Thursday, May 11, 2017

Put your money where your mouth is

This article was published in the May 2017 issue of Cibus magazine, Malta. Click here to view the online issue.


Where do the fields of gastronomy, craft and sustainability meet?

‘Plate of food,’ answers award-winning chef and champion of the ‘farm-to-table’ movement, Dan Barber. Dan is renowned for his ethos of sustainable agriculture and cuisine, which runs through all of his writing and is the foundation upon which his restaurants are built. In his vision, our culture of cooking and eating must be totally transformed – moving away from the traditional ‘meat & 2 veg’ model that we’ve inherited, but that is no longer viable, and towards what he calls ‘the third plate’- a way of eating which seamlessly connects responsible farming and growing with delicious food. The third plate is basically a better way of eating – whichever way you look at it.

Less than two years ago, I embarked upon a journey of inquiry into food: both its immediate effects on my own body but also the economic and environmental implications of everything I bought and ate, where it came from and where it was going. The further I ventured down this path, the more determined I was to strip away the layers of the primordial act of eating. Eating, this thing we enjoy so much, the thing we must all do to survive, is our most basic and candid interaction with the Earth, the ground beneath us. It’s the stuff we’re made from and the stuff we return to. It’s something worth caring about – something worth investigating.

The simple act of eating has developed into a complex industrial and economic process. While we still enjoy the celebration of food around a dinner table, the fundamental link between us and the crops – or indeed the creatures – we consume has largely been cut. We stroll up and down supermarket aisles, where a million people, production lines and layers of plastic stand in between us and our most basic necessity. At best, eating could be a grateful reception of whatever the land can provide. But above all it is now a commercial transaction – which by default means that we have expectations about what our food should look like, taste like, and how much of it should be available.

In the supermarkets that satisfy these vast and immediate expectations, ease and convenience are championed over quality and nourishment. Ready-made ingredients and meals, pre-packaged fruit and veg in uniform colours and shapes – they’re all so far removed from the reality of nature, that they negate any need to question their origins. It’s hard to believe that packets upon packets of standardised and carefully selected carrots or mushrooms actually grew from the soil. Similarly, meat – any cut, from any animal, and processed in a multitude of ways – is conveniently wrapped in plastic and available at all times. This veil of abundance hides the realities of a mass production process that is catastrophic for people, animals and the environment. It’s a process that’s wasteful and damaging, threatening our natural resources and degrading our soils. Once we uncover these realities, it becomes glaringly obvious that we need to transform the way we eat – starting with our own personal choices.

There’s something beautiful about the first taste of artichokes in spring; strawberries in summer. It marks the time, just like autumn’s falling leaves or the sudden wind and rain in September. It connects us to something bigger than ourselves: an ancient order that rules over all living things. The Earth’s ticking clock; a rhyme and reason that, given patience and respect, goes on providing. We’re pushing it to its limits, and nowhere is it more evident than in the field of agriculture and food production. The once simple, beautiful and human act of eating has been adulterated by commercial gain.

Brands do seem to be catching on to this, however: These days, we see ‘organic’ labels printed on everything from avocados to eggs to tinned beans, as public awareness has grown, and fashion’s caught on. But sustainable eating, and Dan Barber’s third plate, doesn’t mean passive acceptance of what the packaging will have us believe – even if it’s labelled ‘organic’. It’s more than the label. It’s more than the transaction. It’s a new way of eating; a new way of looking at food. It’s about stripping away those layers, getting closer to our food and the hands through which it’s passed. It’s about bringing back an attitude of curiosity and gratitude, even of the most humble crop – one that gives us life and health. It’s about respect for and contemplating death, which meat-eating necessitates. It’s about being more accountable for our actions and their impact. 

Luckily, there are organisations and farms fighting for a better food system. I’m on a veg scheme with London’s Growing Communities, and am glad to learn that Malta’s got an equivalent – The Veg Box. Organisations like these provide local, organic and seasonal fruit and veg all year round. They ensure that farmers are paid fairly, bolster communities by promoting local food growing, and support sustainable farming practices that protect our soils (and our bodies!). It thrills me to open the bag each week and find a vegetable I’ve never seen before, still stained with soil, and have to figure out what to pair it with. I now feel I can whip up a delicious meal with any weird and wonderful crop that turns up. It feels right to know that my money is being spent ethically, on quality ingredients, and on a transparent process that I understand fully. Most of all, I love the new connection I’ve attained with nature – feeling the seasons as they pass me by, and appreciating the gifts that each one brings with curiosity and joy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Jo.


She had her place outside the station. She told me her name was Jo, and I knew it was true 'cause I'd once heard one of her friends call to her from across the street.

The friend was equally as ragged, pale-faced and skinny as Jo was. Once, I’d seen the friend sitting, legs sprawled out right on the trodden ground, shrieking with joy at a puppy jumping up and down beside her. She had a half bottle of drink tucked under one armpit, and looked like pure joy; like a child unaware of her surroundings, shielded from the suspicious glances of passers-by.

