By Lucy Bradley
“Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners.” Othello, William Shakespeare.
The renaissance in bringing food production back into our lives at the household level is flourishing. It is the food DIY movement, reminiscent of the do-it-yourself counter-cuisine which emanated out of the 1960s organic movement, and it is rooted in the same philosophy that drives the global Slow Food Movement. The 2011 figures for allotment waiting lists having reached 40 years in some London boroughs is indicative of urban interest doing-it-yourself has galvanized. Just one city in a global grassroots movement, the capital has given birth to initiatives like Food From The Sky – a permaculture project housed on the roof of a supermarket, city farming co-operatives like Growing Communities, and locally organised but larger scale models such as Transition Towns, which have sprung up across the country and belong to a global Transition network. By increasing our proximity to production and the opportunity to get involved directly, these initiatives are enabling us to reclaim skills and knowledge that are intrinsic to our existence. Reconnecting us to the ecosystems, patterns, rhythms and cycles that sustain the natural world, these projects have the power not just to reconnect us with the land but to bring about social regeneration too, as Detroit’s urban farming model in the USA has demonstrated .
In relation to food, DIY refers to pretty much anything you make yourself from growing lettuce in your window box and tomatoes on your balcony, to making bacon, brewing cider or cooking a meal from the raw ingredients. However, in this article I focus on the types of products that we often take for granted as being ready made – things like pasta, bread, ketchup, cheese, jam, butter and so on.
Given that the option to buy these items pre-prepared is so easy, why does making-it-yourself have a growing appeal in light of what might initially seem like unnecessary effort. Amongst the millions of us who now live in built environments that are largely disconnected from the land that feeds us, many lack the practical knowledge or impetus to make our own food because product-picking off the shelf is the unquestioned norm, facilitated by anonymising distribution networks which promise predictability. But against the social backdrop characterised by declining happiness indices, a spiritual void and the search for meaning that many experience as part of modern day life – painted in works by contemporary thinkers such as Iain McGilchrist’s The Divided Brain, Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom, George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level – DIY food responds to our yearning to reconnect with the land, the soul, the self and each other and reduce these gaps. This context is important for understanding the groundswell of support that food DIY has generated. Based on the premise that knowledge is power, the central tenet of this article is simple: the process and act of making is empowering.
In spite of the benefits associated with DIY food, which I go on to discuss, let’s first consider why are some people might be put-off. External constraints like skill, time and money are frequently cited, suggesting that it is an exclusive pursuit for the experts or wealthy. Yet, famous for her column A Girl Called Jack, about home-cooking on a shoestring, Jack Monroe has demonstrated that the last of these constraints – money – is not necessarily accurate. With recipes including a breakdown of ingredients’ costs, Monroe has shown that cooking for yourself is in fact often cheaper than buying ready-made, and that it tastes and looks better too . In terms of time commitment, it is undeniable that it is quicker to heat-up something, but food DIY can be tailored to the amount of time at hand, from one-off events to being integrated into daily food regimes, and with practice we hone our skills and become faster. But to this list of reasons I think we also need to add the less frequently acknowledged impediments to doing DIY food: knowledge and imagination. By this I mean as we have increasingly outsourced cooking from our kitchens through buying in ready prepared, our confidence in our abilities and skills have declined in terms of what we imagine to make and the knowledge of how to make it.
Once curiosity and willingness to experiment have been ignited these latter impediments to making food from raw ingredients are relatively easy to overcome and the possibilities of what can be made at home grows. Just as the handbooks which inspired and transferred knowledge to novice organic farmers in the sixties – many of whom were drawn from the cities – in search of alternative farming methods to the agro-industrial model, food DIY has it’s contemporary equivalents. Among the lights we have the British food writer Tim Hayward’s book Food DIY: How to Make Your Own Everything  and American ‘food hacker’ J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab blog which ‘unravels the science of home cooking’ . Both writers highlight the appeal of empowerment. Including decoded and open-sourced recipes of popular menu items sold by global fast food chains, López-Alt emphasises his motivation is to inspire people to cook using fun and interesting ways that equip them with an understanding of the alchemy of cooking and enable them to become better cooks. Hayward’s enthusiasm for making food as a fun, sociable and fulfilling past time being explored by men as much as women, across the generations. He explores how DIY taps into deep rooted mechanisms in our psyches that explain the innate satisfaction and pleasure that derive from discovery, understanding and making things oneself and the feeling of being more self-reliant. Food production as social activity has a long history across cultures either amongst the family or in wider community units, and because of the enjoyment in the ‘sociability of co-producing’ it is a theme that Hayward seeks to rekindle in the UK. Hayward and López-Alt are two pioneering practitioners in this DIY renaissance in which print and online literature is flourishing, and the internet is awash with instructions on pretty much anything to make – once you know it is possible.
While scientific research into the effects of cooking as a promoter of wellbeing is lacking, evidence from the outcomes of projects that have used food making as a positive therapy for people with mental health issues or psychological trauma, supports the idea that making food is good for the soul. As Debra Moffitt a writer and wellbeing practitioner says ‘the kitchen offers one of the best and most creative places for practicing mindfulness’ . Participants of projects like the Veteran’s Artisan Bakery , or the fortnightly bread-making sessions run by the organisation Care of the Victims of Torture , report the therapeutic nature and social benefits directly stemming from bread-making. They find the psychological and de-stressing properties derive from the physical act of handling and crafting ingredients, the creative freedom and the social space that it provides for talking and accessing positive memories. These benefits are reflected in The Real Bread Campaign’s 2013 report Rising Up, which cited nearly 90% of participants saying making bread gave them a sense of achievement and made them feel happier, with three quarters feeling more relaxed . Despite the lack of research into cooking as a therapeutic activity the beneficial effects are gaining recognition among occupational therapists . Based on evidence from his professional experience, Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation advocates cooking as ‘a simple pleasure that could have a positive impact on the rest of our stress filled lives’ .
The characteristics that make DIY food intrinsically beneficial for us as individuals is one aspect of a much larger picture that also incorporates powerful extrinsic benefits, such as the environmental case. DIY food’s capacity to empower the self, feed the imagination and soul which underlie its increasing popularity, make it a good carrot and not a stick.
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