Saturday, August 11, 2007

William Morris and Slow Food

I know, it's been ages. And this entry is a bit rambling, but at least I'm writing again. I'll try to be more consistent in the coming months. Anyway, here's some thoughts that have been muddling through my head lately.

My background is a William Morris wallpaper pattern (heavily faded to make the text readable), and since Morris is an important 19th-century writer and one of the authors I'm studying for my dissertation, I figured this look called for a new entry on Morris and slow food. Not that Morris had anything to do with culinary trends, and I doubt the slow food movement has anything to do with Morris directly, but think the two actually have a lot in common.

William Morris was a 19th-century writer, artist and designer. His wallpaper and textile designs are still manufactured today, but only a couple companies produce them, so you won't see them at a big box store in the suburbs. You will see lots of William Morris knock-offs, but unlike, say, Martha Stewart Inc., William Morris never reached mass production or mass distribution levels -- deliberately. And it wasn't because Morris was a snob or an elitist. It was because he believed in artisanship. These days, the word artisan has many connotations -- hippie, crafty, home-made, crunchy-granola -- or, at the other end of the spectrum: snobbery, elitism, prestige, limited editions, luxury. Luckily, we're broadening our horizons, in large part (and perhaps ironically) thanks to the internet: marketplace sites like Etsy have made hand-made goods more accessible and publicized. But for larger purchases, like furniture, flooring, linens, building supplies and housewares, the market is pretty much cornered by mass-producer companies.

Why? For a lot of people, it's cost, convenience and awareness related. People who live paycheque to paycheque and NEED a kitchen table are likely to seek out the cheapest and most convenient option, and that's often what's available at Wal-Mart or another large discount department store. Buying used goods is certainly an option, but most used goods are listed on-line and delivery service isn't an option. If you don't have a car, you're pretty much screwed, unless you have friends or family willing to help you out. And there are many people and families, especially in urban areas, who don't have support systems in place. That's just a plain fact.

But I'm getting off topic. What I meant to write about was the slow food movement, and why it's become the William Morris movement of our era. Slow food is the newest ethical consumer trend, and that' s not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, like William Morris' ideal of craftman/artisan produced goods, slow food is still a small-follower trend -- not because buying fresh and local ingredients is always more expensive, but because we live in a world where mass consumption and mass production rule the market.

Despite the pathetic doctoral student wage I have, and the less-pathetic-public-service-but-not-government-wage of the husband, we've made an effort to buy local poultry, meat, produce, baked goods, bulk goods, veg & fruit, and as much unprocessed stuff as possible. But we're lucky. It's just Mike and me, and besides rent, student loan payments, various debts, and cat expenses, we're not bothered about much. But we're also very, very lucky. We're aware of options besides Wal-Mart, and we have enough time and energy to seek out other options. We have massive support networks that make hitting rock bottom a fairly distant possibility. And because we don't have to worry about things as basic as clothes, housing and food, we have, despite being on the low end of the household salary grid, a perfectly happy existence.

So what was the point of this entry? I think slow food has replaced slow everything else -- furniture, household goods, transportation, services -- in a way that's not so great. The slow food movement is good in the sense that it concentrates on local goods, relaxed dining and simplicity. But it's also a bit elitist (as Anthony Bourdain, the one-time drug dealer turned accolade-laden chef and food writer has noted) because sometimes a stir-fry made with frozen veggies is the most convenient option available -- and it's a far better option than pre-cooked breaded chicken and boxed mashed potatoes. And sometimes, it seems like if we can say we're into slow food, it makes up for all the other mass-produced shit we load up on in our rampant consumer society. But it doesn't, really. We really need to stop fetishizing newness and put a little more effort into buying used household goods and goods from local producers beyond jewellery and pottery. But we're lazy. Hitting the farmer's market for a few bucks worth of locally-grown potatoes makes us feel good, but spending a bit more on a table made in town, or hunting around for a used couch or desk, often seems like too much trouble -- which is sad, really.

My personal response is to buy local for goods that are more taxing on the environment. I'm not a vegetarian, so I try to buy meat, dairy, eggs and fish from local producers in an attempt to reduce pollution from travel and preservation. I try to buy local produce before organic from other countries. But I still buy frozen beans year-round, and I really don't know where my flour comes from (I know it's milled in Saanich, about 25 minutes from our house, but where's the wheat from?). I try to buy used goods, but sometimes my wants get the best of me and I shell out for something new and shiny because it's easier. I don't think it has to be an all-or-nothing thing by any means -- every little bit counts and all that -- but if we're so into promoting eating locally, why aren't we into living locally? And how can we start to make the switch?
doctor T 12:53 p.m.


Great post!! I have been thinking a lot about these issues lately too. For instance, we finally have a garden and are glad to grow some of our own veggies, but a post over at You Grow Girl the other day got me thinking about things like: where does my potting soil come from and how much non-rain water am I using to water the plants during dry spells, etc., etc. As you said, it is complicated!

I love how you link this all back to William Morris. I'm so interested in his work and life.

Great to see you back blogging! We've missed you!
This made me think of something I stumbled across a few months back. You may have already heard about it but it's a collective based out of San Fran called "Compact." Their blog is at

Last New Year's I decided my resolution was going to be to recycle absolutely everything, to start using only reusable coffee cups, grocery bags, etc, and to cut down on packaging as much as possible. I've done remarkably well with that, though I'm not exactly perfect. But as I was researching I came across the Compact and I thought I would love to get on board with that. You are absolutely right -- I think we use our good behaviour with things like slow food or recycling or what have you to avoid looking at the other ways that we subscribe to the very system we are trying to work our way out of. Very interesting stuff...

Maybe this coming year my resolution will be to buy absolutely nothing new.

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