Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pork, plastics, cyclamates - and cigarettes (oh my)

I sometimes wonder to what extent guilt plays a part in my conversion to well produced food. A lot of my career was given over to the production or promotion of stuff that has proved problematical.

Pork, plastics, cyclamates and cigarettes.

Actually the pork I feel good about. I worked for a while at Oaklands Park Farm in Sussex, and although it might have been highly offensive to the neighbors with its pervasive smell and twice daily squealfests, it was close to paradise for the pigs.

The food was great – my uncle’s secret recipe - the pens were warm and safe, all had outdoor yards, and every day the pens were cleaned and supplied with fresh straw. As the pigs grew we moved them around so that their size fitted the area of the covered pen. All floors and walls were insulated. OK, the castration part was unfortunate, but I was fast.

So was the pigs' growth. At one point the food to pig conversion rate on the farm was 2.73:1 – unheard of at that time. And there was a financial point too. The pork was incredible: melt-in-your-mouth, fall-apart-in-your-fingers, sweet and well flavored. A small chain of south coast butchers demanded only Oaklands Park pork, so the abattoir paid my uncle a few pennies more per pound.

A good model, you’d think. We grew the barley that made up the bulk of the feed, were ingenious when it came to cheap insulation materials for buildings - the product was even distributed locally. But agricultural laborers like me were the lowest paid in society, so as much as I’d like to say it was an ideal situation, it was only sustainable if agricultural labor was willing to be the mascot for society’s poor. The smell was pretty bad too.

I didn’t stay long at the farm. I’m not sure if it was at my parent’s insistence, or that I had become disturbed by my increasing ability to communicate quite subtly with the pigs - in their own language.

Then came plastics research with Bakelite. (Now I know better how toxic chemicals were spinning off the plastic washing machine agitators and into our water system – same with the lavatory seats.)
Then to General Foods, helping to put instant coffee into plastic jars (puberty at 9?) and the “New Improved - with cyclamates” into kids instant desserts. (Turned out it caused cancer in lab rats, but who knew?)

I already feel like a Dickens villain, but there’s worse.

Carlton Cigarettes. The “Your Choice for Every Occasion” advertising headline turned out to include occasional trips to the ICU and hospice. We didn’t know what would become of smokers, but we did know how to create new loyal users. We were only mad men in retrospect.

It’s not that I was mad, or bad – I was unaware. Unaware that stuffing chemicals in the body can have disastrous results. Now I know, it makes sense to be more careful, less cavalier - especially with food.
I do know we need to value it more in real terms, because agricultural workers are still at the bottom of the heap. And if people are concerned about the cost premium for sustainably grown food, then the smartest thing they could do is get more out of it.

The best thing about the farm was the food. My aunt was a great cook. I got so hungry I was close to fainting right before meals. For the first five minutes at the table, the others – Uncle Jack, Gran, cousins, cousin’s boyfriends – watched me eat.

But what a meal! Same time every day - no excuses. Not the meat, veg, and fabulous desserts, but the event. A tear through the day’s politics, soccer, pigs, art, history, boxing, music and fashion, with my aunt fixing the food and the grammar along the way.

Cost of food divided by entertainment and education value equals peanuts.

If the ten of us had had separate tables, they would have been joyless and costly meals. I might still be dropping aitches. I might not have risen at 3 a.m. to hear live fights from America on the radio, or heard of Pollack, Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, let alone attempted their defense against Mona Lisa classicism.

So to cut down on energy costs and vastly increase the real and perceived value of food, share it. Or visit someone who shares. And talk.

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