Monday, 28 May 2018

When basic needs become a luxury

This is prompted by a post on tumblr that read:

fucked up how cooking and baking from scratch is viewed as a luxury… baking a loaf of bread or whatever is seen as something that only people with money/time can do. I’m not sure why capitalism decided to sell us the idea that we can’t make our own damn food bc it’s a special expensive thing that’s exclusive to wealthy retirees but it’s stupid as hell and it makes me angry [user: @grossrabbit] 

The comments that followed were largely in agreement and it became a post of sharing people's "easy" and "quick" bread recipes with comments about how they couldn't believe that anybody would still buy bread. There was a smug implication that those who make their own bread were smarter for having figured this out and for "beating the system" whilst those who did not cook from scratch were somehow foolish, easily duped, lazy or just not trying hard enough. Because obviously, when it was so easy to make bread from scratch with one of these simple recipes why isn't everybody doing it. 

Before I continue I should point out that I absolutely love cooking. I like cooking from scratch, using fresh and basic ingredients. I even like baking, especially breads. Additionally, by and large I do think that cooking is easier than a lot of people believe and do try and encourage people to give it a go. However, we shouldn't be scratching our heads that it is "viewed as a luxury". That's not the problem. The problem is that for a lot of people in the UK and the US this type of cooking is a luxury and one they don't have access to. The question we need to be asking is "how has something as simple as cooking from base ingredients become a luxury in our society?"

Those of you familiar with my blog and political beliefs may have an inkling as to what I believe is the answer to this question. But before I get into the specifics I want to try and explain to you why the act of cooking from scratch and baking your own bread is a luxury for a vast number of people in our culture. Please keep in mind that I am in the UK and my experiences are based on life in the UK but I have tried to be conscientious of challenges that people may face elsewhere, especially in the US. 

The actual obstacles

Cooking and baking from scratch requires - access to fresh ingredients; time; space.

If you are working long shifts, multiple jobs, studying and working, working and doing child care, working and a carer for an adult you simply don’t have time to bake and cook from scratch regularly. Or you might but you would have no time for anything else like sitting and resting, or enjoying a hobby or activity. If it is something you only get the time to do occasionally then it becomes a luxury.

If you have a disability you may not be physically able to cook from scratch regularly - this is often wrapped up in “time” because it relates to having the time to cook when you are physically capable of doing so. Chronic health conditions or disabilities that limit your ability to do an activity essentially act as a time suck that take time away from you being able to do something. The time and ability to cook becomes a luxury.

Access to fresh or basic ingredients is a difficult one. This is often a balance of time and money. Ingredients that you have easy access to from your local grocery store may be limited. Some base ingredients can be affordable, but others may not be. The alternative is going to stores further away or multiple stores to pick up the ingredients you need. This takes time to do, (there is also the added fuel or public transport costs). This issue can be compounded by health limitations that mean travelling further to go to the shop that sells the thing or going to the big busy market is simply not possible. For people who are limited by resources, budget, time or location, access to suitable ingredients is a luxury.

Then there is access to the things you need to cook. You may be able to find some items cheaply in charity shops but it’s a bit hit and miss and you need the time to be able to wait around for those items to appear or to visit a number of shops to see if they have them in. Or you need to be able to buy brand new. Again it’s a balance of time and money to make everything from pans to spatulas to mixing bowls available (and I’m not even considering electrical items or actual stoves here). Access to that equipment can be a luxury.

Poorer people who live in small homes may have tiny kitchens which they struggle to actually cook in. They may not have space to store a full set of pans or other items, they may not have a stove or working oven. They may only have a tiny fridge and no freezer if at all. Additionally if you are in a house share situation or even if you have a family in a small home you can’t take up a lot of time and space using kitchen facilities because other people need that space too. Having regular, adequate space and facilities to cook from scratch is a luxury.

The real issues

Yes, there are people who manage to cook great things from scratch on a tiny budget or in small kitchens and so on but usually these are people who have other privileges i.e. the person on a tiny budget may work from home and have the flexible time to put the effort in. Additionally these people usually enjoy the process so are getting downtime or R&R from it as well as actual food - there is added value tot he process). I have a friend who has a tiny kitchen but loves cooking and freelances as a caterer - it is amazing how much she has fit into a tiny space and how she has learned to use it, but for her it's not just about getting a basic plate of food on the plate in front of her. There is added value and intensive (her enjoyment and proficiency as a cook) in figuring out how to make the tiny space work.  

When there is an additional benefit to the effort needed i.e. it’s not just about sustenance it’s also about quality time spent, that is motivating factor. We can’t chastise people who don’t get that pleasure and for whom cooking is a chore if they want to spend less time doing and maybe more time doing something they like like reading a book, watching TV or just snoozing.

We certainly shouldn’t chastise people who are already extremely limited on time to not want to spend all their free time, space or money on cooking.

The reality is that in a lot of modern hyper capitalist societies like the USA and the UK, cooking from scratch is a luxury for a lot of people.

It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Chastising people and trying to jolly them along with “helpful” advice about this great bread recipe you have doesn’t help. It doesn’t actually solve any of the factors that is making it a luxury.

All it ends up doing is shaming people who are not able to cook from scratch due to their circumstances. It can also have the effect of trying to make people feel guilty for not trying enough. It essentially says “if you wanted to you could do this. If you wanted to you could spend literally all your “free” time, money and effort cooking, but you don’t want to. You just aren’t trying hard enough.” and let me tell you that is toxic. That is the sort of toxic rhetoric that is spouted at poor and disabled folk all the time.

It’s similar to the people who look at people like Jack Monroe of Cooking on a Bootstrap fame and say “why are the poor people complaining, if they just tried hard enough they could eat fine. If they wanted to they’d have plenty of money for food.”. While completely missing the message that cook books on “how to stretch £5 to feed two people for a week” shouldn’t even have to exist. Jack produced their initial blog posts and recipes out of sheer desperation.

In our society cooking from scratch is for a lot of people a luxury.

The issue is not people being stupid, or not trying enough.

The answer is not to be smug about your bread or to make blog articles about “5 hacks to making soup”. 

It is not viewed as a luxury. It is a luxury: and that's wrong

The answer is to challenge a society and social structure that has made the very basics of living - preparing food to eat - into a luxury activity. We should be asking why people have to work so many hours each day that putting a ready meal in the microwave is preferable (or the only option) instead of cooking. We should be asking why market forces have made it so that some basic ingredients cost more than pre-prepared ingredients, why these aren’t widely available and why companies are allowed to charge premium prices for limited stock. 

Rather than smugly talking about your sourdough starter and overnight loaf, we whould be campaigning for a Universal Basic Income.

We should be looking at why housing is an ongoing issue, why people are forced into tiny houses, house shares (not happy communes) and sub par housing that doesn’t have proper cooking facilities. We should be asking why private rents have sky rocketed while social housing has been more than decimated and why there are tax breaks to housing developers that push up the cost of buying or renting but not to those who wish to renovate existing housing stock to make it suitable accommodation.

Rather than rapping people on the knuckles for buying a jar of pasta sauce instead of fresh tomatoes, we should be petitioning MPs for tighter control of the rental market and better rights for tenants.

We should be asking we social care and support for disabled people and their carers is so poor that many disabled people end up with malnourishment because they simply can’t afford food, the facilities to cook it or have the support they need in order to feed themselves.

This is not a case of “ho ho, if only those plebs knew how to make this simple loaf!”. This is a case of “why the hell do we continue to support an economic system that makes cooking from scratch a luxury?”

In case it wasn't clear, it's capitalism. Capitalism is the reason cooking from scratch is a luxury.

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