Bee Wilson finds food with no thought at pop festivals
Pop festivals are no more utopian or less commercial than supermarkets
Take away the music, and the outdoor rock festivals that punctuate the young British summer are not much more than sprawling food marts, exchanging mainly deep-fried goods for hard currency. These events are like mini-metropolises, erected overnight on muddy fields. The streets are fashioned from vans selling every kind of snack food to every species of drugged-out teenager. They are paved not with gold, but broken cider cans. Every so often, style journalists write about these occasions as alternative political models for the good life - as if Glastonbury were a city state of spontaneous peace, order and friendship bracelets. But really, the music festival is no more utopian and no less commercial than a supermarket. The trouble is, most of the "customers" are too stoned to notice.
Strawberry Fair is a festival held annually in June which happens on Midsummer Common in Cambridge, at the tail-end of the students' exams. Much less picturesque than the name makes it sound, Strawberry Fair is like Reading or Glastonbury, only without any of the decent bands. The only things left are the didgeridoo merchants, the bouncy castle and the food, whose greasy odour hangs all the more heavily in the air without the distraction of listenable music.
First to arrive and last to go are usually the burger vans, hawking cheap meat and Coke - wares no more alternative than those you'd find at a football match. Ditto, those addictive "hot donut" vans, which sell large multiples of the doughnuts, sugared, cinnamoned and burning your hands through the flimsy paper bag. Then there are fish-and-chip vans, advertising chips with lurid curry sauce. More exotic-seeming are the endless noodle emporia, wafting soy sauce and slightly burnt garlic, churning out tangles of stir-fried peppers and mushrooms and soggy egg noodles. Try it, the authentic street food of the east, and pay only £4 for a polystyrene portion that cost 50p to make.
Here are men coating kilo upon kilo of chicken in red jerk seasoning, and here are women grilling cobs of corn. Here are charlatans trying to sell us "wedges" with "dips" and chicken wraps done a hundred different ways. Here is organic coffee with long-life UHT milk from Sainsbury's. Here are skinny, sunburnt children with hardly any clothes on, eating enormous Mr Whippy cones. Here is a stall selling strange pink "prawnies", whose relation to marine life of any kind is unclear. Here is the "Chill Oasis" stall, daubed with painted palm trees, offering us vegedogs and "cool juice" - lime, orange, elderflower, blackcurrant, sarsaparilla - next to another stall that sells "legal highs, glowsticks, smoking paraphernalia, disposable cameras". Here are circle upon circle of crusty-haired friends, all eating, eating, eating.
These festivals engender a feeling of bulimia, a search for a single authentic or pleasureful mouthful, which seems always somewhere beyond the fumes and rubbish. At Glastonbury 1994, the year of Blur's Parklife, my sister and I got very excited when we found a real Japanese "tempura" van, and jumped at the prospect of delicate morsels of airy-light, unusual vegetables. We handed over our fivers to a cockney man who served us with thickly battered chunks of deep-fried British potatoes.
Many of the arguments in Naomi Klein's No Logo would apply to summer festival snack foods as much as to Starbucks and Benetton. The merchandise is presented as engendering "community" or multicultural fraternity. The consumer is encouraged to feel that the transaction is less selfish, on both sides, than normal. But it is really about commerce, with all its concomitant lies and disappointments. What the vendors sell you is the "counter-culture". What you buy are just commodities.