Friday, January 09, 2015

More words about buildings and food

Happy New Year to all my readers! You're wanting a communal meals update, right? Sorry to disappoint, but let's just say me too. Getting on four months after the Fish Finger Hate Crime Affair, we still don't have a new Meals Agreement. Or a new Meals Policy. Or enough communal meals for some people's liking (though still too many for some other people's liking). And still many dark evenings with a dark Common House, while we sit severally and variously in our dimly-lit eco-homes, thinking several and various dark thoughts.

But hey, hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. And it's not all bad. There *has* been the review of the process of the review process, which didn't reveal any hate crime (phew), but did say that maybe the remit could have been clearer (yup), maybe the Meals Review Team could have had more process support (yup)... oh, and that just possibly we -- big we, not Meals Review Team we -- should have anticipated that by even raising certain issues, or, in some cases, any issues at all, we were essentially picking a giant scab off a giant flesh wound.

Yeah. That. Let's just say that if I had a fish finger / caper / anchovy / gherkin / jar of mayo / ciabatta roll / little gem lettuce / sprinkling of black pepper for everyone who's said 'it's not really about food, though, is it', I'd have a mighty fine fish finger sandwich.

*takes fish finger sandwich break lasting several weeks*

No, it's not really about food. I've identified four things I think it *is* about, and only one of them -- the extent to which being vegan/vegetarian friendly goes beyond providing high quality food for vegans and vegetarians and into guaranteeing entirely meat- and fish- free communal space (some of it sometimes? all of it sometimes? some of it all times? all of it all times? if I eat a fish finger sandwich in the Common House and I'm the only one in there, does a tree fall in the forest?) -- has anything to do with what any of us actually has for dinner.

The other three (in my personal view, YMMV, definitely not agreed by consensus etc) are...
  • Equity in current work contribution. At the moment, we're all supposed to do three hours a week on essential cohousing tasks, *and* cook once a month and clean up once a month. Some people clearly do more than three hours a week, and some clearly do less. A lot of people, in fact most people, even more clearly (because we have the numbers) cook and clean up less than once a month. This causes huge resentment. But does it make sense to require the same number of hours of everyone, regardless of how often they are on site / how old or strong or fit and well they are / how many hours a week they have other paid or unpaid work commitments? And should someone who eats a common meal once a fortnight be required to cook and clean as often as someone who eats three meals a week? 
  • Equity in historic work (and other) contribution. Some people spent years of time and effort and energy, in some cases to the point of burnout, fighting seriously hefty odds to get the project off the ground. They also took a much greater financial risk, and carried the majority of the project load all the way through the build. Those who came along later paid more, in some cases a lot more, for their houses, and inevitably had less say in the design and build decisions. That's just how it is, as in, it couldn't have been any other way, but it isn't necessarily fair and it's hard to know what we can do about that. 
  • Adherence to policy / agreements about how we live here that we may or may not have been directly involved in making. There was an explicit 'policy lock' in force for several years, so as not to deflect energy from the build, but I don't think anyone really knew what would happen at the end of it -- what's non-negotiable? What's totally negotiable? What's somewhere in between? And who decides? Yes, there were policies and agreements written back in 2006 about cars and food and smoking and pets (all available here if you're interested) but back then the plan was that it would be an urban project with around 24 homes. We ended up as 41 homes by a river, on the edge of a village, with lots of wildlife but a shitty bus service. And we're all new here. So what should we change? And do we all have the same ability to influence that? 
... and they’re about fairness and power and justice. The big stuff gets writ small in pizza toppings. We have some big cracks, and what the Meals Review did was remind us that in some cases we'd merely papered over them. That was expedient when we had houses to build (and sell) but now... well here we all are and what the hell are we going to do about it?

Well, it turns out we are going to approach it very, very carefully and very, very slowly. We will have conversations, but they will be very, very tightly managed. There will be meetings, but they will be very, very heavily facilitated. It will take a long time, but, ideally, no one will cry, or leave the room, or accuse another person of a god-damn hate crime.

