By Gyorgy Scrinis
Until the modern era, bread was the symbol and the source of sustenance in many cultures, and was referred to in the bible as the "staff of life". Now, most commercial bread is fluffy, tasteless, and nutritionless, and bread has become the empty carrier of other foods and spreads. John Downes, a local sour-dough baker, comments in his book The Natural Tucker Bread Book: "As a species we spent 40,000 years perfecting the process of making grains edible, digestible and delicious... And then we dropped it."
Downes was referring to the way industrial society has abandoned the age-old techniques of bread baking, and has therefore given up real bread itself.
Instead, the process of making bread has become mechanised to cope with mass production. The flour used is usually highly refined and bleached. One type of fast-rising yeast is used for mass production, rather than a combination of many slower rising yeasts found in sour- dough bread. And a number of chemicals may be added in the process.
The transformation of bread and bread-baking is characteristic of what has happened to diets and the preparation of foods more generally since the onset of industrialisation, particularly this century. We have shifted away from traditional cuisines and diets, towards meat- dominated diets, and foods that are highly processed and quick to prepare and consume. The health problems created by the modern diet and modern living are then managed by the scientific approach to health, medicine and fitness. At every turn, the modern diet, and the scientific management of the body, have also allowed the food industry to expand the commodification of our meals and our health.
Traditional and modern diets
Whole-grain breads and foods, beans, dairy products, vegetables, and plenty of wild and cultivated greens, formed the basic diets of most people in agricultural societies until the modern era. This would vary of course according to such factors as the climate, and their proximity to fishing waters. Meat was usually eaten in small amounts, and often reserved for special occasions, such as celebrations. The combination of any bean with any whole grain happens to be an excellent source of protein.
But the modern industrial cuisine has largely abandoned traditional foods and traditional forms of food preparation. Out go the beans and the whole grains. In comes a meat-centred diet, supplemented by highly processed and refined grains, and foods generally saturated with chemicals and additives. In Australia, very few people eat beans or whole grains of any type on a regular basis.
When not eating take-away food, or eating out, Australians are more and more buying processed, pre-packaged, pre-cooked meals from supermarkets. As Michael Symons points out in The Shared Table, we have become ever more "alienated" from our food, being alienated successively from the growing, the preparation, and now even from the cooking of the food that sustains us.
All cuisines have tended towards industrial cuisine during the various stages of industrialisation. Symons argues that what we refer to as the Anglo-Australian diet, which is in part inherited from English cuisine, is just an extreme form of industrial cuisine. England led the process of industrialisation, and for this reason it has the least vestiges of a traditional cuisine. Similarly, the white colonisation of Australia by-passed both the indigenous hunter-gatherer mode, and the peasant mode of life, and moved directly into the industrial mode.
The health and environmental consequences of the modern diet have now become quite conspicuous. The over-consumption of meat and refined foods and the over-dose of chemicals and additives, coupled with the under-consumption of whole-grains, greens and vegetables, has put an enormous strain on the human body. One of the manifestations of such a poor diet are the numerous cancers and heart diseases which have emerged as the big killers in the affluent countries. Obesity and premature ageing are among its other manifestations. Modern lifestyles and the stress that accompanies them, as well as the dangerous levels of pollution, chemicals, and radiation we are exposed to, also create the conditions under which these new industrial diseases have flourished.
Despite the way techno-science continually challenges and transcends "natural" limits, we are more and more coming up against the realisation that the human body actually has limits — limits beyond which we become prone to these industrial diseases, including fatigue, stress, and other demands on body and soul that characterise our age.
The environmental impact of the over-consumption of meat has been devastating, with large tracts of land all over the world being cleared and turned over to animal production. Large areas of the Amazon forest have been cut down not to produce beef for the local population, but for hamburgers for US fast-food chains. Meat is also a very "inefficient" source of nutrition, since around 10 times more food could be grown on this land if it were instead used for crop production.
On top of the incredibly cruel conditions in which they are kept, chickens in battery farms are fed all sorts of chemical supplements in their foods, which we then consume. Mass industrial fishing has devastated the ecosystems of the oceans. Modern agricultural practices have devastated the soils, leading to accelerating soil erosion problems, due to the growing of mono-cultures and the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
The processing, packaging and transport associated with most supermarket items involves an enormous drain on energy and resources. Another consequence of the processing and packaging of foods is the large amounts of food that is wasted due to factors such as packaging faults and over-production, which in the USA results in more than 20% of factory processed food being wasted.
