Trying not to be part of the problem.

What is a meal? (And other difficult questions)


Don't be greedy with your ingredients.  In greedy ents.




In totting up the numbers for my "No Buy April" I noticed that on one occasion I had spent £13.73 on a single food shop when my parents came to visit and I cooked a casserole.  This is a lot more than I would consider spending on myself for one day's eats, and the discrepancy isn't only because I was cooking for three people instead of just one.  It's also to do with the way we all think about meals.  Really, it is, bear with me.  This is another of the many apparently boring things that intrigues me; another of the hidden assumptions of normal life that just get stranger the closer you look at them.  Nothing real is truly boring, you see.

On days when I have to go into the office to work in order to make myself some money to spend on things like not becoming homeless and/or starving to death (which I object to greatly, which is the whole point of this blog, but don't worry about that just now) I usually take myself a packed lunch (something that is now essential, it occurs to me, if I'm to be properly 'zero waste' - the only source of food near my workplace is a supermarket, nothing for sale comes without packaging).  There's always someone, isn't there, when you're eating something you've just microwaved who asks, that smells nice, what is it?  (Subtext: can I try some?  Sub-answer: no).  Of course it's just small talk, means nothing at all, and will immediately be forgotten the moment the comfortable silence descends again but I find myself uneasily answering the question, because what I'm eating doesn't usually have a name.  I've not followed a recipe.  Probably 90% of the time I'll be eating some combination of lentils, beans, onions, cabbage, leeks and potatoes.  For any extra flavour, perhaps a little salt, a little garlic.  But it's never a meal.  

That smells nice, what is it?  
Um...lentils, beans and cabbage.
Oh.
(Conversation ends).

It doesn't have a name.  It's like beans on toast in that respect.  It is what its name is.  And here's the thing: I feel embarrassed saying this.  If I'd given a name to what I was eating (perhaps I could pull of a 'lentil stew', but is it really stew?  Nothing has been stewed.  What is the minimum number of ingredients in a stew?  Three feels insufficient, and salt isn't really an ingredient) I might have elicited an "Oooo" response, something with emotion attached to it, rather than the flat and conversation-stopping, "oh".  Of course, the "Oooo" wouldn't really have meant anything sincere.  It would just have been a courtesy, an implied, "wow you can cook, oh my goodness I'm so terrible look at me just heating up a ready meal" even though they probably wouldn't have been actually, genuinely impressed, even if I'd said I was eating broiled lobster tails with garlic and chilli butter and a beluga caviar followed by a mandarin souffle with white chocolate sauce (which is what my boss eats actually, for lunch, every day).  There's only a slim chance they would even have been really listening.  Really listening is not good small talk etiquette.

Here's the rub.  Feeling any embarrassment about stating a simple, unadulterated fact is insane.  But I don't think it's that unusual.  It isn't hard to think of other examples where someone might ask you what you're doing (reading, listening to, watching, thinking about) and the truthful answer is something mundane or popular or - heaven forbid - normal but you decorate it somehow, driven by an urge to appear more interesting, quirky or attractive than you actually are.  I think this is an almost universal experience.  It is, nevertheless, as I said, insane.

It's insane because we do this sort of thing even when there's nobody actually there to impress.  Partly we're trying to impress ourselves, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I think this demonstrates one of the most subtle and sinister ways the worst aspects of our culture permeates our lives.  Why is sharing pictures of what we're about to eat on social media such a popular a thing we do?  Why this obsession with appearing remarkable, exceptional, special, interesting, exciting to others?  In constantly appearing to others, we are constantly appearing to ourselves.  And in constantly appearing, we run the risk of never actually being.  Appearances can be deceptive, as they say - but they can be descriptive, too.

So what happens is only what we allow to happen.  We become parodies of ourselves.  We fetishise everything, even the means by which those things are fetishised, and the means by which the things we fetishise are fetishised, and so on; an infinite regress of insecurity.  We can't even eat food without participating in our deconstruction.  When my parents came to visit, and I spent more on one meal than I would spend for myself in nearly a week, I was driven by the urge, as much to be hospitable (which is good) as I was by the need to be presentable (which is ungood).  Would lentils, cabbage and beans have been such an unacceptable thing to serve?  Who am I trying to impress?  These are questions to ask yourself next time you find yourself following a recipe with more than four ingredients.  Why are you embarrassed by simplicity?

I'm probably overthinking this.  But if I am, that would only prove my point.