Friday, February 15, 2013

Horsemeat and Loss of Cultural Knowledge

I was reading this article today about how British butchers have seen a spike in business since this whole horsemeat lasagna thing broke. The piece at the end is for some reason very depressing to me, even though I already know it to be true. I excerpt it here:

At a bustling London street market, butcher Raymond Roe said he had been in the trade for 37 years but at least eight of his local competitors had close their doors since 1976.

Even though shoppers are angry with supermarkets now, he was pessimistic about the future.

"They've lost their trust," he said. "I get a lot of people saying they're not going buy from them (supermarkets).

"But the thing is, supermarkets are convenient for everyone and most people haven't got much time. A lot of it is, people don't cook no more."

Pointing behind him on the wall to diagrams of animals with lines drawn to indicate cuts of meat, Roe described his role as butcher, teacher and chef for his customers.

"I show them the charts where the cuts come from to try and educate them because years ago, the older people - a lot of them are dead now - they knew the cuts but no one knows nothing now," he said sadly. "They don't even know how to cook."
And that last statement is really the crux of it for me. I'm not motivated to moralize about "kids these days", or get nostalgic and romantic about "simpler times" or other bland and obvious tacks. The post-WW2 industrialization and distribution of food at least in most of the global north has led to better nutrition for most people lucky enough to be born there, and as a future post will show, I'm not averse to eating processed foods. When I do get a frozen pizza, I don't expect it to be wholesome and wonderful (though I do have a favorite that seems less crappy than others), I expect it to be convenient and salty and so on. As a friend of mine said to me, it doesn't make sense that there are all these people feeling betrayed by the substitution of one kind of shit with another kind of shit. When I buy beef anus lasagna I expect 100% pure beef anuses, not 50% horse anuses and 50% beef anuses!

Anyway, the last part up there really hits me. People don't even know how to cook. A lot of the people that knew the cuts of meat are dead now. I already know this and yet it hits me in a surprising way. Well, it brings to mind a parallel process by which linguists used to describe the loss (i.e., the death) of languages under colonial domination. Maybe this model is out-moded (as an anthropologist I should be up to date on this, but I'm not) but the general sketch is that the first generation of the colonized is forbidden from speaking their mother tongue, and they gradually learn the dominant language. The next generation grows up speaking the native language mostly at home but is taught in the official language, and expects to conduct all public business in that language. The third generation rarely hears the native language spoken, except at home in the presence of extended family (grandparents generation), and they don't develop fluency and the whole range of the language's expressive capacity. After that, it doesn't survive much outside of purposeful efforts to preserve it (when that's done it's often in the context of a resistance identity movement like the Gaelic resurgence of the late 1800s in Ireland).

Same with cooking. If you rarely or never witness the act of cooking as a young person -- transforming produce into a meal -- then of course how are you going to learn how to cook? Or what about just learning how to identify good produce? Tomatoes are the perfect example. I once got in a long argument with an old boss of mine (Italian of Albanian extraction) about organic produce in Santa Cruz. He was convinced that it's all bullshit and they do use pesticides and they're just gouging everyone. I disagreed, mostly on moral grounds about chemicals, etc. We went back and forth and eventually we arrived at the real issue: supermarket tomatoes are fucking nasty; they are nothing like homegrown tomatoes. We agreed. They are symbols of a thing and people participate in maintaining the illusion that these are tomatoes by buying them and attempting to eat them. Purchasing these bland, mealy, pale, non-tomato-tasting things and performing "tomato" rituals such as adding them to a salad and then nodding along saying how good this dead matter is in your mouth is to affirm the farce of industrial tomatoes as real.

The damage is immediate in that you are eating shitty unripe food (they are bred to look ripe on the outside before they are truly ripe; they can not properly ripen anyway because not enough sugars have been produced). But there are deeper repercussions. People complain about kids these days not liking fruits and vegetables. Well, the supermarket tomato is foul. The kids are right to reject it from their somatic experience with the thing. How much other foul produce are kids given to eat, almost as punishment so they fulfill part of a food pyramid? Real, non-industrial tomatoes, apples, bread, yogurt, etc, carry the smell and look and feel of ripeness, abundance, goodness. It's empirically verifiable. Now, if children are not exposed to the process of judging and selecting the crispiest apple, the juiciest lime, the exactly ripe cantaloupe, then, like language, like cooking ability, like other fairly important aspects of cultural heritage, it can be lost within a couple generations. TASTE, is what I'm talking about, the gradual dying out of taste. Not classist taste, but literally the ability to use the senses of smell and taste to discern the quality of the food, and hence the quality of the environment around you.

As generations begin associating fruits and vegetables with bad somatic experiences, they gradually reject those foods, they eat them less, and then even if you want a revival, no one even knows that tomatoes CAN be good. And so good tomatoes -- the ones grown in your backyard in the summer that you eat off the vine with a little salt when you get home from work and the smell is in your nostrils and the tangy depths of the juices are on the back of your tongue, and you suck out the pulp and tear at the skin with your teeth, and for one instant you totally comprehend Pablo Neruda, and the taste of the fruit and your lover's nipple, slightly metallic and tangy, are the same -- those good tomatoes are no longer propagated, and they have been lost to our descendants.

And this is the real horror


  1. I have been away from the Internet world too long, that I missed this whole horse meat thing. My goodness, what a mess.

    Not all that long ago, Walmart got in trouble for spraying their meats with something that kept the flesh bright red, way past the expiry date.

    Shame, really.

    As for picking good fruits, that is a skill that I enjoy having. I always smell everything. I look at it, I smell it, I see movement of bugs before I get too close, the whole lot.

    Because that's what good cooks do.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble. It's late. I'm sleepy. Must get to bed soon.

    Cheers and boogie boogie.

  2. Thanks for the comment Whisk. I guess the upside to the Walmart thing is that it assumes that people know that fresh meat is supposed to be red. Once a girlfriend of mine brought home some brown steaks from the corner shop, and she had been swindled by the stupid butcher kid that was always flirting with her. I got apoplectic, as usual.

    The sensual aspects of selecting good produce are all part of the whole process of cooking, I think. You start anticipating the meal way before you eat it.

  3. Bad butcher. Bad butcher.

    When I first moved here, and went to a market called Tops, I smelled the celery. And the produce guys said in all his billions of years working there, that's the first time he saw someone smell the celery.

    I said, "But I always smell the celery."

    I don't know why but I just made myself giggle. Smelling whole foods is a must, for me.

  4. Hardcore. I have to admit I judge my celery mostly by sight (greenness) and by touch -- how crispy it is and tight the bunch is. Perhaps chewing the leaves would be a good test... hmm.