Ever since being fortunate enough to travel the world with my music, my palate has changed. The familiar English rituals, textures and tastes have been undermined at every turn. The inevitable consequence has been a growing obsession with the international language of food and how almost every choice we are being asked to make about what we eat is laced with deadly compromises. For example, at a restaurant, do you choose white bread, which may be nutritionally poorer for you than brown bread – or do you choose brown bread which contains 5 times the amount of pesticide residues?
Why are we expected to make that decision? At the very point we need clear advice and leadership, we are set adrift by governments afraid to criticise such large companies. At the same time, radical shifts in eating habits have taken place in the last 20 years. Food that used to be considered treats, for special occasions or one-offs, have become staples. What children’s menu at a restaurant doesn’t contain chips? Whereas frosties used to be the exception in breakfast cereals, sugar-coating has become industry standard. Standard frosties now containing 38% sugar. The unholy trinity of the cheap restaurant – the freezer, the microwave and the deep fat fryer – has replaced the family mealtime. The industry’s unholy trinity for cheap food – sugar, salt and fat – has replaced the traditions of locally grown, seasonal produce from grocers, markets, butchers and bakers, squeezed out of high streets by supermarkets.
We have handed over control of what goes in to our bodies to faceless transnational companies, operating in a geographical no-man’s land. It is no surprise then that world health is in crisis, with over-eating in the west becoming more of a problem than under-eating. In America, children have a lower life expectancy than their parents. And yet, the American template for modern food has long been at the front line of its empirical ambitions: McDonalds went to russia long before the tourists did; Starbucks has been successful in many countries previously thought impervious to its homogenised view of coffee; the hamburger, designed in part by a man who thought vegetables were to be avoided, is now a staple part of so many global menus.
Wherever such huge physical and spiritual distances are involved between what we eat and where we eat it, there are bound to be so many difficult and equally depressing stories in between: from the early new england salt cod production feeding sugar plantation slaves in the west indies, to the hundreds of Tesco lorries sat in traffic jams up and down europe; from the british farmers paid to grub orchards, to the coffee farmers of vietnam and colombia, struggling to get by with such a devalued commodity.
It is in stories such as these, if we care to look, that we can begin to see the hidden factor behind all of today’s evils: oil. The global agriculture industry is the biggest consumer of oil: from the power needed to run the factories, to the manufacture of the packaging and the transportation. Now our food comes from further away, the engines of planes and trucks bringing it spew forth the same carbon dioxide that is warming the planet, making crop failure more likely and altering the fundamental structure of indigenous environments on which we rely. Norman Church has kindly agreed for us to reprint his article on the effects of oil consumption on our food chain. To read it in full, please click here.
I am tired of having to tolerate the international language of cheap convenience food – convenient mainly to those that make and serve it. The bright pinky orange of farmed salmon in aeroplane trays, the branded waters 1000 times more expensive than tap water, the dismal spread of the hotel breakfast buffet, with its pre-formed meat slices, pasteurised juices, mechanically produced bread and nestle yoghurts full of sugar and potassium sorbate…
This record then, aims to tell some of the hidden stories behind the overly-elaborate and wasteful packets. It looks at what’s on the menu and asks you to makes decisions based on criteria other than taste. The album will include tracks made from a grain of sugar, 30,000 chickens, a salmon farm, the sewers below London and water.
Plat du Jour has been researched for 18 months with the help of Polly Russell from the British Library and numerous other helpful specialists and authorities.
For the live performance of such a project, the emphasis must shift away from the attempt to tell some of these ambiguous and complex stories in literal ways, and instead aim to enliven the music in ways that allude directly or indirectly to the friction within the food itself. On stage we will be bringing a chef with us who will be attempting to alter mood and enhance the music with smells. There will also be a drummer playing a drum kit made only from items brought from Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket. There will be three renowned jazz musicians – Dave O’Higgins, Pete Wraight and Phil Parnell – capturing live samples and triggering them though midi controllers. Finally I will be attempting to bring it all together sonically, technically and hopefully musically. There will be visuals presented by fine artist Lenka Clayton, who has attempted to interpret the process by which I have created the music, rather than simply document it. My aim is for the music to be the document, rather than relying on images as is so often the case; the music will be something akin to documentary fiction. The images we will use therefore will examine our peculiar relationship with food, rather than creating a visual document of the factual or scientific basis for the project. It is after all, an artistic performance.
The structure of the live shows and the way it will tour will have at its core the same principles of the record. We will ask local promoters to source local food producers to create a small market before and after the show. It will also require a committed absence of pre-packaged and processed food from the backstage area. No more cheap sandwiches, crisps or cans of coke.
Another way is possible. We just need to know the recipe.