COVID-19: An opportunity for disaster solidarity

If you’ve been paying any attention to the myriad articles talking about the likely causes of the current COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll have read that the hippies were right – rampant destruction of the environment has led us into a global crisis, and industrial agriculture is a solid contender for worst offender. Whether this particular coronavirus came from bats, pangolins, or another creature isn’t really that important – the knowledge that it’s a zoonotic disease (passed from animals to humans) – and that all of the other most recent outbreaks (SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah, Zika…) were too – offers more-than sufficient evidence to act on. In fact, the FAO tells us that more than 70% of all infectious diseases in humans since the 1940s can be traced to animals.

Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu can answer a lot of your pressing questions on these theories, so go listen to him here. (And then google him and find the hundreds of other interviews and papers he has produced on this topic since well before the outbreak began. (One of the hardest things about being Rob right now must be resisting the daily urge to shout ‘I told you so, you bastards!’)

Read this 11-page communique from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems – it will give you all the information you need on the causes and potential solutions to the pandemic. And if you’re time poor, check out this shorter piece from New Matilda here.

The jury is in – industrial agriculture is a menace to society.

Some of us have been banging on for many years about the dangers of intensive livestock production, massive global losses of biodiversity, and the narrowing of genetic diversity in agriculture specifically, fast animal turnover in industrial systems, separating breeding and growing operations (with attendant loss of potential herd immunities), and habitat fragmentation, and it’s turned out we were right all along. So what’s going to happen? And what alternative futures lay before us?

First, a quick look at impacts, and then some hopeful possible solutions…

Impacts on the food system

The impacts are unfolding fast, and in many countries they are awful. I’m not going to write about the devastation the pandemic is having in countries where health care systems have been undermined by neoliberal regimes that have systematically implemented policies that have rejected the public interest, and nor am I going to offer analysis of the structural racism and classism that will see the most disadvantaged in society feel the brunt of this crisis. My expertise is in food systems, so that’s what I’ll stick with. I’m also going to focus primarily on Australia, because you simply can’t extrapolate the disruptions to social cohesion, well-being, and domestic economies from one country to another without making some terrible generalisations and misleading blunders.

What are the initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australian food systems?

Supermarket shelves emptied fast as panic buying set in. Their ‘just-in-time’ model of distribution has proven to be as precarious as food security researchers have told us for many years. But they have also aggressively hired the newly unemployed to stack shelves more rapidly – a move that could cast them in the light of savior in spite of decades of predatory behaviour.

Many farmers’ markets have been closed, either by risk-averse (and ill-informed, I would say) councils, or the organisers themselves, though others remain open, with social distancing protocols in place. This has left many small-scale farmers in the desperate position of having to rapidly find other ways to connect to their eaters, and forced some farmers’ market shoppers back into the arms of their jilted supermarkets.

Most restaurants and cafes are either closed or doing takeaway or delivery services only. The future of the hospitality sector is in question as food service workers scramble to survive. It remains to be seen whether the government’s bailout packages will be enough to keep people fed and housed through this crisis.

Farmers whose usual market is food service were thrown into crisis along with the nation’s chefs and other workers, and they have had to rapidly find new markets for their produce. For small-scale farmers, there has been a greater capacity to pivot to selling directly to households, though in many cases this has meant arduous hours doing direct deliveries without any time to develop these new systems.

The legends at Open Food Network have risen to the challenge to bring a thrilling wave of new farmers onto their platform to directly connect with eaters looking for alternatives to the stupidmarkets.

For large-scale farms, there is no such agility in a global pandemic. If you’re a watermelon grower in the Northern Territory whose market is primarily restaurants, caterers, and airlines, there is nothing to do but watch your melons rot in the fields. When you’re talking 600 tonnes v. 6 tonnes of produce to sell, selling direct to eaters is not an option.

For those just tuning in, my hypercompetent husband Stuart and I are small-scale pastured heritage breed pig and cattle farmers, and while our farm exists largely separately from the commodity food system, we remain reliant on two critical umbilicals to the industrial machine: feed and abattoirs.

When we shifted to an entirely waste-stream feed supply from our local brewery and other produce from other surplus yield, we thought we had exited commodity feed production. But the majority of our feed supply is detritus from the industrial system built on growth and volume – so we lost most of our feed sources overnight as pubs were shut down and the brewery stopped brewing. We’re still receiving occasional container loads of muesli bar ingredients amongst other diverse oddities as food waste in fact just got worse with the sudden disappearance of food service, but the reliability of the nutritional quality of our feed took a steep dive. And we’re not the only ones – small-scale pig farms across Australia have been egging each other on in our pursuit of non-commodity grain and ecologically-beneficial feed options, and many of us now face the loss of this resource and need to return to commodity grain direct from the feed supplier. A year ago this wasn’t even a viable option as the drought drove prices up to more than double in some cases. I’ll return to possible solutions that don’t involve commodity grain in a future post once we’ve given it more thought.

