Arrogance in the food world

Arrogance in the Food World

Gavin Wren Food Opinion Pieces, Writing

When it comes to food, we’re all equal.

Eating is a basic unifying experience within humanity. It stands alone, as a unique ritual which the global population, hopefully engages with on a daily basis. Every single living person’s existence depends upon hunting, gathering, buying, cooking or ordering to ensure a steady supply of energy, and these processes require interaction with the outside world.

Obtaining food can be fraught with danger, such as dodging herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti, or boldly sailing across Columbia Bar, ‘the graveyeard of the pacific’. However, these experiences pale into insignificance when compared to the condescension of Rex Goldsmith, The Chelsea Fishmonger, when attempting to buy organic haddock on a Wednesday morning in south west London.

Quite how perilous SW3 might be pivots entirely on your understanding of aquaculture and wild-capture fishing. This is because last week on Twitter, Mr Goldsmith mocked a customer, expressing frustration at their ignorance of the fundamental incompatibility of wild-capture and organic farmed fish. The tweet is edging towards 1,000 likes, garnered over two-hundred and fifty retweets and over twenty comments, all exclusively supporting Mr Goldsmith.

A kangaroo court quickly appeared in the comments, containing some outright damning judgements, proposing the shopper should not be allowed to cook, shop or even breed. Compulsory sterilisation seems a harsh sentence for someone who was simply trying to buy a bit of haddock for their supper, but hadn’t consulted the MSC website beforehand. However, as Diane Abbott will attest, in the world of Twitter it represented a positively lenient sentence.

I found myself alone in polar disagreement with almost every single comment. The arrogant sanctimony displayed in that thread is something I cannot abide in life, yet it seems to find an occasional foothold in the world of food, especially amongst those who are ‘in the know’.

As for this situation, the difference between wild and organic fish may seem entirely obvious to those who know, but it’s not common knowledge, people don’t learn this stuff in school. The public discover details like this from those who already understand the difference, such as fishmongers. Mr Goldsmith’s website even encourages customers to “ask where our fish has come from and how it was caught”. Perhaps this is simply a trap, to lure the ignorant into asking a question, so they can be cut down to size with his superior understanding of piscine terminology, then brag about it on Twitter.

My sincere hope is that beyond the exchange detailed in the attention-grabbing tweet, Mr Goldsmith continued to kindly explain why wild and organic haddock are mutually exclusive items. Elevating the food-related consciousness of the wider population should be a pleasure to engage in, something we should relish. That’s why I write this blog. Those who work within the industry have a lot more knowledge than those they serve, so sharing it benevolently is the least you can do, especially when the customer clearly doesn’t understand the situation. As I learned from a decade of running my own business “The customer is always right, even when they’re wrong”.

This shopper also represented a rare breed of person who actually gives a flying fuck about what they buy. Snide comments about their confusion are enormously unhelpful and display the arrogant elitism that I’ve occasionally seen online. To me, the tweet says far more about Mr Goldsmith’s personality than it does the customer’s.

Online discussions around food occasionally seep with arrogance, especially in the world of Twitter, where those who work in food will mix with those who don’t. I’ve seen many instances of cultural peacocking, tending toward the autocratic, rather than benevolent, didactic or simply reciprocal engagement. Grandiosity abounds.

Furthermore, this episode provided a handy opportunity for some inhabitants of the foodie middle-class bubble to posture about the fact they do indeed know the difference between wild and organic haddock, and therefore decry the customer for being so God-damned ignorant. There’s nothing like a good old bandwagon, eh?

Perhaps it’s the territory. Food sweeps broadly from cash-strapped ‘everyday value’ baked beans through to exquisite opulence. Food is historically recognised as a tool used to demonstrate high social and cultural standing, through displays of conspicuous consumption. It would be easy to assume that personal worth is decided by knowledge of the finer points of consumption, but that would indeed be folly.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re all in this together, we all need to fill our mouths every single day. Maybe you can afford Wagyu beef accompanied by Petrus, or perhaps you understand the difference between permaculture and agroecology. But, that understanding does not make you a better human being than the subsistence farmer eating his meagre crop with his bare hands or the well-heeled consumer with gaps in their knowledge. It simply means that you have more to share, more to give to other people.

Conversely, withholding knowledge, or worse still, mocking those who don’t meet your level of understanding, is belittling and by no means sophisticated. Regardless of whether it’s sharing seeds in sub-saharan Africa, or kindly telling your obtuse customer the difference between organic and wild haddock, the advancement of the food world depends upon listening to each other and sharing what we have.

Arrogantly mocking people is as helpful as blaming the weather for famine. But that’s an entirely separate post, which might need to be a little bit longer…

In response to this article, Mr Goldsmith commented that firstly, it was Haddock, not Salmon (which I have now amended in the above content) and that it was at the end of a long and patient conversation.

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