Regaining consciousness and creativity as a mindset for positive change.
Part 1: On Consciousness
I’m neither a foodie, nor a stand-out cook. Nor do I particularly want to be either of those things. I simply want to eat healthily and with variety that adds colour to our every day, while minimising, as much as humanly possible, the harm I do in the process.
These days, when I shop, the phrases ‘quick and convenient’; ‘grab and go’, and ‘save time in the kitchen’ are ubiquitous. No doubt crafted as a catch-all response to the widely-felt stress and pace of today’s hectic lifestyles, these phrases are constantly impressing on me that I don’t really have time to cook: cooking is slow, and inconvenient - it wastes my time, and the kitchen is not where I really want to be. Invariably delivered with a helpful tone, these stores communicate to me that they hold all the solutions I need to my perceived problems. Solutions, I might add, that are so easily productised, and sold.
But it’s becoming devastatingly clearer by the day that we should no longer be quite so ready to remove ourselves from the decision-making process, and sleepwalk straight to the ready meals and wraps.
Dubious ingredients, questionable sources, murky production practices, our worsening wellbeing, the lack of consideration for other living creatures and the environment - when we buy into the cult of convenience, how much does it truly cost?
The Corporate/Consumer Disconnect
When Marks & Spencer's ‘Cauliflower Steaks’ were launched in early 2018, I felt it marked a major milestone in how everyday people can be perceived by the larger corporations.
Marks & Spencer, a British multinational retailer selling clothing, homeware and high quality food products for over a hundred and thirty years, presented us with a product comprising two slices of cauliflower, a lemon and herb drizzle, in plastic wrap, on a black plastic tray, as yet another ‘quick and convenient’ solution to our busy lives.
The idea for this particular product had stemmed from the very sudden increase in vegetarianism and veganism - a heartfelt and widespread human awakening to environmental destruction through overproduction and overconsumption - which had spurred M&S to lend this hopeful emerging audience a helping hand. And how could they best help? By developing yet more products for us to consume.
Now, Marks & Spencer is an old and beloved British institution, and with our memories of its quality and comfort stretching all the way through our forebears, we’ll forgive it many things. But this one was a tough one. Food waste, pointless plastic, the £2.50 price tag for a small portion of an otherwise entire loose vegetable, widely available for less than £1. Slices of cauliflower, as an alternative to meat. Given the current critical conversations on nutrition and environment, in my opinion, M&S had lost its way.
Thankfully, on this occasion, we woke up. Following immediate online criticism, and even mockery, the poorly-thought-out product was pulled by a rather sheepish M&S. A mistake, that’s all. They thought we’d like it. They’d do better.
And that was… fine. Out-of-touch innovation department aside, there’ll always be a special place in our hearts for Marks & Spencer. But then again, rival supermarket Sainsbury’s already had - and still have - something very similar on their shelves. And I heard whispers of another supermarket of comparable standing, too, but they may have thought better of it in time.
And I started to think, is it us? Have we become so helpless that we need this level of life support from a supermarket chain; have we become that dependent on external influences rather than ourselves? After all, we can slice a cauliflower, can’t we? We can squeeze a lemon, snip some herbs, add some oil, give them a stir, no? Or have we set ourselves up for this entirely?
Well, we’re not blameless, that’s for sure. Great swathes of us seem to have set cookery aside in favour of convenience and time-saving. We’re tired, we’re stressed, we want to relax, get some quiet time, spend time with our family or friends. Some of us have never even learned to cook; barely understand ingredients or nourishment. Cooking is a chore and a bore. And any fresh produce we may have got around to buying, with the best of intentions, rots at the bottom of the fridge, while we give in to the last-minute ‘grab and go’. Easy to do, when there are so many more tempting and easy options neatly laid out for us in great abundance on the supermarket shelves.
And so, with this exhausted passivity, in the name of stress and shortness of time, we enter an infinity loop of utter dependence on a largely profits-led industry to feed and nourish us. Where the more time-saving products we buy, the more the supermarkets merrily develop, so the more we buy, and so on, until we have a kitchen piled up with plastic containers, a top-line repertoire of three recipes, children who think fish fingers are made of chicken, and no orangutans left in the wild.
It’s no shocker to state that it’s long beyond time corporates realised: we’re all citizens of this same beautiful planet that we each have a responsibility to protect, and the era of profit before purpose has ended. In fact, my great hope is that there are increasingly like-minded people stuck in the flawed system, but who are perfectly-positioned to fix things from the inside out.
Because what if we could reach a place where corporates no longer seemed to look at people as an opportunity to profit at any cost, and people didn’t give corporates quite so much of their power to do so? What if we looked up and out together at the world, and fixed it, and ourselves?
A fundamental shift
Supermarket people, brands, I get it. Recipe development and new concepts are exciting. Presenting sparkly products to great accolades from the media and trends reporters is, also, exciting. No doubt one of the more shiny, enviable roles in any corporation.