Part of me is 'holy shit, we really have to do it like this?' but another part of me got accused of a god-damn hate crime for trying to do it in a more ‘given that we know all this, let’s get it all out on the table’ kind of a way. *And* that wasn't the end of the super-helpful 'feedback'. SO I get that we have to do it like this. No, really, I do.

No, *really*, I do. No, really, I *do*.

*checks privilege*

*takes another fish finger sandwich break lasting several weeks*

I might write a book about this one day, having assigned elemental pseudonyms to the key players (every community needs a Boron). But I might not. And really, I do know that here, I should basically Write About Me. So here are my two biggest thoughts from my first four months as a fish finger hate-crimeist.

1. Food is way more complex than I thought. 
We're not hunter-gatherers anymore. We're a long way past having any kind of 'natural' relationship with food. It's all about choices -- these may be heavily constrained in various ways, but anyone who fancies themselves some shade of green, or anyone who cares about animal welfare, or anyone who cares about their own health in a specific way, or anyone who has body-image issues, or anyone who has a physical or mental health issue which affects, or is affected by, what and how they eat, or anyone who has food allergies or intolerances ... all these variables and more need to be held in balance when deciding what to have for dinner.

These are mostly #firstworldproblems, for sure, but they all play their part in how we relate to food. And the more people you're trying to cook for, the harder it gets to find a way of doing it that works for everyone: if it's just me, and I have the time, money and skills, I can eat exactly what I like. If there are two of us, then I have another set of needs to take into account. Once you get to four, you're into complex territory (ask anyone who cooks for a family), and hell, we're looking at forty, sometimes more. Some needs are harder to cater for than others, some are in conflict with others, some are seen as 'normal', and some, at least here, are seen as... I don't know, 'better'. It's not an easy problem to solve, and logic and proportion can really go to shit sometimes.

Until I got here, unless I was in sub-Saharan Africa I thought I was pretty easy to feed (and being difficult to feed in sub-Saharan Africa is one of the reasons I stopped being vegetarian. I'm still an AVML on the way there though). My mum used to get all the major food groups into me without me complaining much; I have been able to feed myself, and indeed others, quite happily since I was a student (others may not have been overwhelmed by Super Noodles with tuna, tomatoes and Tabasco, but a variant of this is still a staple 10 minute dinner in these parts); and M has been very successfully feeding me for years. In terms of mass catering, I didn't have the best experience of school dinners, but by then I was a vegetarian, so it was cheese salad every day, and always the same cheese. But I managed reasonably well with Hall dining at Cambridge (soup and chips if I couldn't bear the vegetarian option, they weren't so great in the early 90s), and I actively enjoyed the food side of my brief kibbutz experience. Olives! Proper tomatoes! Coleslaw! Vegetarian schnitzel! But I find our communal meals genuinely profoundly disappointing and actually pretty stressful, so clearly there's something else at play.

I'm not 100% sure what it is. But it has to do with the fact that we live in a world where many, many people, especially many, many women, have a miserable, disordered relationship with food, and one of the things I am proudest of is that I am not one of them. I have been on a diet precisely once in my life, when I was 14, and it was a bleak experience. I got the recipes out of the back pages of a book my mum had bought me about Becoming A Woman. I ate meals without the good bits for a couple of weeks, maybe not even that long, and all I could think about was food. I drank black coffee and smoked out the window to dull the hunger pangs. It was terrible, and I decided that it was worse than Being Fat (which actually I wasn't, but I thought I was, not having a thigh gap). So I vowed that all the effort and energy I would otherwise put into Being Thin I would put into Not Caring About Not Being Thin, and that I would henceforth get on with enjoying my food.

And it worked, and I have, and I do. I don't weigh stuff, I don't count stuff, I don't buy low fat cheese, I don't drink slimline tonic. I've never done a 5:2 or a juice cleanse or tried to live off cabbage soup or milk-free milkshakes or egg-white omelettes. I also don't weigh myself. I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't secretly love to be a thin woman (I'd have to live on another planet to be immune to *that* particular message), but I stand by my adolescent conclusion that a *lot* of things taste better than skinny feels. Food is GREAT. Food is one of the best things in the world, and being able to enjoy its delights with largely intact self esteem (I don't feel good about myself when I eat a whole box of Roka Cheese Crispies in one go, to be fair, but I will happily eat a butter pie) makes me One Of The Luckiest People Alive.

