TheNoRecipe Man by Tom Wheeler
A change is gonna come
A few months ago, shortly before everything altered, I sat down to write my next scheduled column for the Leither. I can’t remember exactly what it was about: artichokes, sieves, whatever. In any case, it feels on reflection like a decent contender for the least-missed thing from the alternative 2020 that none of us have ended up living. So in keeping with the year we’re experiencing instead, here’s something completely different.
When the scale and impact of COVID-19 became apparent – at some point between late January and late March, depending on the capability and motives of the politicians your country saw fit to elect – the collective response was largely heartening and, in retrospect, entirely unsurprising. People who, socially, economically and politically, appeared to have little in common came together in a spirit of mutual support and preservation. The shared aim - generally expressed in the vocabulary of a war barely any of us remember - was to stay strong and patient until the crisis passed and we could all get back to normal.
For this approach to be sustainable, two things needed to be true: firstly, that getting back to what we knew as normal was possible; and secondly, that it was desirable. In the event, neither turned out to apply. Notions of a rapidly developed cure-all vaccine were quickly quashed. Woefully inadequate world leaders, whose ascent to power had often felt like the setup for a particularly dark practical joke, soon made it only too clear that the joke was on us – though it seemed increasingly as if they were no longer enjoying it either. And all the while, many of us whose interest in world affairs had previously been cursory at best were watching everything unfold from our locked down homes.
It transpired that our tolerance of the status quo had been fragile all along. A year ago, there were few signs that we had any particular problem with being lied to by politicians and their unseen advisers; but when millions of us watched the lies being delivered in real time, while in genuine fear for our lives and those of our loved ones, we turned out not to be quite so accepting. The murder of a black man by an all-powerful, overwhelmingly white US police force was, tragically, nothing new; but viewed through the prism of mortal terror, widespread internet access and unprecedented global attention, it became the catalyst for collective rebellion on a scale few in the west have witnessed.
Meanwhile, in the early days of lockdown, broadcasters began scrambling for alternative ways to fill their schedules that both complied with social distancing requirements and reflected the public mood. Channel 4, basing their judgement on a 20-year-old presumption that our response to any given situation is to ask “What Would Jamie Do?”, hastily commissioned a Jamie Oliver-fronted show called Keep Cooking and Carry On. (What was it I said about wartime imagery?) Frankly, nobody took much notice, correctly concluding that a TV chef turned one man brand, whose signature dish is fillet of beef poached in Barolo, wasn’t particularly well qualified to lead us through this particular set of circumstances.
At the same time, Jack Monroe, whose own take on it, Bootstrap Cooking arose not from marketing hype and venture capital-backed restaurant chains but from the challenge of surviving as a single parent on meagre benefits, was a near-constant presence on social media, offering specific, practical and free advice to individual members of the public on how to make decent meals from whatever they had in their cupboards and fridges. This caught the prevailing mood to the extent that within a couple of weeks Monroe was broadcasting daily on the BBC. It might seem a trivial example in the scheme of things, but it’s a useful illustration that change, when it comes, often arises with remarkable speed.
If the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the power of institutions (be they governmental or corporate) is conditional on the public’s willingness to accept it. For years, campaigners for change were ignored or ridiculed. Then one day, a slaver’s statue was dumped in a river; the next, cities and institutions all over the UK were hurriedly reviewing their own histories and relationships with empire, slavery and race. All this was instigated not by the words of politicians but by the direct actions of people.
The shape of our post-coronavirus society will be dictated by the choices we make now and, make no mistake, these choices are political. Deciding where to spend our money is a political act that will determine which businesses and sectors survive. Supporting ethical, environmentally sustainable means of production is a political act. Choosing a deserving independent retailer over Amazon or Asda is a political act.
Even learning to cook in the first place, and so reducing our dependence on food processing giants and increasingly vulnerable global supply chains, is a political act.
Our choices have the power to resonate more than most of us have ever known, and to influence the actions of politicians and corporations alike.
I just hope we choose well.
Info: Cooking on a Bootstrap: 100 simple budget recipes £15.99