Tag Archives: food

Food and identity

What we eat is part of our sense of self. For anyone who has made a significant food choice either to protect their health, for religious reasons or for environmental ones tends to feel very invested in that food identity. Food choices can play a big part in your cultural identity and may inform who you spend time with.

Food impacts on our bodies in all kinds of ways. What energy we have has a lot to do with what we eat. Our diets shape our bodies and other people’s assumptions about who we are as a consequence of our bodies. To be in poverty, malnourished and consequently overweight is an experience that will get you blamed for your size all too often. The assumption that being larger goes with being lazy can have huge impacts on a person’s life, most critically around how the medical profession responds to larger bodies.

What we put into ourselves impacts on our mood, and our perceptions. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed food, raw food, empty calories, wholefoods, things that suit us and things that don’t all shape our experiences of living in a body. How that works also depends on where we are in life and what demands are being made of us.

We make our body chemistry from the food we take in. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so looking at the foods that encourage progesterone and estrogen production. Information online suggests that western diets may cause or aggravate many of the menopause symptoms, so I’ve been poking around in this. I’ve radically increased my fruit intake, amongst other things. I feel better in my body in ways I had not expected.

I’ve struggled with my body ever since hitting puberty. I don’t feel properly female – the only time I did was when I was pregnant. I feel out of kilter with my body but not so out of kilter to think I’d be any better off as a chap. My flesh has never felt easy on my bones. I’ve experienced it as a disconnection and a wrongness I have inadequate language to describe. However, in the last six months or so with a diet that supports female hormone production, I’ve felt better in myself on this score.

I spent my teens through to my thirties with a diet that was either inadequate, unsuitable, or both. I knew this at the time. In recent years I’ve been able to afford to eat whatever I want to eat, and there’s been no pressure to do otherwise. The more I go after the food that works for me, the more easy I feel in my own skin. I’ve still got all my androgynous psychology, my thinking hasn’t changed at all, but my experience of my own body has shifted, may well still be shifting.

Identity can be such a changeable thing. Who I am if I eat a lot of fruit. Who I am with, or without coffee. Who I am if I’m not mostly living on cheap sources of carbohydrate. Who I am if I am allowed to choose what I put into my body. Everything about us exists in relation to what of the world we are exposed to and what options we have, and how our experiences shape us.

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Living without a fridge

I’ve mentioned many times that I live without a fridge or freezer. It’s not something everyone can do, but I thought it might be helpful to give a sense of the things that make this feasible. If you need a fridge to keep medicine, clearly this isn’t for you.

You need a cool box or other cool storage space – older houses sometimes have these. If you put frozen things in cool boxes, they can stay cool for some time (depending on outside temperatures and what else you have in the box).

I’m in the UK, which is cold or mild for most of the year. I manage in hot summers, but it can be a challenge. If you live somewhere really hot, this may be too difficult. However, it’s worth seeing what traditional solutions are/were for your part of the world.

I don’t think you can do this and store raw meat. If you are an omnivore and want to do without a fridge, you’d have to buy meat and cook it pretty much straight away. This is possible, but you’d have to be organised.

You can’t do big weekly shops in the way people do when they’re able to load up fridges and freezers. You have to buy less and more often and stay alert to what you have and how long it will keep. If you can’t do this without a lot of extra car use, it may not be a sensible trade-off.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I hardly ever have food go off – I don’t buy things that won’t keep unless I’m intending to use them straight away.

Many things don’t need a fridge. You only need to refrigerate plant matter if it’s been cut already. Fruit and veg keep well. Dried goods – pasta, rice, oats, flour, beans and fruit etc do not need a fridge. Things in tins and jars do not need a fridge. Bread is perfectly happy in a cool box. Margarine, I have learned by experimentation, keeps a disturbingly long time. Mammal milk can be kept overnight if it’s not too hot. Plant milks will keep indefinitely when they haven’t been opened, and last a couple of days when open. Cheese bought in modest amounts will keep for a couple of days.

You can’t do a vast amount of storing leftovers for later use. If you need to prepare food in batches and store it, you can’t do it this way. If you live somewhere that makes bulk shopping/delivery a practical necessity, fridgelessness won’t work. If you are able to produce and store food you may find it makes more sense to have a freezer.

As with most questions of greener living, the answers are complicated and depend on other factors in your life. However, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or occasional meat eater, if you are urban living with easy access to food, and you can sort out your food on a day by day basis, you might not need a fridge. Doing without one can save space – a significant issue for those of us living in small spaces. It will save you money both on the fridge and the electricity it uses. Your reduced energy use, reduced materials use and reduced use of environmentally harming chemicals is all better for the environment. It’s not for everyone, but it might be for you!


The narratives of meat

Diet is a very emotive subject, so let me be clear – this is not a blog post about food choices, this is a post about the stories we tell around our food choices. It’s about a set of perceptions that are so normalised, so taken for granted that we might not even notice them. We tell stories about what it means to eat meat, and those have a powerful effect on us, even though we have more up to date stories that suggest high meat consumption isn’t good for your body or for the planet.

Meat is high status food. It costs more to produce, and always has, so we can go all the way back to the Celts and the hero’s portion at feasts. At any period in history, the poor have tended to eat little or no meat while the rich have eaten a lot more of it. Meat equates to wealth, meat consumption equates to wealth. Eating meat is part of the story our culture tells itself about what it means to be wealthy. It is feasts with whole roast swans, still with their feathers on, or Henry the 8th throwing bones over his shoulder for dogs to pick up.

Meat is seen as macho – red meat especially. So eating red meat is to be seen as masculine. To not eat meat is often seen as effeminate. Meat consumption is associated with sexually powerful heterosexual masculinity. It’s also associated with muscle building and physical strength, even though you can do that with any kind of decent protein sources. I think some of this has to do with the way our feudal history has constructed both masculinity and hierarchy. We’re back to that Henry the 8th image again.

Part of that macho red meat narrative taps in to ideas of man the hunter. Now, most men are not hunting down wild cows in order to get their steaks, but even so, there’s an emotional association that suggests to people that if they are eating red meat, they are the sort of person who could have hunted it. It’s an emotional effect that links feelings of power, competence and mastery with the consumption of meat, perhaps especially potent when the person in question has done nothing to earn those feelings.

How we feel about something often has more impact on us than logic or evidence. What we eat is part of our sense of self. The stories we tell ourselves about what our food means reinforces our food choices. The stories around eating meat are stories of strength and power, of dominance, and importance. I suspect that the less actual power you have, the more affecting those stories are.

Vegetarians and vegans tell stories about being healthy, living kindly and having less impact on the planet. There’s a different kind of power here, it’s about the power to make change rather than power over other beings. These are stories that help a person feel kind and virtuous, and worthy – all of which is also very attractive.

I find it interesting the way ideas of what is ‘natural’ enters these stories as well. As far as I can make out, everyone views their food choice as natural, but does not necessarily think everyone else’s food choices are also natural. Everyone thinks their own food choices are good and appropriate, but may well not hold the same beliefs about other people’s food choices. Food choices that supposedly make you powerful can result in some very fragile and defensive behaviour. Food choices that supposedly make you kind can result in some pretty aggressive and unkind behaviour. Our food stories can divide us into tribal groups, feeling conflict with those whose stories are different.

While we stay focused on the stories and the emotions, we aren’t looking properly at the science, the evidence and the climate impact of how we live.


Food and happiness

When the subject of food comes up in relation to happiness, it’s usually about comfort eating. And certainly, there are times when comfort eating is a thing. I’ve found toast really helps me ward off low-level depression – there’s nothing like low blood sugar to quietly bring you down. Food has a lot to offer us in terms of happiness.

Hunger, poor nutrition and low blood sugar will all contribute to feelings of gloom and misery. Eating a diet that supports your bodily and mental health obviously contributes to happiness. People dieting can be quick to cut out the fats, but brain and skin alike do need fats – plant derived ones are best. Amino acids from protein are essential for brain function, it is harder to feel happy if you aren’t getting enough amino acids in your diet. Protein is expensive, so poverty diets are likely to increase your unhappiness.

We live in a culture where fat shaming is normal, and where food is loaded with social and emotional messages for many people. However, food is essential to life, and as social creatures, food plays an important role (or can) in our interactions. Creating spaces where food can be approached in a comfortable and relaxed way, can really help improve happiness. Sharing nutritionally good food in easygoing company can be a source of great comfort, joy and pleasure. Being cooked for often registers with people as an expression of care. I’ve also heard many stories about older relatives who expressed love through food – and so long as that’s not your only expression, that’s fine.

Eating well takes care of some of our most basic needs. To eat well in a physically comfortable space as part of a community where you feel safe and welcome, answers a great many of our most basic needs. Taking the time to do this can be really powerful. When we feel under pressure to rush about, and eat solitary meals in a hurry, we miss out on a lot of good stuff, and we miss the social bonding that can happen around food.

I appreciate that for anyone with an eating disorder, food is stressful and problematic. I don’t have the experience to speak to that in much detail, I’ve only ever been on the edges of it. I think any of us can help with this by making food more comfortable and less stressful – not loading it emotionally with shame or with demands, not putting pressure on anyone over what they do, or do not eat, not making body size or appetite an issue – it all helps make eating less of an issue. Acceptance can be powerful and enabling.

If you’re concerned about someone else’s body shape, or about what they do, or do not eat, and the person is not your own small child, it’s not your job to tell them. A great deal of food-related bullying comes from people who are convinced they are being helpful. As though overweight and underweight people are unable to tell what’s going on with their bodies. Yes, sometimes illness distorts body sense, but if you aren’t either a mental health professional, or absolutely aware of how the person sees themselves, you’ve got no basis to take this on. Challenging people over their eating and body size usually has the effect of making them feel worse, disempowered, ashamed and miserable. None of these feelings enable a person to move towards a more sustaining relationship with food.

If you want to help someone have a happier relationship with food, quietly model that relationship, and give them a safe and supportive space in which they can make changes for themselves.


Food choices and climate change

Food choices are always a really emotive subject and I try to stay out of that side of it as best I can. My starting point has the potential to offend everyone: I’m not ideologically opposed to meat eating, dairy, or eggs. I am deeply uncomfortable with how factory farming works and how we treat the living beings in our food chains. I am absolutely clear that whatever you eat, eliminating food waste should be your priority, because if we tackled that we would get to grips with reducing suffering, and reducing the climate impact of meat.

Animal products for human consumption, and the methods by which we ‘grow’ these are harming the planet. If we want to survive as a species, we have an obligation to cut back on what we consume and to support and encourage others in doing the same. If you eat meat, consider having some meat free days in a week. Vegetarians can consider having some vegan days in their weeks, and vegans, you still have to wrangle with food waste.

You can also look at reducing the food miles in your food if you have the means. If you can source from local producers with better cared for creatures, then do that. If you can’t afford to eat more kindly, cutting back is also a good choice. If you go vegan, depending on where you live, you may have a hard time cutting food miles – beans, nuts and soya products tend to come to the UK from overseas. There are no perfect solutions here, but make whatever moves you can to cut the carbon imprint of your diet.

I’ve pushed towards veganism before and found it difficult. Sourcing affordable protein is an issue, although I can manage it. What’s turned out to be a real problem, is fats. What dairy remains in my life is as much a fat source as anything else, and it is the need for fats in the diet that has thus far, thwarted me. It’s easy (especially if you have a penance aspect to your food choices) to view fats as bad and a diet light on them as good. In practice, neither my skin nor my brain work well without them.

To reduce the animal products in my diet I have to figure out an approach to food that sorts out the need for fats. Where in the food prep process the fats go, is a question I need to answer and I think it will take me away from the food approaches I am used to. My current project is to figure this out, and introduce the solutions gently so that I can change my relationship with food. I’ve replaced milk with substitutes with no trouble at all, and when there are vegan options I often take them.

I don’t think absolutism is the solution for all of us. Finding what works for you and how best to reduce your carbon footprint is a question to ask. Mine is pretty low as it is (carbon calculator over here – https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ ) but I want to do better.


Nibbling for Druids

British law amazingly enough upholds the right of people to gather food from hedges and margins. I’m not a serious forager, but I am a big fan of nibbling when out and about. I get a distinct sense of connection from eating what’s around me, it brings me into a really direct relationship with my immediate landscape.

I’m not a forager, I don’t go out to bring things home. Partly because I don’t have any scope to store,  partly because I’m not the only one who needs what’s in the hedges. At this time of year I’ll take a few blackberries when I pass them, I found some wild plums on the side of the canal a few days ago. Soon there will be apples, because trees have been planted locally for people to help themselves. I won’t take anything rare, or anything in short supply, and never more than a third of what’s present.

Plants that have grown in my locality have experienced the same weather as me, they are rooted in the soil I live on, connecting with underground fungi systems and soil bacteria. Normally what we do is eat food from anywhere and everywhere, we have lost the immediacy of connection with land because most of us don’t eat what grew around us. That can’t be replaced by snaffling the odd berry out of a hedge, but it’s better than nothing.

We don’t know what all the practical implications are of eating food from around the world. Certainly it helps diseases move around more quickly. We don’t know what the implications are of eating food that grew in one place with consistent soil bacteria. One fungi network. Or for that matter what the differences might be between working with your local yeast – the yeast living on your skin and in your air, instead of working with yeast from a package. Perhaps there are reasons modern humans don’t feel connected to each other or to the soil.


Pot-lickers of the world, unite!

