England, where is your real food?
My eyes open wide with joy and wonder at the sight of this woman who had left home very early this morning to buy lots of real food. She has come home with an enormous trolley full of fruits and vegetables, cheeses, meats and fresh bread. She wants to cook for us foreigners who are living here in England.
I watch her during the meal preparation. My eyes sparkle with delight to see such a passion for cooking and all my senses are aroused. The smell of the food, the pleasure of seeing all the ingredients starting to come together and the bubbling sounds make my mouth water.
Suddenly I feel happy and relaxed. This wonderful picture in the kitchen is, unfortunately, new for me. Most of the time I am used to watching ready meals being heated up by my flatmates. They perform just three actions. They open the fridge, open the packets of the daily ready meals and put them straight into the microwave. A sad sight!
Well, we, the young generation, get used month after month to seeing ready meals increasing in the supermarket. We get used to seeing chains of restaurants all around Exeter. We get used to seeing fast food everywhere. We get used to seeing young mothers unable to cook from scratch. We get used to thinking that all this is normal. We get used to eating junk food and believing that it is good food.
It is almost five years since I came to live in Exeter, and since then I have unfortunately witnessed many rapid and miserable changes concerning what we eat.
As a student at Exeter University I felt very cheated four years ago when I witnessed a shameless commercialisation of food and beverage services all over the campus. At that time my favourite restaurant was on the campus, but it was changed into a McDonalds type of franchise, although with a much posher name and posher interior. I guess this was to disguise it and prevent the students from thinking about it and realizing that the University was now selling us costly frozen fast foods instead of proper food. In fact, in 2005, the restaurant’s daily, freshly cooked food was replaced by the expensive fast foods that we have today. Naturally, the question which came to my mind was why were we students no longer entitled to a reasonably priced freshly cooked meal.
“Why?” was the question permanently present in my thoughts month after month. I asked myself if there was anyone who could justify these changes and give us students the reason behind these decisions. I guess there was an economic reason as usual. That’s behind everything, behind every change!
But I could not stop asking myself what happened to the chef of that restaurant? Why did he abandon us students? Where has he gone? Why is there no longer a chef in that restaurant? But what annoyed me most of all was that the chef was replaced by a manager. My frustration became worse. Why do we need a manager? What are his or her responsibilities if what is being served is “plastic fast food”? The manager’s salary could be reallocated to pay for a proper chef who would cook proper food for proper students. Right?
The University that should teach us to think, to be critical, to respect others is, in a sinister way, the first one to cheat us, the students, for economic reasons!
The same story is being repeated everywhere in the city centre. Try looking inside any supermarket, for example. The number of shelves of ready meals is increasing month after month, everywhere. “Why?” again came to my mind. I became so curious that I went to interview one of the duty managers in Tesco’s supermarket. She was a kind lady in her forties.
Why are you increasing your ready meal shelves?
“Because people don’t spend much time cooking any more. They buy ready meals because it’s easy and quick. Especially for mothers who work. When women get home in the evening they don’t have time to prepare good quality food from scratch. So it’s easier for them to heat up a ready meal.”
Well, it seems that in the future we will end up with every supermarket full of ready meals. Indeed, do you think that in the future the volume of ready meals will increase even more?
“Slightly, but for various reasons. The television, for example, has a huge impact on the English population. There are now several cooking programmes on TV. These make people “go back to cook”. For this reason, the number of ready meals sold is now increasing only slightly.”
Why do you think people don’t really cook and instead often or always choose ready food?
“Because they don’t have time for cooking.”
Do you think that by spoiling them with lots of ready meals, actually we make them lazier?
“Yes, we make them lazier”
Regardless of the fact that you work here, I would like to know your personal opinion. Are you happy to sell these ready meals?
“Yes, because it suits people very well. But I believe that we should develop a balance regarding food. Use ready meals when we do not have time for cooking, and cook food from scratch when we have time. Like me, for example, I use ready meals in the evening when I go back from work, but I cook from scratch at the weekend, like roast and vegetables on Sunday.”
Well, she may be right. I guess that having a balance would be the best solution, a compromise between time and work. But, what about young people, the new generation who do not have to cope with children or work? Students for instance. What will their justification be?
Still curious, I interviewed a young man, a student. He was not married, had no children and was not working, but he was eating ready meals daily.
If you do not use your time for cooking, then, in which other way do you employ your time? In a valuable way?
“I suppose I employ this time in other ways, like study, for example. I should use the time for cooking, for studying and to do other stuff, but the process of cooking from scratch is very long. It takes time to go to the supermarket to buy single ingredients, time to cook, time to wash up. Furthermore, I would be cooking just for myself and it isn’t worth it.”
If you could not find ready meals in the supermarket, would you actually cook?
“Yes, I would cook much more and maybe sometimes I would eat in the restaurants. Another solution could be to cook lots of food in one day, Sunday, for example. I could cook for 3 or 4 days in one go. Another way would be to find an agreement with my flatmates. Each time one person would cook for everybody.”
Do you think that the availability of a huge volume of ready meals in the supermarket, actually makes you lazier?
“No, because it does not affect me. These days time is the concern. Time is worth much more now than it was in the past. So, people don’t even have the problem of thinking about cooking. Nowadays, our lifestyle has evolved to make us need ready meals. In the past women did not work, so, they had time to stay home and spend time in the kitchen. Today, most women work, so, if men and women both work, who should cook?”
From these two interviews I realised that in some way the truth is being hidden. I understand that nowadays time is very important. But it seems that people give priority to spending time playing PlayStation, staying in front of the computer, not only for studying, but also for Skype, online poker, chatting….and so on.
Hours and hours dedicated to the computer. But we have to bear in mind that the computer does not feed us and we are in charge of it. At the end of the day, it’s just a simple machine. It might be clever, but it’s still a machine!
Most of us say that we do not have any time to really cook any more. But, how long does it take to prepare and cook simple, real food? Not very long. Maybe we should just steal some time from the television, DVD or computer?
We should ask ourselves what we would do if ready meals did not exist. And we should pretend that they do not exist, as they did not 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe if we try to do this, England will not end up as it is today, the country in Europe with the highest proportion of obesity. One in every five people in England is obese. We should stop blaming a lack of time, the system or society. We are the society! We are the customers who make a choice in the supermarket! We can choose and we should not forget this!
Veronica Angela Bascella, is an Italian PhD student studying in the UK. She says: “My grandmother has spent her whole life as a chef in restaurants and at home. She has transmitted her passion and love for food to me. I inherited her knowledge of cooking and more importantly the understanding that real food makes us healthier and happier.”.
Do you agree with Veronica? Is this a fair picture of British food culture - or the food culture in your part of the world? Join in the debate on our discussion board.