If you walk along the aisles of any major super market nowadays, you get a glimpse of our priorities. All the labels boast quickness and results. Two minute noodles, cup soup, instant coffee, microwavable popcorn, quick oats. Schnell schnell schnell. Descriptors of taste and joy are subordinate. Whatever the results are, we want them fast. There’s no savouring the process, enjoying or learning from the journey. It’s about getting a quick hit.
I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of weeks now, ever since my local supermarket stopped selling my favourite kind of oats – replaced on the shelves by myriad “quick” varieties. I really like making oats. I dump butter, water, milk and steel cut oats into a saucepan, stirring them over a low heat for about an hour – my former deskmate has a gorgeous recipe. The whole thing is a production, and, it’s a beautiful one. It’s therapeutic.
I watch the bubbles form and burst. I worry about it all sticking to the bottom of the pan. I spill half of it on the counter while I ladle it out. It’s great. Granted, I probably couldn’t pick my oats out of a lineup. But that’s not the point. Of course a bowl of oats shorn the context of an hour’s labour is exactly like any other – it’s the hour that makes it special.
The journey is part of the experience, not something to be wished away.
I’ll give you another example – coffee. I’ve recently started experimenting with coffee. I’m trying to learn exactly how the interplay between grind, heat and extraction creates a nice cup. Down the road from my house is a coffee roaster, and I recently walked down to pick up a grinder and a bag of beans. Upon my return, I was immediately confronted with a telling question – “why didn’t you get an electric grinder? It’s much faster.”
Of course it is. My hand grinder takes forever. So I pop a handful of beans in the top, walk out onto my balcony and start whirring away. It takes many, many minutes. It’s great.
The moment the beans come in contact with the porcelain blades they release the most beautiful smell. The slow, sharp crunching noises bleed together, becoming a low roar. The wind brushes my face, the morning light hits my eyes, my muscles are working. These are sensations just not available at a push of a button. All of it together is what makes it special – not the caffeine hit in isolation. It’s the same reason your coffee is better sitting in the cafe than when you’re skulling it on the train.
Over the last few decades we’ve slowly been learning to take a more wholistic view of the world. Centuries of monocropping left us with dwindling soil quality and a buildup of pests. A lack of top-level diversity left Facebook shut out of India. We need to extend this lesson to food.
Food is fuel, yes. But when we move beyond basic survival it is so much more than that. By reducing it to banal results, and how fast we achieve them, we lose most of the magic.