Saturday, February 5, 2011

get a grip, consumers: on the politics of buying fresh food in times of crisis

This week on a super-hot day my friend Therese and I got together to make ceviche and drink gin and tonics - with lime. When I got to her place, Therese recounted to me a conversation she had with her Balaclava greengrocer as she purchased a bargain kilo of limes for AUD 1 - and it's made me think seriously again about a trend I've noticed in Australian fresh food consumption that is both infuriating and sad. The discount price we paid for limes the other day was not just some fluke super-special - the severe markdown was due to the fruit being slightly water-marked, damaged by the disasterous weather conditions Queensland has experienced in recent weeks. The greengrocer explained that she simply wouldn't sell this produce that was juicy, ripe and ready to be used, because of its slightly blemished skin.

We'd all have at least some idea of the massive devastation caused by recent flooding in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria (not to mention the new damage caused by cyclone Yasi), but the lasting impact for residents and farmers is something we'll never really know the extent of. For example, did you know that farmer suicide rates have risen drastically over the past few years due to drought? How will people living in this already desperate climate respond to these new levels of devastation? This article in The Australian published in mid-December reports on two cases of farmer suicide since the NSW floods and quotes Independent MP Bob Katter on what he thinks is an escalating problem:

"I will say, without any fear of contradiction that there will be suicides as a result of the situation in the sugar industry, as there will be in the grains industry...You've got to understand these people might be in their 50s -- they've never known anything else except farming, and there are no jobs they can get in these little western towns." (Dec 13)

I can't deny that I'm disappointed in the quality and level of availability of summer stone fruit this year - when you eat seasonally, these are things that you look forward to through the long, cold Winter months. But we might all stop a minute and consider the reasons national supermarket chains have lowered their quality standards this year. Stone fruit farmer Tony Siciliano, speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald, reported that 10 000 of his nectarine and peach trees were under water: "It's still too early to tell but many of those are going to die" (Jan 31; you can read more about this situation here). In the face of such conditions, I find it hard to complain about a couple of marks on the skin of my limes, or the fact that this year I might not get to make a fresh peach pie.

When people demand other-worldly perfection of their fresh food, it's indicative of a really huge problem with consumption in our culture. I remember working at Prahran market and experiencing first hand the same frustration expressed by the greengrocer when customers demanded units of fresh produce of precise and identical sizes and shapes. After massive fires in Greece in 2007 devastated enormous olive groves hundreds of years old, customers here complained that the size of their Kalamata olives were not exactly the same as the ones they'd bought a couple of months ago. The fishmongers at the market bore the brunt of daily demands for three fish fillets exactly the same size and shape - fillets taken from two different fish that were, a day earlier, living things eating and growing in the ocean. When you're accustomed to buying pristine-looking, manicured food that is frequently packaged in a convenient tray, topped with a spring of parsley and wrapped with plastic, gleaming and ready to display in your SMEG refrigerator, you've become out of touch with the reality of our situation. First, I wonder if many consumers have even considered the flavour of the food they're buying. And second, I worry that all of this is symptomatic of cultural disconnection with the reality that fresh, abundant food is a privilege and a gift.

In any case, complaining - or missing out - is not the only way to deal with such situations. We should take a leaf from the book of chef Ray Capaldi (Hare & Grace), who recently described working against higher wholesale food prices as a "a challenge and good fun" (Feb 5). The Age reported that he and head chef Daniel Schelbert have been revising their menu to combat rising prices - and this is something we can all try to do at home too. The same article quoted Matteo Pignatelli who explained that while prices of some foods have increased dramatically, the price of seafood - for instance - has actually decreased, so while diners at his Fitzroy North restaurant Matteo's might not see bananas on the menu, they can enjoy a number of new seafood dishes. I find little to complain about in this!

So, Australian food consumers in search of that freakishly perfect lime to throw into your midsummer mojito, get a freaking grip. I dare you to think about the real cost of your demand for perfection - and then tell me your mojito tastes quite so sweet. Instead, there are a number of soul-fortifying things you could do: buy lots of cheap, imperfect limes and make a pie. Change up your menu a bit; try some new recipes. Head to farmer's markets to support growers directly. Think about where your food comes from - and what it really is.
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