So more expensive and ecologically dubious feed is one direct impact small-scale livestock farmers are grappling with, and the other threat we face is the potential closure of abattoirs, as is already happening in the US. The problem of a highly centralized food system is that there are so few facilities left, nearly all owned by a handful of multinational corporations, and if they are forced to close, farmers of all sizes lose their options. Given the low margins most abattoirs operate on in the best of times, one can only assume that many may not be able to continue in the face of a prolonged shutdown. While Australia’s control of the virus is leagues ahead of the US and our case numbers still quite low, an outbreak in a large, vital facility could still be devastating.

Together, we’ve got this

Some of you reading this have read and/or heard my positions on how to solve the world’s problems before, and you, like me, may have thought, ‘sounds great, but a bit utopic, hey? I mean, capitalism isn’t going anywhere…’ But then the current consequences of humanity’s failures have offered us an opportunity to ‘test the model’, shall we say. Guess what we’re finding?

Globalised food systems, capitalism, and disconnected atomized populations are just as brittle as some of us said they were.

Local food systems, solidarity economies, and strongly networked and collectivized communities have got this.

The upsurge in people seeking memberships with community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms is breathtaking. Farms that had struggled to compete with peoples’ addiction to ‘convenience’ and achieve full subscriptions are now turning people away. Others are increasing production to let some more in. Those of us who were already full are doing what we can to support our members who’ve lost their jobs – our turn to look after them, because that’s how solidarity economies work – it’s a two-way street.

A very smart comrade asked me whether I thought small-scale farmers (aka ‘peasants’) ‘can enter and exit the market as they need to. When times get tough, cut back to subsistence (in a way corporate farming can’t).’ It’s an interesting question about the variables that might offer resilience at different scales. While I think that peasants in the Global South might have some of this flexibility where they have remained quite separate from industrial food systems, the ‘new peasantry’ that has arisen across the world over the past decade (like farmers such as ourselves) probably has less capacity to expand and contract in the same way, primarily due to carrying high levels of debt. Flirting with capitalism while trying to crush it is a dangerous game. Which is not to say that taking on debt makes one a capitalist, but rather entwined in a system that has made it genuinely difficult to make it obsolete.

But what I will say for the peasants of the world, be we from a long line of people of the land or relatively newly boots on soil is that resourcefulness and frugality are our bedfellows. Unlike our industrial counterparts, most of us eat what we grow, and we grow what we eat. We savour the products of our labour, and we maintain old traditions of preserving for the lean times. These are the hallmark attributes of peasants the world over, and as I’ve watched my peasant comrades from Australia to Italy, China to America, South Africa to Brazil, I’ve seen their self- and community- sufficiency as the world’s original preppers have found ourselves prepared. We guiltily share how much we’re enjoying lockdown, because farmers eat lockdown for breakfast – it’s like most days of the week for us, but better because we’re forced to be where we most want to be, and so have more time for growing, preserving, and planning a better system.

And planning we are, on our farms, with our communities, and in our collectives. Buckminster Fuller famously said that ‘You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.’ We have been building the new one (while also fighting the old one), and now we’re (mostly) ready. The old system is eating itself, the new one is going to feed you.

Remember – together, we’ve got this. That means all of us. If you’re unemployed or looking for ways to foster your community – find or start a local Mutual Aid Group. If you’re a farmer or an eater in Australia, join the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. In the US, join the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. Every country has its collectives – join yours. Wherever you are, collectivise, organize, and ACT.

Jonai Farmstead Salami – crowdfunding is community-supported agriculture!

Note: the following is cross-posted from our farm blog The Hedonist Life

Last year 166 wonderful people believed in us enough to support our Pozible campaign to build our own butcher’s shop right here on the farm. We raised $27,570 in 40 days, and six months later we were open for business! We’ve delivered over 400kg of ethical pork rewards, and welcomed nearly 30 of our supporters to last year’s Salami Day, and many became our first CSA members. We love this engaged community of ethical omnivores, and are grateful for the support.

Now it’s time to take our uncommonly delicious ethical pork to the next level and start curing at a commercial scale! To do that, we’re aiming to raise $30,000 in 30 days on Pozible, adding cured goods to our range of tasty rewards. We’re also offering the opportunity to join our CSA (community-support agriculture) via the campaign to raise the funds up front, then deliver to you over the course of a year.

After our success last year, plenty of other farmers have used crowdfunding to build major infrastructure as they develop their businesses, and I reckon it’s a fantastic emergent trend in community-supported agriculture. Rather than farmers going into debt and lining shareholders’ pockets, we’re feeding our communities – literally!

For other examples, check out the huge success of Madelaine’s Eggs last week – she raised over $60,000! And our mate Lauren Mathers of Bundarra Berkshires is nearing her target of just over $15,000 to build her own curing room up near the Murray. There are plenty of others around, and I think we’ll see more and more as farmers and their communities work out how to support each other to re-localise the food system and form deep connections between growers and eaters.

So check out our campaign and spread the word! There really is a Fair Food Revolution underway, and it’s in your hands!

