It’s not that I want to sound off about industry and industrialization: far be it from me to demonize something that has undoubtedly brought development and affluence. But if we talk about food there are some things that must be said. I am in India. It is a country enjoying age-old food traditions and blessed with a most incredible array of raw materials and production methods. Yet in the chaos of Delhi I have seen the depths to which industrial food products can fall. Products, whether from abroad or locally produced, are of appalling quality. They are often already past their expiration date when sold and there is no respect for the food itself. What is for sale is rather the idea of something “modern”, a brand name, that no longer has anything to do with the food qualities of something you eat.
This awful degeneration — which Europe fortunately no longer experiences thanks to food safety regulations and much stricter enforcement — is just the worst outcome of a process occurring throughout the world, both in rich as well as poor countries. As we have grown accustomed to getting our food from industry, we have completely severed the umbilical cord connecting us to gastronomic history and knowledge of food. The industrial approach, whether in agricultural production or food processing, has inexorably distanced us from reality, causing us to forget what food is really like. We get it in colored packaging, promoted by advertising that conjures up images of everything except what is contained in the box. Nobody knows anything about raw materials, origins or how the product has been processed to become what we buy at the supermarket and put on our plates. Traditions are jumbled up with marketing, new inventions attempt to recreate the past and eliminate inconvenience and hassle.
It might not be such a problem if it didn’t mean losing respect for raw materials and taste. Most people are not bothered because they do not know: the levels of ignorance about food have got to the point where it is no longer automatic for things to be passed down to younger generations. At one time it was automatic for children to be shown how to cook, where to pick fruit, how to raise animals: this knowledge was essential for survival. But now that affluence has taken over, there are just a few small farmers left to practice farming and the food industry. We have placed knowledge of food in their hands and are no longer bothered about anything. Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, we can see what a colossal mistake it is to make a distinction between food as subsistence and gastronomy as pleasure. It is not true: food is food, any product can be good or not, whether it is simple or complex, artisanal or industrial.
Gastronomy is food culture in the widest possible sense. “Gastronomes eat well because they have the money to buy top class food, niche products. A person buying food every day on 1,200 euros a month certainly can’t afford to eat like a gastronome!” How many times have I heard people say that. Well, my response is that everyone can be a gastronome because gastronomes eat well within the context of their food culture, increasing their knowledge at all levels and learning how to shop. It certainly isn’t necessary to pay the earth and have foie gras and Dom Perignon every day!
A gastronome searches out the best meat, the best bread, the best oil, knowing what he or she is buying, where it comes from and what processing it has undergone. A gastronome respects the product and the producer, and is prepared to pay a fair price. Good producers deserves a decent return for the pleasure they provide and a gastronome also knows that making good products involves effort. But you don’t have to ruin yourself, believe me. If anything, we need to go back to considering food as something precious, recognize its proper value, understand what is involved in terms of the environmental, social and cultural costs.
And it is something we should all do, from the small farmer to the industrialist, the housewife and the gourmet.
First printed in La Stampa on October 4 2004
Adapted by Ronnie Richards