It's only May, but it's feeling like a tough year on the allotment already. We made a great start, and took advantage of the mild winter by getting everything cleared and the soil prepared in good time, so that it was all ready for planting and sowing come March. But March and April were so cold and windy and forbidding – and so busy for us in other ways – that we somehow still got behind with things. Now, we're just about back on track – at least we would be, but the slugs are eating everything in sight, and the warm spell we had in early May means the weeds are the healthiest thing on the plot once again. And I seem to be having trouble germinating any squashes, which is unheard of and really frustrating.
In the garden, however, I can really keep an eye on things, and the fact I'm going to be hosting one of Transition St Albans' Open Food Gardens later in the summer has provided extra motivation to make it great this year. In the garden I can do a quick two minutes' weeding here and there as soon as I see the need, and I can go out at night and pick the slugs off things. The garden brings me pleasure every day; every time I look out the window.
Yet there's one thing that's really bothering me in the garden. My March-sown spinach plants are bolting and I haven't picked a single leaf yet. My gorgeous stand of rare perennial kales has been virtually untouched all spring. My radishes are going woody. I'm somehow far more efficient in the garden than I am in the kitchen, and gorgeous organic homegrown produce actually goes to waste. Can you believe it? I'm ashamed to admit it. And it's strange because I used to have a great, great passion for cooking, and love to spend hours in the kitchen cooking up complex dishes with virtually any ingredients.
Since I quit my nice safe (frustrating, oppressive) full-time job five years ago, I feel like everything about me has changed. I see the world differently now I've learned different things about it. Some old hobbies and passions have been replaced with new ones – others are just... gone. I've struggled to fill my time, and then I've overfilled it. I don't think I have time, anymore, for a passion for cooking.
I had a bit of a revelation watching Rick Stein's Long Weekend in Bologna on TV last night. It painted a picture of a culture which still makes real, handmade food the absolute centre of their lives; where everyone spoke of the wonderful local produce, and all those involved in making food were real craftspeople. TV is always selective in what it depicts, of course, and I do wonder how true a picture it was of the place, but clearly it was different from the food culture that I know. Towards the end of the program, Rick asked food blogger Enrica Lazzarini what she thought was so 'particular' about the cuisine of Bologna. "The love of cooking and the love of food is in our DNA," she said. "We grow up looking at our granny and mother cook from the very beginning of the day, all day long". And I thought yes, that's what it takes. Growing and harvesting and preserving and cooking and feeding and clearing up and storing and composting... It's an endless cycle. It's not the first time I've thought this, but it was certainly a timely reminder. You've got to be dedicated. You've got to give time. "It's your identity," she finished. "Without food, who are you? No-one."
You probably already know that I believe fixing our food systems could fix or improve a great many of the world's problems, and that food is and must be a central focus of our lives. Yes, our identity.
So is it a worthwhile compromise that for man to occupy himself with more advanced things he must sacrifice his health and the world's by forgetting where his food comes from? Do any of the 'more advanced things' really matter anyway? Advancement is eating the world. Industrialism consumes itself. Automation removes the need for people. Innovation consumes the innovation of the generation earlier. 'Advanced' modern factory farms are poisoning us and 'advanced' modern crops need more chemical application than ever. What is the great goal? Wealth, of course, but for what? Convenience? Luxury? The freedom to sit back and get fat and sick? The freedom to enjoy leisure activities in diminishing open spaces and polluted air? The freedom to produce art about how dreadful everything is?
I'm not about to quit everything and become a full-time home-farmer and housewife – I couldn't possibly – but in the quest to fix my own food systems I need to make time for cooking again and try to get that passion back.
There are people that think I should be doing something 'better' with my time and energy; something more 'intelligent' or 'noble' or 'advanced' or even 'useful'. To me there's nothing more noble, useful or intelligent than feeding those around me real food that is produced in harmony with the natural world; I'm already growing food for us and for the community but I just need to get that spark back in the kitchen. And 'advanced' can go screw itself.