Thursday, 14 February 2013
Products or produce?
I’m just old enough to remember when you had to queue up at different counters in food shops for your bacon, cheese, meat and so on. Supermarkets were very new idea, and greeted with suspicion by many. But they were convenient because you could buy everything in one trip and only queue up once, so they soon caught on. Then, recently, we became a bit suspicious again when we found that not all the food on the supermarket shelves was quite what it seemed. Whether eating horsemeat is problematic depends very much on one’s personal feelings. There are committed carnivores in this country who can’t shake off the image of childhood pets when faced with rabbit, while in other parts of the world people tuck into dogmeat with great enjoyment. So we all draw our personal boundaries in different places but, assuming no harmful pharmaceuticals have contaminated the meat, horse is as wholesome as any other animal protein. We say we are alarmed by the lack of transparency in the food chain and this does raise all kinds of questions about what goes into the food we buy. There’s an easy answer if we are genuinely worried by this, of course. Buy meat and vegetables to make the dish yourself, and you can be pretty confident that you know what has gone into it. There has not yet been any suggestion that cuts of meat on sale in supermarkets are fillets of horse, and you could always buy from a local butcher, or even a farmer, if you feel concerned. But increasingly we don't buy produce of this kind, we buy products that the retailers tell us will save us time. Everyone seems busier these days and who has the time to cook? But when we still have time to do so many other things, why is cooking an enjoyable meal so very far down the list of priorities? Things have changed during my lifetime, women generally go out to work now, and I don’t for a moment think that cooking for families is automatically their responsibility. But perhaps the fact that women have generally done most of the everyday cooking is part of the reason for it being devalued as a skill. So, increasingly, we let someone else make the food for us and buy it in the supermarket as a ready meal. Then the next generation doesn’t actually know how to make simple food, and has no choice – it’s buy the ready meal or starve. That’s great for the retailers, who expand their ranges constantly so that they can sell us more and more products. Presumably there is more profit to be made in the cheapest range of ready meals than in selling us the ingredients to make our own, so who can blame them? Selling food and making profits is their function. But the result is that we can be found eating the ready meal, in front of the television, watching a celebrity chef cooking up a dinner party menu that few will ever actually attempt. And how shall we spend all that time we have saved? We could watch some more television – there’s bound to be a documentary coming on about the disasters happening in the food chain.