Confessions of a Food Guru…
Article by Simon Preston
Though I’ve spent the last couple of decades banging on about good, local, seasonal food – I must confess that I don’t often shop at Farmers Markets, or exclusively eat sustainable fish, or always check the provenance of my chicken, or even get a veg box delivery.
At least, not until recently.
Truly, I am passionate about encouraging others to discover the life-affirming pleasure of seeking out, cooking and sharing good food. And I’d probably always have scored myself a decent seven out of ten as an ethical food consumer. But if I’m honest, I haven’t always acted on the good advice of the hundreds of chefs, producers and food experts I’ve worked with over the years.
So after all this time, what changed?
Was it watching powerful films like Food, Inc.and Super Size Me? Certainly they had a big impact on me, but nothing seismic. Perhaps I heard a food campaigner speak at a food festival? Nope, such events are a bit of a busman’s holiday for me. Watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste or Jamie’s Big Fish Fight? Gah, I just can’t stand food TV.
Nope it was books that got me in the end. At this point, my friends are falling about laughing – they like to mock me for being a painfully slow reader, seriously we’re talking glacial. And actually it took me by surprise too.
Over the past couple of years, three books in particular fell into my hands and changed me. I didn’t buy any of them. Perhaps fate sent them my way.
I stumbled into a bookshop and there she was, taking part in a discussion. My companion bought me the book as a surprise and I pretended to be pleased. Louise spent a year eating only meat and fish she’d killed herself and the resulting book is a riveting collection of adventures and escapades. Louise is so honest and human in her endeavour, often flinching at the practical task she had set herself but never in her determination to uncover uncomfortable truths about mass meat and fish production. I couldn’t wait to give the book to someone else to read.
Then, the Edinburgh International Book Festival asked me to interview US journalist Maryn McKenna about her book Plucked! The Truth about Chicken. Easy gig, I like chicken, I can talk about chicken. So, I was shocked when of a 400-page tome crashed through my letterbox and then horrified to discover that Plucked! was actually a scientific exposé/political thriller documenting the catastrophic weakening of human antibiotics caused by decades of intensive chicken rearing. There was no going back so I dived in. The book tells a labyrinthine story awash with scientific and political complexity and renders it compelling. It is a masterpiece of investigative food journalism and a terrifying tale of how intensive farming is risking our future. I loved it.
Then, as the un-forecast but gladly received sunshine set on Festival of Thrift 2018, lovely Liz of Riverford Organics slipped book number three into my hands.
Mercifully thin, it was Vegetables, Soil & Hope by Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford. Each week for over 30 years Guy has penned a few paragraphs to accompany his veg on their journey to 47,000 doorsteps. The book is a collection of some of these, beautifully curated into four seasons. They subtly reveal a man in love with his soil and all that it is capable of, a farmer most at home in the mud but ready to step into the global spotlight to fight the pernicious homogenisation and industrialiasation of our food chain.
These three books have had a profound and lasting impact on me. I’ve cut my meat consumption by half, I’m now forensically curious about the origins of my food, much wiser in the choices I make and yes, I’m getting to grips with that fabulous mountain of muddy and mysterious organic veg that appears at my door each Tuesday morning.
Why do I think books made such an impact on me? What unites those authors is that they spent years researching their subjects and still more time writing their books. It’s the passion and commitment they have shown to their subject, their drive to find answers, explore arguments, dig deeper and to tell the whole story. They took me with them on their odyssey, spent weeks with me as I read, immersed me in their subject, helped me get my head around complex issues and finally, led me to make choices, lasting choices, about my future consumption.
I’ve passed all those books on and as a result have seen others choose to consume more healthily and sustainably.
Now I can’t wait to curl up with the next life-changing book that comes my way – any suggestions?