48 hours in Toronto


48 hours in Toronto. It was just too rock’n’roll to miss. I was to present a paper on the ‘Making of Nigella’ a postmodern reading of the creation of gastroporn by the goddess herself  at the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies’ academic conference at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto before flying home the very next day. Jetlag? Shmeltlag; I’d got my Melatonin tablets and was ready to face my public. Conference season is a chance to press the flesh within our communities of practice, to engage with researchers in our fields. These were my people in the world of media literacy and cultural studies and I was ready to get excited again about deconstructing the modern world.

But it was also a chance to glimpse a city that I’d never seen, to taste the culture through its fab fooderies and piece together a jigsaw even if I didn’t have time to see the big picture. With the help of my conference colleagues, twenty-something PhD students Stephanie Patrick and Averie MacDonald, I set out to find the heartbeat of the city through its food and found it in Kensington Market and in a chat over a delicious Pad Thai.  I asked them how food reflects the culture of a city and even a nation… Have a listen.

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Life and Death

I’m not sure about this co-farming business. Since Eat Sussex, the magazine where my column chronicling my adventures in the countryside appeared for the last three years went under, the reality of our new life has challenged every argument I ever made.

I had always thought that it was more important to meet my meat rather than buy it in a shrink-wrapped unrecyclable plastic tray, but when Piggy Sue died last week after a miscarriage and subsequent prolapse, I wasn’t lining up for a slice. Nor will I be sharing a BBQ with Farmer Jim when the piglets born to her sister – thankfully the evening after her demise – are fat yet still suckling.

We have spent the last four months feeding those pigs our leftovers, encouraging them to eat up their greens as soon as we knew they were pregnant, praising the boar with an extra lump of congealed spaghetti al pesto for his efforts and tickling the girls behind the ear after the vet told us that their hormones might be disrupted by slops. When Piggy Sue first got pneumonia at the height of the first media excitement about Swine Flu, it was me who told Farmer Jim that her breathing wasn’t right. I didn’t even cover my mouth.

And then there’s the gosling that Poppy Dog munched into this morning; after months of watching him grow from mossy fluffball to sleek young buck, how could I contemplate snacking on his wing or confiting one of the legs I’d seen waddling over to the lake every day. Instead I lured his terrified brother from behind the sheep pen, wrapping him in a towel like something out of Animal Rescue and gave him back to his alarmed parents. Jed says that it wasn’t grief that sharpened their call this morning, but it sure as hell sounded like it.

I know, I know, life’s cruel in the countryside, and it’s better that they all had a good life, eating what pigs and goslings should eat. But to all you city folk who think you’re missing out by having to resort to another trip to Sainsbury’s, let me tell you; it’s not all a bowl of cherries.

9. More Than We Can Chew

Ellie’s life is closing in on her. Everyone she knows is eating their pets. And I have to admit I’m beginning to lose my own appetite for meat.

It’s a long road from Brighton to Planet Countryside. When we moved from the buzz of the seaside to the lazy plains of Bloomsburyshire three years ago, my plan to leave Sainsbury’s to the townies and go local was little more than a social experiment. Since then my shopping philosophy has gone through politics and health and out the other side until, inspired by the adventures of our fellow city resisters who moved from Preston Park to pig farming down the road, we are perched on the verge of small-holding ourselves.

By the time you read this, we will have moved from our community of snow-balling school-bunkers with its veg plots and poly tunnel, horses, chickens and co-housing philosophy and will be knee deep in pig poo. After dipping our toes in country life, we’re going in. Deep.

Well, deepish. The house we’re moving to is not only a cycle ride away but is part of a 21 acre estate with sheep, pigs and chickens roaming freely like something out of a Disney story. The boundaries were supposed to be set in stone – three acres for us and 18 for the vendor’s animals, but when I looked past the duck pond to the fields next door a vision of my childhood, my parents’ and grandparents’ and a fantasy I could impose upon my own children’s pulled suddenly into sharp focus. A quick word with the farmer, and the deal was done.

Co-farming, we shall call it. He pays the bills and sells the meat and we feed, coo, clean and gambol with the animals. The kids’ lives will be transformed; it will have taken three years to pull them away from the TV to paddle in streams and make dens in the woods, but perhaps Wii will finally become something that we clean out of the chicken coop, and Friends will refer to our (almost) own lambs and piglets.

The sniff of a life in farming started for us here in this community of 22 families who moved from London and Brighton with a vague interest in self sufficiency and co-owning a lot of animals. It’s been fun spending the last three years feeding the chickens and gathering up the eggs on our chicken day, sitting in meetings discussing whether to get goats or llamas to chomp through our 25 acres in the interest of both Peak Oil and Climate Change. And I dare say when food security leaps off the pages of the Guardian and into its back yard, the community will realise its true Good Life potential. In fact, as we move the last of our boxes out, they will be voting on the idea of raising chickens for eating for the first time.

For Ellie, that means it’s time to go. The country air has permeated her soul, but not quite as I might have imagined; where once she might have been thrilled to hear that baby chicks would be reared under hot lamps outside her mate Zoe’s house, her activist’s face is set. “They’re going to eat them, aren’t they?? And she stomps off to pack another box.

I have tried to tell her about the pigs in the new place. And the sheep. Happily, she and her sister are still so excited about the colour of their new bedrooms and the 35 year-old horse in the garden that they have managed to put the reality of our new life on hold. Grandpa, tickled by the idea of our vegetarian daughter facing the truth of the land, couldn’t resist when we last went to visit. “This time next year? he said as he looked out at the first snowdrops peeking from beneath their wintry carpet, “you’ll be slapping on your rubber gloves for the lambing?. As the children looked at me to explain his crude impersonation of a country mid-wife, I quickly spun the conversation back to the story of Granny’s chicks.
“My father hatched them in my bedroom?, she explained. “They were our Christmas treat.?
“Ah, how sweet,? said Loulou, wide-eyed at the thought of her ten-year-old granny playing with a clutch of fluffy chicks in her doll’s house, before cuddling up with them in bed. Ellie’s eyes narrowed.
“You ate them, didn’t you??
“Of course,? laughed Granny. “They tasted so much better than the ones from the market?.

Even Dave and Vicky, our newly countrified pals from Brighton who seemed so kind, so warm, are thumbing through their recipe books as spring calmly and certainly beckons their pigs to the abattoir. Luckily, Mother Nature, with a sweep of her magic wand, manages to turn the cutest of piglets into huge, snorting and slightly alarming beasts just before slaughter but even so, I’m beginning to worry about how I’m going to manage with the happy meat story when they’re my own. When Vicky’s escaped pigs tried to climb inside her car the other night, I knew that they weren’t trying to eat her as she suspected, but that they were heading straight for the key to the larder. These are some of the most intelligent animals in the world and they know that if Vicky is late for dinner, the world really could be over. The fact that it will be in a couple of months is, I increasingly find, not worth thinking about.

As we pile the last sofa into the back of the car, I frantically redefine my foodie philosophy. The way I see it is that our local butcher needs our business and it is our solemn duty to support all those local farmers by plying our trade in the proper manner. And while our chickens lay plentifully, their lives are not in danger. It’s a good eighteen months or so until we have to face the future of our lambs. They’re not even born yet, for God’s sake. No, as we head into a brave new world of small-holding, we’ll take it literally, holding small, sweet, squeaky things, bottle feeding the lambs and playing chess with the pigs.

What’s wrong with bee-keeping anyway?