Jeanette Winterson’s trapping and cooking of a rabbit has led the author into a heated dispute. Posting an image of the skinned animal on her kitchen counter with the comment “Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit” caused such a furore that she was invited on to BBC Radio 4’s World at One to defend her position. “I’ve had at least 100 tweets a minute since Sunday, I’m deluged with it”, she said.
As Winterson observes of those who have branded her “sick”, the problem seems not to be that she has prepared an animal for the pot, but that she undertook all the stages (capture, slaughter, preparation, cooking) herself. What’s remarkable about this is that the act concerned was once – and not all that long ago – utterly unremarkable.
The way we think about food appears to have completely changed. The plethora of glossy television programmes about cooking elide a key fact: that the regular practice of household cookery, let alone hunter-gathering, continues to decline. (Joanna Blythman’s book Bad Food Britain offers a useful summary of this national malaise.)
There’s an irony here that’s hard to miss. On one hand, food has never been so prominent. It occupies many hours of screen time, including specialist channels, is a burgeoning subject of both academic enquiry and high-end lifestyle publishing, is a frequent topic of media health debates, and is represented by an ever-proliferating variety of information on packages and labels.
On the other hand, consumers are increasingly less likely to buy and prepare primary foodstuffs. Rather, our spending tends to be on products to which the “value” has already been added: ready-meals, sandwiches, meal-deals, “solutions”. Of course, a great deal of effort has been and continues to be expended to ensure this pattern is established. Even taking into account our swelling waistlines, there is a limit to how much we can eat. This makes food a radically different economic proposition than many of the other goods and services we buy.
Clothes, entertainment, technology products and property are all routinely purchased in amounts that exceed our capacity to use them. As must-haves, new season’s, latest versions, or investments, they either displace or accumulate alongside their predecessors and generate a fresh profit for those involved in their production and sale. In short, we have more stuff than we’ll ever need and are routinely persuaded to buy more.
Food resists this process. Shortages can increase prices, but, for the Western world at least, over-supply is the norm. So the trick to making real money out of food is to lengthen the route and complicate the stages between farm and consumer.
The Orwellian double-speak of supermarkets and food conglomerates endeavours to convince us that the reverse is true. Advertisements and packaging present us with idealised fields, emphatically non-industrial farms, and selected farmers. In practice, the real profits to be made out of food are achieved by taking the work that might have been conducted in millions of domestic kitchens, supplanting it with factory-scale operations, and charging consumers a premium.
To observe this is not to idealise an earlier era that, as with other forms of labour, certainly involved an element of drudgery, and it’s certainly not to argue for this as gendered work. But it is notable that, alongside the expansion in sales of prepared foods, labour-saving kitchen devices continue to be invented and sold. This clearly speaks not just to a consumerist desire to own more gadgets, but also to a fantasy of actually doing more real cooking.
The most problematic aspect of the steady diminution of household cooking is that its impact is disproportionately felt by the poorest in society. On the face of it, the opportunity to reject prepared foods and adopt an approach based on the transformation of inexpensive raw materials into decent meals at a family level, should be liberating.
But this assumes freedom of choice. In practice, our culinary skills base has been steadily attenuated, poor neighbourhoods are disproportionately over-served by fast-food outlets (as they are by betting shops), and in many places the knowledge and memory of family food is passing out of reach. Winterson’s conversion of her problematic rabbit into an enjoyable dish is precisely an example of a once common, now largely vanished, culinary competence. And, of course, it is now mostly vested in the “haves” of British society – those for who the exercise of these abilities is a pleasure, not a necessity.