For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

March 19, 2013

Playing (havoc) With Food

As a student in gastronomy at the dawn of 2013, I’d like to argue that there’s very little we do not in terms of food these days. In one way or another food is continuously played with. Whether it’s about the choice of snack on your way to work or about the pan-European debates around the Common Agricultural Policy due to be reformed this year, we are taking a part in the highly complex and multi-layered game called the Global Food System.

We have reached a level in the game where the playing field has become a serious labyrinth with dangerous twists and turns made even trickier by abrupt and complicated challenges extremely hard to overcome. Safe to say that food, as the basic nutritional substance that keeps both you and I standing, is something of an ancient understanding. I wonder what my late grandmother – a farmer’s wife and a mother of eight, who always advises me not to play with food – would think of it all if only she were still with us.

I am not entirely sure how it all makes me feel though. On one hand, it is fascinating and extremely interesting to be a player in this game since food is not only my field of study, but its importance and impact in my life stretches from it being my greatest hobby and passion to it being my future occupation and source of livelihood. On the other hand however, I have come across dimensions of this very game that make me physically ill. As most of us have learnt the hard way as children, even the most seemly harmless and innocent games can easily wreak havoc. Now a cruel and potentially lethal game might serve as an entertaining manuscript for a commercial teen blockbuster, but having it happen in real life – taking part of it either consciously or unconsciously, aware or not – is a whole different story.

It’s all very ironic and highly controversial to say the least. Food seems to be the coolest thing to play with. Food labs perform chemical experiments with it; food photographers enhance it to capture its beauty; food bloggers write love letters to it on Valentine’s Day. People dealing with food for a living have almost over night been turned into celebrated rock star-like idols. Unfortunately however, there is – as always – a far less sexy side to it all too. Never before have we had a global food system as rotten and infected as today. In Europe and North America the average plate of food travels around 2400 km before reaching our stomachs (Clapp 2012, I). One third of food produced for human consumption is wasted yet 1/8 of the world population goes to bed hungry every day (FAO 2013).

The facts speak for themselves: we are in the midst of a highly complex food crisis and the game is far from being innocent child’s play. These are heavy issues with a whole range of side effects such as the “unnatural coupling of food and global finance” (Ghosh 2010) and commodification of food causing detrimental effects such as asymmetry, volatility and ecological fragility are more and more present on the game field. At the same time the game is being animated and catalyzed by a wide spectrum of different food-related undertakings such as food styling, food TV, food festivals, food movements and what-have-you.

Here is when it all gets confusing: I thought the common rule was that playing with food was forbidden and wrong.

Come to think of it, I wonder where this staple rule comes from since people have been “playing with food” for as long as food has been a subject of trade and a product of global industry. The 19th century colonialism made Europeans and North Americans hungry for tropical luxury foods and the trading of temperate agricultural products, e.g. wheat formed the early trading companies (Clapp 2012, 24). By the end of the Second World War food was already seriously played with and used for all kinds of unorthodox purposes. The food game had become a powerful political and economical tool slowly developing and creating a serious global ecological crisis that no nation soon would have any control of. But was the game stopped? By no means. New rules, one more contradictory than the other, were added on injury to cover up the cruelty of the game. With the rise of the ‘foodie-ism’ and food porn in mid 2000s, people were blinded and distracted by the fun of it once again. What many foodies are happily unaware of is that they in fact are feeding the same cruel game. For them the game just has a different face.

As I teleport myself back to the mid 1990s and my childhood, I vividly remember getting yelled at in school because I had proudly created a piece of art out of the dry hard rye bread given to us at each meal. I remember observing my teacher’s raging facial expression and thinking that she just doesn’t get it, as she would go on and on about how children like me are dying of hunger in Africa and that I shouldn’t play with the food in that way. I wonder what kind of food games the children born in the 2010s will play and witness; which are the ground rules they will be taught in schools in terms of food. One thing is certain though, it seems that playing with food is precisely what they are encouraged to do.

It would be naïve to think that the nature of food would forever remain the same or that it would stay untouched by the forces that seem to rule the world as we know it. It is also rather ignorant to believe that old rules are always the best and most suitable. Playing with food, literally and figuratively, is de facto a lucrative business and is highly intertwined with global economy, politics and world finance. However, I do think that the Russian roulette driven by a handful of transnational corporations, the few private firms that hold the dominant role in the three main segments of the food game (input provision, trade and processing, distribution and retail) and control our global food system, is a dirty game gone way too far.

I am aware that I have presented two very different interpretations of what can be meant by the title of my essay. Some might even argue that the current food obsession in the creative sector has no direct link to the seriousness of the financialization of food. If there is something I have learned from the classes I have taken so far; it is that everything in the sector of agrifood and gastronomy is in fact about money and business. Why wouldn’t it be? I myself take part in it all by choosing to enroll to a Master’s program on food culture and communication. The University of Gastronomic Sciences in the picturesque town of Pollenzo is, after all, simply riding the same wave of the intensified and extended food game. When food is used, either banally for nutrition or creatively as art, there is a business and a market behind it. Whether it is about seeking the cheapest food in highest possible quantities or about exhibiting a dissolvable spoon made out of sugar, the food-related endeavors have global effects and there is a thin line between creative unconventional application of food and straightforward exploiting adulteration of food.

In class we were asked how we would feel if we were to give up imported foods. Some didn’t feel the least bit threatened by the idea. What if we would all be asked to actually follow the good old rule of not playing with food? If only more people would understand the danger of the food game we are all playing as we speak, consciously or unconsciously, maybe more people would rather obey to the good old rule than keep on playing. As a young and upcoming gastronome, I wish I’d have the recipe for a remedy. The situation can seem, and I regret saying this, rather hopeless. It seems like the forces feeding these two extreme scenarios where food is played with have gone way too far and are way out of control and out of reach for the average John Doe. I guess it is impossible to quit playing at this point. Playing havoc with food can be brought to a halt. That I do believe in. Whether it is yet another set of complex new rules, guidelines and regulations that will make it all better, I cannot say. My guess is probably as good as anyone else’s.


-CLAPP Jennifer, Food (Polity Press, Malden, USA, 2012).
-FAO 2013,, accessed February 24th, 2013.
-GHOSH Jayati, “The Unnatural Coupling of Food and Global Finance” Journal of Agrarian Change, Volume 10, Issue 1, (2010): 72–86.
-SAGE Colin, Environment and Food (Routledge, London & New York, 2012). 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Tell me what you think. Did I make you hungry?