Work fair: a tea grower waters his crops in Changxing County, eastern China. Photo: XU YU/XINHUA PRESS/CORBIS
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The everyday heroes who think about what they eat

Julian Baggini thinks that eating well is one of the most important ways we live our values. But would he ask a dinner host where she got her chicken?

I’m trying to work out what kind of dinner guest Julian Baggini would make. The philosopher has just told me that he routinely quizzes waiting staff on the provenance of their meat – but would he do the same to a friend?

He hesitates, weighing up the obligations of hospitality against the responsibilities of the consumer, and then moves the conversation on to his pescetarian past, leaving the question hanging between us. I’m fairly sure that he wouldn’t refuse your roast chicken if you were a bit hazy about its origins (as he observes, such a gesture is of little benefit to the animal concerned) but I’m not guaranteeing it.

Questions of this sort come up a lot in his latest book, The Virtues of the Table, a rare foray into the philosophy of food. I wonder why the subject has received so little attention in the past, given that even Aristotle had to eat.

We decide to pin the blame on a historical tendency to privilege the intellectual life over the mere “plumbing” of our physical existence (though, as Baggini wryly observes, the fact that it’s “very hard” to be pretentious about “nutrition and excretion” may have something to do with it, too).

But in an age when even petrol station pasties proclaim their artisan credentials, it’s amazing how incurious we are about the food we eat; even those of us who think of ourselves as conscientious consumers rarely look beyond the particular buzzwords that we have decided fit our world-view. Such labels – “local”, “Fairtrade”, “sustainable” – undoubtedly save time at the supermarket, but matters are rarely so simple. There is no algorithm to help you make the right choices every time.

For example, I drink organic milk on welfare grounds, yet I have farmer friends who, like the cheese-maker quoted in Baggini’s book, would never switch to organic for the same reason: “If I get sick, I’ll go to the bloody doctor and get antibiotics and I’d expect to do the same thing with my animals.”

Baggini would like us all to ask a few more questions about our milk, our coffee and even our Egg McMuffin (free-range, he notes approvingly), and not to beat ourselves up over every slip. “If you accept you can only ever do your best, you won’t get disillusioned,” he says, when, for instance, someone publishes an exposé of exploitation in Fairtrade co-operatives or the environmental cost of British tomatoes. And though the Auguste Escoffier quotation that serves as the book’s epigraph (“To know how to eat is to know how to live”) may sound rather grandiose if you’re opening a tin of beans, Baggini thinks that eating well is one of the most important ways in which we live our values.

“You don’t become a good person by performing occasional acts of great heroism,” he points out. It’s the quotidian things that make a difference – the decision to spend a little more on our morning cuppa to ensure that growers in Malawi are paid fairly for their crop, or just taking a moment to appreciate and be thankful for that tea.

Baggini believes that if we embrace ideals such as compassion, justice and generosity in the choices we make three times a day, the food we eat will have the power to make us better people. As becoming a better person is an ongoing project of mine, it’s a relief to discover that the coffee shop I have chosen for our rendezvous boasts impeccably sourced beans and has hidden its rather less carefully sourced milk behind the counter, away from my companion’s eagle eye. I don’t think he’d have refused that flat white if he’d known . . . but then again, I’m not 100 per cent sure.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

Matt Forde
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Matt Forde: “Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are indistinguishable on Brexit”

The Dave host and former Labour adviser on why comedy is so much better than politics.

Matt Forde gave up his Labour Party membership after Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership victory, according to Wikipedia, because he is a “committed Blairite”. Presented with that information two years later, the host of Dave’s satirical chat show Unspun, and former Labour adviser, says the description isn’t entirely accurate. “I left politics because I wanted to concentrate on my comedy career full-time. I’d always done both; I did my first gig when I was 16 and carried on doing them during my early activism. I guess when I was working for MPs and Labour, I didn’t have as much time and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. I also felt that the direction Labour was going in wasn’t for me. I don’t write my own Wikipedia page, in any case.” 

