Foodosophy – Hungry City

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Wednesday September 25th at The Star pub
Hungry City: How food shapes our lives by Carolyn Steel


The Foodosophy Group meets the last Wednesday of most months to discuss books or watch films about food-related aspects of politics, society, culture, philosophy, economics and more. We try new pubs and local eateries in Oxford each time; this month’s choice was The Star pub off the Cowley Road. Open to all – see here for more details. Write-up by Wendy.

“Hungry City is a book about how cities eat … Feeding cities arguably has a greater social and physical impact on us and our planet than anything else we do.” So says the website for this week’s Food and Philosophy book choice, by architect, Carolyn Steel.

What’s food got to do with it?
Why should we put food at the centre of our thinking? This was the first big question prompted by our reading of Hungry City. Why not put something else at the centre? How is this any different than suggesting we view the world through the lens of gene theory, democracy, or [insert just about any topic here]? Why food?

One argument is that food is one of the absolute essentials for human survival, alongside water. It’s more essential than sex, more important than economic growth, more immediate and vital than understanding gene theory or democracy. We can’t live without food. Steel suggests we view cities through the lens of food – not because it’s the only or the best way, but because, when we peek below the surface, food is a cogent organizing principle around which to plan our cities and spaces. She also emphasizes that urban planning, design and architecture ⎯ from the distant past to today ⎯ have been beholden to peoples’ need for reliable food sources, but food has rarely been considered in a conscious or direct way. She suggests we could build more sustainable, liveable places for people and ecosystems if we start putting food at the centre of our thinking about urban spaces.

This looks familiar…
The first half of the book included interesting, detailed histories of past empires and how they fed themselves (covered in even more detail in books such as Empires of Food by Fraser and Rimas). This brought up the rather disappointing point that ‘we’ve seen this all before’ – early civilizations figured out how to feed themselves, only for food transport routes to dry up or blight, war or environmental crises to strike, bringing an end to empires and their sophisticated food systems. We wondered if our current food and ecological crises are really something new and if we’re repeating the same mistakes over and over – not a new thought for any of us, but disheartening nonetheless.

Urban aromas, deadly nosh and the ‘ick’ factor
Steel discusses the demise of the smells that emanated from food production sites in cities ⎯ from butchers to vinegar distillers to Chinese bean-sprout growers ⎯ which gave city dwellers a sensual connection to the nature and source of what they eat. She doesn’t suggest all the aromas were nice, but they added an important dimension to city life, and their absence is tangible. This ignited an energetic discussion among the group about the value of food safety standards: clearly, we’re less likely to die from lethal hygiene breaches associated with food production, but have we gone too far by eliminating the messy, gritty, real-life nature of what it means to be fed?

We discussed whether this might go hand in hand with the demise of small, local food sellers and producers in cities. Many of them have disappeared because they couldn’t meet the high standards of hygiene which are meant to be in the public’s best interest – standards that often favour large-scale, not-necessarily-local producers who have the capital to comply.

In the desire for safety, are we are letting science dictate how we live at the expense of less tangible social goods, such as day-to-day interaction with food producers, livestock and shop owners? While we may have eliminated some of the ‘ick’ factor that existed in city food production, perhaps our risk-aversion has obliterated an essential part of what it means to be a human animal on a living planet, and this could be having devastating effects on our food- and eco-systems.

If these walls could talk (or, kitchens through history)
Some topics in the book made us question how it all links to cities and architecture, as at times these connections felt a bit forced and the subject-matter was really wide ranging; but most of the book held together well. The discussion of the lack of kitchens in most homes before the 20th century and the architectural evolution of kitchen design was particularly fascinating.

Steel showed how our homes and urban spaces reflect the perception of food and cooking in the imagination at different points in history: from French laws requiring full transparency of food distribution (so they can’t sell you rotten fish or tainted flour), to kitchens hidden away in the bowels of homes where the ‘dirty work’ of food and cooking could be done (usually by women, until modern times), to blindingly white, sanitized, open food-prep areas in modern fast-food joints, giving the impression of healthy, predictable fare.

An end to navel gazing
Hungry City reflects Steel’s genuine curiosity about how food interconnects with human societies and environments. There was a suggestion that it was not written primarily for those of us immersed in the literature and arguments about food and agriculture, but for people (like Steel’s fellow architects, urban planners and designers) who haven’t considered food very relevant to their work.

In fact, many of the topics in the book have been written about in more detail in books that we food-focused folks may have on our bookshelves (e.g., Empires of Food, The Taste for Civilization, or books by Michael Pollan). Maybe, though, Hungry City could appeal to people who are not so passionate about food, and this could bring more people to the table in discussions about our food systems and how to fix them.

Link to Hungry City:

Link to Empires of Food:

Link to The Taste for Civilization:

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