Curing room cover

End the detention of asylum seekers in Australia

This is the letter I sent today to my Federal Labor MP, Catherine King.

Dear Catherine,

I have been and remain horrified at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and so I write to you as a constituent to ask that you press your Government for humane treatment of these desperate people.

What if it was your mother, father, children or friends who had no other option than to flee their country, leaving behind a lifetime of memories and in many cases the opportunity to earn a living for some time. Would you want them denied succour in a new land? Imprisoned for indefinite periods? I am ashamed to be a citizen of a country that locks people up under these conditions.

Not only do we know onshore processing works, it’s the only humane option. Leaving asylum seekers in limbo in places more palatable to our politicians is a national disgrace, and poorly represents a country I know to be full of kind and generous people. The Government is not reflecting community sentiment, even if it claims to be.

The puerile ‘debates’ over so-called ‘boat people’ are even further evidence of how impoverished political discourse is in Australia. It is clear that people fleeing war, famine or persecution will leave by whatever means they can, including the life-threatening voyages some take by boat. You can help re-focus the debate on what’s important – how can Australia help people who seek asylum on our shores to enjoy the same freedoms and privileges we take for granted?

We need leadership, not pandering to the most base sentiments of our society.

It’s time Australia stops destroying people’s lives (and in the worst cases, committing murder when people take their own lives rather than suffer in detention centres any longer) by locking them up with no hope for months and years on end.

Distrust and incarceration are not the answers, compassion and hospitality are.

Sincerely,

Tammi Jonas

Between ecotarianism and ethotarianism is conviviality.

As we commence RoadTripUSA, I’m thinking a lot about food. Okay, I always think a lot about food, but there’s something quite specific I’m thinking about and it’s around ‘ecotarianism’, pleasure and conviviality…

In America we’ll eat a lot of good food and a bit of bad food. To judge good and bad I weigh up flavour, texture, ‘wholeness’, seasonality, regionality, sustainability, animal husbandry, workers’ rights, and to some degree, health (though food that’s ‘bad’ for you because it’s fatty, etc, is something I don’t spend much time thinking about regarding our family as our lifestyle of predominantly whole foods nearly always ensures a well-balanced diet – but that’s another post). Making choices that ‘tread lightly’ and treat food and producers respectfully is what I understand by ‘ecotarian’, a fairly new term, discussed on the ABC recently by Cristy Clark.

Like most people, sometimes we compromise our usual principles and eat what we consider ‘bad food’ to greater or lesser extents. Road trips inevitably include some potato chips and sometimes a meal from Subway or a local takeaway, and on Friday nights at home we’ll occasionally order pizza or pick up fish and chips. When we make these choices, we’re still able to avoid factory-farmed pork and chicken rather easily.

When travelling, we usually let our standards slide on ethical meat – we tend to just eat everything as a way of understanding culture better – and that includes pork and chicken that is most likely factory farmed. The traceability issues we face at home are compounded overseas where we’re even less certain of our food’s origins. We continue with our usual habits of not eating too much meat generally, but we do like to try all the local specialties. In America, we’re usually with my family or friends, so keeping to ecotarian principles is pretty easy as we generally know the provenance of the food. However, eating out presents a greater challenge unless dining in one of America’s many wonderful SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical) focused restaurants and cafes.

This trip to America is different to a visit ‘home’. We’ll be driving through a number of unfamiliar regions, and there’s a world of interesting local dishes I can’t wait to sample, including such nommish delights as pulled pork in the South… but the odds of there being much free-range pork on the menus in Alabama are pretty slim, I reckon. Chicken will pose a similar problem, and thanks to America’s preponderance of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly known as ‘factory farms’, even beef poses an ethical dilemma unless you know the provenance. I could go on about dairy, seafood, fast food franchises, processed snack foods… you get the picture, but I’ll use pork as my primary example given our plans to be free-range pig farmers.

Will we eat pork in the full knowledge that it isn’t from ‘happy pigs’?

Yes, we will.

We won’t eat a lot of it, but we’ll eat it. There are a few reasons why – more than simply ‘I really want to try that because it looks really delicious’, though I can’t pretend that’s not part of the decision-making process. There are a few key reasons why we will compromise our usual ethics, but the core one is conviviality. That is, while traveling, I don’t want to be ‘that person’ who makes everyone uncomfortable by listing all the things we don’t eat, or by turning down food that someone has offered us in their home with, ‘oh, we don’t eat factory-farmed pork’ every time. Such a response not only tells your host you don’t want what they’ve offered, it infers they have done the wrong thing in offering it to you. I would rather leave ethical food discussions to this blog and other writings, and to conversations that are not taking place in the presence of such food.

At home, standards are easy to maintain. We buy or grow the food and we cook it. When in someone else’s home, I don’t ask if the pork is free range if that’s what’s on the menu. In fairness, my friends all know how we are and are pretty unlikely to give us factory-farmed meat, but if they did, I’d eat it. The animal is already dead and cooked at this stage – in my opinion to refuse to eat it is wasteful and disrespectful of the life it gave as well as inhospitable towards one’s hosts.