Like most people (I suspect) I was brought up knowing that there were rules about eating food. One of the rules was not to run your finger round the plate afterwards. Nor should a person sneak out to the kitchen and carefully run their fingers around bowls, saucepans etc.

I grant you that it doesn’t look charming, and ups the risk of getting food on clothes. But at the same time, it’s a manners system that tells us it is preferable to waste food by washing it down the sink, rather than run a finger round the pot and eat what’s there.

Every morsel of food out there exists as a direct consequence of the death of a living being, except perhaps for milk and eggs, where the death of living beings is indirect, but still part of the equation. Anything that had seeds in tends to be the death of future plant life before it’s had chance to get started. For me, this makes it difficult to cheerfully wash that life away. If life is sacred, then surely, the careful running of a finger over a plate to make sure none of that life is thrown away disrespectfully, is a sacred act?

Anything we wash away has to later be cleaned out of the water. Down the sink is not ‘away’ really, it’s just a problem for someone else to deal with.

My guess is that the underlying reason for the manners of not licking the pot, is not wanting to seem that desperate. Getting every last scrap off the plate might look like poverty and desperation, and humans will go to remarkable lengths to convince themselves, and each other, that they aren’t that desperate, even when they are. However, there are many ways of achieving a feeling of abundance, it’s not like food residue is our only option.

So, I am putting my hand up to say that nothing goes into the washing up with edible food on it when I’m around. I don’t care what it looks like and I don’t care if anyone feels moved to judge me. I feel very strongly that we need to change our collective attitude to food waste – because what we collectively throw out is obscene and we’re killing a lot of things just to chuck them in a bin or wash them away. We need to show our food more respect.


Life without a fridge

I’ve been fridge-free for over five years now. Instances of throwing away edible food – zero. Food going off is pretty rare and tends to be because we’ve bought fruit that was reduced to clear and didn’t eat it all in time. Sometimes, the consumer goods that look like they are helping us, are not as helpful as they seem.

In order to do without a fridge, we buy little and often, which means there’s a plan for anything bought, but we can also respond to whim and bargain. We gave up cow’s milk when we started this – it just doesn’t keep well enough. Everything else does just fine in the cool box.

No doubt our diet makes this easier – two vegetarians and one omnivore, and I don’t buy raw meat, so that’s far more manageable. We eat a lot of fruit and veg, a lot of dried rice, pasta and pulses lurk on the kitchen shelves. Much of this doesn’t go off quickly and can easily be spotted when it does.

Having lived with fridges my whole life, I was obliged to change tack while on the boat – they just take too much electricity. Other boaters advised the switch to a cool box. It proved easy – far easier than I’d expected. The absence of a fridge means having to be aware of what fresh food is around and how long it will last – variable with temperature and whether anything frozen has gone into the box recently. The attraction of a fridge is that you can put a lot of things in it and not feel a need to think about them, but this is how the unspeakable horror at the back of the fridge comes to be.

Having been fridgeless for a good five years now, I do not see fridges as a quality of life improver. Expensive, yes. Big consumer items that take up a lot of space. Energy I don’t have to use. Taking the fridge out of the equation has given me a better relationship with food. I can’t say it would work for everyone, but I can say it’s always worth questioning the apparently essential things, because you may well find some of them aren’t so vital for you after all.


Hail Seitan!

As a household we took the decision some months ago to reduce the amount of animal products in our diet (2 vegetarians and one omnivore). We haven’t gone vegan, but have changed the overall balance, so I suspect that puts us in the rare position of being able to offend everyone with a strong opinion on diets!

The primary motivator for us was the environmental impact of animal based food. Animal welfare is also a major consideration. As cheese is rising in price apace, that’s also been a factor. So has boredom – we wanted to eat more interestingly, and for that matter, have more good stuff.

When we look at taking up a more ecological way of doing things, one of the household rules is ‘no hair shirt’. If it feels like we’re being noble and suffering, we’re doing it wrong, and we won’t be able to sustain it. Getting it right means a sense of improved quality of life. We try to do this without it costing vast amounts more money.

Seitan has been good to us (and we insist on pronouncing it ‘Satan’). Seitan is a vegan protein – vital wheat gluton and can be bought as a flour-like substance. Health food shops may have it, the internet certainly does, and if you buy in bulk it works out cheaper than Quorn. The internet abounds with recipes, but basically you can make up a dough, flavour it with whatever you like, braise it in the slow cooker and then give it a second outing, and it is a wonderful, endlessly variable thing. Not that hard to make, and the omnivore in the household is happy to accept it as a substitute.

