Sunday, August 06, 2017

When did ordinary become 'artisan'?

Old kettles crop

I often feel like I grew up at a kind of social tipping point, overlapping two almost unbridgeable eras. It is easy to see that in terms of the ‘digital revolution’. About half way into my Art College years in Belfast, from 1990–1994, the new-fangled Apple Macintosh computer arrived. There was a room with about 20 ‘Classics’ in it, and - shock horror - an LCII with a colour screen. It was, suddenly, mind-bogglingly advanced. I had started my degree course learning the time-honoured disciplines of rub-down Letraset sheets, life-drawing classes and actual darkroom photography -  and finished it with full colour printouts, scanners, Photoshop image manipulation and the warped typography of Letrastudio software. What we gained in convenience was lost in craft. And those old crafts today cost a lot more to buy. (but of course, new skills come along)

Now if you want a photo of a warm sunset, take any old photo and just add a filter effect to it. Hey presto, instant warmth. Not warm enough? Easy, just alter the colour balances. Back in the day, that would have needed you to understand light, seasons, sunrise times, weather, and try to work with nature to capture its phenomena - at just the right millisecond-accurate moment of shutter opening and the workings of a mechanical camera and the varieties of physical film you could choose. 

Something similar has happened with food. I grew up on a wee farm with food merely as fuel or flavour, not as ‘expression’. Food has now taken on a social significance and aesthetic that I suspect would have been unimaginable not that long ago.

They say that in Ulster even city dwellers are only one or two generations away from the land. Our parents and grandparents would be astonished to find people today paying high prices for food which was once self-produced almost every day. Spuds from the garden, bread from the oven, eggs from the hens, bacon or beef or fish bartered with the neighbours, berries from the plants or hedges, coffee and tea from the corner shop as a swap for something you’d made or grown. Herring stored in big salted clay crocks all winter long. Salted ling hung in the stone shed at the foot of the garden. A pig you’d reared yourself, which had been killed and scalded in boiling water and then hung in that same stone shed.

The population move from working the land to ‘professional’ jobs in towns, and then mass-production and importation of food during the second half of the 20th century has once again, gained in convenience but lost in craft. And those food crafts now cost a lot more to buy - at modern-day Farmers’ Markets, which had been ordinary weekly events in every small town for centuries, up until say the 1960s. I go sea-angling for leisure, my grandfather’s generation did it for survival.

These changes have also brought with them an affluent snobbery. I like sourdough bread because it’s tough and chewy and tastes ‘real’, like the bread my mother and aunts used to make - and not like fluffy mass-produced ‘big brand’ rectangular pan loaves. However, a sourdough loaf in a bakery can cost 3 - 5 times more than a pan loaf. I remember when a ‘baguette’ was simply just a ‘crusty loaf’. I remember my mother making massive trays of jam & sponge which she’d knock out in 10 minutes and then cut up into squares. Now something similar to one of those squares might cost you £2.50 each in a coffee shop.

My granny Thompson flat refused to use tea bags. She was a strictly loose-leaf tea woman, served in her wee working kitchen and stewed all day in an enamel pot on the Doric stove. Today, some loose-leaf teas are luxuries, and sometimes expensive ones. Check this out - a new ‘Scots Breakfast’ tea in a chic new Glasgow tea bar. Or this one in Birmingham from Laura Ashley

The vocabulary that has grown up around these expensive choices is also socially exclusive. Here’s a really interesting article on a similar theme, by David Brooks in the New York Times. If you talk to people in the health service, they will cite lifestyle as one reason it is hard to get senior medics to move out of greater Belfast. And in some cases the same has been observed for ministers - a phenomenon the Church of England has experienced too.

Traditional food has a nostalgia for me, it takes me back 40 years to how life once was for everybody. But then it was ordinary, not artisan. It was completely democratic, of the people, and not elitist. I object to the chic guff that often surrounds it now. Today, to find what was once ordinary you need to either:
a) find people who haven’t lost those skills and traditions, or
b) be willing to pay relatively high prices to buy the closest modern equivalent.

Or else,
c) learn those things for yourself, and pass them on.