Vittles 6.18 - Personal Food Systems

Disruptive Desires, by Hester van Hensbergen

How have you been eating during lockdown? By this I don’t mean what have you been eating ─ we can see that on Insta stories. But has your relationship with food changed in the last four months? And how has it changed?

Wednesday’s newsletter on eating disorders tackled the extremities of this, but from talking to people, from listening to my body, I feel that the pandemic has irrevocably changed the way we eat and relate to food. For all the talk of the “global food system” ─ as if it is just one, interconnected entity and not a chaotic assemblage of conflicting systems that have no internal logic ─ there has been little talk about all the smaller food systems in place, right down to the smallest, which Hester van Hensbergen in today’s newsletter calls “personal food systems”. These are the food systems that we revolve around (or revolve around us) and whose disruption by the pandemic has been matched by our own desire to disrupt them.

I can only talk from personal experience here ─ at the start of the pandemic when restaurants closed, the way I usually eat (which in the middle of a project can see me at 3-4 restaurants a day) vanished overnight. In the days when we had one walk a day and one exercise, I used up both to go to Spa Terminus to shop for meat at The Butchery, ham and cheese at Ham and Cheese Co (thinking about it, the names at Spa are of the Ronsil school), beer at The Kernel, whose saisons I lived off for the best part of two months. I met the people who were feeding me and had the time and space to talk to them about what they do. I switched to Pesky where I could order the next day’s fish at each morning’s market, direct from Cornwall. My home became a hub for Nama Yasai vegetables, picked in the wee hours that morning and shuttled up from Sussex. Visiting the farm last week, picking plums and gooseberries, I understand the desire of chefs and restaurateurs to pack it all up and connect with the land again.

Food chains were shortened to two nodes. By the end of lockdown I was convinced that for all my cooking abilities (which are middling) I was eating better and more healthily than before, that my reliance on restaurants to feed me had actually stopped me from having a meaningful relationship with food and how it is made, and produce and how it is grown.

At Krishnendu Ray’s lecture at SOAS last year, the question of cookery came up, the possibility that like music writing it could become a rarefied craft practised by a few people. I hope that if things were shifting this way, then the pandemic has slowed it down. I’ve admired the strategy of restaurants I love who have sold things to get people back into the kitchen ─ 40 Maltby Street’s blocks of pastry, Bright’s kosho, Ombra’s fresh pastas ─ things which display skill and brighten up our meals but still give us agency while cooking, that only offer a steering hand rather than a ready meal. It’s these hybrid models that have truly disrupted what it seems possible for a restaurant to do ─ for the sake of our personal food systems, I hope they manage to find a place for them in whatever the next normal happens to be.

Disruptive Desires, by Hester van Hensbergen

Moving back in with my parents during the COVID-19 crisis meant reacquainting myself with the shopping habits of my father. He likes to buy just enough for the day and has always maintained a hostile relationship with the fridge. In the before-times it would often be empty, bar a couple of pints of milk and a lonely cluster of condiments. I remember it being that way even as a child. Like a one-man just-in-time supply chain, it has always been about achieving the optimal (and precarious) balance of freshness and cost-cutting – chasing the shop employee with the yellow reductions stickers and the one carrying the box of new vegetables down the aisles with equal fervour.     

Since moving to Oxford a few years ago, my father has discovered a new set of favourite shops to scour daily for reductions and fresh produce – Noor Halal, Hamblin Bread and Maroc Deli in particular. Given that both my parents have mild underlying health concerns, it seemed a good idea for me to take over the food shopping. Even in the midst of a world-remaking pandemic, however, my father was unwilling to fully relinquish the culinary controls. So I let him drive me to the shops he prefers. Some days, he contained himself and sat patiently in the car while I worked my way through the shopping list. Other days, the sight of a fresh batch of mangos or melons brought on an excitement that quickly became too much. He would get out of the car and edge closer and closer to the storefront, unwittingly obstructing actual shoppers’ paths and calling out requests and instructions to me through the open shop door. On other occasions, it would be Chinese pears that prompted this overwhelming danger-defying compulsion. 

Sometimes this project was collaborative: he taught me how to pick a good radicchio and told me that you get the best parsley if you ask the deli butcher for the stuff kept in the back. Other times, the mood was tense and competitive. He once complained when we got home about one of the sweet potatoes I’d selected, which was slightly soft with a blackened patch. Meanwhile, I was quietly delighted when the punnet of pears he insisted I bought, pointing from a distance at the exact packet he wanted, turned out to look fine on the outside but were perfectly rotten within. 

In the press, our national food systems have been under scrutiny at the dizzying scales of buckling global supply chains and the need to reform industrial meat production, but our individual households are also the locations of miniature food systems. These too have been altered in the face of this ongoing crisis. In our house, since we are trying to shop as infrequently as possible, the food system has changed radically. There is a new concept – food storage – to wrap our heads around. The fridge is now rarely empty. To cope, my father treats the kitchen like a well-oiled restaurant operation: there is a list tacked to the side of the fridge outlining what is in each drawer of the freezer and another on the store cupboard with a clear breakdown of the exact quantities and identities of the tins inside. 