Mind you, it’s not only when a host offers us something. There’s food on airlines, lack of choice in small country grocery stores and the usual road trip compromises. Or the myriad ‘hidden’ food ethical dilemmas, such as monoculture GM soy in the ingredients or factory-farmed eggs in some muffins at a diner. While our ethic enables us to avoid many such things, we would be miserable trying to completely avoid the horrors of industrial agriculture – sometimes the pleasure principle is achieved by not agonising so much and knowing you’ve done your best.

As I write these things I’m still sorting out the questions around hypocrisy and being complicit in an unethical food system. But the way I’m thinking about it is to understand ecosystems beyond their biological components – to include the social aspects as well.

If farming had not moved outside of ecosystems – as we all know industrial agriculture requires enormous external inputs and must find places beyond their boundaries to process their outputs – we wouldn’t have the severe negative environmental consequences we face today. But in addition to choosing food that comes from a healthy ecosystem, we should generally choose food that is still intricately linked to communities – that both sustains and is sustained by communities. When we conceive of an ethical approach to food this way, we must consider the human social interactions as well as those between humans and other animals or humans and the earth.

I guess rather than calling it ‘ecotarianism’ then, you might call it ‘ethotarianism’, because it’s about a consistent ethic of respect and pleasure. I’ve often said we should all be hedonists – in the tradition whereby one’s driving principle is to seek pleasure, both for oneself and for others, and taking one’s pleasure should not withdraw it from others, whether they are human, animal or vegetable.

But this complicates the question – the choices are in fact even more difficult than simply seeking ethically produced food – because sometimes the pleasure of various participants will be at odds. A clear example is when I’m offered a plate of pulled pork from unhappy pigs by a relative in the South – it’s too late to give that pig a happy life, but I can still be gracious to my host. Wherever possible, I avoid putting myself in such a position, but once in it, choices must be made, and mine will be to eat what I’m offered.

mEatDrinkBlog Melbourne!

Michael over at My Aching Head has come up with a brilliant plan to bring the Melbourne food blogging community together on a regular basis to a) eat, b) drink, c) talk all things food blogging. You can read about the details, including our first venue & date, on his blog.

I’ll be the Mistress of Ceremonies, collating expressions of interest to give a presentation and facilitating discussion on the night(s). This will be a great opportunity to ask those tricky Word Press questions, discuss the ethical responsibilities of food reviewing, debate whether to monetise your blog, and argue the relative merits of good food photography. 🙂 Those interested in presenting (10 minutes followed by discussion, fairly informal) can email me at tammois@gmail.com

I look forward to seeing many of you on the 31st of March!

No Need for New: Some principles for reducing consumption

As I read through our primary school’s newsletter the other day, I had the annual moment of excitement over the Smith Street Xmas appeal – ‘Yay! We can contribute!’ And then I had the annual moment of deflation when I read that all donations must be new. ‘Why?’ I moaned at my secondhand computer monitor, as I pictured the box of toys and clothes in perfectly good condition but no longer of interest to my children, sitting in the shed waiting for a trip to the Salvo’s.

I decided to check my response with the twitterz, expecting replies of ‘don’t poor people deserve new stuff?’ And the twitterz didn’t disappoint, but mercifully a number of the likely suspects joined a thoughtful discussion about the issues – consumerism, the lived experience of poverty and being ‘marked’ by secondhand goods, the practicalities of sorting through secondhand donations, the pleasures of the handmade gift, and questions of sustainability.

Why do people think we have a right to new things? Why do people make others feel bad if they don’t buy new things? I’m not such an ascetic as to suggest there’s no place for wanting something that is new to you, nor that in some cases new will simply make better sense than secondhand, whether for reasons of efficiency, practicality or some desired aesthetic. But having ‘new’ as your default position is, quite simply, wrong.

Logical fallacy #1: New Things Will Make Us Happy

It worries me that people think any of us ‘need’ or ‘deserve’ new stuff. In a civil society, you have a right to a roof over your head, access to clean water and nutritious food, good health and to be treated equally and fairly, and not much else.

There is clear research that shows that buying or having new (or more) things does not make us happy beyond an initial rush. In fact, the research indicates that the more affluent a society becomes, the less happy it is. Increasingly, we are being encouraged to spend our disposable income on experiences rather than things, as we work out that identities need grounding in memory, belonging and discovery, not the shirt on our back. I would add to this wisdom that many experiences cost nothing.

Logical fallacy #2: New Things Are ‘Nicer’ Than Secondhand

An unwanted gift on its way to the donation bin

So many new things are simply bright, cheap plastic – things that caused unhappiness in those who worked to make them, those who worked to deliver them, and those who must work to dispose of them. These things cause little more than a flash of ‘oh! Bright and shiny!’ in the children/adults who receive them, followed by the pallid realisation of how little joy can actually be found in such superficial ‘small pleasures’. These items fail the hedonistic principle at every stage – one should seek pleasure, but your pleasure should not be at the expense of another’s.

