David Boyle

Real Food

Extract from Chapter 4 of Authenticity

For some reason, one of my main memories about Apollo 11 - and the tin can with the computing power of a Mini Metro that actually took them to the moon - was their food. There it was, that famous meal of beef and vegetables in a translucent plastic pack, which would turn to soft mush when they added a little hot water. This was the future of food, we were all told in those heady days of technological hope. All that fancy stuff we used to eat would soon be a thing of the past - if boiled cabbage and bangers could be described as fancy stuff. All meals would soon come in tubes or plastic bags, without fuss or effort.

It was also a labour-saving dream of course, and to that extent a feminist one. And with the arrival of serious fast food in the UK in the early 1970s, it seemed all too inevitable.

The following year, the presenters of the BBC programme Tomorrow's World - Raymond Baxter and James Burke, both familiar faces from moonshot commentating - published a vision of what Britain would be like in 2120. In some ways, it looks surprisingly accurate 30 years on. We do have virtual reality. We do now use cathedrals as concert halls, and we do have a minister responsible for leisure. We don't have mass traquillisation in the water supply, but with television, maybe we don't need it. This is how they saw the inevitable future of food: "Much of the food available will be based on protein substitutes and, as with a book club today, a family will contract with a company to supply it with part-cooked daily menus which will be delivered once a month in disposable vacuum packs. The most complicated dish will need only a few seconds under a microwave heater to make it ready for the table. As a result of this development, modern homes will no longer have kitchens for food preparation, and the resulting saving in space on a national scale will provide room for a million and a half extra full-sized living units."

But 30 years on from Apollo, it hasn't happened like that. There is fake food in abundance - anything from Pot Noodle to Dunkin' Donuts. We do buy ready meals in their plastic-packaged millions, but it's pretty clear that the culture is also going another way entirely. We are not seeing the last gasp of authentic eating in a flurry of what used to be called 'analogue' food - the word 'artificial' was thought to frighten people. We're not embracing the brave new world of artificial smells, artificial tastes and artificial consistency.

Quite the reverse. Organic food is enjoying an explosion of interest on both sides of the Atlantic. Cookery TV programmes and cookery books are some of the most popular. Farmers markets, stuffed with fresh produce straight from the farm, are popping up in towns and cities all over the country. London has probably the most cosmopolitan set of restaurants in the world. The Campaign for Real Ale has transformed our drinking habits. It's not that the market for fast food has somehow disappeared - it clearly hasn't - but there is a growing demand for what is authentic, local and trustworthy.


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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers