London Eats Itself, London Plays Itself, London Feeds Itself
25 essays, 125 restaurants, one city
London Feeds Itself will be published via Open City in mid-September 2022. It is now available to pre-order on Open City’s website here https://shop.open-city.org.uk/products/london-feeds-itself
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London eats itself
Is it possible to write a food book through architecture? Or, rather, an architecture book through food?
The two are not natural bedfellows at first glance, I admit. My initial thoughts on what a ‘food and architecture’ book might look like, in order of when they came to me, were: 1) a kind of urban food systems book, already done so well by writer-architects like Carolyn Steel; 2) something about grand dining rooms, art deco cafes and listed pie and mash shops that would please precisely no one; and 3) whatever Jonathan Meades does. Yet ten Owen Hatherley books and a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry on architecture later, I realised that everything about London and food that interests me fits into this seemingly niche intersection, and I sketched out the bare-bones framing for London Feeds Itself: 25 chapters about 25 different buildings, structures and public amenities in which various aspects of London’s vernacular food culture can be found, seen through the eyes of food writers, architecture writers, journalists, activists, and even one MP. Each chapter has some lateral relationship to the chapters that surround it, although you can read them in any order you like, choosing to enter or exit the city via The Port or The Airport.
There are no purely historical pieces in this book and, apart from in the very first essay on The Port, there is no talk of ghosts (unless it is to exorcise them) or psychogeography (the word ‘liminal’ has been banned). I am, as are all of the writers in this book, interested in London as it is now, how we eat and live today; when history is invoked it is done so to find out where the city is going and how quickly, to track London’s velocity as it spreads outwards in radial pulses, seeing where kinetic energy has been transformed and stored as potential energy, and vice versa. Institutional food – hospitals, schools, prisons – has for the most part been avoided; these essays are about places where good food exists because of, not in spite of, the urban conditions that surround it.
But what type of urban conditions? The architecture writer Iain Nairn once remarked of Sacred Heart Secondary School (just round the corner from where I live in Camberwell), that ‘you can get along from day to day without masterpieces, but you can’t get along without this kind of quiet humanity’. The chapters of this book are about the spaces and food that get us through the day-to-day; they are about the quiet humanity, not the masterpieces. And yet, London is a city seemingly obsessed with masterpieces. It is intent on getting more grand, more beautiful, more expensive, more masterful, more, more, more. London consumes the rest of the country, but it is also an autophagic city. ‘London: the city that ate itself’ was the headline to a perceptive 2015 Observer article by the paper’s architecture critic Rowan Moore – a city where ‘anything distinctive is converted into property value’, where working-class markets are shut, replaced with cookie-cutter street food placed on pseudo-public property; where food production is being shunted to its peripheries or out of the city altogether; where community centres are shutting and food banks are rising; where new restaurants open just to be a notch in the landlord’s bedpost. If Orwell’s vision of the future was a boot stamping on a human face forever, then I have an even more chilling one: a Franco Manca opening in your neighbourhood, soon.
The title of this book, London Feeds Itself, is not intended to suggest that London is self-sufficient, or that it is a Singaporean city state (in fact, the idea that London is somehow innately different and disconnected from the country that surrounds it is the source of so much that is wrong with the city), but to offer an opposing vision of the capital to the vertigos of finance, house prices and property portfolios that are symptoms of its autophagy. It is also a simple statement of fact. London feeds itself, and it does so in its own unusual ways – in its warehouses, parks, church halls, mosques, community centres, and even its baths: spaces where monetary transaction is peripheral or even completely absent.
London plays itself
Originally, this book wasn’t going to cover restaurants at all. Imagine it: a whole book about London food culture without once mentioning the R word! It would be a statement, at least. Alas, I lost my nerve in the end, but will attempt to explain why.
What is the most-read urbanist writing in Britain today? Outside of the few hundred weirdos (me included) who keep buying Iain Sinclair books and who walk round the North Circular for fun, the answer for most people is restaurant criticism. Unlike almost every other branch of criticism – except, notably, architecture – restaurant writing is impossible to extract from place: whether it’s El Bulli or a caff on an industrial estate, the review starts with the journey there: where it is, who lives there, and how its location might be surprising (a small plates restaurant run by a white chef opening in Peckham in 2011) or typical (a small plates restaurant run by a white chef opening in Peckham in 2022). This makes restaurant criticism far more important than a list of things that went into someone’s mouth: it is writing that, by its very nature – in the decisions its authors make on where to write about, and how to write about it – is political.
In Thom Andersen’s 2003 essay documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, the director interrogates the use of Los Angeles as a backdrop to films. Los Angeles, Andersen argues, is cinema’s hidden protagonist, its buildings, streets and monuments reconfigured, spat out and often disrespected into forms that resemble a version of the city unrecognisable to those who live there. Andersen reserves much of his ire for Hollywood location scouts, who lazily use the wealth of modernist architecture scattered across the surrounding hills and valleys as the lairs of villains and gangsters, subverting the buildings’ utopian intentions and usage. Yes, Los Angeles might be a character in a film, but it is just that – a character. It is unwittingly playing a version of itself that does not exist.
I think of Andersen’s film when I read restaurant criticism in British broadsheet papers because London is usually the hidden protagonist of the review. Prior to March 2020, when restaurants temporarily shut, I looked at the last hundred reviews from eight national broadsheets: 68% were for London restaurants, with 20% of those restaurants in Mayfair and Chelsea and another 20% in Soho and Fitzrovia. That’s 40% of the entire country’s restaurant reviews taken up by a few square miles of the most expensive real estate in central London. Given that the readership of these papers lives largely outside of London, the reviews function much like Hollywood’s depictions of Los Angeles: a kind of light entertainment; a satire for those who have no intention of going. The object of the satire may vary: oligarchs, idiotic tourists, rich Arabs, east London hipsters, whatever nonsensical idea some chef has concocted to appeal to insufferable London foodies. But the upshot of this is that the London depicted in reviews – neophilic, absurd, infinitely affluent – bears little resemblance to the city as a whole.
Yet when restaurant critics do eventually venture outside of the city centre, the effect is even more ruinous. The satire, having no obvious target to latch on to, moves to focus on the neighbourhoods themselves: south London is described as stabby, Elephant and Castle where you might pick up a nasty skin condition – whole areas written off as shitholes while Britain’s food critics pretend they deserve the George Cross for getting on the Thameslink. These reviews have a genuinely pernicious effect: they become handmaidens of developer-led gentrification and displacement. Brixton and Peckham – two significantly Black neighbourhoods – have taken the brunt of this; here, restaurants and street food ventures are written up as new, exciting phenomena that did not exist there beforehand, with what was already flourishing there completely ignored. House prices go up and these restaurants – mainly white-owned, mainly with PR, mainly on property in the process of being developed – proliferate. The review can be as powerful an advertisement that an area has changed as anything in an estate agent’s window.
Restaurants, for good or for ill, are integral to London’s food ecosystem, as well as its financial markets and sense of civic pride, but I am interested in what restaurant writing might look like if it was not allied to PR, profit and property, or anchored to hierarchies of taste forged by colonialism. So for each essay included here, I have written an accompanying guide on restaurants which shares the theme of the central essay. Some of these categorisations are obvious and geographical (restaurants in Chinatowns, restaurants on the Old Kent Road) although others (restaurants by bodies of water, restaurants to go to after a sauna) are less intuitive. Together they amount to a patchwork of London’s peripheries, of neighbourhoods where restaurants serve working-class and diaspora communities sculpted by the city’s role as a former imperial capital, where restaurants fulfil a function of remembrance and transform the city into other cities, or even meld with the city to create something that is uniquely its own. Or they’re just a record of everything that has given me indigestion between Uxbridge and Dagenham. I hope that London appears once again as a character – although this time, one with an agency of its own.
London feeds itself
In the 1966 Time article ‘Great Britain: You Can Walk Across It On the Grass’, writer Piri Halasz introduced the theory that every city has its ten-year epoch, and that the 1960s were being defined by London’s resurgence as a countercultural capital. ‘More important than all the other changes is the fact that the center, the heart of London, has gravitated slowly westward to the haunts of the city’s new elite, just as it did in centuries gone by’, she says. Tracking the shift from the City to Westminster, she placed London’s new centre ‘somewhere in Mayfair, between the green fields and orators of Hyde Park and the impish statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.’
Where is London’s centre today? Some might place it back east, in a small plates restaurant in Shoreditch, but it’s truer to say that London is now a city without a cultural centre; it is polyvalent, with multiple centres located in ever-expanding concentric circles emanating out from its geographic centre point. What was once the centre is being pushed out to the peripheries. In an inversion of Paris (where Paris is always the arrondissements, and everything outside of the arrondissements is not-Paris), what is in the London suburbs increasingly feels more like London than what is in the centre.
