Cooking and the internet

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Good cooking depends on getting the right ingredients. And ingredients are seasonal. This means that good cooking must respond to the seasons.

The co-founder of The River Cafe, Ruth Rogers, told, on a recent episode of Desert Island Discs, how she learned this lesson while living above a market in Paris. At such close proximity to the earth’s produce, it quickly became clear to her that good cooks need to listen to the world rather than bend it to suit their will, or the will of their patrons. Don’t, she said, go to the market with a shopping list; instead, see what’s there, and then decide what to cook. She contrasted this with someone traipsing all over London in February to buy a punnet of raspberries.

To get the most out of food, it seems we have to give it a little space in which to grow, rather than stifle and smother it to suit our rampant and unrelenting appetites. Food is something to which we must listen, even study, observing the conditions under which it flourishes. It requires skill, patience, attention to detail, and, at the dark end of the north European psyche, even passion.

And it hardly needs saying that The River Cafe is no affectation, but both a cultural and entrepreneurial success. A venture rooted, not in a utilitarian calculation about self-interest, but rather a shared appreciation of what the world can offer if we respect its natural rhythms and patterns, is clearly something for which people will pay good money.

Rogers’ insight in Paris is, to me, not simply striking because it rings true as an approach to food, but because it seems, somehow, unusual, an exception in a culture which is more inclined – and I am now writing metaphorically – to wander across London in February with a recipe for Raspberry clafoutis. So, intuitively, we seem to come before the world around us, and people are marked out with appointed, or bullishly acquired, rights and powers, which they use to extort and extend their animal territory. Housing, travel, the natural environment, shopping, entertainment, finance, sex – all have been twisted, in different ways, to suit whatever is deemed ‘convenient’.

This is painfully on display when it comes to customer service. Queue up at any of the large coffee-shop franchises and it won’t be long before you hear a conversation in which the continental student-cum-barista coils around a conversation to please, or placate, a customer. Or perhaps the customer will sneer with impatient disdain as they extract the ‘right’ to a fairly arbitrary decorum. Two pound fifty buys you, not just a Latte, but a grotesquely distorted form of human behaviour.

The internet often looks like one aspect of modern culture which has pampered this bristling parlay of dues. Online shopping delivers directly to your door. Price comparison sites make sure you get the best deal. Live streaming broadcasts what you want, when you want it. Dating sites mean you can have something close to a custom-made relationship. Ashley Madison allows you to have sex with someone based on a profile of preferences and predilections. The list could continue.

The one word these last few sentences have in common is ‘you’. The world is at ‘your’ disposal. Its seasons, its cycles of life, are increasingly irrelevant. The internet means that, so to speak, you no longer have to scour the streets of north London in February searching for Raspberries; you just need to download the right app.

The other thing that these features of the digital world have in common is that they reduce each area of interest – food, art, sex – to a service. They don’t just deliver objects in a way that we would have otherwise found less efficiently, they also condition the way in which we see and think about them. Food is fuel. Art is light relief. And sex is genital relief. If the natural seasonality of things were not so resistant to our attempts at control, it would be easy to see how seamlessly our own artificial intelligences have shaped us to suit their own image. Or, it would be easy to see how much we think and behave like robots.

And yet the point about searching for raspberries in February is that it is, in a sense, pointless, because they won’t taste as good as when they are in season. If this analogy holds true, then it ought to mean that many of the services delivered online are, for all their efficiency and convenience, often more than a little insipid. ‘Tailored’, ‘targeted’ to suit personal interests, they lose their flavour. And they lose their flavour because the flavour comes from the particular circumstances of the season.

But the hyper-efficiency of digital services doesn’t mean they have to be a blunt-edged instrument for turning lumpy and indeterminate things into geometric shapes. One way of harnessing the power of the web might be to make it drop slices of pizza into otherwise sedentary bodies. Another way might be to bring its frightening cleverness to bear on the seasonality of things.

What does this mean? Well, sticking with the same – and now very sticky – metaphor, it means we might be able to discover the great-tasting raspberries when they are in season. It means that we won’t just watch Star Wars on a permanent loop, but discover the world heritage of film from Irving Thalberg to Jirí Menzel. It might even mean that we start looking at the meaning and statistics that lie behind the rhetoric of politicians and the way what they say is reported in the media.

Steve Hilton in his quest to make us More Human has already chronicled examples of technology which help people to discover people rather than impersonal services. Airbnb is one of the increasingly better-known examples. By renting our spare rooms or apartments, the owner gets to earn a bit of extra cash, the traveller gets a cheaper alternative to a hotel, and both get to meet each other in a much more personal and particular – or you might say more seasonal – way. We are no longer clipped by customer service but, perhaps more simply, just two people with aligned interests trying to get along.

So perhaps the interweb is going through its own protracted soul-searching, as we try to work out whether it is, in fact, the ultimate accessory to the hedonist’s lifestyle, or a wonderful new way to discover the things about us, in the near and not-so-near distance. My hurried hunch is that the Dr Octopus attempt to harness the power of the sun for our own ends is not new, but a legacy of the machine age and the industrial revolution. It’s natural enough to want to use a new piece of technology in the ways you have used many of the older ones. But perhaps the growing number of ideas like Airbnb are a sign that the spirit of the internet is more in keeping with Ruth Rogers’ idea of cooking. Perhaps, after all, the internet has more respect for raspberries than you might think.

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