November 13th, 2005


Food priest

You know how, when you come home from a holiday somewhere, you get, for a few precious hours, a glimpse of your own apartment, your own city, the country that you live in as someplace other? Until habituation sets in, you see the place you live in with fresh eyes, in all its quirky quiddity. Well, this time, coming back from Italy, I suddenly got this vision of what Germany feels like, Germany in autumn. There's a lot of orange around; the leaves, falling through the air or flat underfoot, are orange, and tables at the Saturday vegetable market on the Boxhagener Platz heave with orange squashes and pumpkins. The first gluhwein is being sold. Here's the man we buy our organic vegetables from, and here's his stand:

This man interests me. He's more than a market trader, he's a kind of food priest. He works at what the Germans call an Ökologische Lebensmittelgesellschaft, a radical and egalitarian green cell dedicated to non-industrial food production. There's something of a hippy about him, an anti-capitalist, but also something of a Rousseau, a Tolstoy, a poet or a pagan saint. He first caught my eye because he and his girlfriend are very handsome, ethical-looking people. I imagine them living according to strict principles, horrified by much of modern civilisation, working with dedication and positivity for a different outcome. They are, in a sense, rock stars or poster children for what I call "the Old Religion", the pagan fertility cult that underpins many of our industrial cultures, predating monotheistic religions, and always seeking to link food cultivation to something spiritual, a vision of society in which peace and fertility prevail, and in which there are still strong links between cult, cultivation and culture.

I spoke about this in Ask the rice last month, and I mused on Germany's special relationship with forests in Some thoughts about forests. I think this mentality connects certain apparently unrelated quirks of German life: the fact that you see so many wind farms when you travel through or over the country, the fact that Germany's most famous living novelist, Günter Grass, so often uses food, soup and cookery metaphors in his books and poems, the fact that, at the time of the Iraq invasion, Germany had a pacifist Green Party politician as its Foreign Minister. Perhaps even the fact that, in German philosophies like materialism, down-to-earthness becomes, paradoxically, a transcendental value (you see this in Brecht and Martin Luther too, I think).

I've often noted links between the feel of Germany and the feel of Japan, and I think it's something to do with attitudes to nature and to cult-cultivation-culture issues. Germany has a kind of Shinto of its own. Both Germany and Japan have real forests, but also "inner forests". Industrial Japan is a narrow, dense ribbon hemmed in on one side by the sea, on the other by wooded mountains (I often think the dizzying multiplicities of industrial products available in Japan might owe their forms to the example provided by all the different fish shapes you see at Tsukiji). Japan has 65% forest cover, Germany 40%, and Britain a mere 10%. Even in the cities of these countries you sense the presence or absence of forest, not just in air quality (Berlin has the best air of any city I've lived in) but in something spiritual, something the Germans may or may not call WaldGeist; the spirit of "inner forest". Japan and Germany both have strong Slow Life movements, and although their food production and distribution systems are industrialised, there's a clear feeling that food must be respected, savoured. Whereas in Britain supermarkets are all about saving time and money, and making food ever less recognisable as an agricultural product, in Germany and Japan it seems to be a vehicle for spiritual-national-cultural values.

These values aren't unproblematical; no doubt they infused even Nazi Germany's "blood and soil" philosophy. The cults-culture mindset, with its keenness to see a national link between body and soul, can also close food production to outsiders, or make weird culty, mystical leagues and apprenticeships for brewers, butchers, chimney sweeps and so on, designed to consolidate ancient semi-masonic power relationships. (Did you know that a German chimney sweep has to serve a five year apprenticeship? "At the end of five years, he is permitted to take his test for a master's license and if he passes, he may exchange the black skull cap he has worn as an apprentice for the master's top hat.")

What's good about a cults-culture mindset, though (a mindset I opposed in Ask the rice to an Anglo-Saxon logic-logistics one), is that there really is a strong argument for saying that food is culture, much more important than mere fuel or goods. Our bodies know this, even if our minds don't. Longevity in Germany and Japan exceeds that in English-speaking countries. In Russia and America, life expectancy has actually started declining.

As the Germans and the Japanese both seem to know, food is always soul food. That's why we buy our hokkaido pumpkins from a sort of priest.