But out beyond the accolades, the planet’s dying. And creativity is a life skill - we can’t contract it out. Our chaotic lives and hyper-connectivity risk the creative and practical skills we have to address our issues lying latent and lessening by the day. Instead I feel it would serve us better to encourage us to question our busy-ness and help us go back to basics in pursuit of improved societal and environmental wellbeing. For industry to focus on fewer, better products, straightforward ingredients, and making space for us to see the benefit of reconnecting with ourselves and our imaginations, and recapturing all the joy and curiosity that comes from creative process.
Start using your vast resources to focus on innovation that solves bigger problems - the purposeful product development, the ethical supply chains, the reduced packaging and the fair pay structures that are needed to support positive change across society and our living world. Let the output that inspires us, and wins our loyalty in return, be your unrivalled efforts to solve real problems for us all. With fewer choices, we’ll be forced to fill the void ourselves and be the better for it.
And if you think that isn’t what we want to see? Look up. You only need to have witnessed the incredible response to Iceland Foods Christmas 2018 campaign to feel confident about making bold moves.
Breaking with tradition in the bravest way possible, Iceland partnered with Greenpeace to release a surprisingly un-festive advert conveying the destruction of orangutans and their habitats, and illustrating the best Christmas present we could give and receive - a palm-oil free future.
The advert was banned from broadcast because of its political nature, a ban immediately questioned and met with a consumer-driven petition to reverse, and supported by widespread social sharing and media coverage. Barely anyone recalled any other supermarkets existed, and what a strange feeling it must have been to release any rival Christmas adverts at that time, so shallow they must have suddenly seemed.
Consumer culture is fundamentally shifting. We need to work as one. Yes, prices will go up, and profits will go down, but when they do, at least we’ll all have reclaimed our imaginations, realigned our values, and reconnected with the world. And with better transparency and decision-making in our hands as well, we’ll be empowered and equipped to work kitchen magic within our means.
Part 2: On Creativity
The more we make, the less we’ll take.
Cookery is a creative process, no different to art, music or craft. And creative process is good for the soul, and for the brain. When we contract out our creativity, we short-change ourselves of one of life’s free and, ironically, stress-relieving, routes to a richer life experience. Then we wonder why we feel unfulfilled and overwrought.
So how does considering cookery as a creative process add to our lives? Because it opens us up to so much more than just the food itself.
Last night I cooked from scratch. I do this more and more; I didn’t always. Not long ago I was just as susceptible as anyone else to the ready-meal aisle, the rows upon rows of delicious-sounding dishes that bring four corners of the world to my somewhat rainy, greyish one - carbonara, moussaka, katsu, piri piri.
But following several creative projects where the required research uncovered some upsetting insights about what’s on the shelves, my shopping trips quickly included only the ready-meal aisle in the ‘good’ supermarkets, then eventually, no ready-meal aisles at all. I’d make my own, and freeze them.
Like many of us, I have a way to go. What I’ve chosen to omit, I have to find a way to replace. But I happen to come from a sort of strange time when some powerful people somewhere thought it would be an interesting new experiment to leave cookery out of our school curriculum, resulting in a number of ‘proper grown-ups’ like me having little or no practical knowledge of how to eat or cook or look after our bodies or why it’s important or how it’s all connected, and only becoming aware of it when they feel a bit under par in themselves or what they see in the world, often a little later in life.
But I am where I am. So I start here.
I recently bought a new vegetarian cookbook, and at the end of a long day, I took a little time out to pore through the recipes, and mark out the ones that spoke to me first. A vegetable korma caught my eye, an easy start, so I wrote a list of the ingredients I needed, noted down the ones I had, and the ones I could swap out with alternatives from the cupboard or fresh ones needing used up. Cranking up my cogs with a little unexpected critical thinking, it turned out I had everything I needed to make a good korma; no need to buy more. No waste, no over-consumption - nice work so far.
As I prepped the vegetables, the rhythmic peeling, chopping and dicing were a perfectly mundane backdrop to the catch-up documentary I’d been meaning to watch but hadn’t quite found the time for. The Mediterranean, the marine life, its preservation, the way people used to live and how they live today. As I listened to the interviews and glanced at the scenes with each clearing of the chopping board, I thought about the similarities and differences in what we eat and where it comes from. And with the sound of Greek gossip and laughter bursting from around a big kitchen table on screen, I thought (as I often think) just how much we have in common with the majority of people everywhere, despite our different cultures, languages and experiences, and regardless of how we’re encouraged to think more divisively by the privately-owned media, self-serving politicians and so on.