Obviously there are lovely things that are new. Handmade gifts can be a great pleasure for the maker, giver (who may or may not be the maker) and the recipient. Good quality items with an ethical production and distribution history can ensure you are comfortably and fashionably clothed, or perhaps using durable and effective cookware without breaching the pleasure principle for anyone (though many such things can also be found secondhand, obviously).

Bookshelf bought at auction, filled with old books inherited & bought.

We all have certain things we prefer to buy new – for me it’s shoes, which I buy very seldom, but always new. And who wouldn’t love to receive a brand new barbecue after two decades of the uneven heat and rust of hard rubbish versions? Last year we asked Stuart’s folks to withhold our birthday presents for the year and pile them into a Xmas present so we could cook entire meals outside for the next 30 years with fantastic results. We took years to decide a new one was a defensible choice and have not regretted it.

The pleasures of well-made old things.

Yet nearly all of the most treasured items in our house came to us secondhand. Bookshelves are a great example – some bought at auctions and some on eBay, some found in the hard rubbish – why would you buy shelves new? Our old hand beater is one of my favourite kitchen implements – my mother-in-law bought a new one a few years back and ended up vastly preferring a secondhand one we gave her. When our 50-year-old fridge didn’t survive our last move, eBay came through with an excellent secondhand one. I know loads of people who buy secondhand books, so what’s with the stigma on kids’ toys? If they’re in good condition, why not choose them over new, both for your own children and to give to charity? And nearly all the clothes I buy the children are from Savers.

Logical fallacy #3: Giving Secondhand Items to Charity is Patronising

Why would this be an unacceptable gift?

Some folks on Twitter suggested it was patronising to insist we give secondhand items to charity, arguing that ‘poor people deserve nice things too’. See Logical fallacy #s 1 & 2 for my response. However, obviously there are resonances of the First World having a First Class Freakout of What Happens when the Developing World catches up on Over-Consumption. Of course that would be patronising if it was my point, but what I’m suggesting is far more radical.

We all need to make secondhand our default position rather than seeing it as a deficit model. In fact, the default position should really be ‘why buy anything at all’, so that purchases are in fact only made when truly necessary or when one really desires to give a gift (birthdays being the most obvious example), and secondhand (or homemade) should be our first thought. New stuff should be a last resort for many consumables. How much waste could we avoid if we actually put a lot of thought into gifts, rather than marching into shopping centres like automatons who believe we might insult someone by giving them something that already has a history?

Imagine

Now imagine that those who can afford new things regularly make the choice to buy secondhand. Suddenly those who can’t afford new things don’t stand out for buying old stuff, and nobody has to feel bad about giving a secondhand gift. Of course any gift you give should be clean and not broken, as should any donation to charity (though there’s another post in what some consider irreparable and others will resurrect – our society is so de-skilled and accustomed to planned obsolescence it’s shameful the things we throw out).

When I was interviewed for the Salvo’s Buy Nothing New Month article that ran in Woman’s Day in September, I was asked how much money we save by choosing secondhand over new, and my immediate response was that we don’t think of it as saving, we think those who shop for leisure or choose new over secondhand are wasting money. We need to reverse our thinking – instead of a world where refraining from shopping is some kind of hardship, we’d all be better off if we saw shopping as the hardship – something we occasionally just have to do when we’d rather be gardening. In terms of both social and environmental sustainability, it’s the right thing to do.

History is dead, Italy is alive!

Okay, folks, I’m going to say some controversial things now about history and culture. The historians and others with a keen interest in monuments of the past might take umbrage. A caveat – I’m a great admirer of antiquity and believe there are compelling reasons to study it and immerse oneself in ancient ruins. But I’m a cultural theorist, I focus on everyday life, and this trip is reminding me of some of the reasons why I chose to do this. Are you ready?

I’ve now been in three beautiful Italian cities, and in each I have felt completely enveloped by the past, but deeply engaged with the present. Of course, I’m here to research the present, but also the past, that is, what were the traditional dishes, mealtime habits, preparation methods when the biggest waves of Italian migrants were moving to Australia, and what are they now – how have things changed? To do this research, I have to talk to as many people as I can, sample as many dishes as possible, and wander as many markets as I can find. (NB Yes, I realise I have the best PhD ever and I’m ‘lucky’ and I will remind you all that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and I seized mine when the idea arose. ;-))

While here, I sometimes feel like a tourist, and surely in some sense I am, though I am legitimised by having a scholarly mission. And of course I am sometimes surrounded by tourists, especially in Roma, which was awash with vast crowds of them. While in Bologna, where there are few tourists, I first thought about how the Bolognese conduct their modern, daily lives amongst such stately medieval grandeur with hardly a thought, it seems. While I would stop to gaze up at the frescos in the portici, they would stride purposefully by – their city’s history is just part of the landscape, a comfortable old blanket much beloved but hardly noticed as one sits down to read a book on a cold winter’s night.

