The Story Begins in a Supermarket


The story, damn it, must begin in a supermarket. I wish this were not the case. If I were a more ethical consumer, I’d be able to begin the tale in a farmer’s market bordered by biodynamic meats, wholesome pulses and the corpse of global capitalism.

But as much as I’d like to circulate the fiction of my leftish and fresh-faced mien, the story wouldn’t have much of a point if it began amid the Hessian and good-will of rustic produce. We must begin in a supermarket.

So. I was shopping in a supermarket. When I shop, generally with my partner in consumption and in life, I do not use one of those little books that decode ingredients described in letters and numbers rather than words. Instead, we normally surpass packet items altogether. We choose to poison ourselves with the more steadfast pesticides of supermarket greens and the hormones and antibiotics of supermarket meat.

So there we were, eschewing frozen goods in favour of "fresh" items grown, in all likelihood, on diminished land by unsustainable means, myopically minding our own business.

And, then. Our trolley overflowing with everyday toxins. We saw it.
There’s a certain childless sort inured to the charms of infants. Years of questions about our fertility and decades of scrutiny by smug parents who implore you to agree, "isn’t he darling" have hardened us. It’s an unfortunate candour that leads me to inform hitherto proud breeders: no, actually, he’s not darling. In fact, he’s the sort who looks as though he might be armed with a copy of Catcher in the Rye and an AK-47 atop a water tower of the not-terribly-distant dystopic future.

Such a child, of circa 12 months, was before us in the supermarket, riding atop a Bugaboo.

Perhaps you have seen a Bugaboo. This engineered European obscenity is to supermarket aisle as a 4WD is to parking lot. More than a mere pram, it’s an oversized, overpriced vulgarism that appeals to the shallowest part of a proud new parent. And, darling, if you do not have one, you’re clearly sans high-end taste, children and/or a robust line of credit.

Satan’s spawn was squawking from his prestige rickshaw. And, even though his primary carer had hung the expense where his comfort was concerned, he continued to squawk past tinned soups, dry goods and well into the confectionery aisle.

An inscrutable mother, dazzling in the roomiest Armani Exchange marquee money could buy, sustained a grin. That grin grown in permafrost that says, "isn’t he darling".

No. Actually. He’s not.

The sovereign devil squawked and his squawks turned to shrieks and still the mother grinned like an acolyte soon to drink deadly Kool Aid. And she grinned as her issue’s diabolic mitts grabbed at sugary waste. And still she grinned as he emptied the litter of food manufacturers into his Bugaboo, on to his person and on to the floor.

We watched with some fixity and waited for the gelid grin to crack. And, just for a minute, at about the time the child hit a note that made Celine Dion sound tolerable by contrast; we saw the grin split for an instant.

In the time it takes to squeeze the trigger of an AK-47, the grin split, bonded and restored itself. All thanks to a carbonated utility. The mother of Lucifer (let’s call her Rosemary) reached for a bottle of Coca Cola.

And SHE FED COCA COLA TO HER BABY. She did it so deftly and with such maternal poise, we could tell that this was not the first time she’d mollified her vile child by such deadly means.

My companion in consumption and life stared at me. And I stared back. And each of us thought, as we later confirmed, "Should I take a picture with my mobile phone for future laughs, or should I just call welfare?"

This baby blotting paper took the waste of a weird world up in no time flat. And the squawking stopped and his grin, a mirror of his malevolent Rosemary’s, returned.

If you’ve never seen an infant suck down a Coke as though it were mother’s milk, I cannot recommend the vision highly enough. If you’re looking for a single act to typify a broad and burgeoning attitude to food, this one really takes the sugar-encrusted biscuit.
In fact, the chic activists of Slow Food might consider employing this tableau as a nice bit of agitprop. It’d work, too. Corpulent citizens of the world might just consider the consequences of a life and a gastrointestinal tract steeped in poison should they spot a monster in a Bugaboo sponging up the by-product of an ultra-liberalised mill.

The image certainly burnt itself into the retina of my own shaky morality. I changed my shopping habits at once. Or, to be more forthright, I changed my level of guilt about shopping and began renewed interest in the everyday mechanics of food. On the advice of Slow Food comrades, I began to endure Michael Pollan‘s degustation of dissent.

One of the more literate and charismatic agitators combating crap food, Pollan is one of a new breed. Famous filmmaker Morgan Spurlock joins the pissed-off chorale that is rapidly finding a new harmony between food and politics.

In recent years, Barbra Kingsolver, Eric Schlosser and Kenneth F Kiple have added to this literature. From scholarly passion to cheesed-off polemic, gastronomes offer us a range of reasons to change the terms of our consumption. Raj Patel’s recent work, Stuffed and Starved, emerged as an especially brutal critique. Starting, as it did, with the revelation that the planet’s one billion obese citizens now outnumber the starving.

Naturally, you can choose to read all of this as more painful evidence that the world is headed for hell in a hand-cart. Or, you can choose to view movements like Slow Food or food patriotism (wherein the "locavore" chooses only to consume foods produced within a 200 kilometre radius of their residence) as a pointless and reflexive response to unstoppable macro-economic might. How, after all, will I disrupt the malevolent marriage of agribusiness with petrochemical companies in my decision to buy local and biodynamic cheese?

Well. I reckon you can.

Excuse my hackneyed candour. And, please excuse the detail that I spent my past weekend at the largest Slow event outside Italy. By next week, I could easily morph back into cynicism of the everyday.

For now, however, I see food as a fulcrum for great change.

There is no form of consumerism that confers such immense pleasure to the activist. As I’m fairly ancient, I recall Not Buying South African, Not Buying Israeli and Not Buying French. These snubs, as symbolically gratifying as they might have been, awarded no immediate benefit to my every day. (Actually, Not Buying French really pissed me off. Back in those days, there were no local goat’s cheese producers.) By contrast, the refusal to consume hydrogenated oils or refined sugars makes my skin clearer, my waist smaller and my stools more buoyant. We should underestimate neither vanity nor regular bowel motions as a motivation for change.

Forlornly, I still shop at supermarkets. Every so often I shift my battered battery-hen heft through the turnstile and poison myself with the mantra "I Don’t Have Time For Anything Else". Which, really, is a colossal fiction. If I don’t eat well and if I don’t uphold a robust curiosity for the things I put in my pie-hole, I’ll have time for nothing.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.