Privileged view of food

ALASTAIR PAULIN
Last updated 10:23 01/10/2012
Tara Forde
ALASTAIR PAULIN
BLAND STAPLES: Tara Forde of Motueka who is living on $2.25 a day as part of the Live Below the Line challenge, with some of her diet for the week.

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Alastair Paulin

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Ever since I interviewed two women who have been feeding themselves on $2.25 a day this week, it has been impossible to look at my meals without a pang of guilt.

Sandy Stephens and Tara Forde were among about a dozen people in the region who took part in the Living Below the Line challenge, designed to bring to life the experiences of the 1.4 billion people currently living in extreme poverty around the world.

The international Extreme Poverty Line was defined by the World Bank in 2005 as US$1.25 a day, which was converted to the equivalent current purchasing power in New Zealand.

They both had different motivations for doing it - Sandy to draw attention to the gap between life in NZ and the developing world and Tara to highlight local poverty - but neither of them set out to make anyone else feel guilty. I did that all by myself.

My food is important to me. I hesitate to call myself a foodie, because that term conjures up a yuppie-ish, snobby elitist, but I love to cook, love looking forward to the next meal and am always up for new flavours. When a man behind me in the supermarket line once bought seven identical frozen dinners, I decided that he could well be my polar opposite.

Both Sandy and Tara said one of the hardest things about the challenge was forgoing flavour, the little extras we add to to our food to make it yummy. Sandy had no room in her budget for cream or brown sugar on her porridge, while Tara tried to add interest to her porridge - rolled oats being the cheapest breakfast either of them could come up with - by adding some rhubarb from her garden.

I hate porridge - it is among the tiny handful of things I've never been able to stomach. I caused a stir on my school camp at age 13 by putting my foot down and refusing to touch the stuff.

This was an old-school style camp, where breakfast came after a 6.30am run followed by a dip in the ever-frigid Lake Wakatipu. The crusty old caretaker who doubled as camp cook was appalled at such cheek; he was of the type for whom an Oliver Twistish "Please sir, can I have some more" was the only expected response to his food. The kicker was that I discovered later that he would not eat porridge either.

To me, porridge is the ultimate triumph of food as nourishment over sensual pleasure, which is the same way I saw the man buying a week's worth of identical bland frozen dinners.

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It hasn't helped that I've been virtually living in Paris this week, courtesy of my nose being stuck in Adam Gopnik's terrific book Paris to the Moon, about the five years the long-time New Yorker writer spent living in Paris in the 1990s.

There is nobody as food-obsessed as a highbrow New Yorker in Paris, and he doubles down on the obsession by touring food markets with the godmother of modern American cooking, Alice Waters, for whom he cooks a traditional French dinner.

His struggles with a gigot de mouton de sept heures, slow-cooked lamb, were amusing but given the conversation I'd had with Sandy about how a tiny extravagance, such as a lolly or drink of anything except water, was beyond even the imagination of much of the world, I couldn't help feeling that all this palaver over what, after all, was just one meal among a lifetime's worth was faintly immoral.

I'm lucky enough to have eaten at Alice Waters' founding temple of California cuisine, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where, by focusing on organic ingredients raised by local farmers, she pulls off the ingenious trick of letting you feel that by eating at one of the most famous restaurants in the world, you are actually performing a righteous act.

Gopnik quotes Waters on this, calling it, with tongue in cheek, the Basic Berkeley Truth: "The sensual pleasure of eating beautiful food from the garden brings with it the moral satisfaction of doing the right thing for the planet and for yourself."

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf describes a lovingly prepared meal and the carnage left behind once it has been devoured. For her, it was a creative act, one that women (mostly then) performed every day.

The Living Below the Line campaign reminds us that considering food as either a moral or a creative question is a luxury that most people in the world just can't afford. For them, food is a question of survival, and if that means eating the same bland staple every day, then so be it - a fact that the small suspects are no doubt sick of hearing at the dinner table.

I asked Sandy what she was going to eat today, once the challenge was over, and she said she was going to go to a restaurant and eat a good meal and enjoy a glass of wine.

"Good for you, you deserve it," I said.

"Deserve may not be the word for it but I'm going to do it anyway," she replied.

Bon appetit.

- Nelson

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