After a few days, I realised I had not even considered entering any of the magnificent old churches, and I had a pang of guilt. But then I thought about how I would not learn about the daily rhythms of these people by wandering solo through their ancient religious houses, and I was here to learn those rhythms – entering the churches would in fact turn me into a tourist, and distract me from the task at hand. I carried on with my eating, talking and watching on the streets – the architecture a backdrop for the quotidian movements of the fair denizens of Bologna. I even made a note to myself that, ‘I want to feel the city’s pulse, not explore its cemeteries… I don’t need to enter its tombs, I need to find its living.

And then came the unexpected detour to Roma (it’s a long story that involves two busy parents who failed to lodge Oscar’s passport application before my departure, necessitating an emergency trip to the embassy in Roma so I could sign a form in front of a consulate officer – #adminfail #bureaucracyfail). I had no intention of spending time in Roma – was quite happy that my trip would be in smaller cities that would not be at the height of their tourist seasons. My view of the Italian capital was surely somewhat affected by a) the unforeseen bureaucratic debacle that led me to cancel flights, book a hotel and jump on a train; b) my desire to be in smaller cities; c) the fact that I despise crowds of tourists, even if I am but one more of their number.

So, Roma. At @orientalhotel’s advice, I went searching for the Campo dei Fiori for the market there. I was last in Roma 19 years ago, so I felt obliged to march past some of the monuments on the way – I went by the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain. They remain tributes to a long, rich history, and marvels of architecture and engineering. I took some of the mandatory photos. I shouldered through tour groups following guides with coloured ribbons hoisted on sticks with my teeth clenched.

The market at Campo dei Fiori was very grounding. I wandered through the stalls, gazing at the riotous life of the vegetables, bumping against locals doing their daily shopping. My forehead cleared, my shoulders lowered, and I found a little cafe just out of the way with no tourists and wood-fired pizzas. I spoke with the padrone – who was, of course, Sicilian (many seem to be?), and who graciously gave me some advice on where I must go for a certain wine, a certain dessert… interesting that his tips were immediately about food, even though I didn’t mention my research.

As I passed through the teeming hordes at the Trevi Fountain later, I actually had to fight tears at how much I was detesting the theme park feeling of everything. It felt impossible to have any sense at all of the rhythms of the Romans during this height of tourist season – instead even the diverse nationalities of the throngs were homogenised into a single category of Those Who Seek Monuments and Take Photos of Themselves in Front of Them. When they eat, it seems almost incidental, and I’m sure most aren’t even aware of how poor a representation of Italian food they are eating in the many clones of ristoranti proclaiming to have ‘Real Italian Food’ (Note to tourists: you’re in Italy, if they need a sign to say they have ‘real Italian food’, they probably don’t). The food at those ristoranti, by the way, reminded me a lot of the generic ‘Italian’ food sold at many restaurants on Lygon Street in Melbourne, though there is an increasing supply of quality, contemporary, regional Italian food on offer in our capital cities.

I don’t know what interactions the tourists might have with locals, but I suspect it’s only with service staff – which, admittedly is a problem for most travellers – how to penetrate the self-contained extant social groups of the locals? My thoughts on dining alone and Michael’s on why don’t we break down more social barriers when sharing a table in public explore some of those ideas.

This story ends in Palermo – I could not have chosen a starker contrast to Bologna’s understated elegance and formality than here. Palermo is steeped in its own rich cosmopolitan history and the crumbling, ornate palazzi are as visually rich as Bologna’s medieval austerity and Renaissance charm. The splendid chaos of its architectural mix – Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Renaissance and baroque – is matched by its multicultural population, and here passion is palpable. Beware the woman who catches a Siciliano’s eye – a warm grin, ‘ciao bella’ and intentful gaze are the consequence.

In Bologna the stranger is largely unnoticed and might have very few social encounters, leaving her to move silently from one church to another, and in Roma, the stranger is so common as to be perhaps disdained, and moves in herds between sites of antiquity that have very little feeling of connection to the city’s present culture – again, just a backdrop for a busy modern life. In Palermo, the stranger might attempt to move unmolested between monuments, but the narrow footpaths, frequent markets, and flashing eyes are unlikely to let you miss its pulse. Here, the walls are literally alive with vines and flapping laundry on its many little balconies – history is ingrained in the daily rhythms.

The markets in Palermo are a real joy – extensive stalls of colourful produce, masses of fish, loads of beautiful olives – the stallholders shouting across to each other and laughing in baritone. And in every little cafe or ristorante, chances are strong that a local will say hello to you, ask where you’re from, and then tell you how they’ve a) been to Australia b) would like to go or c) have relatives there.

I walked into the Cathedral, because it was there. I sat down in a pew and tried to reflect on my reticence to visit these beautiful monuments, hoping for divine inspiration. I watched the tourists flowing in and out, some quiet, many chatting, some on the phone, all taking photos. And then it happened, I got my sign… a man dashed in, head jerking about looking manically to see what he ‘needed’ to see. He stopped dead centre, took a quick photo of the altar, turned on his heel and dashed out, still manically trying to catch what little he could at speed. What has he learned? What has he gained or contributed by this spot of sightseeing? Not a lot, I will presume to say. I hope he then went and meandered slowly through the market, enjoying the excellent street food and chatting with the locals about their favourites, but I doubt it.