But an important part of that is not excluding things -- or at least not excluding things that I love to eat. Once I get into excluding territory then I start to lose my balance. This meal isn't a great meal. It's just calories. What's the point? I mean, we *need* calories, but I don't need as many as I eat, clearly, so why am I eating this? Should I eat it? I get anxious going off in that direction. That way Issues With Food lie.

The things I love to eat have changed radically over the years. As a child it was sausages in finger rolls with tomato ketchup. I can still remember the texture of the rolls, spread with butter from the fridge, the slightly burnt sausages. And vegetable biryanis with omelette baked onto the rice, I bloody loved those. As a teenager, it was Marks & Spencer cheese ravioli with garlicky tomato sauce. I was gutted when they discontinued it. Also those layered salads with cheese or prawns on top. Glad to see those have survived. My 20s were about making friends with chilli and becoming a serious fan of Tom Yam Goong. But it was also when I learnt to cook for myself and discovered the joy of a nut roast with buttered pasta, and Greek lentil soup. And then I met M, who is a fantastic cook and loves food as much as I do, if not more. Ranchos huevos, carrot fritters, smoked tofu carbonara, all manner of curries and noodles and salads and soups and stews. And that's all *before* I started eating meat and he could devil me some kidneys.

But essentially I am about the umami, the contrast of tastes and textures, the sharpness and the spice. I like my food with salt in and my salads dressed. I am not a fan of the sweet (which has in honesty probably saved me from being the size of a house) or the creamy or the heavy or the bland. Many of the things I now love (kale with chilli and garlic! raita! smoked mackerel! pomegranate seeds! avocado! almonds!) are "healthy", but I do not love them for their "healthiness", I just love them. Likewise, many are vegetarian, even vegan, but many are not.

And there's the how as well as the what. I like to eat my dinner in a calm environment, once I've decompressed from the day, with good lighting, off a nice plate, with a knife and fork that match, and a napkin (paper is fine, I'm never sure about how often to wash cloth ones). We usually have a glass or two of wine, and some of our best conversations. If there are four or six or eight of us, (or three or five or seven) even better. I am not so great if I'm eating alone, but I still set food out on the plate with care, sit at a table, listen to Radio 4, think some thoughts.

So I have realised that I make my food choices based on taste and a very personal perception of 'goodness' (avoiding foie gras and air-freighted asparagus, for example, but maybe not avoiding sashimi or out of season green beans if they're Fairtrade), rather than because it's healthy, or because there are things it doesn't contain. That's how I like to eat. That's how M likes to eat. That's how a lot of people I used to eat with like to eat. I kind of imagined it's how everyone would like to eat, if their circumstances permitted, so *there's* a big fat learning point. Another big fat learning point is that if my relationship with food is to stay healthy and happy and un-disordered, and by extension if *I* am to stay healthy and happy and un-disordered, I think it might be how I *need* to eat.

I just can't do food I don't like at a time I don't want to eat in an environment I don't enjoy eating in. I mean, of course I could if I had to, if I didn't have a choice, but I do have a choice, and because I do, I can't. If I can't have something, I just miss it more and want it more. And *that* way also Issues With Food lie.

That may not be as convincing a reason as some can produce for wanting things a certain way, but it's the best I can do. And at this point I'm not even trying to persuade anyone that how I like to eat is the way to go, just to be left alone to cook and eat in peace. I *did* like the idea of shared meals. I still do. Just not these ones.

2. Don't put all your eggs in one basket
This time last year, I didn't have a lot of energy. I was low on spoons. I was still very much  dealing with the trauma and grief of my mum's death, which itself was layered on the disruption and uncertainty of moving up north. I'd left behind old friends and familiar places and decent internet (not to mention proper sushi) for a whole new way of doing things, and then the world suddenly tilted on its axis, never to tilt back. It felt like I'd fallen off something, hadn't landed, and didn't know who I would be when I did. I still don't really know how I didn't break anything, or myself, though there were definitely a few times when I came close.

