Sustaining, evocative and endlessly diverse, food is the most familiar and universal medium. It can make us feel secure and loved, tie us to places and to people, and the way and what we feed ourselves reveal much about us. Writers have said the way to accurately and succinctly portray a character is to describe how he or she eats.
My food memories, from standing on a chair in my parent’s kitchen making toast, to autumns spent at home in Shropshire, inseparable from the delicate tang of the crab apples growing in the next field and the buttery fresh mushrooms my dad brought back from his early morning run. Ordinary tastes, amplified and elevated by powerful feelings, become conduits to entire swathes of our lives.
But an honest glance at what food is to me now, disappoints. I eat meat, I still shop in supermarkets despite half-hearted efforts not to and, though I’m aware of the many and good reasons of not doing so, much of what I eat is unseasonal, globalised and devoid of meaning and love. In fact, it’s the opposite: grown and produced by profit-ravenous global corporations who care little about my health and less about nature’s.
I know I could do better, for myself and for the planet.
The course to improvement I have plotted for myself winds 10 metres from where I type this: in the garden outside my window in north London. I’ve always had a relationship with the soil, from playing with worms in the mud bath of a veg bed my parents assigned to me at the age of four, to growing chillies on my bedroom windowsill as a student, green shoots of constancy amid the unfolding chaos of adult life. This spring, with my personal life going fascinatingly awry and feeling the familiar, comforting tug of the outdoors, I’ve gone all out, plunging everything from aubergine to orach seeds into the soil, devising planting schedules, devouring books and articles.
In my four raised beds, eyed imperiously by the local cats, impatiently by the resident robin, and beneath a sky edging slowly into summer through the haze of my Turkish Cypriot neighbours’ barbeques, I’ve sought solace.
As the weeks creep by and emotions settle if not disappear, my efforts are starting to be rewarded. Remuneration comes in the form of the wise old herbs I scatter on salads and dinners, the lemon balm tea taking the place of my usual brew, the thrill of seeing potato plants first graze the surface of the earth, the glimmer of bright optimism in the stalks of rainbow chard. The things I grow taste so much better simply because they are much better, full of the nutrients and minerals uncaringly dumped by the supermarket food system in the name of production and profit.
The processes too, soothe. Planting seeds reminds me that every one embodies millennia of nature’s evolution – perspective indeed – and composting has become a close-to spiritual activity. Every day, pyjamas stuffed into wellies as I stumble from bed to my morning wander around the garden, I worship the cycles and endless abundance of nature through this stuff we call dirt.
Though not offering complete happiness or escapism, growing food comes close to both. It chimes with something in our ancient DNA perhaps. Maybe it just takes our minds off things which are difficult to process consciously, slowing us down and wakening our senses.
But eating what I grow and growing what I eat feels instinctively right, and precious. Whether you have reams of space, or just dreams of space and a handful of pots at your disposal, it’s a way to claw something back from a food system which only pretends to be on our side: a system which wastes and wrecks, which deliberately destroys abundance and which peddles the myth of scarcity in an ever-louder and more insidious drone.
Dig for victory over the supermarkets and global food giants. Keep calm and sow on.. But this shouldn’t be about slogans, garden centres, equipment, grow-offs but something authentic, deeply personal, healing and restorative.
Growing your own food is either a futile gesture or one of the most important steps you can take, depending on where you take your seat between nihilism and optimism. (I’m currently playing musical chairs). Something as simple as planting a seed, to turn into a plant, to eat, at this time in my life feels right, and what food is… should be… all about.