Solo dining in a social country

Ask anyone what they think of Italy and they will mention the food, the architecture, and most likely the liveliness of the people. Italians are famous for centring their community around meals, and the many delectable dishes that have come from here are a testament to how seriously they take their food. So what happens when you arrive alone to sample and learn more of their food? Especially if, like me, you don’t like to dine alone? And how much are the Italians themselves still gathering for the family meal, the long, daily lunch or dinner?

Social patterns in Italy are changing, just as they are everywhere. With the increasing pressures of working long hours and more families with two working parents, plus changes in social structures such as people marrying later or not at all, and having less or no children… the ‘old ways’ must inevitably adjust to contemporary modes of living. Of course there will always be resistance to change from some quarters, and enthusiasm from others (one need only think of the Slow Food/McDonald’s divide to see the most extreme examples in Italy), but you can’t freeze any culture in time.

In my short time in Bologna la bella, what I’ve observed and been told is that younger people are eating out more than ever, catching up with friends over a quick caffe during the day or a round of aperitivi in the evening. The daytime cafe culture seems to be fairly expedient – there is usually a variety of panini and pizze options (sandwiches and pizzas) and a selection of sweet pastries. All of these things are small and can be eaten with your hands, and the turnover in cafes during the day appears to be quite quick usually. Then it’s back to work.

In the evenings, without fail, people flock to the bars for a drink and the variable selection of antipasti. It’s typical to pay 7 euro for your first drink, which gives you unlimited access to the food on offer, buffet style, inside. After that, your drinks will typically cost between 4 and 6.50 euro.

I have eaten dinner this way most nights, as it’s an informal way to have a meal and avoid feeling conspicuously alone in the more formal setting of a ristorante or trattoria. For the many of my generation who have remained or once again become single, this offers an option not to go home alone, but not to have to feel awkward. Alternatively, it offers groups a chance to gather for a drink while having enough food to call dinner. It’s also a very civilised way to get food into people who are drinking alcohol, and something Australia could learn from.

The antipasti themselves vary a lot from one place to the next, both in diversity of offerings and in quality. Most places will offer a range of bruschette – some with tomatoes, others with prosciutto or tapenade, for example. A rice and/or pasta dish is quite common – some are lovely, others remind me a bit of an American potluck with the inevitable spiral pasta (fusili) tossed in pesto, served at room temperature. Then there may be frittate, roast vegetables such as zucchini or eggplant, and usually some squares of either pizza or ciabatta, and often there are olives. At the less interesting end of the spectrum, there might be a little bowl of nuts, or in many places, potato chips. Pringles seem pretty popular for this option. O_o It’s an extraordinary contrast.

Restaurants are an altogether different prospect. Especially for dinner, most people just don’t tend to go out to dine alone, and you rarely see anyone eating alone in the restaurants here, just as you don’t in Australia that often. So after making some friends from my Italian class, I finally enjoyed some of the local trattorie.

At one, Ristorante da Alice, the menu was given to us entirely verbally, and in extremely rapid Italian. As we were dining at 10pm, having had an aperitivo in Piazza Santo Francesco first, we opted for just one course, a primo (first). We all chose pasta (typical for the primo) – I had the tortelloni a burro e salvia, the others had tagliatelle, one with porcini and the other with a ragu.

We followed it with formaggi – where we were brought the entire round of pecorino and sides of honey and mostarde (a kind of chutney) to help ourselves. Another table ordered flan, and the entire huge plate of it was brought over for them to take as much as they liked.

The following night we opted for both courses at the charming Drogheria della Rosa, and in fact Anja and Christian had a dolce as well. Our primi were three kinds of stuffed pasta – a ravioli in ragu, another filled with eggplant served in a sugo, and a tortelli with zucchini flowers. All were exquisite, but the huge flavour of the fresh sugo won me over the most. We decided to only have two secondi as we weren’t sure we’d make it through more, so we enjoyed a delectable lemony guinea fowl and a stunning cut of beef (like a tournedo?), cooked to perfection and served in a balsamic reduction (Modena is less than half an hour from here…). With all of this we enjoyed the local sangiovese, and finished with a grappa, where again, like the formaggi the night before, we were given the entire bottle to just continue to pour as we liked? I really have no idea how they accounted for what we drank, but I think it all worked out okay.

I won’t detail every meal I’ve had here, not only because many have been, as I said, of the aperitivo style eating, but also because I think the two meals from Alice and della Rosa offer enough insight into a few of the typical dishes and the style of eating and ordering. (And obviously I’m focusing on eating out here, as I’ve not yet experienced a home-cooked meal in Italy.) And the key here again comes back to the fact that meals are best enjoyed in company. We spent time choosing, we shared everything so we could taste more, we deliberated on what we’d tasted, had far-ranging conversations that were not about the food, and generally had really lovely meals in good company. The ‘meals’ I’ve eaten alone have been ‘fine’, but not as memorable, and not necessarily because the food wasn’t good.

