Cooking Long Distance.

Last weekend, I was wracking my brain to think of something interesting for my Offspring to have for tea, which didn’t require a lot of work on my part and which used only the ingredients I had in the house. Aha, I thought after a while, I will make mini quiches!

But I didn’t want to use puff pastry, and I didn’t have any shortcrust in the freezer, so I needed to make the pastry myself. And although I have several (hundred?!) recipe books, I couldn’t decide which would be the best to use. So I rang my mum to ask which she used.

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It’s Not Really About Marius.

I’m not sure how widely this story spread, but last week, I read on the BBC website that Marius, a healthy 18-month-old male giraffe, was due to be killed via bolt gun at the Copenhagen Zoo.

Unsurprisingly, there was uproar On The Internet (and In The World, as well). Other zoos in different countries offered to take Marius. There was a petition signed by thousands, pleading with the zoo to spare Marius’ life. But the zoo refused, and last Sunday, Marius was killed, and in front of a crowd in which children were present, dissected, and parts of the body fed to lions.

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Poverty and Shame.

The Handsome Sidekick and I were doing some catch up shopping on our childfree day, and as we were talking about something else, I caught the tail-end of an announcement ‘… this bargain won’t last long, so head over to the Fresh Produce Department now.’  Bargain?  I thought.  Guess I’ll check it out!

It turned out they were doing their $3 bags. You get given a shopping bag — the regular grey recycled ones — and there are a few crates of fruit and vegetables on a large storeroom trolley.  Fill up the bag with as much as it can hold, with whatever you want from the crates, and all you’ll pay is $3.  It’s a win-win-win: the store gets rid of (and paid for) fresh produce which is past its best, the food gets used rather than thrown into landfill, and the customer gets a bargain.  And there are bargains to be had.  I ended up with a pear, eight slightly grubby potatoes, three kilograms of bananas, six lemons and a large head of lettuce.  The bananas alone would have cost me around $12 — and they’re overripe which makes them perfect for muffins, cakes and smoothies.

So if it’s win-win-win, why did I feel so scummy, while other shoppers stared at me as I rummaged through the crates to find what I wanted?  It’s not like I was the only customer taking advantage of this, but I did have the sensation that what I was doing was not a desirable thing to do.  Surely, I should be buying my fresh produce for full price?  Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?  If you get it cheap, it means you’re cheap.  Or poor.  Either way, it’s not good.

I turned this around in my mind for most of the day.  I mean, don’t get me wrong: I was very pleased with my food!  And I felt as if I’d done a good thing for our budget and for the planet.  But I did wonder about this general idea of asking for discounts, of getting things cheaper, of using second-hand or second-best.  Most of the furniture we own was new for someone else before we got it.  As was our car, as were our clothes, as was our house.

Sitting down with the Handsome Sidekick that evening, I asked, ‘Why is it shameful, to be poor?’

We talked about where this came from — is it a remnant of a more class-based society (not that we’re so classless now, despite what people might like to believe!), or it is it more due to the consumerist culture in which we find ourselves?  Why is it so embarrassing to admit that you can’t afford something?

Several years ago, I was working at a call centre.  Leaving aside the fact that it was a depressing, soul-destroying job (the people I worked with were lovely, just the job was shocking; I’m sure others can relate!), we were paid a pretty modest wage, and to add insult to injury, we were paid monthly.  You should know that in Australia, most jobs pay fortnightly, and so most people pay their rent or mortgages fortnightly, too.  This usually works out fine, of course.  When you get paid monthly, and just put aside two rent payments out of the paycheck.  But you know how some months have five weeks?  Well, sometimes the rent falls three times within that five weeks.  And that… is quite hard to budget for, especially when you’re a single-income household.

So it was payday, at this job, and I just did not have enough money to get to work.  From memory, I had about five dollars.  I desperately needed the pay to have gone through by the Friday morning, but it wasn’t there, and I couldn’t afford to put fuel in the car.  So I rang work, and told them that I was going to be late.  My car had broken down, I said, and I was going to catch the bus.  Which I did, and I got to work late, and was able to work back an hour and get a lift home with a colleague.

