Sunday 28 January 2024

The past and future of food


When I give talks about a good, healthy future, I tell the audience that living sustainably doesn’t always involve inventing new technologies or ways of living. Quite often, I say, it involves rediscovering old ways that our grandparents knew but that we have forgotten.

I get a lot of objections to this from people who insist – as is fashionable to do these days – that everything in the past was terrible. Everyone was dumber than we are, everyone was a religious fanatic or a Nazi, everyone was starving, everyone died at 30, and so on. I’ve talked before about how educated most people were a century or two ago compared to ourselves, and I’ll talk more later about how we’ve taken the Nazis and retroactively superimposed them on every complex human situation. Right now, though, let’s look at some of the claims about food and health.

First of all, there was never an age when everyone died at 30. It is true that more infants died in the past, and while we are lucky to be spared that horror, it does warp the average; in many times and places, young adults could expect to live as long as they do today. A book of the Bible written perhaps 25 centuries ago said that humans live “threescore years and ten,” or 70 years, and that tracks with many traditional peoples around the world. Of those who survived infancy, 1850-era British men – mostly working-class -- lived to be 73 on average; life expectancy today for working-class British men today is only 72.

Nor were people starving in most times and places. Nineteenth-century British weren’t all begging for gruel, but usually enjoyed diets “vastly superior to that generally consumed today, one substantially in advance of current public health recommendations.” They ate more fruit and vegetables than most First-Worlders today, as well as nuts and organ meats high in micronutrients – most of the things fitness instructors recommend today, and they ate up to twice as much as we do. Similar examples come from many traditional societies; they lived more vigorous lives, so needed extra calories to survive -- and they did, because you’re reading this. As writer Chad Mulligan put it, starving people don’t build cathedrals.

Of course there have been severe famines in history, most famously Ireland. Yet that resulted from the British seizing the land for plantations to export food to Britain, while small farmers were forced to rely on the one crop with enough calories to feed them. When that crop caught a disease, there was nothing to fall back on, and what might have been unfortunate but survivable turned into a mass death. It was also genocide, as British plantations continued to export food to Britain even as their Irish workers starved.

Another truism of modern life is that all food until yesterday bland, rotten and generally disgusting. Just as people today insist that all earlier generations were less free, less healthy, less educated and less tolerant than we are, they insist that food must have been a daily ordeal, tolerable only because they were too ignorant to realise how miserable they were.

Sometimes people cite the often-repeated stories of bakers padding out bread ingredients with ash and bone and lead. As historian Frederick Filby demonstrated almost a century ago, however, those stories – 18th-century clickbait– could not possibly have been true. Filby tried baking bread with the alleged ingredients and found that it almost never became anything resembling bread, and were often more expensive to make than the real thing anyway. Also, food manufacturers put dubious substances into our food now, as we will see later.

Also, the examples many people give – say, of their grandparents’ olive loaf or fruit jello -- are not traditional foods at all, but were early examples of processed factory-made food that have simply fallen out of fashion, or marked as unforgivably working-class. Other people point out that old cookbooks never call for much seasoning, and are bland if you cook the dishes as described. But old recipes tended to give the basics of preparing a dish, with the assumption that people would add whatever herbs and “seasonings” were, well, in season.

Most traditional peoples eat far more variety than we do; English farmers record eating now-neglected meats like pigeons, rabbits, pheasants and geese; now-forgotten vegetables like cardoons, chicory and scorzonera; underappreciated fruits like damsons and medlars, and of course wild foods like Fat Hen, nettles, hawthorn, sorrel, dulse and samphire. These weren’t inferior foods that we ate out of desperation -- I can personally attest that most of these taste amazing – but they have been largely forgotten. Some were abandoned because of changing fashions, others because they did not fit our modern mass-production systems – medlars, for example, need to be picked when they are just slightly over-ripe, and cannot sit on a shelf for weeks. 

Also, the elders I talked to worked hard, and worked up an appetite. Few of us today have ever done this, but when you do, food tastes great by itself, and doesn’t need a lot of added chemicals to make it appetising. “It was wholesome food, plain and simple, and the golden rule was ‘get it into you and it will do you good.’” John Curran said in his memoir Tides of Change. They were also grateful for the food they had worked hard to earn; they had overseen the plants from seed to crop, and the animals from womb to adulthood to knife. We have no such connection to the hog factory workers or the genetic laboratories where the corn was designed, or the Godzilla-sized machines that harvest it. We have mountains of food, but it appears before us without context, removed from our capacity for gratitude.

In addition, meals were communal, and the company was as important as the food. Some of my most cherished memories are of Thanksgiving or Christmas at my grandparents’ small house, with aunts and uncles laughing and chatting as they prepared the meals together, set up the tables and finally packed together snugly to eat, chat, laugh and share stories. The food was great because it was shared in the company of loved ones, not because it was heaped with flavour chemicals.

“They were great old days,” John Lyons said in his memoir Joy of my Boyhood Years. “There was not much money around, but we had happiness and joy in our hearts, and every neighbour’s house was the same as your own. You could walk in any time of day or night.  The kettle was always on the boil, the tea was made, you sat down and you were handed a mug of tea with plenty of sugar and a yellow square hot off the griddle, with lashings of butter – a delicious feed. My mouth waters with longing when I think of it.”


Thursday 25 January 2024

Buildup to the riots


From my article:

There has been a surge in murder, rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, as well as a few shocking and previously unknown crimes—as when, in April 2022, a Muslim immigrant murdered two men, one of them by beheading, and stabbed a third man in the eye, after using a gay dating app to target his victims. Gauging how many of these crimes are committed by immigrants is difficult, however, as the media initially report only the perpetrators’ place of residence—a reticence that does nothing to allay suspicion.