I’d never seen Jo look that happy. She seemed to lose a day of life with each repetition of the same six words; ‘spare a bit of change please’. Not even as a question either - she’d repeat it like a mantra upon which her survival rested.

She might have looked a bit like me once. Mousy hair, average build, light eyes. She might have passed people like her on the street and shuddered with fear at the prospect of an existence so raw. She might’ve had a great appetite for food, a thirst for living, for being alive. Now she sat sullen, in her spot outside the station, and when food came it was joyless, and when life came – a glimmer of hope – it was fleeting.

When I talked to her one day, her speech jarred me. In my mind, she'd been muted by the six words I had heard so many times. They rung inside my head as I ascended the station steps each evening, knowing I’d find her in her usual place. Maybe I finally approached her after all that time just because I wanted to see if she could talk. And when she did, I was shaken into the reality of a real person reduced to a shadow.

She said she needed money to sleep somewhere that night. I said I could give her some. She said things were stressful, and that if she could rustle up enough for a flat, maybe things would get better. I knew I couldn’t save her. She knew that too, but it didn't stop her from asking. No trace of gratitude; at first I was shocked, almost hurt, by her nagging pursuit of more, of whatever she could get from me - the intrigued stranger.

But there is no place for courtesy in a loveless world, one where you take whatever you can, one where exhausting, persistent hardship requires you to grasp at anything and everything.

I was a friendly face when she told me her name and showed me the scars on her arms. One face in a sea of faces, or half faces, as they cowered away each day in their hundreds. I knew she wouldn't remember mine.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Oh Malta, who'll save you now?



An ugly room can coagulate any loose suspicions as to the incompleteness of life, while a sun-lit one set with honey-coloured limestone tiles can lend support to whatever is most hopeful within us. 
Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better and for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be. 
Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Beautiful spaces, both indoor and outdoor, inspire feelings of awe within us, like any pieces of great art. In London, strolling past a row of perfectly preserved terraced houses and their front gardens beckons me in with feelings of serenity, comfort and satisfaction, while a derelict council estate does the opposite.

People travel across the world seeking marvels of architecture, both ancient and modern. No-one can deny the beauty of a quaint, untouched rural village whose cobble stones and shades of grey, blue and white fit together in a perfect puzzle. Artists find the deepest inspiration in beautiful spaces and structures, paying tribute to them in writing, paintings and photographs.

It’s safe to say that people value beauty in their surroundings, and will do what they can to preserve it – whether the natural beauty of their country’s landscapes, or the beauty of a well-designed and well-executed building.

And yet, while these spaces are so integral to our experience of the world, we are allowing greed, bad taste and a false sense of progress to overshadow our need for beauty. It saddens me to look at the overdevelopment of Malta - a place where space is so limited - and the process of uglification that is happening daily all over the island. It’s become acceptable to knock down a historic building, rich with character, tradition, and the skill of those who built it, to make space for a towering block of white concrete which lacks any of these things. It isn’t just the (already harmful) act of destroying grand structures or plots of land, but also the creation of new, bare, ugly spaces which will never be conducive to public enjoyment and activity; will never enrich our culture or traditions.

How terribly sad that pure utility – the unrestrained need for more hotels, more empty flats and more parking lots – has taken the place of beauty, of history, of culture. How insulting that instead of paying homage to the island’s natural beauty and ancient architecture, and doing our best to preserve and restore it, we build relentlessly, with no proper planning, creating a concrete jungle where ugliness meets the eye at every turn. What impact will this have on our biggest industry – tourism? Moreover, what impact is this having on our collective psyche, our happiness, our imagination?

It saddens me that my home is a place I can no longer be proud of. It’s a place I don’t want to return to, not for lack of opportunity or lack of familiarity, but loss of beauty and inspiration. Day by day, with every new soulless development, we’re crushing our shared history and eating away at our culture. And unfortunately, none of this can ever be undone - it's shaping the future of our country.

To the developers who have nothing to speak of but greed and money, to the shamelessly corrupt and irresponsible politicians who give away everything we are proud of, to the passive bystanders who continue to support these politicians regardless: How dare you destroy the beauty of my home? Your actions are irreversible. Will you stop before it is too late?

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Mum

'Maaaa, I'm ready!' I shout at age six, when the whole toilet procedure still requires her help.
No answer. I can hear her on the phone in the other room.
'Maaa, I'm readyyy!' I repeat, more melodically this time, exaggerating each vowel.
No answer. The person on the phone makes her laugh. 
I wait a few more seconds before bellowing a final 'MA! I'M READY!' urgently.
One of the many things I rely on parents for in the early stages of life: Vital lessons in Toiletiquette. Lessons being one of the functions of our parents, our teachers and guardians.

