Everything I eat and drink these days seems to want to talk to me. To be fair, it’s not the food itself that’s trying to address me, it’s the packaging. “Hello,” says the text on a carton of soup, “let me tell you about the best way to heat me up.” Thanks, soup carton, but I think I can figure out how to pour soup into a pan and put it on the stove. Stop nagging me. But now the soup has got my attention, it’s not going to keep quiet. It wants to tell me about its origins, family history, early life, happy childhood, and formative experiences. “My ingredients are sourced from organic, free range farms,” it declares proudly, “and harvested in small, intimate batches, then lovingly stewed, by hand, in traditional slate crucibles lined with cave-aged Cornish mud.”
By the way, amid the general creepiness of this anthropomorphic loquacity, I’m unsettled specifically by claims that something I’m eating has been prepared by hand. For example, potato chips. As I raise the fat-sodden, salt-laden morsels to my lips, I don’t want to imagine some gurning yokel running his fingers through them after returning from the toilet without washing his hands. I want my potato chips sourced from a sterile laboratory in which shiny robots, unencumbered by bladders, bowels or bacteria, toil ceaselessly, never leaving their stainless-steel environment to encounter contamination of any kind.
All I need to know about the things I eat and drink is that they do the job, taste nice, won’t kill me, and might even do me some good. I’m not looking for a relationship. If I wanted my food to engage me in conversation, I’d do more drugs or become a cannibal.
And even when the food isn’t trying to talk to you, the people who produce it are. They harangue you from the packaging of their products in chummy, oversharing screeds that frequently include pictures of themselves, and the charming, rustic locations in which they labour. Photos are often sepia tinted, and illustrations evoke a bucolic Eden. These people wish you to know that you’re a friend, not a customer. They want you to like them, and to feel good about giving them your money. With British products, these overtures are generally made with a degree of jokey, self-deprecating irony, behind which you can detect a hint of shame, or at least embarrassment. No such considerations inhibit Americans. “Hey there!” they write on the product you’ve bought (while implying that they’d much prefer to give it to you for free, if only they could), “meet our very special family of artisanal craftspeople! I’m Rufus, and with my helpers and soulmates, Clytemnestra and Moonhunter, we’re committed to ensuring that our dedication to holistic biodiversity and wellness finds its way into every tube of fish paste we create.”
Unfortunately, this kind of stuff is now ubiquitous, whether it’s on a packet of single origin muesli, a jar of meadow-reared marmalade, or your bottle of breakfast vodka. It exerts a certain ghastly fascination, and the best way to resist it is to read something else. Be sure to have a newspaper, magazine, website or book to hand at every meal. This is especially important if you’re not alone at the table, otherwise you might have to talk to whoever you’re with, and nobody wants that.
Finally, there may come a day when our food itself will talk to us. Some people may think this could be a good thing. Perhaps our food can make us better people, by informing us of the harm we’re doing in consuming it, and encourage us to eat less of it, or spare it altogether. A stern lecture from a turnip, on the subject of intensive farming and the damage it causes the ecosystem, might change your eating habits. A filet steak that cries, “Stop!” as your fork is poised above it, and delivers a heartrending story about being torn from its mother, to satisfy the increasingly unsustainable human appetite for red meat, might make you think again. But perhaps not. Paul McCartney famously said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians. I’m not so sure. I think it’s more likely that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be taking selfies in front of them. I hope I’m wrong, but meanwhile... bon appétit!