As the days lengthened, and the distance grew, I did start to feel a little resurgence, and a few more spoons appeared. It was unpredictable, but it felt like it was going in the right direction. I'd pulled right back from a lot of cohousing things (apart from managing the laundry tokens, because that's a job you can do sobbing at 3 am) and I was feeling that I should start re-engaging. This place doesn't run itself. So while I didn't nominate myself for the Meals Review Team, when lots of other people did, I thought, well, it's a dirty job but someone's got to do it, and it looks like it's got my name on it.

From this vantage point, I mostly* wish I hadn't thought that. Because I didn't really have the energy. Or rather, it took all the spare energy I had. We did an extraordinary amount of work over a bunch of lovely summer days when I could have been digging my allotment, or painting the house, or walking in the hills, or sorting out the office, or basically anything that would have been fruitful, in a mental and physical health sort of a way. This was not fruitful. It felt like it might be for a time, as we uncovered stories and sorted statements and looked at possibilities, but if ever there was a poisoned chalice it was this one. I didn't really see it coming, but at the moment it feels like we could have pulled a bunch of ideas out of a hat and saved ourselves the time. That was precious time and precious energy, and I spent it on the wrong thing.

M has made some similar mistakes, we both have a tendency to get over-invested in these things. At work I'm pretty good at picking my battles but it doesn't always play out in other areas. Anyway, we had a good old long old think and talk about it and decided to diversify. We have a new initiative, which is called Project Anywhere But Here.

Project ABH (as it was immediately dubbed by the first neighbour I explained it to) is very simple in concept. If it's not a working day, get up and get out. Anywhere. Do not lie around working on proposals for better ways to do things. Get your coat on and leave the house. The easiest thing to do is go up to the allotment, and the beginning of Project ABH coincided neatly with the onset of Digging Season. A couple of hours up there, in the sunshine with a view over the hills, and equilibrium starts to return. We also have a new local cafe, where there is a large dog to stroke, and flat whites and Aga-cooked lunches can be had. On our first ABH outing we had some of those before walking over the hill to Williamson Park, where we drank beer in the chilly autumn sunshine and visited the butterfly house. Sometimes we only get as far as cycling into town to go to the library and have coffee (not in the library, that coffee is not good), sometimes we go to Carnforth, or the garden centre at Bolton le Sands, or the beach at Hest Bank. But we do get out.

I have big plans for Project ABH in 2015, which involve writing ideas on index cards based on how long they take (and what the weather needs to be like), and then using them to plan ahead a bit. If you have a whole day, you can go and do something in Manchester, for example, and one day, when I wasn't far enough away, I was sorely tempted to get on a bus I saw idling in the city centre which was going to Knott End. They have a ferry there. And that's before you get to the joy of the 555. This is a beautiful part of the world, and we've barely started exploring it. There's joy to be had in that.

We made a healthy start by spending both Christmas and New Year ABH -- but not very far away. We went to Silverdale for Christmas and stayed at Holgates Holiday Park with M's offspring. I've never been great at enjoying Christmas, but it turns out that's because I've never spent it in a static caravan with a sea view, a big hill to walk over, a swimming pool and a real ale pub with a big fire and singalong carols. Everyone enjoyed it! It was great! And for New Year we went with good friends (also good neighbours, a fine combination, as someone may already have noted) to Black Fell Cottage, where there were Picklebacks (exhilarating), tons of cheese, jigsaws, blustery walks, films, Monkey 47 gin (terrifying) and a walk by moonlight to dinner at the splendid Drunken Duck. I still have party bruises. I love those guys.

It was all absolutely marvellous, but it was also good to get home. Which is important. I don't actually want to live anywhere else, I just need to get better at managing my boundaries. And hey, if you've got this far, thanks for sticking with me.

*fixes eyes on horizon, walks forward*


*I say mostly because it wasn't all bad. I enjoyed all the 1-1 conversations I had with people, and learnt a lot about different people's perspectives on cooking and eating, and just about them really. Conversations are good. And I really enjoyed working with the other three people in the team, we were very different people with a shared task and we did some good stuff together. 

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Blogger Spine said...

Turkey Index Card. Make it now.

10:22 am  

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