On the day I went to see the Hayward Gallery’s hit Andreas Gursky retrospective, the image that seemed both to be drawing the most people to it and to be holding their attention the longest was 99 Cent, a photograph from 2001 depicting the interior of a bargain basement supermarket, its aisles heaving with all kinds of brightly coloured pre-packaged goods. On the wall beside this image, the curators dutifully inform visitors of the artist’s message, which has to do with mass production and instant gratification. But the crowd, I noticed, didn’t seem much interested in any of this; most were too busy staring at the piled-high Kit Kats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Human nature being what it is, I predict a huge upturn in sales of sweet things at the gallery’s cafe for as long as this exhibition runs.
I thought about 99 Cent later, as I read The Missing Ingredient, an interesting and clever new book by Jenny Linford which seeks to unpick the role played by time in food and its flavour; the image’s toxic soulless-ness addresses quite perfectly the more inhuman aspects of what Linford calls our endless “quest to speed up our relationship with food”. Soylent, a meal substitute designed, as she notes, by a Californian tech entrepreneur for those keen to avoid “wasting time” deciding what to have for lunch, isn’t one of the products we can see on Gursky’s shelves; even if it weren’t for the fact that it wasn’t invented until 2013, its minimalist packaging wouldn’t really work in this realm of purple foil and yellow cellophane.
Nevertheless, it’s all of a piece with them in the end. If the poor run on sugar, the rich fall back on weird science. For his next project, Gursky should think about photographing the outsize refrigerators of Silicon Valley, inside which he will find only butter (to be used in their owners’ bulletproof coffees) and bottled smart water.
Linford doesn’t much care for haste, though she is interested in speed, at least when it comes to, say, eggs (every second counts in the making of an omelette). Mostly, though, she is on the side of patience and ritual, both of which yield such results in terms both of taste and peace of mind (though she doesn’t quite say this, it’s clear from her description that she sees the proper brewing of coffee almost as a form of mindfulness). The section about meat, in the chapter titled Weeks, is revelatory, even for someone like me who’s all too well aware that roast meat doesn’t taste like it used to. Linford explains that the term “aged”, as it applies to priced-up supermarket cuts, generally means something that is known, rather unpleasantly, as “wet ageing”, where meat is wrapped in plastic and left for days or weeks (another idea for Gursky there, I think). Only beef that has been dry aged – preferably hung for as long as 55 days – is likely to taste of anything much.
The Missing Ingredient is the result of a great deal of research; it’s also the product of a 25-year career in food writing, something you feel on every page. Yet its arrival couldn’t be more timely. What Linford can’t have known as she was writing it was that in the month before its publication researchers at a Japanese university would reveal that slower eaters are far less likely to be obese than those who wolf down their food, probably because those in the latter group allow their brains no time to read hormonal cues from the gut telling them it is no longer empty.
The scientists concluded that their research would support “interventions aimed at reducing eating speed”. What such interventions might involve on the part of employers, whether in Silicon Valley or in Basingstoke, who can say? But surely we can all make more time for slower, more considered eating ourselves. For most people, this would be life changing. For a few, it could be life saving.
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