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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Raining on Jay's Parade

Upon reading the Guardian at the weekend (well, I am technically middle class, even if I DO live on a council estate) I came across this rather lovely, typically-Guardianesque defence of supermarkets from none other than Jay Rayner (food critic and offspring of Clare “with wings” Rayner, last seen in the Observer rubbishing a £250 per head lunch he’d eaten on the paper’s pay a few weeks back).

According to Jay Rayner, supermarket dominance in Britain is not a bad thing really. He does concede that they use bullying tactics to force small businesses into bankruptcy, that they sell overpriced shit food that makes us obese, and that they have turned our high streets into a monotonous wasteland (he doesn’t go into the catatrophic effect their sourcing practices have had on the food chain, but we’ll add it to the mix for luck). He does so rather eloquently, as you can see:

‘“We know that massive supermarkets have been squeezing producers for years, slicing margins which, in turn, has had a knock-on effect on the quality of produce. The excesses of industrial food production in this country are a direct result of the buying policies of the supermarkets. We know that the big out-of-town stores have been wiping out independent retailers and turning high streets into deserts of boarded-up units. More recently, the march of the smaller, local outposts of the big four, particularly Sainsbury's and Tesco, has made them look like rampaging armies. First, they operate a scorched-earth policy. Then, they invade and occupy the wasteland they have created. Job done.’

However, despite conceding all that, somehow Jay has nonetheless managed to conclude that, actually, rejecting supermarket dominance is simply a sign of middleclass, liberal pomposity. Of which he is not guilty, naturally; despite being of the Guardian-reading liberal classes, he himself is clever enough to see past his own prejudices, you understand.

According to Jay, the general public (i.e. people what are poorer and less discerning than him) need supermarkets because they’re too busy slaving away down coal mines and pushing their kids up chimneys (and whatever else he imagines the working classes do between the hours of 9 and 5) to actually shop for their products in hopelessly outdated institutions like fishmongers and greengrocers.

He goes further to inform us that, actually, supermarkets are a FEMINIST concept. Yes, that’s correct. Jay Rayner gleefully tells us that, if it weren’t for Tesco, women across the country would be unable to go out to work:

‘To extrapolate from all of that to the equation that supermarket equals bad is not only a mistake, but dishonest. Almost all of us use them and for one simple reason: they are bloody convenient. Not simply convenient as in that's more time for leisure pursuits. They are convenient as in they enable us to keep family and work life on an even keel. Why, in the years before mass retailing, did one parent stay at home and the other go out to work? Because keeping the house supplied was a full-time job. Whenever I have to listen to a full-on rant from my foodie brethren about the evils of supermarkets and why we should all shop only at local independent retailers, what I hear, unconsciously or otherwise, is an argument that is distinctly anti-woman.’

Lovely idea, Jay, but it probably comes as news to women like my 86 year old grandmother who, after being widowed at the age of 21 in 1941, had to work, bring up three children AND (gasp!!!) buy her sausages from her handy local – sorry, evil and misogynistic – butcher, all without the help of an Asda hypermarket.

I suspect it might surprise most people to learn that the women of Britain didn’t go out to work before 1960, come to think of it. It seems extraordinary to me that Jay Rayner can pronounce in a national newspaper that women “before mass retailing” stayed at home en masse to cook the family tea without anyone challenging such an absurdly misplaced notion. He’s Clare Rayner’s son, for Christ’s sake, surely his schooling was expensive enough to learn him better….?

But Jay’s not done. He goes on to rubbish the journalist Felicity Lawrence, who wrote the 2004 book Not on the Label. Why? Because apparently the only reason she stopped going to the supermarket and shopped locally instead was because she was a bored, spoilt middle class mother with nothing better to do:
‘Alongside her detailed investigation into the way the likes of the chicken industry worked was a knee-jerk anti-supermarket rant. 'I began to look on the supermarket raid with dread,' she wrote. 'When my second child arrived, I knew I couldn't face loading two children into the car each time I needed something. Besides, we wanted somewhere to walk to pass the day so I started shopping locally on foot again.'
Lucky old Felicity. She needed something to do to pass the time. Here in the real world, of crippling mortgages and rising utility bills, two salaries aren't a luxury. They are a necessity and anything that eases the pressure on family life is a godsend. Is this ideal? No, but it is the reality.’