In fact, the reverse is also true. I’ve been at meals where the food was absolutely divine – the freshest, local ingredients, highly skilled chefs who know what to do with such quality – and not enjoyed the meal because the company was less than ideal. Tension, aggression or any sort of negative emotions around food really does make the food taste bad, or at least stifles your capacity to enjoy it. So while I won’t equate eating alone with eating with bad company, both make it more difficult to fully appreciate the food.

What does this mean for the many singles out there? Obviously people who live alone can join friends (as Andrea told me here, there’s the family, and then there’s the ‘chosen family’ – your circle of closest friends – and the ‘chosen family’ is increasingly important as less people marry or marry later or divorce, etc) for meals and drinks as they like. However, clearly most won’t do this every meal.

Learning to enjoy being alone and even enjoying your food while alone is a good step, and one I’ve been working on while here. It’s all about finding a place where you can enjoy a nice meal and not feel conspicuous, for me at least. The aperitivo tradition here solves that for me. My other strategy is my notebook – as soon as I sit down I pull out my moleskine and commence writing. Here it’s been mostly field notes, so quite purposeful, and very generative. So using the notebook as a kind of social shield allows me to feel I have company and a reason to be there, even on my own, and savour the food a little more. I think some people use their mobile phones in a similar way, so they don’t feel alone.

While the informal aperitivo offers the opportunity for me to eat alone in comfort, it also is the gathering place for a generation of Italians who spend more time out of home than historically. The ristoranti continue to function as a place intended to gather people together – a big dinner (or lunch) to be enjoyed by friends or family – rather than the place for the solitary diner. It seems that as Italians adjust to their contemporary patterns, they’re still doing an excellent job of keeping food in the centre, even if it’s not at home.

A Rant: Raising Chickens is Good (or, on the Stupidity of Industrial Agriculture)

I wrote this poem last year, but given my recent posts on why and how we raise and eat our chooks, as well as other sustainable homely practices, I thought I’d share it here. Warning – this is not intended to be scholarly – it’s an ’emoticons off’ rant.

A rant, or
F*&king stupid people f*&king up our world not an ounce of sense or personal responsibility wanting to own dogs & cats but not allow productive small animals like chickens stupid pointless people need to f*&k off now turning me into a bloody misanthrope when I really want to like people (that is not the poem).
16 July 2009

It started with 3 chickens
3 clucking
egg-laying
bug & weed-eating
fertilising chickens
in one suburban
backyard.

They cost her 7 dollars apiece
and gave her
2169 eggs
in their pleasant quarter-acre lives
worth a conservative 1100 dollars
leaving her 1079 dollars to spend
on organic fruit
she wasn’t already growing in her own
backyard.

The chickens
meant she needed no
pesticides
no herbicides
& needn’t pay for any
fertilisers for the food she was growing
in her own
backyard.

She called the chickens
John, Deere, and Tractor.

Over the fence lived
a couple with a dog
a bright green lawn
a 4 wheel drive
a sedan
roses and no food growing
in their
backyard.

The husband worked
for agri-business
who’d been stung
when their bagged spinach product
killed four
left 35 with
acute kidney failure
due to e coli contamination
in their Salinas Valley
industrial scale
vegetable fields.

So clutching his values
his greed and his fear
he sat in his boardroom
and agreed
that a scorched earth strategy
was the only way
to ensure that he
and all his successors
could live in good conscience
that they would never again
be held liable
for what was contracted
from once-living products
now wrapped in sterile plastic
in somebody’s
fridge.

And so
if a squirrel ran along the edge of a field
everything within 10 metres
had to be
razed
eliminated
scorched
including
the pest-deterring
coriander
planted by the organic grower
in the next
field.

And then he went home
and he heard a strange sound
not really unpleasant
but definitely
indubitably
belonging to
something un-hygienic
in somebody else’s
backyard.

He peered over the fence
and stared in shock/rage
at John, Deer and Tractor.
3 clucking chickens
alive, eating and shitting
in the neighbour’s
backyard.

It didn’t take long
to garner the cries
of the neighbourhood association
who contacted the council
who knocked on the door
of the woman with chickens
in her
backyard.

This will not do
they said
you must be rid of these animals
who have no place in the suburbs
if you want to have livestock
move to a
farm.

Your chickens
they said
are unsanitary
unnecessary
and a temptation to
the dogs
in others’
backyards.

And by the way
you must stop dumping your food waste
in that bin up the back
it attracts rats
and foxes and possums
in droves
and your grey water system
well it just won’t do
it contaminates all of those vegies
you grow
here in this outrageously
farm-like
backyard.

You must buy food that
we know is safe
you can get it at Coles
where it has been sprayed with
47 chemicals to ensure its
sterility
and bagged in clear plastic
so you can see it is safe
though you must wash it at home
just to be sure
it hasn’t been tainted somewhere
along the industrial line
by some unhygienic worker
who probably looks and acts
a lot like you and your
unsanitary
backyard.