Gardens and Jealousy – Both Green

Most readers may not be familiar with the rapier pen of one A A Gill, a restaurant and television critic for the UK Times. Gill has recently had it in for the various UK chefs working to promote healthy, local, seasonal eating in Britain, and appears to take special exception to food journalist-turned-farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Hugh F-W runs a farm, shop and restaurant operation called River Cottage in the Dorset area, and currently has a series on the air in the UK called River Cottage Autumn, in which he delves into the seasonal delights of local UK food, from the garden harvest, to fish in season to the fine art of foraging.

Gill reviews an episode of River Cottage Autumn in a recent television column, ostensibly killing two birds with one stone. But he’s not especially nice – to Hugh F-W, or to the millions of people who happen to revel in the joy of a home-grown tomato.

Why should poor, fearful folk have to put up with a bucketful of organic new-age anxiety to go with the anxiety their imperfect lives manufacture all on their own, especially when it’s created by a home-made television presenter in a Beatrix Potter set? The idea that ideal people should strive to live like 18th-century crofters is intellectual silage. The enthusiasm may be charming, but this fetishising of food is part of the problem, not the solution. Shirley Conran once said that life was too short to stuff a mushroom. She was wrong. But you’d have to live an awfully long time to make making your own baked beans on toast worthwhile. Self-sufficiency is not an admirable goal, it’s small-minded, selfish, mean, mistrustful and ultimately fascist. It ends up with people waving shotguns at strangers over their garden gates. We live in a complex, mutually reliant society, and the answer to our problems is not each to his own cabbage patch.

So, according to A A Gill, gardening, or cooking something that takes more than 5 minutes in the microwave, is a waste of time. Speaking as someone who makes her own baked beans on a regular basis, I’d almost have to question Gill’s competence at his job as a restaurant critic. If you don’t know how easy it is to make a pot of baked beans, should you really be given the responsibility to review such a thing when others do it?

More interestingly, last night I was reading The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food by Wayne Roberts, and came across the sub-chapter on gardening in the Food Sovereignty section.

In many cultures, especially before 1995, there was a clear understanding that there was more to food production than meets the mouth, or the pocketbook. To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves, Gandhi used to say. Most religions and spiritualities value that connection over shopping. […] That connection to the soil through food production can have public health as well as personally spiritual, impacts.

Good karma in sound bodies comes from social support, personal self-esteem, competency, belonging, engagement, according to a major statement of the global health movement, the 1988 Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion. These qualities can all be engaged in food production and preparation, and could be considered as sound reasons to encourage more people to grow food for health reasons. Understanding the human need to have a hand in making, not just consuming things, famous futurists Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler forecast during the 1970s a new social type who is already a fixture of the fusion food scene in the Global North – the “prosumer”, the producer consumer hybrid typified by practitioners of one of the world’s fastest-growing hobbies, gardening.

[…] Part of this joy may come from a farm variation of what psychologists call the “biophilia thesis” – the healing and restfulness that many get from connecting with growing and tending food.

Gill misses the point of what Fearnley-Whittingstall is doing. It’s not about self-sufficiency, although that isn’t a bad goal in a society where recalls of factory-farmed or -produced goods occur on a near-daily basis. It’s that gardening and cooking from scratch make us feel good. Even if we grow a tomato plant that ends up costing $5 per fruit, we still receive great joy from the process because we grew it ourselves, becuase we tended and nurtured the thing. I might spend a few hours one afternoon boiling and baking beans (which isn’t actually a great effort – I can multitask and do other things while those beans are baking), but I get great pleasure cooking a dish that speaks to my cultural roots, and it tastes a thousand times better than anything from a can.

My suspicion, to tell the truth, is that A A Gill is one of those folks with the proverbial black thumb. Unable to keep even a cactus alive, he’s secretly jealous of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s skill in the garden, and can’t stand the success the River Cottage series is experiencing – or the success of the many people in the UK who are digging in the dirt and making something grow.