Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman

After this string of non-fiction books I had read, I really considered reading a work of fiction again, but for some reason I just couldn’t muster the interest and started reading another account of what’s going on in the world these days, this time focusing on the supermarket empires who distort our taste buds the world over, and in the UK particularly. It made me think of my own funny relationship with food and cooking, which had got so bad through my twenties. This book made me realise that this broken down relationship is prevalent throughout the UK.
I have Malawi to thank for rekindling my interested in real food, and getting me genuinely interested in cooking at all. When I was in the UK – that is, when I was learning how to be a grown-up, after leaving my parents’ house and my mum’s generous homemade offerings – I was forever hitting the supermarket for frozen ready-meals and I regularly indulged in a lunch of supermarket ready-to-eat salad or sandwich. I remember traumatising a friend who came to stay by offering her smoked salmon (no need to cook it) over a bed of ready-peppered and cooked baby potatoes. I don’t think she’d ever heard of someone who doesn’t cook their own potatoes before. In my defence, I could technically cook, or rather, I could have done, as I knew a few dishes I could make, but I just had got into a habit of never doing it. Another, less generous way to put it is, I couldn’t be bothered. And when not having ready-meals, I would always have the same old tuna pasta, or chicken fried rice, or even plain butter on toast… And yet I loved food! I just didn’t consider what food it was I was loving, and how much my love for food could grow (healthily) if I just cooked myself, or cooked “from scratch” as you hear nowadays, as if there were many other ways to cook.

 

Moving to Malawi did two things for me: 1) it made me cook, as you can’t really get ready-meals here, and the produce is excellent and 2) it made me aware of seasons, as I had no idea when hitting Tesco’s what was normal to find in a supermarket grocery aisle at any time of year, whereas here the stuff that is not in season just disappears from one week to the next, replaced by new produce. It is so joyful eating one’s fill of the seasonal fruits and vegetables until they’re over, and then welcoming the arrival of new produce every few weeks! Another thing living in Malawi did for me is 3) make me homesick for France for a couple of months, which spurned me on to start baking again, and it must be scientifically proven that baking releases as many endorphins as a good run (I’m guessing). Very interestingly, it’s only when I had transitioned to caring about what I eat, being genuinely interested in the food on my plate and considering carefully what ingredients I used, that I became vegetarian and then vegan. Well, the smell of rotting animal flesh on Shoprite’s shelves also helped.
Shopped made me realise that the food shop will be a very different experience for me when I move back to the UK in two months. I knew it would be, in that I will only purchase vegan products and will have to read a few labels carefully, at least until I sort out my list of staples. But it also made me think that I don’t want to be spending such inordinate amounts of time as I used to in supermarkets anymore. Why give those guys money? They’re horrid bullies who traumatise manufacturers, endanger the lives of food growers and take all consumers for idiots. They just don’t deserve our time and money and have already done enough to destroy city centres and our health. I’m looking forward to being freelance later this year and able to visit food markets in Bristol at the time they’re on, and find whole food shops and take the time to carry on cooking as we have regularly done here. Of course, I will still use supermarkets too, but I will think twice about buying my newspaper there instead of supporting the local newsagent, or getting cheap clothing there when Oxfam second-hand treasures can do just fine.
I think that for anyone living in a supermarket-filled land, Shopped should be compulsory reading. At the end of the day, we all fund the supermarkets’ awfully unethical, inhuman, damaging practices by shopping in there all the time. It’s time I start considering what impact my everyday choices really have for myself, the society I find myself living in and the world at large, and first and foremost the people that are made to struggle and fend for themselves out there.


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