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Farts, tinned food and famines. Food. The vital stuff. Granta #54

On the previous post I reviewed two texts by J.M. Coetzee and Joan Smith who talk about vegetarianism and anthropophagy amongst other things.

This time I’ll make a different exercise and make a parallel analysis of Margaret Visser’s The sins of the Flesh, Laura Shapiro’s Do women like to cook and Amartya Sen’s Nobody need starve.

The starting point for Visser is that anthropology has taught us that most human groups have evolved to regard meat availability as a triumph of civilization.

frozen foodWars in general and WWII in particular had many deep impacts in food technology, especially for preserving and preparing food. In modern times when everything occurs at an increasingly faster pace, women as Shaphiro notes have had extra pressure to cook faster using these products, but “faster” doesn’t mean “better” and it has ended up translating in a decline of culinary expertise.

amartya sen

In the past centuries famines in the western world have been isolated and rare but in the developing world is a harsh and very real threat as Sen analyses. Curiously famines are never related to a lack of sources of animal-based foods but plant based foods, specifically grains and vegetables rich in carbohydrates. Famines are actually seldom related to a real shortage of supply, but directly related to the sudden lack of means to afford food.

Core ideas. For Shapiro food became so effectively sophisticated in its processed-preserved-pre-prepared form that became unrecognisable to the point of transubstantiation: Tinned food can easily be either breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert.

house wifeBut just as women are particularly pushed to excel the job market, succeed as mothers, be perfect wives and food providers… they’re often bullied if “they fail” at any, some or all of these rolls; in politics, victims of famines are also often blamed for “not knowing better” how to diversify their sources of food and putting themselves at risk…

Some even go further and have said horribly patronising things such as: “There’s scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato”. Meaning, whether empowered and urbanised or poor and deprived women end up being held responsible for agricultural and food policies that actually are in the hands of the government and trading businesses. Hardly fair!

Arguments in favour of securing a sustainable source of food are often polarised or worse: deviated from the core problems. Take vegetarianism, which is often rooted as Visser explains in either political or philosophical ideas, such as the Pythagoreans who didn’t oppose the act of eating meat itself but the cruelty involved to obtain it.


Mind you Pythagoreans didn’t eat beans either! they thought that flatulence was “clear evidence” of the malevolent spirits within the beans… please bear that in mind next time you exorcise a fart.

But let’s consider that food sustainability is not solved by increasing or decreasing the amount of consumed meat or vegetables. Discussions about “the perfect diet” may bring some actual benefits on our health (should we actually commit to them) but food production policies are the ones that will actually ensure humanity’s food supply.

On the other hand, the endless debate over the consequences of women massively joining the workforce and juggling domestic and professional life have brought endless pressure to be “the best at everything” including producing all or most meals for their families. The “overuse” of either ready or partially made food increased efficiency in the kitchen at the expense of a decline in practising and transmitting actual cooking skills and nutrition literacy as I previously stated. Hardly what one might expect from a sophisticated and successful civilization.

Food farming

And finally if famines are reasonably easy to prevent as Sen insists, it is crucial to start effectively avoiding cultural and social alienation in high risk communities. Secondly: diversifying income sources that don’t depend primarily on vulnerable crops will increase their capacity to adapt and cope with natural, political or economic factors. But let’s not forget that democratic, independent countries are less prone to fall victims of private interests which often use cruel practices of speculation with food prices.

In this GRANTA edition are many more texts, I do encourage you to read them all I particularly chose to discuss these for the depths and angles they provide.


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