It is no coincidence, then, that many of the places in this book are located outside the city centre, nor that the buildings and structures discussed have been traditionally viewed as marginal. Yes, there are more exciting culinary things going on in Ilford, Wembley and Hounslow than Soho and Mayfair, but there are also libraries and baths serving food on industrial estates, fiestas in suburban parks and in church halls, meals cooked in community centres and gurdware, food produced in railway arches and viaducts. In a city where every inch of land is monetisable, squeezed like a near-empty toothpaste tube, these are creative, inspired uses of space, with each community becoming their own Thomas Müller: a raumdeuter.
If this is a book about space, it is also about time. There are multiple villains in this book – international developers, the City of London Corporation, landlords, the pandemic and, in the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment, Barnet council – but the final boss is time. It is time that turns the city we recognise into one we don’t: the Peckham of lost time remembered in The Arcades, or the tabula rasa vandalism wrought at Elephant and Castle in The Housing Estate. These spaces sometimes force time to continually repeat itself: the second lives of Kurdish warehouses, the spinning water wheel of history powered by the River Kilburn, the cycle of immigration that takes place in a Hampstead Garden Suburb synagogue. Often these spaces reverse time, taking those who have lost spaces back to their past: a lost Damascus, a lost Hong Kong, a lost moment in time in pre-partition India.
To write about the city is to be in a constant state of grief for the spaces we lose to time: Elephant and Castle’s bingo hall, Edmonton Green, the arepa stand that became a Sports Direct, the Kurdish community centre that became a Beyond Retro, Edmonton Green again. But the best spaces seem to exist outside time itself, defying the financialisation of time that measures out leisure in thimble-sized portions: the atemporality of the New Docklands sauna, a plot of land for growing food, a community centre cafe, the way both a park and a viaduct can shield a space from the usual sense of London-time encroaching on it, spaces that constantly regenerate to house new flow, new communities – sticking points, as writer Rebecca May Johnson calls them – in the endless river of capital that courses through the city. It is not a surprise that all these spaces are, in their own ways, precarious, besieged by time and in constant need of protection.
Velocity is, of course, space over time plus direction, and everything in London is expanding outwards and upwards at a pace that seems almost unstoppable. London is eating itself, but this is neither irreversible or inevitable. Italo Calvino warned us about cities being ‘the inferno of the living’ in his 1972 book Invisible Cities. London is a city as infernal as any other, but Calvino also gave us the cheat codes: to ‘seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space’. London is feeding itself too. This book hopes to recognise the places that feed us and, with your help, to make them endure: to give them space.
The cast of London Feeds Itself:
Foreword by Nikesh Shukla
The Port, by Jonathan Nunn
The Church, by Carla Montemayor
The Community Centre, by Jenny Lau
The Settlement, by Mike Wilson
The Garden Suburb, by Claudia Roden
The Baths, by Stephen Buranyi
The Canteen, by Rebecca May Johnson
The Housing Estate, by Owen Hatherley
The Shopping Centre, by Aditya Chakrabortty
The Arcades, by Yvonne Maxwell
The Warehouse, by Melek Erdal
The Library, by Sameh Asami (with Nabil Al-Kinani and Sana Badri)
The Club, by Barclay Bram
The Partition, by Ciaran Thapar
The Park, by Santiago Peluffo Soneyra
The Viaduct, by Virginia Hartley
The Market, by Jess Fagin
The Vineyard, by Leah Cowan
The River, by Ruby Tandoh
The Allotment, by Jeremy Corbyn (with Dee Woods)
The Mosque, by Shahed Saleem
The Gurdwara, by Amardeep Singh Dhillon
The Suburbs, by Zarina Muhammad
The A-Road, by Jonathan Nunn
The Airport, by Yemisi Aribisala
Map of The City, by Harry Darby and Anna Hodgson
Photography by Peter Arkley Bloxham, Zoë Cave, Malcolm Glover, Sirui Ma, Max Miechowski, Hark1karan
Design by Studio Christopher Victor
Additional editing by Sophie Whitehead
Many thanks to Open City and Phineas Harper!
Preorders here: https://shop.open-city.org.uk/products/london-feeds-itself