Towards the Real
Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives Carolyn Steel Chatto and Windus, 2008, ISBN 9780701180379
IF YOU CROSSED my favourite architect, Christopher Alexander, with my favourite food writer, Michael Pollan, what would you get? You’d probably get someone very much like Carolyn Steel, whose ideas on food and architecture transcend the usual boundaries. And who, by making connections we never thought to make, invites us to view whole chunks of our history, our culture and our lives in a different way.
Herself an architect, she shares Alexander’s way of thinking less in terms of buildings than of the movements and peculiarities of people. Like Pollan, she is interested in the sociology and psychology of food as well as its provenance and flavour. She notices how it not only shapes us (and it’s currently making many of us obese) but shapes – and in turn is shaped by – our habits, our habitat, and our human society.
A Londoner born and bred, Steel has a special interest in cities. This is the first book to focus neither on cities nor on food but on the complex relationship between them. I found it fascinating. She has tapped right into the zeitgeist. Food was never as popular a subject in English-speaking countries as it is now. And as we know, if we have been keeping up to date with authors such as Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blythman who lay bare the workings of the global food industry, the food security of our cities has never been as precarious. Though supermarkets bulge with produce, “Contrary to appearances, we live as much on a knife edge now as did the inhabitants of ancient Rome or ancien régime Paris ... the efficiencies of modern distribution mean that we keep very little in reserve. Most of the food you and I will be eating next week hasn’t even arrived in the country yet.” So, when the oil runs out … ?
Much of this has been pointed out before. As has the obscene amount we eat, the even more obscene quantities we waste, and the tastelessness of supermarket produce. Or, as Steel succinctly puts it, “Beautiful peaches you can’t eat, wastebins full of things you could”.
We have agonised already about families who never eat together, children who shudder at the sight of soil sticking to a carrot, college-educated adults who think pineapples grow on trees, culinary de-skilling, and horticultural dumbing-down. We have forced ourselves to read the exposés of all the nasty things that happen between the birth of a calf and steak on a plate. But there are several things that I found different and wonderful about Steel’s book:
First, her deeply researched explanation of the way in which, for thousands of years, food has determined the placement of cities and towns and continues to affect their shape and structure. Second, the richness of her historical and sociological detail and the snippets of information that cling to the mind. Like: “We might assume that take-aways are a modern invention but five thousand years ago they lined the streets of Ur.”
What I enjoyed most of all were her glorious evocations of the cities of old, reminding us with a shock just how unbelievably sanitised, how removed from reality is the food that feeds us nowadays. When we speak of city life disconnecting people from Nature, we think of forests and woodpeckers. But Steel brings alive for us a London of communal bakehouses; one where animals were herded through the streets and kept in city basements. Those were the days when Nature in the form of our daily food, in all its muddy, untidy, moo-ing, baa-ing, crowing, squealing forms was undeniably – odorously – present in our urban midst.
Is it any wonder that when we travel we find ourselves instinctively drawn to the markets, those lively spaces where people jostle and throng, stallholders banter and fresh food of all kinds is piled high everywhere? Small wonder that farmers’ markets are proliferating again. We are hungry for them, in both senses of the word.
To me, the weakest link in Steel’s book is the section on solutions. Her specific prescriptions are neither new nor unique, though she does describe some novel ideas for growing food – even raising pigs – in downtown skyscrapers. And she makes scant reference to all the efforts being made by organisations like Sustain to re-green our cities and render them sustainable. But, like Pollan and like Alexander, she knows the general directions to point us in. Away from polystyrene and towards aliveness. Towards Nature – both around and within us. Towards reconnection with whatever we eat. Towards the small, the human-sized, the communal, the local. Towards the real.