My latest venture is into the realm of shneese. Which isn’t cheese. The attraction of dairy products, I eventually worked out, is as much the fat content as the protein. Vegan proteins can be short of oil, and thus the idea of shneese was born. There are (I have since discovered) lots of recipes out there for home made vegan cheese substitutes, but the key thing is to use a gelatine substitute so it will set. Some kind of nut or seed to provide the protein – I’ve used sunflower and cashew to good effect thus far. Some kind of oil. And something else – thus far olives, avocado and mushroom have been employed to good effect at different times. Their role is to give the oil something to make friends with. Nutritional yeast is also a good idea. A blender is required, to make the whole array of things into a single, settable gloop.

Last night we put shneese on pizza. Now, I’ve seen vegans with grated carrot as a pizza topping, and it looks the part… and even though I like grated carrot, I’ve never been able to face this as a prospect. The whole point of a pizza is that sense of indulgence. A mushroom and sunflower shneese, tomato, olive, artichoke hearts… it didn’t feel like a downgrade.

I like knowing that I can throw together really good food for vegan guests, should I need to. I like having the increased diversity of diet. I love that this is working out cheaper than buying dairy products. I like the idea of having cheese as an occasional luxury, not a staple, and only using eggs when I want them as eggs, not as an ingredient. Also, I’m enjoying the names. Notzorella, anyone?


Pauper arts

art gearThe twentieth century saw some radical cultural shifts for the western poor. We moved away from self-sufficiency, and towards consuming low cost goods. We stopped cooking from scratch and bought processed food. Many of the skills that had historically been essential for paupers, became lost to the vast majority. We’d ushered in a new era of prosperity and ease, and no one would ever have to cut worn bed sheets in half again to re-sew them for a re-use.

Now, many people are finding they don’t have the money to support the lifestyle they’d once taken for granted. It comes as a shock. Being poor is very hard if you have no idea how to do it. Let’s just consider food. If you can grow your own veg and fruit, make jam from the fruit, keep a few chickens, if you know how to re-use your leftovers, how never to waste anything, then you can eat for very little cost. It takes time. We’re used to throwing away a third of the food we buy. There’s a huge distance between those two ways of being, and the pauper arts are not reclaimed over night by people who find they need them.

The twentieth century taught the western poor to want all the same things the rich were getting. Of course we want fairness and equality, but we didn’t pause to ask on what terms we were getting it, or what it meant. Nor were we encouraged to, because turning us into an avidly consuming class drove the economy along. The more we can be persuaded to want, and the more willing we are to go into debt to have those things, the more vulnerable we are. We’ve been sold the idea of comfort and convenience, and now we have to work ever longer hours to pay for it, or the money dries up and we suddenly can’t afford to eat.

The cheap boom of the twentieth century was underpinned by low cost goods from abroad. The environmental cost of cheap food is huge. In another country, people are working in dangerous conditions for little pay to put cheap consumables in our shops. That’s a very high price, and just because we aren’t the ones paying it, does not entitle us to be comfortable. We can’t go on consuming at the current rate or in these ways.

What we need to do is stop being seduced by advertisers and junk pedlars. We need to stop accepting that we need everything done for us, by someone abroad, or by a machine. We need to reclaim the pauper arts that truly can allow us a better quality of life for less money. Much of that knowledge is still out there, and much can be re-invented. The important thing is to know there are options.

If you know how to do a good job of being a pauper, a little money goes a lot further. There is a sense of power and achievement in self-sufficiency, in being able to repair clothes, mend useful items, convert one thing into another. There’s a lot of use in cooking with leftovers and making compost out of kitchen waste. No one is going to pick all of this up overnight, but thinking creatively and imagining solutions is a good place to start.

In front of me on the table is the sorting and storage system for Tom’s art gear – an old, unwanted metal tea set, bought for a pound, and doing the job very well. Next to it is a plastic sweet box that I cheered up by collaging it with paper from old calendars, and am using to store my sewing kit in. We had fun with those, they will serve us well for a long time, and they cost very little. They kept a few things out of landfill, too. We’ve got a draught excluder made from a pair of worn out jeans. Bags made out of old curtains. Old curtains cut down to be smaller curtains suitable for these windows. It adds up.

What we all need is a new aesthetic; a sense that clever re-use is chic. If we only collectively decided that ‘make do and mend’ is a great look for this year, it would be easier for a lot of people to tackle poverty whilst feeling good about it, and to step back from the over-consumption that is pushing our planet to the brink. We need to declare re-use the sexiest thing imaginable. That it currently isn’t, is just a trend, and trends can change.