Simon Kuper have you ever eaten a scratching hen? A response to Kuper’s attack on peasant food as an expensive but futile fashion fad about to fizzle out.

Simon Kuper wrote a thought-provoking piece in the FT Weekend arguing that “peasant food has become an educated middle-class status marker”.  While he doesn’t directly say peasant food is more expensive than the rest, it is implicit in his argument about pantry posers.  Yet every nose-to-tail, KFC-bashing, raw foodie should swallow their organic pride and read it here.

Kuper is the best kind of columnist, he comes up with angles most writers couldn’t even dream of on topics from football to the euro.  More than that, his arguments follow a logical path.  A good columnist like a cartoonist should challenge, potentially causing a reader to swap sides in a debate, or at least modify an opinion.  Read him.  You don’t have to agree with him.

By peasant nosh Kuper means pursuing the less adorned tables of our grandmothers.  Such as chickens allowed to mature gradually rather than the cutting-edge 36 day lifespan made possible by growth promoters.  Or eating tomatoes in season, as opposed to those that miraculously don’t perish for months.  (One wonders if even one of those so-called Luddite Lunchers has forsaken the fridge to quaff bath-warm champagne on a balmy afternoon.)

Not only is the argument that food will fall out of favour, but that cuisine is a failed status symbol.  The rich don’t even eat well (which I dispute) so the middle-classes should spend their money on more durable luxuries such as watches and designer clothes to be admired, Kuper says.  At least the rich do wrap themselves in these opulent accoutrements.  Only the middle-class ‘ape’ peasants.

That food is in the limelight beyond simple sustenance is not in doubt, but is the return to traditional meals simply as fickle as fashion?  No.  Peasant food is also an extravagance because it tastes better.  The supermarket alternative can be dire as food writer Jane-Anne Hobbs tweeted:

 “I bought a roast chicken from Checkers to make a quick chicken pie. Might as well have bought a condom full of sawdust #yetch.”

Most will enjoy the delight of ripe tomatoes in late summer even if they aren’t conscious that they’re eating them in season.  Compare them to the more technologically advanced but sickly pale fruits that are somehow never green but also never ripen, no matter the month.  Of course you can just import them via inter-continental airline (and add to pollution) ensuring they are always in season.

Naturally not everyone agrees.  A doctor friend who loves his food, but would be insulted to be labeled a foodie, and all the status seeking the title confers, freely admits that he has become so accustomed to battery chickens that he now prefers the taste to the old scratchers of his childhood.  I can relate.  Occasionally nothing hits the spot like deep-fried KFC drumsticks.

I also enjoy roasting Woolworths free range chickens but even they don’t have the wilder taste of farmyard hens.  Is this because the Woolies vegetarian broilers are denied the right to eat insects? 

When Jamie Oliver, the poster boy of middle-class foodies, started punting free range chickens they sold out in Britain.  It was pointed out that if everyone on that small overpopulated island ate free range chickens, humans would have to live squeezed together in chicken sheds.  While there is likely some truth to this logic, there is another option.  We don’t need to eat chicken five times a week.  Before factory farming poultry was a luxury.  Only industrialisation saw the price plummet.

Proof that free range equals healthy is far from conclusive but The Economist magazine agrees that at the very least a balanced diet is more expensive than burgers and TV dinners.  There are many reasons processed food is frequently cheaper.  Among them are the economies of scale of producing food for the mass market and US subsidies of staple processed food ingredients soya, maize and wheat.  Another is technological intervention (such as pesticides, growth hormones or high-yielding GM crops) though the ill-effects are disputed.

Then there is the price-spiking perishable nature of green vegetables and of course the reason ‘healthy’ food is at a premium: profit.  Do you really think the primary reason Woolworths is a local leader in free range and organic food is environmental concern?  No.  The margins are fatter selling fashion to the upper middle-classes.  Environmental concerns are secondary.

Okay you could argue commodity foods such as rice, potatoes, bananas and milk are cheaper than branded foods but as soon as you want to add a sauce, more expensive protein or cook in more than one pot you will likely find the bill higher than processed supermarket food.  Frequently factory food has higher fat and sugar content too, resulting in more energy per rand, or value for money.

