Commonplace Vol. 3 Issue 3
In which the writer engages in rambling about food production and camp cookery
Hello! It’s been a while. There are three other issues of this newsletter, all in draft form, but none of them are coming together coherently enough, so you’re getting this post-bout-of-COVID stream-of-consciousness jumble instead. I was muttering about this to a friend who reads Commonplace, and they said “but I like your stream of consciousness”, so let’s hope it suits everyone.
[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]
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The things on my mind at the moment are food production (as ever, really) and camp cookery (which is a subset of my thinking about historical food, also in the “as ever” category). The former is coming from an issue of the very fine Vittles newsletter, in which there was a mention of small farms generally not being economically viable. In particular:
It turned out that the small-scale family farming I had set out to learn about tends to be lonely, exhausting and economically unsustainable. These farms were ‘low input’ in every metric – except labour; had they accounted for all the hours they worked then their hourly pay would have been well below the minimum wage. Most were tenant farmers, so their work wasn’t even paying off a shadow investment.
At some level, I’ve been aware of this for some time. Every single small farm I know of - and I know of quite a few - has a blog with paid ads, or makes soap, or gives paid talks on goat-breeding, or has published a few books, or otherwise maintains some kind of other stream of income. But clearly this wasn’t always the case - farming was the gateway to moderate to considerable wealth in many historical eras - and I wanted to poke at that a bit.
The main cause for these small farms being not-quite-viable is trade globalisation. The cost of living in the West is high, so people need more money to live. The cost of living in developing countries is a lot lower, ergo people need less money to live. Wages can be - and because capitalism only pays out in wages what it absolutely has to, and not a penny more - are lower there. So the overall cost of producing any given food is lower, and even after paying for shipping, asparagus grown in Peru (I know, I’ll try to go an issue without mentioning it at some point) is cheaper than asparagus grown down the road. Really, this is pretty much the definition of globalisation.
But in the meantime, the local farm’s costs haven’t changed. Aside from labour, they’re having to pay for all the costs of moving that asparagus (or whatever) from farm to market. We see various ways of getting around this, like Community Supported Agriculture projects (CSAs) and farm gate shops, but none of them are quite satisfactory - the CSAs who deliver crates of food to your door have to procure crates, pay for fuel for deliveries, pay the delivery person, and often need to shore up what’s in the basket with stuff bought in from elsewhere, because only the very most varied of market farms (which in and of itself incurs extra costs) can provide a variety of stuff all the time. The farm gate shop needs to be staffed, and people need to remember that it exists and go there, so they need some level of marketing, which again costs.
The corollary to all of this, which I think a lot of people are missing, is that food was much more expensive in the past, and cost people much more of their income. In Ireland in 1980, the average percentage of income spent on food was 27.7%. In 2015-2016, that had dropped to 14.7%, although another study claims this was down to 9.6%, and that in the US it was all the way down to 6.4%. But no matter how it’s measured, this has fallen hard in the last 40 years, and that’s a continuation of a trend since, essentially, the Industrial Revolution. There have been points in history where an urban labourer or even a clerk would have spent 70-80% of their income on food (see Dickens, for example; Bob Cratchit was not anywhere near the lowest earning of his ilk).
So there just isn’t the same money being spent on food as there was a generation ago (let alone two, whence our idea of farming seems to come). Obviously, we’re not all swimming in pools of cash; other costs have risen. Accommodation, whether rent or mortgage, has risen massively, energy costs are rising as I write, and so on. In 1995, I paid £40 per week for a shared room in Dublin. This now looks absolutely quaint, and not just because it was still the Irish pound and not the euro. Standard measures of inflation say that the equivalent value now is 70% higher, so that would be £68, which is €86.34. That’s about €345 a month, and I guarantee you that you cannot get a cardboard box in Dublin for that now, and probably not if you double it.
So the small farm is just not viable here - or in the UK, or most parts of the US, or probably the West in general, because not only has the relative amount paid for food plummeted, the money is being sucked up by other costs. Even if we were willing to pay more for food than we do, we mostly can’t.
Except that right now, with shipping still something of a mess, and transport costs rising fast, that globalised food is not going to remain cheap - or indeed, necessarily available. This is reflected pretty immediately in food costs here in Ireland - as of January of this year, there were considerable increases. The obvious defence against this is to turn back toward local food - but small farms are not yet over that threshold of viability. So there’s likely to be a rocky bit somewhere ahead, as food costs rise further, and local supply isn’t there yet. It remains to be seen if that rocky bit will be actual food shortages, or just weird fluctuations in the costs of some foods. But I’m happy to be skilling up (gradually!) in growing my own food.
Elsewhere, I’ve been re-enthused about camp cookery. We had a very successful SCA camping event at Sigginstown in Co. Wexford in early June, which even got newspaper coverage. Cee and I produced food for our household and some hangers-on for the weekend, in conditions that ranged from blazing sun to heavy horizontal rain, and mostly enjoyed it greatly.
(Sunday at Strawberry Raid: Roast beef & lamb; rice with turmeric & peas decorated with rosebuds; a turnip dish decorated with pomegranate seeds; a pomegranate-and-raisin sauce, and a green sauce. Plus various Middle Eastern sweets, dates & figs.)
There are a lot of improvements to our camp kitchen being discussed. Many of them are around storage and work spaces, but at this stage what we have isn’t terrible in terms of functionality. In some ways, it’s the necessity to put the kitchen tent out in a field that’s holding us back; if we could put it under trees, or in the shelter of a wall, or really anywhere but in an open space, we’d have a lot fewer issues. I am fairly certain that in a medieval campsite - and with the number of armies, hunters, herders, and so on who were on the move every year, there were a lot of them - the kitchen setup would have taken the most suitable spots, and not had to deal with any other concerns.
Most of the improvements we have in mind are for comfort (higher work surfaces) and authentic looks (better storage, concealing and disposing of modern packaging where we can. It’s well known that people in the medieval era were shorter than we are now (I would be notably tall for a man, Cee would be very tall for a woman), but I’m also fairly sure that the trestle tables which the campsites of the era used - when they had tables at all - would have been made to the exact height of the people using them.
We’re also looking at what we actually cook. Another SCAdian, Volker Bach, has recently published a book about Landsknecht Cookery, and since Landsknechts were mercenaries (more or less, don’t @ me), a lot of their cookery was at campsites. The recipes there are mostly fairly simple and straightforward, and while Bach has written them for the modern kitchen, it’s pretty clear that you can do all of it over a campfire. And I am finding - again; after three years of no camping there’s some re-discovery going on - that the recipes from al-Warraq and other medieval Arabic works function very well at a campsite. Many of them are in a single large pot, cooked slowly, and served with bread. I find that rice is a good addition, too; it’s simple to cook, can be made to look very good, and almost everyone will eat it.
Since I was in charge of laying out the whole campsite, I was able to position our kitchen tent in a high-traffic location. This was entirely deliberate; nearly all the day stewards were people who were at the very least eating there, and I don’t like the feeling of being stuck out of the way that you get when a kitchen tent is at the back of the camp. It had the additional upside that I was able to offer fire and hot water to those who needed it at short notice, which was nice. One of the things I’m considering for next year, though, is a “public” firebox, where the people who don’t have camp cooking facilities of their own can get on with some food production.
Anyway. I should hit send on this, and see if my brain is sufficiently re-charged to do some actual work. This issue has been brought to you by a bout of COVID, the necessary isolation thereonto, a scrounging camp-spaniel, and a great and lightly smoked contentment. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.
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