Hungry City – Carolyn Steel

(Chatto & Windus 2008)

This book has been sitting in my to-read pile for quite some time, and it’s only now that I’ve got round to reading it and wishing I had done sooner. I should state upfront that Carolyn is a friend and fellow-singer, but I shall try to be as objective as possible about her book.

In it, she describes the intimate relationship of cities to food, and how we go about feeding the population of cities in an increasingly urbanised society, and what we do with the stuff once we have it. There are seven main sections:

The Land, in which Steel discusses agriculture in general, and British agriculture more specifically;
Supplying the City – which goes into fascinating detail about how our cities are currently victualled, and how it was done in the past;
Market and the Supermarket – detailing how we buy food, the rise of the supermarket and its deleterious effect on our relationship with food;
The Kitchen – how we cook food and the kitchen’s place within the home;
At Table – how we eat, and why, and with whom, and what;
Waste – dealing with what we throw away; and
Sitopia – Utopian ideals of the perfect city, designed through sustainable relationship with the land and food.

This is a delightful book, chock-full of historical nuggets and interesting anecdote, giving examples ranging from the problems of feeding cities in the past, such as Rome, whose ever increasing size demanded further conquest to feed its population, or Paris, where there were special grain police and all sorts of laws enacted to maintain control of the capital’s food supply. Steel’s book is a celebration of food, and our intimate relationship with it – not in the sense of a celebrity chef giving recipes, but in the idea that we have become divorced, in our city life, from the processes which produce food, and thus have a rather uneasy relationship with the stuff.

I really enjoyed the historical details and summaries – for example, where the name and word restaurant (it’s originally a kind of soup) comes from, and descriptions of Bazalgette’s sewerage schemes in London – and Steel’s range of references goes from Suetonius to Brillat-Savarin and Le Corbusier (she is an architect by training and profession). The examples are largely British (unsurprisingly), but are also drawn from further afield, such as France, the USA, or China. The writing is always vivid and clear, and often amusing:

“As for cooking [food], there is a big difference between reading a saturated-fat statistic on the back of a ready-meal packet, and cutting off a lump of butter and sticking it into a pan – an act that never fails to afford me pleasure, even though I shudder at what it must be doing to my arteries. There is no better way to learn about food than cooking it; yet few of us today are shown how.”

‘The Kitchen’, p165

The development of the kitchen, the history of dining, city planning, the preparation of ready-meals, how supermarkets evolved, and so on, are all topics which Steel makes interesting and relevant to her thesis.

There is no shortage of important books about food and the modern agribusiness, exhorting us to think about what food we buy, eat and cook (Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food, Joanna Blythman’s Bad Food Britain, and so on) and any number of chefs and slow food advocates such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall ready to do their part; this book puts food into a historical context, and relates it in terms of life in cities, where it is not so easy to see the seasons run and feel close to the land. Steel shows us how it might be possible, even in a city, to readdress our relationship with food so that we will continue to be able to feed ourselves, but without endangering the planet.

In the last chapter, Steel shows us how food might be intimately integrated into the modern city, but it will require a massive shift in public thinking, particularly in Britain, where our relationship with food is so distorted (and I’m guilty of this as much as anyone, ordering groceries on line, and not buying from our local market, for example), as well as political will, which I am unsure will come unless there is some desperate crisis.

Despite all this, it isn’t a proselytising book, exhorting the reader to grow vegetables in their allotment, or buy all their food from farmers’ markets, but points out gently and rationally how one can make a difference – if not to modern food production and logistics, but to one’s own eating and buying habits – and it’s done in such a way that one feels enthused for the challenge!

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This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Non-fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Hungry City – Carolyn Steel

  1. Pingback: Review of 2010 in books « Ela's Book Blog

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