When I'm seven or eight, I ask mum if she's ever been drunk.
'Once,' she says, 'And it was horrible.'

At age twelve, when I've fallen out with my best friend in a big way, Mum tells me that it isn't, in fact, the end of the world, and that some girls really aren't worth it. 

By fourteen, she has become antagonist to all that is fun and daring. I do what I can to navigate the many rules and curfews that imprison me. I roll my eyes when she says it's harder to say 'no' than it is to say 'yes'. Actually, I roll my eyes at most things. I feel guilty when she catches me out in a lie.

The state of imprisonment goes on for a few years. Despite this, Mum is still the best person to talk to when things go wrong. The various occasions when the end of the world is nigh. I am lucky that we get along so much, much more than some other girls and their mums. Except when I argue with or break said Rules of Imprisonment.

I am embarrassed by my parents. Mum often asks, lightheartedly, whether I think she gives a shit what my friends, and in fact any teenagers think. Well you don't give a shit but I do, I think to myself. 'You know, the great thing about getting old,' she assures me, 'is that the older you get, the less you care.'

All through school and sixth form she reads my essays. Sometimes criticism welcome, sometimes irritating. It's the same with my clothes - at times she raises a quizzical brow at my outfit, as though it's the oddest arrangement she's ever seen. 'Whats wrong with it?!' I ask angrily, as I'm already late and have spent hours agonising over clothing options. But I always go back and change, as she is probably right.

When I am doing big exams at eighteen, she wakes me up with a cup of sweet tea. If I'm lucky, and with enough persuasion, she will sit on my bed and chat to me till I'm ready to get up. We can chat about all kinds of things, big and small, serious and not so serious.

At university, I start to see Mum as a bit more of an ordinary human being, and less this unchanging constant with a set of fixed responses and reactions. It's nice that we can have honest conversations and we can even swear! Though she still gives her children a look when we say fuck this or that, or this is fucking bullshit, as is her Motherly Duty. I begin to understand the old Rules of Imprisonment and their various benefits. It doesn't matter now, because there are little to no rules and I'm less inclined to break them.

Another thing that happens in years that follow is that I begin to like the things she likes. Clothes, music, lifestyle choices. I realise that she actually has pretty good taste. I begin to regard her as pretty cool! Unthinkable to teenage me. I value her opinion very much, even when she says what I don't want to hear.

Just like me, she isn't perfect. She's a person like any other, with a history, one that stretches long before me being born. She, too, has had a childhood and youth and twenties, which I am now in. We laugh at the story of her saying she got drunk once, and it being horrible.

I sometimes hear myself talk and am shocked by how much I sound like her. My brother teases me and says I'm becoming Mum. I joke that it frightens me, but it doesn't. I don't mind a bit. I was embarrassed once, but now I'm just proud.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Curious Characters

We all know, or have known, someone in our lives who is impulsive. Carefree. Erratic. Charismatic. The kind of person who is constantly in pursuit of the next thrill. The person who always takes it slightly too far, the person who has little respect and concern for boundaries, whether natural or man made. But this isn't a bad person. He or she is a person with a warm heart, a joy to be around (at times), a huge capacity for empathy, laughter, and honesty.

I'm thinking of this after Pear Cider and Cigarettes, an animated film that circumstances allowed for me to watch a few days ago. The film tells the story of Techno, an erratic type, the type I described above, and the narrator's longwinded attempt to save him after he inevitably lands himself in deep trouble.

There is a kind of charm in the risk takers. In contrast to the narrator's (and our, presumed) fear and shame, Techno's defiant grin beams out of the back of a police car when he gets arrested. People like him are charming, but frightening. On a good day, we cherish their company. On a bad day, we're fearful for their lives. What makes them the way they are? Is it inherent, manifesting itself in the tiniest acts of rebellion as toddlers and children? Or does circumstance compel them to push on and on, irrespective of the consequences?

How can we measure love of life itself? People like Techno seem to love life more than anyone. They chase every experience to its extreme, even - in fact often - when it puts them in harms way. These people, of whom we all know one, to varying degrees of extremity, could die for experience itself. They could die, they would die; they have died reaching for transcendence, in speeding cars and bottles of liqueur. For us, on the other side of extremity, life is precious. Survival is key, and nothing that puts life in jeopardy is a risk worth taking. Does that mean we love life more? The essence of life, being alive? Satisfied without having to go beyond that?

These carefree souls are a bundle of contradictions. We regard them with both pity and admiration. They are brave and fearful all at once, and as the film aptly puts it, 'completely in control and completely out of control all at the same time'. And while their stories, often tragic, are cautionary tales, they are intriguing ones. Perhaps there is a thing or two we can learn from them. Perhaps we can challenge our fear of all kinds of boundaries. Perhaps we can praise their lively spirit, their raw disobedience, their bravery.