Why thank you, Jay 'Feminist Icon' Rayner, where would women be without your sisterly solidarity? Oh yeah - in our local shops. But still - still - he’s not finished. As well as championing the feminist cause, apparently supermarkets also do a fabulous job of promoting inner-city racial integration – the supermarket is “the one truly integrated place in the local community”, enthuses Jay.
I for one would never have guessed it, but Jay says that Tesco in Brixton sells products targeted at black people. Proof positive, people.
(The inclusion of this extraordinarily revelatory point has nothing to do with Jay’s desire to shoehorn in a reference to shopping in Brixton, you cynics – his experience is quite obviously an authentically gritty and urban one, even if he does feel it necessary to inform you that he is wealthy enough to shop at his local deli as well as stocking up on Tesco’s basic range shampoo and tinned tomatoes):

‘The social aspect goes further. As I pointed out to the reporter who was shadowing me that day, the supermarket where we shop is the one truly integrated place in the local community. Its customer base crosses ethnicity and class in a way that nothing else in multi-ethnic Brixton manages to. The glorious if often unreliable covered market in the centre of Brixton doesn't do that and nor do the food boutiques to Brixton's south, where people such as me are able to spend the extra income they are lucky enough to have on prime ingredients. As a result, the supermarket responded directly to that clientele. Ours has shelves full of ingredients targeted directly at the Afro-Caribbean community.’

Incidentally, Lawrence’s book, for anyone who wants to read a proper analysis of supermarket retailing, is a good place to start. Not on the Label gives a frightening but necessary outline of just what supermarket practices do to our food (read the chapter on chicken and you’ll never be in the same room as a battery chicken ever again – Fearnley-Eats-it-All has nothing on her). It was also one of the books (along with food writer Joanna Blythman’s series) that convinced me to stop shopping in supermarkets altogether.

Stopped altogether, you say? Yes indeed. My home has been blissfully supermarket-free for over a year now. I buy all my vegetables from the local greengrocer, all my fish from the local fishmonger (I’m one of the very, very few people still lucky enough have one, thanks to Jay’s cuddly supermarket chains) and all my meat from my local butcher.
And no: I’m not an overpaid city worker living in Chelsea. The irony – as Jay would know, if, like me, he lived in Hackney – is that it is actually the POORER areas of town that tend to be the best served by local retailers (although curiously, Jay has decided that Brixton market is not multi-ethnic like what Tesco is, so maybe he just hasn’t twigged yet). The reason? We have a very socially and culturally mixed population, and our local shops have been established by local people to serve the local community, which includes Brits, Turks, a large number of Poles and Kurds and a whole mix of other folk. My greengrocer has bundles of ripe and edible fruit and veg that you can’t find (anaemic, vacuum wrapped and rock hard, naturally) on the supermarket shelves. It works for me (a local resident) and keeps him (a local businessman) in operation, despite what Jay says about Tesco and Asda better serving the needs of inner city working folk.

My local shops are also just around the corner from my flat, which means that it’s no trouble at all for me to fit in shopping around my full-time job, picking up just the right amount of unpackaged food I need a couple of times a week. It takes less time than traipsing round a freezing cold soulless box of a supermarket, it’s much more tactile and pleasurable, it involves virtually no food waste and it’s quite markedly cheaper.

I can honestly say I’ll never go back to supermarket shopping again. Unless of course I move somewhere more upmarket, obviously: in those sort of neighbourhoods, there’s no reasonably priced, friendly, small local stores to be found (only the overpriced delis and grumpy 'Costcutter' type merchants of Jay Rayner’s experience). The numbers of decent local stores have been steadily decreasing since the 1960s and now, for most people, supermarkets are not a choice but an obligation.

Just don't try and explain it to Jay - I don't think he'd quite understand.

1 comment:

heather said...

Great piece.

I do the same thing myself. I am pretty poorly paid and I live in an area which is a hell of a lot more "Brixton" than "Hampstead." I buy food from the shops at the end of my street. I get anything I need, including plenty of odd foods that you don't see in supermarkets. The veg might not be be evenly sized, scrubbed and packed in layers of plastic but it tastes of something. (If I ate meat, I could eat real meat.)

It's much less trouble than going to a supermarket. The time and effort needed are negligible, which is crucial to someone who seems to spend most of her waking life in work or on buses.

I agree that the Guardian lifestyle pages can be really alienating. You start reading them by accident and suddenly realise who they assume they are writing for. And realise that it isn't you.