I toasted cumin and coriander seeds, and ground them up with a mortar and pestle. And I thought to myself - these little seeds, ground to dust. Nothing added here. It was surprisingly hard for me to fathom that I knew exactly what was going into the dish, because I was cooking it from scratch. There wasn’t one strange-sounding ingredient on the list that I didn’t understand; no modified this, or preservative that that makes me question what I’ve done to myself if I have an unexplained headache or feel a bit under the weather. No destructive chemicals or oils that affect the unfortunate out of sight, out of mind. Is it really as simple as that to take back at least some control over what we do to our bodies and the planet?
I added the ground spices to the pan with some turmeric and cayenne pepper, and breathed in the aroma, thinking: this is good. Will this actually do me good? And, I discovered, it would: turmeric: anti-inflammatory; cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin: digestion. I rinsed the mortar and pestle, and paused.
I have two mortar and pestles; marble, and ceramic. One a gift, one a charity shop treasure. One of the oldest toolsets there is in existence, and I have two of them. This simple method of grinding pastes and powders for food and medicine is tens of thousands of years old. Hunter-gatherers made pigment, Egyptians made medicine, as did others; they and everyone else in the world made food, with practically all cuisines connected through the mortar and pestle, or their variation on it. These remarkable symbols of perpetual human existence and endurance sit decoratively on my worktop, and prop open my books.
I considered these generations before us, multiplied by countless cultures and traditions, who would have shared such methods, recipes, techniques and tasks around a big kitchen table or an open fire, this knowledge passed around and inherent.
And I couldn’t help but think of this great big fire we’re letting go out on our watch.
Take my humble veggie korma, a dish that can be traced back to India as far as the 10th century. While it has doubtless evolved to different palates and on-hand ingredients across the ages, the fact remains, this, Britain’s favourite curry, stems from centuries of tradition and prized recipes, passed down generation to generation - from the royal courts of India to bustling kitchens with spices pounded, bread kneaded, sauces simmered all day long over wood-burning stoves.
And, more often than not, we have it arranged in plastic-wrapped portions on our supermarket shelves, from microwave to mouth in a three minute ‘ping’.
Well, that’s depressing. But what do I have to say about it? I can’t pretend to centre my life around the kitchen in the way that these rich cultures - or even our own culture, as little as one generation before me - might have done; the shaping of contemporary society and economy has long done away with that as an option.
Not that it was too long ago. During my own childhood, baking was the thing, and I recalled, in particular, making fruit crumbles with my mum. I’d invariably be given the task of crumbling the butter, sugar and flour by hand, a messy and time-consuming job kneeling on a kitchen chair by the counter, that simply took the time it took. There was no getting around it, sore knees or otherwise.
But it let me daydream, and it taught me patience, and, from my mum’s perspective, it kept me out of trouble for a while. It made me laugh when my lovely old dog got flour on his nose, his self-imposed job being to sit below me and catch whatever may fall.
And these days, when I set out to make a crumble - that is, when I remember how much more I gain from the experience of making them than buying them - I remember those times, and I really do still make the best crumbles.
So I say we keep the fire lit.
In fact, let’s keep it lit together. For when we cook, we can easily connect with more than just our inner world.
Say I’d swapped out my documentary for a messy fun production line - family, friends, neighbours, community - we’d have engaging teamwork that set up both children and adults with countless practical life skills - healthy eating, budgeting, ekeing out ingredients and planning for zero waste; not to mention cultivating a curiosity and open-mindedness that inspires lifelong adventures and relationships.
And if we’d planned the meal from scratch, without all the necessary elements, we could have pooled our pantries, and plotted a route through the farm shops, local suppliers and more ethical stores to get exactly what we needed from those with values we share through and through. A social event.
Alone on this occasion, with my korma ready, I eyed the four extra portions of curry beyond the one being served, and considered the space in the freezer versus the prospect of four more days eating korma. I thought of Olio, the clever app designed to connect people and small businesses through surplus food, encouraging community interaction and tackling waste by sharing and swapping dishes and ingredients that are nearing their end-date, veggies grown, home-cooked meals with too much left over, and so on. I signed up and supported this independent venture, an uplifting interpretation of the old ways in our technological age. And I appreciated the founders who are rebuilding connections in the world.
Because when I cooked my simple korma, my world opened up. My imagination came alive with travel, history, and nostalgia, and the creative process - a process that begins and ends before the food is even served - lit up my thoughts and senses; from browsing recipes over a cuppa, to pondering interesting ingredients, to questioning origins while onions sweated, and recalling memories while the rich sauce simmered.
My cogs whirred with ingenuity as I swapped and saved. I recycled, I stored, I made notes on the margins. I planned my next food mission and joined new dots with services and suppliers matching my values. And while my korma may not have made it into the royal courts of India, it tasted nice, it smelled good, I had made it myself, and I had so much to share, far beyond the food itself.
Consciousness and creativity: a recipe to break free and restore balance in our world. And far from wasting time and energy, some simple cookery gifted me a healthy plate of both.