Are we a nation united or divided by our love of food?

18 January 2018

Women disagreeing over food

When I started this blog, I did rather assume that I was focusing on an area that was commonly appreciated by most people. After all, everyone loves food, don’t they? Even if they’re not adventurous eaters, there are some dishes that they love. It seemed to be the meeting point of our shared humanity.

It’s kind of important, because I have an ulterior motive.

You see, if sustainability is going to be achievable, it has to be part of the consensus across all political and cultural traditions. You can’t have it as a political football, so one day you get a ‘sustainable’ government elected, and then a few years later you throw that one out and elect an ‘unsustainable’ one. The activists might like that world because it fits their sense of tribalism. But it actively militates against us getting to the end place we need to get to, because people become polarised and entrenched in their positions.

So if you’re going to put sustainability into the mainstream, then an obvious place to start is by focusing on those areas that we have in common. Build from there. And food is our best starting point.

But it seems as though that logic may be based on a false premise. It could be that we’re just as much divided by food as we are by everything else.

If you see the political division between people as conforming to the old-style “left vs right” debate, then that’s probably not the case. But in the era of Trump and Brexit, arguments have come forward that the real division between people now is more to do with one of world outlook. In his book ‘The Road to Somewhere’, David Goodhart describes how people have come to be divided into new camps - the ‘anywheres’, who have achieved an identity based on what they do, and the ’somewheres’, who get their identity from a sense of place and from the people around them.

The former are comfortable with people of all nationalities mixing in, are interested in the idea of travelling themselves and living for a while elsewhere, love diversity and change. The latter have always lived in the same place and see the pace of change and the mixing in as something that threatens the core of who they are.

And those differences are reflected in the food you choose. The ‘anywheres’ are attracted to new foods, immersed in the flavours of lots of different nationalities, trying out different things, following and sometimes setting trends. The ‘somewheres’ have the traditional foods that come from their sense of place. They value local food traditions. There’s a right way to do things, and that’s the old way.

This difference can be reflected in the political divides, but isn’t the same as them. In the UK, the Conservatives, and in the US the Republicans, would typically have a higher proportion of ‘somewheres’. But there are plenty of the more cosmopolitan ‘anywheres’ as well - and quite often in the activist ranks, which is why there has come to be seen a sense of disconnection between what are disparaged as “political elites” and the people that are feeling undermined.

A survey carried out a couple of years ago suggested that people in predominantly Republican areas and people in predominantly Democrat areas tended to choose different foods. Democrats went for Massaman curry, veggie burgers, avocado salad and the like. Republicans went for various local variants on chicken, pizza, brownies and the like. It wasn’t the perfect survey - it was based on the experience of an online food delivery service Grubhub, so it was shaped by the options on offer, rather than a wider analysis of eating patterns.

And there was a sizeable chunk of common ground. So-called bipartisan foods included spicy salmon roll, bacon cheese burger and chicken biryani.

There is not enough data in all of this to reach firm conclusions. One might speculate that the survey was actually picking up on the distinction between the ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’ as much as they were on straight political affiliation. That’s why proper research goes to such lengths to identify all the variables influencing the data.

It does seem to me that there is a likely area of common ground unidentified, but possibly to be seen at work in that ‘bipartisan’ list. It comes down to something Heston Blumenthal hit one when looking at how to revamp the menu of the Fat Duck - which is just how much emotional response to food could be gained through a deliberate focus on nostalgia.

Many of those ‘somewheres’, it seems to me, were brought up with food traditions for which they still hold a special place in their heart. Even me - I was brought up in the 1980s with all the crappy food innovations that Britain was introducing at the time. Awful block supermarket cheese. Instant packet mashed potato. Chemical soft-scoop ice cream. Unsurprisingly, I have no hankering for those things. But I still have a fondness for Shepherd’s Pie (even though I’d prefer not to make it with instant mash now, thanks very much). And when I have it, I have it with garden peas and ketchup. Just like when I was a kid. Stew with dumplings. Steak and kidney pie. Soft boiled egg.

Right now, I’m actively learning about food traditions across the spectrum more actively and voraciously than I ever have in my life. But it’s an interesting wake-up call not to become too dazzled by the new and the shiny, and the foreign and exotic, to lose sight of those home-based food traditions that are so much a part of the sense of place right here and right now.

After all, sustainable food places a high value on locally sourced food. It makes absolutely no sense to champion local food whilst disparaging local food traditions. They have to be part of the bedrock - something that gives you a sense of place even whilst feeling emboldened to expose yourself to everything else the world has to offer.

That said, food traditions change and evolve over time. As a nation, we learn which foods are healthier and (slowly, over time) prioritise those. The children growing up today in the houses of ‘anywheres’ will have a different association of food and place than their parents had. There’s definitely an evolving narrative, and a conversation to be had about embedding sustainability into a multitude of different food traditions worldwide.

It just isn’t helpful to do so from a blinkered perspective that there’s only one way to see the world when it comes to how and what we eat.