven inexorably by the market economy that runs the world. But it didn’t start there. The corruption of our human and natural ecology was also the outcome of totalitarian communism. It was there in the feudal system, too. Even ancient Babylon took no more care of its people and land than does the corporate Babylon that prevails today. Mesopotamia’s thin soil was overworked until it was laced with salt, dead. Its king was so vain that he believed his city to be the centre of the earth and the home of the gods, and had his name inscribed in the city’s every baked brick.
Perhaps this sounds familiar. Civilisation, as an imperial strategy for dominion, has had injustice and violence baked into it from the beginning. Its fear of what it cannot tame, its craving for order through control, its attachment to violence for expedience’ sake, all ignore and trammel the inescapably ecological roots that make healthy life possible.
Such is the traumatised social and natural landscape through which hope has to move, possibly traumatised itself, but still siding with the life that abides there. If that hope is broad, then it must hold faith with justice as the remaking of power, such that the enjoyment of the few doesn’t mean banishing the many to the wilderness. And if that hope is deep, I think it must hold faith with peace, not merely as the absence of violence, but also as the presence of relationships that can flourish.
Yet, though justice-making and peace-making are the real challenges of our ecological crisis, today I want to suggest that something else comes first. If hope is a heart-head-hands commitment to what actually matters – and not whatever Babylon says matters – then it hangs entirely on having a feeling for what really matters in the first place.
III: Keeping home
For an earlier blog series, I sat down with people who are consciously ‘hopeful’ amid a troubled world. These are folks who aren’t immune to despair or complacency, but who keep circling back to a grounded kind of hopefulness. I heard all of them talk of hope and meaning in the same breath, as they kept coming back to what matters most to them. Their hopefulness is that they try to put this at the heart of their relationship with the world around them. Babylon may be the noisy, confused place where they live, but it’s not the place they call ‘home’.
A ‘home’, a place of real belonging, has to be made and kept; it is something you do. When Palestinians eat together, they make and keep their ‘home’, in the sense of a repeating encounter with the things that matter. Baked into the pita bread is the family story, the story of Palestine, the story of a life on the land – a whole ecology of meaning. The mealtime is among Palestine’s many cultural practices that helps to hold the trauma of an oppressed people, determined to be who they are amid a colonial order that tries to deny them exactly that. It is an extended moment in which the world becomes a promising place again, without belittling the scale of the violence in it.
Here in the UK we spend nearly half a billion pounds on frozen pizzas each year. (Yes, Babylon’s brilliance includes frozen pizza statistics – who knew!) In a narrowly functional sense, ‘pizza’ is pretty much the same as ‘pita’, from which word it comes, but in most Palestinian homes you couldn’t get away with warming up a frozen pizza and calling it a meal. It isn’t just that it has no real taste, it also has no real meaning. It carries no relationship with the health of the earth, society, or even the person eating it, so it has no connection with the ecology of things that matter. Sure, the factory pizza fuels the body’s machinery, though barely, but in every other way it’s just another absence to consume.
None of this is to sneer at my mum for giving me frozen pizza for dinner! She gave me something to eat every day of my childhood, doing her best with what she knew and the little money she had; she often went without dinner herself for the sake of her children. When I think of those frozen pizzas, I still think first of my mum’s effort of love as she tried to make room for the vegetarian indignation of her tweenage son; it was a burden she could have done without.
True, mum has never known a culinary tradition like Palestine’s, but that’s because she’s been robbed of that meaning over generations. The erasure of culture is Babylon’s doing, not my mum’s – a normal part of its violence against us all. The industrial food system with its monocrop farms, processing factories, supermarkets, and marketing lies, has so stolen the meaning of food that millions of children are now brought up on food that’s as plastic as its packaging. How on earth was my mum or I to know what a Palestinian mum and her son would surely know: that pizza and chips is not a meal, but a reheated con?
The Palestinian culinary tradition, on the other hand, is a seasoned culture; it hasn’t lost its flavour. When Babylon says to people who know food, as Palestinians do, ‘Buy frozen pizza!’, they say, ‘It’s not food.’ Having kept their tradition of good food, they can’t so easily be conned out of it.
Hope depends, I think, on cultivating all kinds of seasoned cultures of meaning, which claim space in Babylon and push its dominion back. Just as a seasoned food culture has no use for a frozen pizza, so a seasoned culture of music, such as the Roma tradition, has no use for manufactured pop. A seasoned political culture, like the black liberation movement in America, isn’t fooled by the millionaire showboat politician. A seasoned culture of travel can do without the aeroplane, just as a seasoned culture of learning can do without the exam. A seasoned culture of faith can’t be sold a corporate-consumer dream of success, just as a seasoned culture of hospitality, so used to making a guest of a stranger, can’t be convinced that everything ‘foreign’ is a threat. These are among the many ways – and they all count – that we can make and keep a real ‘home’ for hope, even within Babylon’s walls.
I don’t think we can survive without this, as a society or even as a species. If I don’t have a ‘home’ that keeps bringing me back to the fullness of the things that matter, then I’ve nothing with which to recognise the emptiness of Babylon and the violence that protects it. I’ve no way of noticing that the empire has assimilated my consciousness and slipped me out of touch with my own life, the lives of others, and the natural world. I’ll go along with the lie, thinking it true, that a warmed-up frozen pizza is a meal.
More seriously, I’ll go along with the tale that our ‘ecological crisis’ is a technical problem of too much carbon, rather than the natural consequence of my own alienation, and that of my society, from the life of the earth. Sure I’ll know, as we all ought to know by now, that we have to reduce our carbon emissions to survive, but I won’t know what we’d be surviving for. So why care? Why not just keep calm and carry on?
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The next post in this series on the ecological crisis is here.