Friday, 9 August 2019

For What We Are About To Receive

One of the legacies Ms Formerly Aldgate left with me has been at mealtimes. She had a fascination for Japanese culture and we ended up watching a variety of variously silly but in their different ways delightful TV shows on Netflix, hailing from the Land of the Rising Sun, which one way or another revolved around food. I noticed characters saying something before and after eating, usually with a little bow, and asked her what it was. ‘It’s itadaki masu,’ she explained, ‘it's a sort of grace. It roughly just means “thank you for the food”.’ So that has become my grace. It has no explicit religious content, but if you’re a Christian it inevitably makes you reflect who it is you are thanking.

When I and Ms Brightshades went to Brighton a little while ago, we ate in a vegan pizzeria (apart from the little greasy-spoon I ate in on my previous visit, I shouldn’t think there’s much else in Brighton). My pizza came with some vegan cheddar, a gloopy substance which was tasty enough in its own right but which clearly wasn’t cheese. Several of my friends are great foodies but also want to eschew meat and dairy, and so they swap reports of the latest available vegan cheeses (for instance) and how close they may be to milk-based Stilton, or Cheddar, or Brie, or Halloumi.

I am not sure that I see the point of trying to imitate animal-based produce. I have used meat substitutes in the past, mainly because I was too mentally lazy to rethink my repertoire and work out more vegetable-based meals, but to me they never seem to get that close to the experience of meat. The various plant-based milks I tried some time ago were nothing like cow juice, though I would very much have liked them to be.

Not that how food feels should be the final deciding matter. I have had some very agreeable meat meals, and occasionally when I get a steak from the butcher even I manage to cook it properly so eating it becomes delightful; but it’s a sensual pleasure I could easily live without. I continue to consume meat now and again, not particularly because I like it, but firstly as part of what I tell myself is ‘a balanced diet’, and perhaps even more importantly as a sort of ritualised symbol of my belief in sustainable farming. Far from what I think some non-meat-eaters imagine, I know exactly what that lamb chop, for instance, is. It’s a section from across the back of a lamb, chopped with a cleaver: it comprises skin, fat, muscle, nerve, and bone. My minute or two of consumption is also a time of meditation on where it’s come from and the processes that brought it to my plate. But perhaps I am wrong.

As far as dairy is concerned, it’s more a matter of what animal fat does in culinary terms: I could manage with my fridge empty of Stilton, or Cheddar, or Brie, or Halloumi, or my pint of milk or pat of butter, but cooking without them would require quite some reorganisation, and I’m not sure vegetable fat behaves in the same way. Again, perhaps I should work at it a bit more.

Thinking about this, I realised that the pleasure I derive from food is in fact a variety of different pleasures. I like cake and ice cream, but they are both a long way removed from their constituent materials, and the delight I draw from them is mainly sensual. They are nice to eat, and something that’s plant-based but trying to behave like cheese as a result of a lot of technical ingenuity might fall into the same sort of category. If I make a cake, or someone I know makes one for me, the pleasure that comes from eating it is mixed with satisfaction at what I’ve done or gratitude for someone else’s kindness. But when I sit and dip a piece of bread in a bowl of olive oil, and cut apart an apple, the simplicity and relative proximity to the natural products generates a sort of spiritual pleasure, a thankfulness and receptivity. It takes me away from myself, and into a world I have not made. There is a glory in a plate of roasted vegetables, for the same reason: they have not had that much done to them that removes them from their natural state, so they remind me of my own nature, my own limitation. And I think that’s there, albeit with some ambiguity, even in the bloodiness of a lamb chop and the miraculous quality of an egg. Itadaki masu.

(The UN IPCC's report on food and land use is here). 


  1. "The various plant-based milks I tried some time ago were nothing like cow juice, though I would very much have liked them to be."

    Have you tried Oatly Barista? Easily the best, and I've tried them all, right from the early 1980s when soya milk tasted like chalky water. Nearly £2 per litre, but it actually behaves well in tea and coffee.

  2. I've tried Oatly, but is Oatly Barista different? I will have a look.