When the national media do discuss such crimes, they generally blame Irish culture, rather than the assailants’ own cultures. After the beheading, for example, former president Mary McAleese blamed Christian churches for being “conduits of homophobia,” even though the assailant was from a Muslim country. When 23-year-old schoolteacher Ashling Murphy was stabbed 11 times by a Roma migrant in 2022, the Guardian ran an article on Ireland’s “culture of misogyny.”

Tuesday 23 January 2024

A changing country

From the Quillette article

Following a quarter-century of immigration, however, more than 20 percent of Ireland’s population is now foreign-born, and the immigrants keep coming; the number of asylum-seekers increased by 415 percent last year. According to Ireland’s Newstalk programme, 70 percent of those immigrants were male, and almost 40 percent had false or no passports. On the rare occasions on which an immigrant is ordered to be deported, only around one out of every seven deportation orders are actually carried out.

By the end of 2024, government spending on welfare payments is expected to have tripled from that of 2020. And this increase comes at a time when two-thirds of Irish people under 40 cannot afford to purchase a home and an unprecedented number of Irish people are homeless. Ireland is wealthy on paper—particularly thanks to the pharmaceutical and tech companies headquartered around Dublin—but much of that supposed “foreign investment” involves a kind of corporate tax dodge—and the cost of living has skyrocketed. To ease the strain on Dublin, the government has been shipping immigrants to rural areas en masse. In some country villages, asylum-seekers now outnumber Irish.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Published at Quillette

I'm delighted to report that Quillette magazine has published my piece on the Dublin riots, as well as the censorship bill going through the Irish Parliament as we speak. 

What's happening in Ireland is part of a much larger trend affecting every Western country, so this is an important story with a lot of moving parts, and I hope to report on more in the months to come. 

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Victory Gardens

Imagine Hollywood celebrities campaigning for backyard gardens, and America’s best-selling music stars singing songs about patriotic recycling. It may sound crazy, but that actually happened eighty years ago. As the USA entered World War II, much of the food industry focused on the war effort. Farmhands were needed at the front, machinery for planes, and people needed to do more for themselves. A grass-roots movement spread across both countries to create “victory gardens,” and the idea was picked up by celebrities, politicians and the media.

Similarly, In Great Britain, 60 percent of food was imported when World War II began, and most of that food now had to be grown locally – and everyone pitched in. Radio programmes, magazines and movie newsreels showed families how to save grease for machinery and bones for fertiliser, how to turn their yards and neighbourhood vacant lots into gardens into an allotment garden. They explained how to clamp potatoes under mounds of hay to keep them for the winter, and how to save energy when cooking food by setting stews in hay-stuffed boxes to slow-cook.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the victory gardens worked. They allowed most people to grow their own food, and spend less money. They put to work the precious space that is now being used simply as lawns or landscaping features. In a time when energy was scarce, they allowed more trucking and food to be used for the war effort. They ensured that millions of people became self-sufficient, and were insulated from the chaos of energy shortages and supply chain disorder. In the event of a crisis, every gardener makes your neighbourhood more secure. The gardens meant that people spent less money – the less money you need to spend on food, the more you can put away for paying the mortgage or eliminating the credit card debt. They created more beautiful neighbourhoods, gave people exercise, and brought communities together.

Victory gardens meant that citizens ate better food as  well – fresher than can be bought at any store, with the maximum nutrition and no chemicals. A now-forgotten 1977 Congressional panel observed that heart attacks and strokes went down in the war years, even with the stresses of war and a demographic shift toward the elderly, because of more fresh vegetables in their diet.

Such gardens also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which are currently used to plough fields, make fertilizers, create pesticides, harvest, process crops and transport them to market. Gardens eliminate all those steps at once, reducing a 10,000-kilometre diet to a 10-metre one. While Ireland never entered into World War II, the same thing was done here – council estates gave families as much land as a cow needed, and it was once common, I’m told, to see cows, pigs and chickens in many yards in Dublin. Even schools and hospitals had their own gardens to feed those inside.

Writer and former Soviet citizen Dmitri Orlov wrote that most Russians had kitchen gardens, and that 90 percent of the country’s food was grown in such plots. Even though they were formed from necessity, because of the poverty of the nation and the incompetence of centralized agriculture, they ended up being a blessing – as the nation collapsed, the people could still eat. He warns that many nations in the West are now heading for a crisis, but are not as well prepared.

Could we feed ourselves again? We have in the past, and with less knowledge and technology than we have now. Australian ecologist David Holmgren has estimated that his country’s cities could not only feed their own population, but become net food exporters, if the yards and golf courses were replaced by everything from leeks to cardoons to turnips. Presumably the same could be done in similar cities in Europe and America.

Some people are doing this now – still a small group, but in an emergency they could be the ones who teach others, as a similarly small fraction of the population could teach others when World War II began. Within only two years, though, Americans were growing almost half their own food. It could happen again, and if the next few years were to bring another fuel crisis, or a civil war, or an economic crash, or any number of other possibilities, every backyard could be an ark that could carry people through the storm.

Monday 15 January 2024



Sorry for the gap in writing; some of you know that there’s
been a lot happening in my life, and not just the riots.

I won’t go into details, but I’ll be posting a lot more in the future, both here and on social media, and on my web site. I’m also trying to find an agent and publisher for the completed book, which Rod Dreher was so kind as to promote onhis Substack.