Hungry City

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words Edwin Heathcote

Britain has a problem with food. Not as bad as the US, but still pretty bad. We have kidded ourselves – with TV foodies, with buying overpriced organic veg from Chile in superstores, with Gordon Ramsay, with poncey sausages at Borough Market – that there is a food renaissance. But we know it is bollocks. A visit to a raucous, bounteous market in Barcelona or Budapest confirms what we’ve always known: Britain is a culinary desert with a few oases of expensive luxury. Carolyn Steel’s book is about how we got here. As the first industrialised nation, Britain was also the first to industrialise food: from terroir to terror in a century.

Steel is an architect and a teacher and she writes an enthralling history of consumption, and in particular of the relationship between historic cities and the rural areas that supplied them. From the Greeks to revolutionary Paris, food has been at the heart of politics, urbanism and revolution and it is a fascinating route through which to explore society and the development of cities. She is also very good on how the supermarkets are shaping our cities, their awesome logistical networks and out-of-town warehouses, their crushing development outside town centres that have obliterated high streets, and then the final act of colonisation in which they return to the abandoned city centres to open mini-me “metro” stores. It is a story of cartels and monopoly, of the presentation and marketing of “choice” as a euphemism for monoculture.

Where Steel falls down, though, is in the rather twee alternatives she offers. In a nauseating passage about Arup’s Chinese eco-city Dongtan, she posits a fantasy world of wonderful little communities producing their own food and energy. It is as close to William Morris’ sickly-sweet socialist fantasy in News from Nowhere as I have read, and as likely to ever be realised. Dongtan remains, despite all the PR, resolutely on Arup’s mainframe. Then there are projections of what a city built through food may now look like, which are completely unnecessary. Go to a mall’s food court and an out-of-town mega-mart and there you have it.

The author also misses a few tricks in her analysis of the nature of food and built space. Contemporary production and global distribution has made food an adjunct of communication. Just as we are able to talk in real time with anyone, anywhere, anytime, we can eat anything, nearly anywhere. The complex and inextricable interweaving of time, space, place and movement has created an incredible, fluid, almost incomprehensible network that has become impossible to subdue without imposing a dictatorship. The slow food movement Steel so admires, rooted as it is in place and culture, is sustained by export and media – Champagne, the ultimate protected brand, is nowhere without the City and Wall Street. Local products are sustained by international markets.

Nevertheless, this is, despite the criticisms, an extremely readable, worthwhile book, except when it gets preachy. The Brits, though, are too far gone to be saved by organic markets and cooking lessons.

Hungry City, by Carolyn Steel, Chatto & Windus, £13

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