Menus at the moment seem at risk of superfluous adjectives. For some, the irritation is caused by words such as “drizzled” or “zesty”. For me, however, it is the use of the words “organic” or “locally sourced”. They don’t inherently add to the flavours of a dish, and therefore don’t deserve to be on the menu. It’s as if the restaurant, café or pub feels this adjective is justification enough for their food, and that because of it we should eat in their establishment. A dish can be as virtuously sourced as it likes, but for me if it’s not tasty, it’s no good and you can’t tell that until it arrives at your table.
This is not to deny the benefits of such methods of production. I do understand the standards of organic production: in summary, that they encourage (arguably) a more environmentally aware approach to agriculture, aim to reduce the impact of food production upon the locality and require high standards of animal husbandry. The problem for me is that I have a very taste-centric approach to food in general. When I read restaurant reviews on toptable.com, for example, the only rating that interests me is that of the food whilst the ambiance or toilets make little difference. On my last nights in cities while on holiday this summer my budget blow-out was on some amazing restaurants. That I was wearing slightly below-par dining attire for the locations didn’t bother me; I was there for the taste of the food and nothing else. If the staff cared more about the appearance of their customers than the appreciation of their food, I’d prefer not to eat there. I’ve been told that this makes me a pretty bad dining companion as conversation gets little of my attention.
I therefore find it difficult to relate to the most common answers I get when I ask people why they buy organic food: “it’s better for me”. Quite vague, and hinting at the sort of theories some scientific studies have upheld and others have rejected. If you pushed the answerer further, you might reach “it’s more nutritious” or “it’s healthier”. I might point out at this juncture that these studies on the subject of organic agriculture producing more nutritious food is less than categorical. The “healthier” answer, too, often seems to me to be based upon a feeling that the less pesticide that goes into your body, the better. This is obviously a perfectly reasonable supposition, but personally I’d like to think that all of the food available in supermarkets, shops or on market stalls is safe for me to eat. I also think it’s better to decide upon the healthiness of food more directly – from its levels of saturated fat, sugar, carbohydrate.
If the answer was “it tastes better”, I couldn’t really object. This is not just because taste is a subjective matter, and thus I can hardly say that anyone is incorrect in this assessment (although misguided maybe) but also because I am increasingly coming to a new conclusion about the food I eat: that it should, first and foremost, taste good. It seems like a pretty obvious revelation but when you start to consider all the things we’re supposed to think about when buying food – sustainable farming, supermarket ethics, support for local businesses, the amount of packaging, food miles, salt levels, number of calories, saturated fat – it’s easy to understand how the pursuit of tasty food has been buried.
For me, it all started to become clear when considering the occupation of professional chefs and the restaurant industry. I’d like to think that their training meant that if you put the same ingredients and recipe in front of me and one of them, they would produce an infinitely better meal. If so, I would be happy to pay for their food in a restaurant. If, however, I end up paying for a meal that is comparable to any home cooking I’ve experienced, I think it’s understandable to feel slightly cheated. In essence, my appreciation of restaurant food is now based first and foremost upon its taste and thus skill of its preparation. Other concerns about the history of the ingredients are very much secondary.
The same general rule applies to food I cook myself. I must admit I am often unable to taste any difference between two of the same ingredients when one is organic and the other is not. This means that when I’m buying food, my choice of product is based upon criteria based upon its taste – freshness, fridge-life and seasonality. When it comes to animal products such as eggs, cheese and meat, these are joined by quality of production. It therefore means that while organic items of food may end up on my shopping bill, they’re present for reasons other than this qualification. One specific area in which I find the title of organic particularly irrelevant is on the packaging of processed foods. When it comes to cereals, snacks, confectionery, knowing what someone else is putting into your body seems more significant than whether the products are organic or not. In fact, there are some foul-tasting and very unhealthy organic products out there.
Obviously, it is important to think about factors other than taste when buying food and having an awareness of these considerations makes you a better-informed shopper. It’s fairly clear that being healthy is better than being unhealthy and understanding food nutrition and labelling allows you to make more informed decisions in this area. But it also teaches you that anything, however unhealthy, provided it is eaten in moderation, is OK. It’s also preferable to be concerned about the world you live in, rather than taking everything for granted, but it also teaches you that buying fair-trade bananas supports the lives of far-off farmers while burning fossil fuels at the same time. It’s an age-old conscience-wrestling match. Above all though, I cook and eat food out of pure enjoyment and I therefore don’t see why this shouldn’t be my guide through these difficult waters.
When I try to advocate sourcing food locally, however, it may seem like I’m undermining myself. Let me start by laying out my case. Seasonally produced local food, in my opinion, just tastes better. Subjective in some instances perhaps, but when it comes to British sunshine-ripened tomatoes and strawberries I really feel there is no room for opposition. The problem comes when I realise I’m buying local food in order to reduce my environmental guilt. It’s the same for food packaging, as I make an attempt to buy food which isn’t wrapped in too much plastic. Why should I choose these particular food issues to stand by so strongly?
It’s because in certain areas, the link between my actions and their consequences is more obvious to me. My understanding of the detrimental effect of burning fossil fuels through airfreight is greater than my understanding of the impact of chemicals upon agricultural land. I therefore feel compelled to refrain from buying imported food more than I feel compelled buy organic produce. Seeing the amount of rubbish and recycling that I generate is the most immediate consequence of my consumption and I therefore find it harder to ignore. But there are always ways to improve. In fact, it seems increasingly clear to me that my pic’n’mix approach to food morality is entirely a reflection of my interests – the emphasis on taste above all due to my obsession with food and the emphasis on locality and low levels of packaging due to my latent environmentalism. This all adds up, it seems, to a rather inconsistent take on the matter. But is that really so bad? Everyone has things that they care about more than others. The important thing is to care about something.