Why didn’t I tell them that we’d had three rent payments that month?  Why was it so shameful that I couldn’t afford to get to work?

Last year’s US election campaign raised some similar issues about poverty and shame — and about what people deserve.  There is a tendency to blame people for their poverty, to demonise them.  The area where we live has a high unemployment rate, and high poverty rate* and I know, when I tell people where I live, that they’re already deciding what kind of person I am.  It’s as if there is some unwritten rule, that people must be poor by their own design.  Surely, if you were more resourceful, you’d have a (better-paid) job?  It’s probably that you just can’t manage your money.  You must like welfare-dependency.  You should just stop smoking/drinking/taking drugs/eating junk food — that’s probably where all your money goes.

It’s these kinds of unspoken assumptions which perpetuate this idea of poverty being shameful.  Since moving from a very affluent area (where people made a whole different set of assumptions about what kind of person I was), I’m a lot more aware about the different aspects of relative poverty which some of us experience in this country.  This has come from both observing others in my community, and from personal experience.  There are so many reasons why people struggle to make ends meet — from family responsibilities, to unexpected and chronic illness, to debts building up and out of control.  And on top of that, there is the shame that you sometimes need to admit that you can’t afford something.  Yet there’s really no shame in that, when you think about it.  Everyone has a budget, and some are larger than others, but we all have to prioritise our expenditure.  It’s hard enough, being poor.  Being ashamed of it just makes it harder.

If only we could remove the stigma from being ‘poor’, and realise that in this developed nation, where we have a comprehensive welfare, education and health system, and where the weather (at least in this part of the country) is generally warm and friendly, that we are, in fact, very, very wealthy!  What does it matter if you buy something new or second-hand?  What does it matter if you buy it at all, as long as you have sufficient to see you through?  

I once read a quotation: ‘There is no shame in being poor, only in acting poorly’, and it has buoyed me up on several occasions where money has been somewhat scarce and we’ve had to really pool all our resources as a family to get through.  My children are well aware that we’re not rich, but I refuse to have them think they’re poor.  If anything, I want them to realise that even if money makes the world go round, it’s a pretty empty world if that’s all you have, and that are plenty of things to be ashamed about, but being poor is not one of them.  What’s more, wherever this notion comes from — whether it’s based on class or capitalism or is simply a way for some people to try and put others down so they can try and justify their own lives — it’s a label other people are using.  I have a clear conscience that I am doing the best I can with the financial resources we have.  I wonder if everyone who looks down on buying the seconds from the fresh produce section can say the same?


*I’m talking, of course, about poverty by Western standards.  I can guess that many of these households have potable water on tap, and most basic needs.  That is not to say all of them do, or that life is a breeze when you’re living on welfare.  But it is quite different to being poor in other parts of the world.

Horses for courses.

The recent furore over the discovery of horsemeat in food labelled ‘beef’ in Europe has obviously highlighted several issues with the modern foodchain, from how we treat animals we’re going to eat, to where we source those animals, to what other unknown substances might be present in these kinds of meals.  It’s fair to say that there have been some smug vegetarians around the place lately.

A predictable outcome of this is a call for people to eat more whole foods and to source those foods locally.  Buying burgers from a fast food chain, or frozen ready-meals from a supermarket means we’re removing ourselves from our link to the food itself.  When you have the opportunity to buy directly from the supplier, you can discuss with him or her what you want the meat for, and give feedback on the quality the next time you visit.  Sure, if you buy a frozen meal and it’s not up to standard, you can talk to the manager of the store and you might receive your money back, and an apology.  But it’s unlikely to set real change in motion, especially if the person of the person who’s slaughtering the meat (or preparing the vegetables, for that matter) is several thousand kilometres away.  So it does make sense to try and buy food from the people who grow it, or at least to try and close the gap as much as possible between producer and consumer.  

Therefore, it’s argued, in an ideal world, people would grow their own food, or barter goods or services with others to get what  they needed.  Having purchased or harvested their food, people would then cook it themselves or together with others, and share it with families or friends.  Or eat alone, if that’s what they chose.  