Small novelties are constantly introduced, as our personal food system continues to shift to accommodate changes in the city. Greengrocer Peter Durham translated his business from restaurant supplier to the public, offering the home cook high quality produce that would have been practically impossible to source in this city before. I can still ogle the kaleidoscopic bounty and hesitate between piles of bold globe artichokes and elegant arms of white, purple and green asparagus. Each time I visit, I gleefully come away with my own little unruly addition to the shopping basket – French garlic, figs or yolky yellow-stemmed chard. My friends in West Dorset are buying scallops and lobsters that would have been destined for London’s top-flight restaurants direct from the boats. This is a form of solidarity with suppliers usually reliant on now-collapsed supply chains, but there is also a slightly subversive thrill in it – in the shifting reality of who gets to eat what, where and at what prices. 

The biggest disrupter, though, has been my father’s desire for fruit. Forget the mangoes, melons and Chinese pears; he had been talking about the loquats ever since I arrived in Oxford a week before the lockdown was implemented. Loquats are a pearl-shaped soft fruit, the colour and texture of apricots. They fit snugly in the palm, and usually have three slick brown stones inside. They taste peachy and a little sharp. Loquats were not yet in season at the beginning of lockdown, but my father kept trying to invent reasons to go to Noor Halal, where they sell them, so that he wouldn’t miss their arrival. I cottoned on and refused. So, like a restless teenager, he started to sneak out in the car on non-shopping days, just to coast past and check. One day, a few weeks ago, I came downstairs mid-morning and found, to my surprise, an enormous pile of loquats sitting cheekily in the fruit bowl at the centre of the kitchen table. It was a small but unmistakable act of defiance. 

They are irrational, these compulsions to disrupt the fragile personal food systems we have each arranged as a way to cope with the crisis. Unable to go to the shops, one of my friends, a sometime vegetarian, asked another friend, a lifelong vegetarian, to buy her lamb. She simply had to have it – even though it was over and above the value systems either of them espoused. My grandmother, who is 85, was overcome late one evening by a strongly specific appetite for nasi goreng. Perhaps she felt that eating it – a dish she ate frequently as a young woman living in Kuala Lumpur in the 1950s – would allow her to escape imaginatively to that altogether different time, when she had moved freely through busy city streets. Unfortunately, peering into the back of her store cupboard, she discovered she had no rice at all. She is wily, though, and rang up a nearby restaurant she found in the Yellow Pages. After dark, my grandmother drove to the closed restaurant where a woman she had never met before gifted her a bag. When she got home, she found it contained rice, prawn crackers and two protective masks. The giving of the lamb and the rice seem like singular acts of peculiar kindness to feed singular moments of peculiar desire.

These individual spillovers seem to spring from something shared. They are continuous with a collective, insubordinate desire to break beyond our little silos. In coordination, though, our individual disturbances can be transformative. As the ability for many in our society to feed themselves has become intolerably difficult – the combined effects of self-isolation, economic collapse and long-since hollowed-out state welfare – a networked web providing food and other necessities has sprung up within our communities. Thousands of mutual aid groups have flourished across the country at different local scales, defying the idea that these conditions require us to isolate and disconnect. The careful expansion of our personal food systems – through extra trips for groceries, deliveries and more cooked meals – is the bedrock of this novel approach. 

Through our changing personal food arrangements, far from being isolated and locked in, we have the potential for infinite connections, tessellating outwards. Here in Oxford, the crisis has meant that the cafés which feed rough sleepers have had to close, the companies that organise hot meal deliveries to the elderly and vulnerable have suspended their services, and the city’s food bank has been operating at a reduced capacity since late April. In the gaps, mutual aid has stepped in. The community effort has grown and become more sustainable over the months of lockdown. Since the start of May, in the otherwise abandoned kitchens of an Oxford college, The Kitchen Collective, initiated by Oxford Mutual Aid, has been cooking hundreds of hot meals for delivery to those with dementia each week. Over the weekend of Eid celebrations, chocolates, baklava and biscuits were delivered to more than 650 households across the city. These initiatives are remarkable but not unique – they are happening all over the country, and many of them have been operating since before the pandemic started. 

In all their various expressions – from the minor deviances to the community collaborations – these impulses to disturb and reconfigure the little regimes we have established for ourselves are acts of rebellion. They are declarations of our double-facing desires to connect and disrupt, to commune and escape, to care and yet throw caution to the wind. Our personal food systems under lockdown and beyond are so many things to us at once. They were the basis for connection and provision when other forms of care seemed impossible or reckless, and they were coping mechanisms that give structure to the long days that stretched out before us. But they were also the locus for our frustrations, as we navigated the terms of our household confinement – whether that was a relentless rotation of meals for one or a matter of accommodating the needs and patterns of those we were sharing lockdown with. The disruptive desires we articulate through the food we want to eat, cook and provide seem to me like a definite form of communication. It feels like a way of saying that we want – somehow, impossibly and nonsensically – to live fully in this strange and shrunken new life.

Hester van Hensbergen is a PhD student in politics and an occasional food writer. You can find her on Instagram at @hestervandelemme. Hester was paid for this newsletter.

The illustration was done by Helen Hugh-Jones of Nell’s Originals. Her work can be found on her Instagram and website . Helen was also paid for her work.

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