Food culture by the roots

A critical look at the revival of hunter-gatherer food culture

There’s plenty of talk around the ambiguous epithets about the ‘food culture’ today: we eat too much sugar, we eat too much fat, we don’t cook enough, and we waste far too much. Sadly, all of that is true. What we eat, what we choose to eat and what we imagine we’d like to eat are all products of modern food culture.

It’s socially acceptable to favour foods that are easy to make or can be eaten on the go, or those that are particularly tasty or especially cheap. Our caveman ancestors might not have been so lucky in terms of choice, but in terms of health, perhaps they were. The hunter-gatherer diet, or, as it’s commonly known, ‘the Paleo diet’, is at the moment very much in the limelight.  With more turning to diets based on foods you can source in the wild, i.e. vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots and meat, the trend has been hailed as both, a nutritionally-dense way to eat, and an over-romanticised diet trend with no real health benefits. Either way, it has put wild foods firmly on our radar, and spurned a new epicurean interest in urban food foraging.

What is urban food foraging?

Food foraging is the practice of sourcing the foods you eat, from nature. Urban food foraging is an attempt to do so from patches of nature you can find within a city. Foraging interest groups, classes, forums and growing amounts of resources are causing more and more city dwellers to turn to their local parks to source spices for their Sunday roast. One of these cities is London. London is amongst the last places in the world where you’d feel safe eating something you found in the dirt. But, beneath the measured guidance of an expert, I soon found myself confidently scouring through bushes in search of stinging nettle. There is definitely something to be said for the experience of foraging itself. It’s spiritual, methodological and incredibly addictive once you get into a rhythm and know what you’re looking for. You’re focussed, engaged and quickly forgetting to fret about the dirt on your jeans. You start to feel as if you’re somehow communicating with nature on an exciting new level, and are struck by a warm, wholesome feeling that yes, you’re connecting with your hunter-gatherer past on a rudimentary level. While it may be emotional and uplifting, it must be taken with a critical pinch of salt.

The disadvantages of foraging

In theory, foraging for your own food is a neat way to sidestep the perils of modern food culture: the over-processed, packaged wonders we call food, the supermarket lines, and, of course, the price tag. Since 2007, the price of food has risen by around 12 per cent, with an estimated 15 per cent of edible food and drink purchases going to waste. Fruit and vegetable consumption is falling, whilst consumer expenditure on food and drink in general has continued to rise despite the pulls of the economy. But, really, we can’t expect the practice of food foraging to wholly provide the answer. You cannot hope to completely source a balanced diet from what you might find in a London park. And, if you were set on pinching enough to fill you up, the remaining urban critters of the natural world would end up completely decimated.   In Epping, 15 mushroomers were recently taken to court for foraging in an area they weren’t supposed to, whilst a group of foragers in South London were reprimanded for picking too many berries and taking wares from a community-run greenhouse. But, greed aside, the practice is not without value.

A healthier alternative

Foraging itself cannot tangibly command the significance it did in Palaeolithic times, but the fact it’s back on our radar should be celebrated. In exploring new possibilities for how we can source, engage with, and connect with what we eat, we’re teaching ourselves that there are alternative ways to conceptualise and engage with food culture. The age-old adage “you are what you eat!” not only rings true from your mother’s mouth, but from the black and white tables of science. For whatever reason wild foods and the Paleo diet have commanded our attention, what’ s important is that we learn to keep asking questions. Is it really worth me eating another ready-made meal, or would I be better off eating something naturally-sourced? What are the real benefits of changing these elements of my diet, and how can I learn more? When we pick our own food, we’re involved from the very start of the consumption process, and feel a keener sense of ownership both over what we’re doing and the sensations wrought by what we’ll eventually be eating. This new degree of emotional attachment to our food is a good thing, and once experienced, should hopefully be an attitude you take with you as you cook, buy, eat and think about food in the future. We may not be able to affect a complete divorce from today’s commercial food and consumption habits, but as long as we recognise scope for possibility and change in ways we engage with food, there’s always a chance for our health, and collective ideas of food culture to develop and improve.

Monica Karpinski is a London-based writer who is avidly interested in food culture, health and nutrition. She was inspired to write this piece after attending a food foraging course in London. You can follow her on Twitter.