The trouble is, even such a simple scenario relies on several elements.  Obviously access to local food is the most apparent, and this is perhaps where most of the focus is placed — if everyone were able to source locally grown food, then something like the horsemeat scandal wouldn’t have occurred.  In fact, this kind of accessibility would solve many problems.

However, it’s not just whether the food is available.  There are several other issues.  Can the consumer travel to get the food?  How expensive is it?  Does the consumer have the ability to store the food until it’s ready to prepare and eat?  And perhaps most importantly, does the consumer have the skills and the time and the energy to cook a meal from that produce?  It is all too easy to assume that, given the ingredients, people will be able to cook a meal from scratch.  And for all the other variables which prevent people from achieving the ideal scenario — a meal cooked from scratch with locally sourced ingredients — I believe it is the lack of knowledge which is the greatest problem, because it is the one which is most often overlooked.  

Overwhelmingly, food is becoming more expensive.  It’s cheaper in some places than in others, but for most of us, it costs more than it used to, and people on a fixed income must find ways to split their finite financial resources more ways than in the past.  How then, to ensure that the population stays healthy and that the produce available to them is sustainably produced?  How to ensure that the people growing and manufacturing our food are fairly paid, fairly treated, and that our food is what we think it is?

We can attempt to make food more affordable, yet this often results in farmers being paid even less than their current moderate wage.  Indeed, there is currently an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to find out if our two major supermarkets are using underhand and/or illegal tactics in their dealings with suppliers.   Meanwhile, both supermarket chains are promoting themselves as affordable and saving money for families. We need to ask ourselves where we sit in this foodchain — we call for cheaper food, but we also want it to be organic, fair trade, free range.  Are we part of the problem, as well?  

I wonder if we need a new approach to food in general.  It really is crazy that we should be eating food which is manufactured thousands of kilometres away, in another country.  This model is both nonsensical and unsustainable; however, any alternative probably involves some lifestyle changes that many would be unwilling, or in some cases, unable to make.  

Ready-meals fill a gap in the market.  They are there for people who are not able to cook a meal from raw ingredients, either because they can’t, or they choose not to, or they don’t have the time or knowledge to do so.  In some circles, there is judgement about this — and I’ll confess that I’ve been a food snob in the past (and probably still am, to some degree).  Then, when my youngest child was a week old, I fell and injured my wrist, and ended up in plaster up to my elbow.  Everything was difficult; everything required a re-think.  Especially cooking.  Ready meals became my friend, and all at once, I cursed my former dismissal of pre-prepared food.  Still, I felt as if I were eating second-rate food, and wished there were a way around it.  

In stepped my family and friends.  We lived off soup and lasagne for a week, courtesy of my sister.  Another friend dropped over with a homemade salad and fresh bread.  Our community really came through for us.  We needed help — and food — and they were there without us even having to ask.  

And that’s perhaps what’s missing.  That attractively photographed meal (and let’s face it, the food inside the box never seems to look like the picture on the outside!) fills a hole; it stops us from going hungry.  But it’s not the same as a home-cooked meal.  When we eat packet, ready-made food, we’re removing ourselves from the reality of food preparation, and when we rely on them for sustenance, we lose touch with what it is to be a human animal.  There are those who don’t have the ability to prepare their own meals, and it should be a priority that they don’t have to rely on second-rate food.  There are those who don’t have the time or the knowledge, and I believe that is a small tragedy in itself, too.  Because while I definitely understand the meaning of time poverty, I also cherish the value of keeping alive the knowledge of how to create something whole out of so many parts.  

Community, skills, knowledge.  It is all part of the same complex mix.  Buying pre-prepared food is a choice people are able to make, and we certainly need to ensure that there are enforced regulations to prevent contamination in the food we buy.  But we also need to ask ourselves what is important to us, what kinds of foods we want to eat, and to realise that if we’re leaving the preparation and cooking of our food up to someone else, then we’re not going to necessarily know — or like — what they’re putting in it.