What the modern period can offer us is a diversity of cuisines and tastes from around the world, that we can prepare and experiment with in our own kitchens. Yet the arrogance of modernity is clearly expressed in the assumption that traditional diets and ways of understanding our bodies and our environment — developed slowly over thousands of years — could be improved upon not through minor ning our back on the traditional ways.
Scientific management and commodification
The modern solution to problems created by modern living and eating is by and large to use more of the same kind of logic to tamper with our diets and lifestyles, rather than looking back and learning something from traditional diets. It usually involves the inclusion of various types of additives to make up for deficiencies in the diet, whether this be in the form of pills, or in the form of more processed foods.
A typical example of this tampering-at-the-edges approach is the way the problem of not getting enough "fibre" in one's diet — which is a result of eating highly refined and processed grains and other foods — is tackled by eating straight bran, often as a breakfast cereal. Put aside for the moment the level of processing that the bran has undergone for such breakfast cereals, and the fact they are mostly sugar anyway. Instead of just going back to eating the whole grain, the reduction of the whole grain into its constituent parts is taken for granted, and one attempts to accumulate more of these parts separately. Such a reductive approach also happens to be very expensive, and wasteful in all sorts of ways. Another example is the use of vitamin and mineral additives, instead of eating more of the appropriate unprocessed foods.
This approach is typical of what I am referring to here as the scientific management of the body, which is characterised by a reductionist and quantifying logic. The tendency is to engage with both foods and the body at a level at which the whole is scientifically broken down into its constituent parts. At this abstract level, these parts reveal themselves as being open to quantification and measurement, and our over-all health presents itself as open to the calculating attitude.
Witness the contemporary fetishism of counting calories or cholesterol levels, which are somehow supposed to reveal the key to the underlying truth of good health, and which must be measured and managed for optimum results. Or the kind of management of the body that goes on in a gymnasium, whereby each body part, or even each bodily movement, is isolated and worked on, often mediated by some technological gadget or other.
It is on the basis of the scientific management approach that certain foods are singled out as wonder foods, while others are demonised. If our already processed normal milk is deemed bad for us, the solution is to drink even further processed "low-fat" milk. Many foods are now processed to the stage of being "low-fat", "low-calorie" or "low- cholesterol", thus stripping away and wasting some of these foods' goodness. There is little realisation that our bodies actually tend to prefer the whole, unprocessed, non-toxified, natural product, than any such processed or refined substitutes.
It is the nature of the modern diet, and the dangerously high levels of additives and types of processing inflicted by the food industry, that need to be addressed, rather than being side-tracked by the medical industry's unhealthy-food-of-the-week.
Both the modern diet, and the scientific management of the body, continually offer new in-roads for the commodification of our meals e that raw foods are processed, then the more they require packaging and transportation, and will be sold to us at inflated prices.
The humble bean
The alternative to the scientifically managed and commodified approach lies in the transformation of the modern diet, and in the way we obtain the foods we eat.
We need to re-discover the pleasures and the simplicity of traditional cuisine. In particular, the humble bean and the whole grain should move back to the centre of our dinner tables. We also need to re- discover traditional and more labour-intensive forms of food preparation, as well as peasant forms of hopitality, which do require some time and effort. It's a question of priorities. Simple, tasty, nutritious food should be our priority, and we should take the responsibility for providing it for ourselves, and for our friends.
Men in particular will have to take on a much greater role in food preparation than they have till now. In most households, women are still doing most of the work in the kitchen, and until men begin to share equally in the cooking and housework, women are not about to single-handedly take on these more labour intensive forms of food preparation.
Once we move back to eating and preparing unprocessed raw products, many of the processed, pre-cooked, and packaged items found at the supermarket start to become redundant, and even to look a bit silly. It is then that food co-operatives start to look like a great idea, such as those run by students at universities, or the one at Friends of the Earth. These co-ops mainly sell unprocessed, unpackaged, raw or basically prepared ingredients, and mostly organically grown. You simply take along your own bag or jar, and fill them up. These ingredients obviously make for cheaper meals, since they're not so value-added. It has everything to do with a return to simplicity in the way we eat and live.
As the name implies, food co-ops are also about developing organisational forms based around co-operation and sharing, rather than competition and profit. Food co-ops also discourage shoppers from adopting what Friends of the Earth refer to as the "supermarket manners of capitalism".
A further step is to begin to grow and produce some of the raw ingredients ourselves, as well as engaging in the more labour- intensive forms of food preparation, and sharing the food we've prepared with others. These are some of the ways in which we can begin to re-engage with our food, our bodies, the ways of nature, and the rhythms of the good life.