Sunday, April 18, 2010

Food, glorious food

Sunday morning. I’m writing between bites of toast and jam. I could choose to eat a whole loaf of bread if I wanted and no one would suffer as a result. The fridge is full of eggs, cheese, butter, milk and the freezer half-full of meat. There are five cans of Stella Artois Belgian beer in the downstairs fridge (I drank one watching TV last night, I could have had up to 6 if I’d wanted to).

Food surplus. Store shelves brimming with cheap food. A surplus that can be fully accessed by anyone for about one-tenth of an average North American or European income.

In A history of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage traces the development of the beverages we have come to take for granted. Beer, for instance, was the first ubiquitous drink after water and likely developed as a result of the storing of grain and the subsequent accidents occurring when moisture caused the grain to ferment. The book goes on to trace the history of wine, spirits, tea, coffee and Coca-Cola. It’s a fascinating read.

Standage attributes the rise of Western civilization (a word that in its original forms meant “citifying”) to food surpluses. As I understand this viewpoint, cultures in which every able-bodied person was obliged to struggle with the task of growing or finding meagre sustenance were not only malnourished in many cases (with the concomitant effects on brain function, I suppose) but hadn’t the option of pursuing knowledge, invention, art, music, etc. They simply didn’t have the time. Surplus food results in surplus time and energy. Some of that time can be spent foraging in the world of ideas, scientific exploration, world travel or (as I did for a few hours last night, to my horror) staring at a technology that lets me watch other people play a game. It can also be spent gambling, dissipating, sleeping, reading, building and improving, philandering, doing art, whatever.

Agnes is reading Karen Connelly’s Burmese Lessons, a documentary on life in Burma/Myanmar. She asked a rhetorical question over dinner yesterday (as we were enjoying barbequed steak, baked potato and a salad) about why some people have so much (we) and others have been dealt virtually nothing (Burmese poor). The only response I could think of was to bring up Standage’s “food surplus” theorizing.

I teach ESL to two Karen refugees once a week. We have a great time. One of them was an elephant handler back in Burma until conflict drove many of the dissident Karen people to refugee camps in Thailand, and fate happily dealt two families an opportunity to come to Rosthern two years ago. They are learning, among other things, how one lives in a culture that enjoys surplus food. The elephant handler has a job in a pet food factory just out of town. The other gentleman works at picking up recyclables and garbage (surplus and redundant materials) on the streets of town.

Some random Sunday morning musings. There have to be millions more words on the subjects of civilization, food, privilege, etc., I invite you to write them down and share them. I’m going up to get a second cup of coffee, maybe another piece of toast, although I’ve been putting on a few pounds lately.


  1. Wondering about this part: "cultures in which every able-bodied person was obliged to struggle with the task of..." sustenance were malnourished and had no time for cultural pursuits.
    I know this is often put forward as common wisdom, but I've also read that hunter-gatherer societies had more leisure than agriculturalists, and were not necessarily malnourished. How does Standage rate on social analysis? Urban centres require some way for food to be concentrated, but even our cherished "free" market system frequently employs coercion in parts to generate our abundance.
    Standage's book sounds like an interesting approach to food history, but I want to know if he's done his homework, and if his 'politics of food' is sound. I think Agnes has the pertinent question...

  2. Tim;
    Thanks for your comments. Standage is a journalist/author and I'm an English teacher by profession, so I guess you may know more about food politics than either of us. I found his chapters on Tea particularly interesting because its economic impact ran parallel to the period of Britain's colonial prominence. You'll have to read Standage to know if his social analysis is well informed, I guess.