Then there is the argument of “I can’t afford supermarket food anymore in this ‘decade of the downturn’ so I’ll grow my own”.  Julie Bass from Oak Park, Michigan, caused outrage by turning her front garden into an organic vegetable patch to save money.  The suburban street appeal brigade, backed local authorities, is outraged that a bylaw has been broken.  Authorities have threatened arrest.  But even angrier are the anti-regulation lobby, lead by the conservative Tea Party grouping, who seem to have more in common with the hippies than anyone suspected.  Bass may have the freshest asparagus when spring comes but she might also be in for a nasty financial shock.  (Charges have since been dropped.)

My brother discovered that it costs more to grow veggies at home than buy in.  So did he stop?  No.  He enjoys his casual micro-farming and thinks it is good for his kids to see where food comes from. 

So what will happen when the bouillabaisse bubble bursts?  Kuper is wise enough not to venture what the next status symbol might be (we’ll have to ask forecaster Faith Popcorn).  The economic impact of foodism’s slip from style on the gastrohoods of London and  Cape Town he also doesn’t venture into. 

Peasant food may be replaced by the next thing but I doubt it will become extinct like the pale male wig as Kuper predicts.  Like a stuffy tailor to a timeless cut of suit, I believe there has been a longer term return to classical food.

At the very least Kuper has shot another arrow across the bow of my precious foodie sub-culture, where snobbery is out of control.  Thank you.  We needed that.  And maybe my disagreement with Kuper is not that profound.  After all he ends up saying people will eat food that is tasty or healthy.

As author Michael Pollan says: “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.”  This is one of Pollan’s 64 ways to eat better from his book: Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. 

So cheers to my favourite junk food: the traditional Melanzane alla Modugno.

This brinjal feast – fried in a half bottle of olive oil then baked with home-made tomato sauce, bunches of garlic and mozzarella – produces the most decadent of veggie meals. 

This southern Italian dish from the town of Modugno made from the bitter eggplant contains no butter but ends up tasting like a lasagna pan of melted Kerry Gold.  And because it is far more of a hassle to make than Pollan’s favourite (hot chips) you won’t be clogging your arteries every week.

Notes on technology and food 

Irradiation (gamma rays) is used to zap bacteria and prolong ripening.  Conspiracy theorists – it’s interesting that nuclear-armed countries, Russia, the US, Apartheid South Africa and Israel, once one South Africa’s key allies, were all early adopters of irradiation.  This information is supplied by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which adds that irradiated foods do not become radioactive.  The technology is banned in the EU apart from on spices.

The jury is still out as to whether organic and free range food is healthier.  But there is broader agreement that while pesticides are not directly bad in terms of the food you eat, that they do lead to a slow harming of the planet in general.

I am not a food scientist so please poke holes in my organic and processed cheese by commenting below.

Tom Robbins
Posted July 25, 2011

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4 Responses to “Simon Kuper have you ever eaten a scratching hen? A response to Kuper’s attack on peasant food as an expensive but futile fashion fad about to fizzle out.”

  1. Ian Olwagen says:

    Tom….I’m belly-aching, and it’s not from hunger!!

    Excuse me while I pick some chilliea and bell peppers from my tenth floor balcony…because I want and I can

  2. Alfie says:

    Yes, growing your own vegetables is not cheaper and I suspect one use more emulsions to keep insects at bay than the large farms do, although the quality of the soil should be better (after what i saw at the Woolies farms on a TV shoot). The pleasure of seeing the veggies grow, like a bubbly bed of flower – and the taste, do compensate for the labour. Just this week by all accounts, we had the most tasty tomatoes we had in years – In the middle of winter. It is about what turns you on and not just about the marketplace.

  3. Alfie says:

    It was an in-house TV doccie for Woolworths, salad farms outside Paarl, Franshoek and thereabouts. Needless to say, it was hugely impressive, clean and healthy as can be. The care and enjoyment the workers take was exemplary. However, these succulent salads, their roots don’t really touch the ground or soil. It is basically water running through the viewable roots the whole day. SO: planting the same in real soil – you can taste the difference – it might not be as pretty as the Woollies stuff, but making s sandwich from a tomato that grew in soil… i’ll let u know!

  4. Tom Robbins says:

    Woolworths chickens are now allowed to eat bugs. Good for Woolies for selling scratching hens. But the chickens that lay their eggs are still denied the right to eat meat. These laying hens are vegetarian.

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