Forde’s admiration for Tony Blair, though, radiates off him. The ex-Prime Minister appeared as a guest on Unspun last year. Pressed on Blair’s legacy, Forde insists that it encompasses “far more than people care to admit” beyond the Iraq War. “I think a lot of people on the hard left would equate Blairism to Iraq and I really struggle with that," he says. "Millions of people voted for New Labour and millions of people still reflect on that period of politics in a positive way.

"Social justice was still at the core of New Labour. It was about tackling inequality and using the state to do that. But it was also about being pro-business, pro-Europe and having a pragmatic view of the world.” That Labour won three general elections on Blair’s watch, Forde suggests, is considered by some factions of the party to be an inconvenient truth.

The Nottingham-born comic believes Labour’s broad church represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the party’s lurch to the left has resulted in its biggest increase in the share of the vote by a party leader since Clement Attlee in 1945; on the other, the success is only relative, as it still hasn’t been enough to get back into government. For all the talk of renewed unity under Corbyn’s bright banner of socialism, Forde says there remains a distinct disunity regarding the party’s position on Brexit. “The thing is, on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are pretty much indistinguishable from each other," he says. "They will allow it to happen and deny us access to the single market. Brexit is the single biggest threat to our economy and society and I don’t feel like the scale of that issue is being reflected by the two major parties. It feels like those of us who do care about it and can see what a car crash it’s going to be are stood screaming behind a piece of soundproof glass.”

In fairness, the idea of a Labour split along European faultlines is not one that started with Corbyn. Aside from not being in government, what makes the current Labour squabbling different? Forde smirks. “I know there’s a view that Blair sort of hijacked Labour and rubbed a lot of noses in the dirt. The difference between that era and this one is that people like Corbyn and John McDonnell were actually allowed to rebel. They weren’t threatened with deselection for having a different opinion. The leadership and culture of the party at that time understood the broad church. At the end of the day, it was better to have a hard left MP in Islington than to deselect him and not have one at all. The idea that some Corbyn supporters would rather that a Blairite MP lost their seat is baffling.”

The Labour MP Chuka Umunna recently tabled an amendment on the Queen’s Speech calling for the UK to stay in the single market post-Brexit. Some shadow ministers decided to join him in defying the whip. Was Umunna right to table the amendment? “Yes, I think so,” says Forde. “We don’t have plurality right now. We’re too binary in Labour. There’s an idea that you’re either with us or against us. That’s not just immature, but deeply disrespectful to some very valuable assets in the party.” 

Arguing against Corbyn in the context of Europe does seem a bit of a moot point – “it shouldn’t” Forde objects – but it does. Whatever Corbyn’s perceived failings on Brexit are, he has mobilised a formidable youth wing and campaigned with immeasurably more verve than the current Prime Minister. Forde nods. “The Maybot did herself no favours, sure. He’s a natural campaigner and he deserves credit for that. Look, Corbyn is a nice guy. He’s affable; you can talk football with him. But as for the culture around him, that isn’t always the case.” 

Is Corbynism a cult? Forde sighs. “The problem with investing so emotionally in an individual is that all of your politics end up being processed through them. You suspend critical thought. You think that if this person represents what you believe, then they can never do anything wrong.” 

Corbyn, though, won’t be Labour leader forever. “Tell that to his supporters,” jokes Forde. What happens post-Corbynism? Who should be in the frame to take over? “I guess that depends on whether he does actually become  Prime Minister, which to be fair is a distinct possibility now. If he does, you might see the party want to stick with that far-left tract, but then what happens to the rest of us? You’ve already seen Paul Mason [the journalist and Corbyn supporter] telling centrists that if they want a pro-European centrist party then they should leave Labour. That’s horrendous.” 

Forde’s frustration with the Brexit imbroglio is forthright. It’s something that clearly troubles him and overarches his comedy. So, would he ever go back into politics himself? “I doubt it. Comedy is so much better. Politics is exhausting and for a lot of the time a thankless task that ages people at a rate that no other industry does.” At 68, incidentally, Jeremy Corbyn is entitled to retire. 

Matt Forde performs A Show Hastily Rewritten In Light Of Recent Events - Again! at Pleasance Forth at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-27 August.

 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.