Wednesday 12 December 2018

Gorging ourselves, gobbling our land

This article first appeared on Malta Today

I’m starting to see some kind of correlation between the way virgin land is being plundered (for all the world as if we had the vast stretches of land of countries such as Australia) and the way everything food-related has exploded and proliferated over the last few years.

It is no secret that as a nation we love to eat, and there is nothing wrong with that. Food is one of life’s simple pleasures; sharing a home-cooked evening meal is a way of helping families to connect at the end of the day, while going out to eat is probably the most popular form of socializing. But at some point, it stopped being only about enjoying food, but about just gorging ourselves whenever and as much as we can. This is not only evident in the sheer number of restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops and takeaway outlets, but also in the makeshift kiosks which spring up whenever there is a mass event. Even on Good Friday, when Catholics are traditionally supposed to fast, you see food vendors selling their wares during the solemn procession, even if the cuisine on offer could not be more bizarre within the religious context. But hey, never let something like the Passion of Christ get in the way of a good kebab.

It is the sheer quantity of the food though which seems to be pointing to some kind of need at self-gratification which is not quite being met. The latest promotion I saw this week on Lovin Malta, for example, promised the arrival of the most expensive burger in Malta and was described as having “some of the finest ingredients on the market”, namely

Japanese grade-5 wagyu beef
White truffle aioli
Lombardy venison bresaola
Mimolette cheese
Seared foie gras
Duck egg
White truffle shavings
Gold label sturgeon caviar
24K gold leaf brioche bun

If that is not enough to send you into immediate cardiac arrest, we are told that “the burger is served with chunky fries triple-cooked in duck fat, and seasoned with gold dust, white truffle shavings and french butter.”

Let us, for a moment, leave aside the health issues and the exorbitant price (100 Euro); if someone is willing to pay that much for a burger guaranteed to spike up their cholesterol levels, who am I interfere? What struck me about this promotion, however, is how it is appealing directly to the mindset of Maltese society as it is today. The latest foodie fad has to be expensive, “trendy”, exclusive and most of all, able to satisfy the most voracious appetite.

I was left with the same impression when I went round to have a look at the way is-Suq tal-Belt has been transformed: very trendy, very upmarket, with a wide selection of over-priced restaurants offering all sorts of menus. However, the sheer quantity of what was on offer could not compensate for what was missing: the true soul of a market with its noise and clatter and friendly banter accompanied by the delicious smells of food in its most natural, unaltered state. Where was the produce and diary products, meat, cheese, fish and cold cuts which are sliced and weighed in front of you? There were a couple of vendors selling basic foodstuffs, but they were tucked away on the ground floor, and whoever designed the place definitely gave the most prominence to the restaurants. Visually, it looks great, but I was left with that nagging feeling of it all being a bit “too much” and almost too clinically perfect, while the real essence and historic significance of what that building should and could be, had been drained right out of it.

Meanwhile, as we are gorging ourselves with every type of food imaginable, we seem to be similarly gobbling up the land. We have truly become consumers, because we are literally consuming everything around us, and nothing seems to be enough. Large tracts of ODZ land are being taken up by developers who insist that a country the size of a town actually needs more petrol stations, and more McDonalds (because we have not stuffed our faces quite enough).

Even when already developed land comes into the crosshairs of the construction industry, there does not seem to be any foresight or inclination on how to carry out re-development in a way which doesn’t destroy and annihilate the past. There is scant respect for heritage, and little desire to preserve historic buildings. Just wangle that Planning Authority permit anyway you can, and bring in the wrecking balls to tear down what is ‘old’ to make way for what is new, even if the new consists of ugly concrete boxes of apartments which have no real merit except for how many hapless residents we can cram into them. When owners of large old homes decide to sell up and move, probably because the rest of the homeowners in their street have done the same, I cannot really blame them, for who wants to live in the middle of a construction site when yours is the only house left standing? It is bad enough that many of these old houses are not being saved, however it would soften the blow of the demolition we see all around us somewhat, if there were at least some attempts at creating interesting architecture instead. But I haven’t seen much of that, have you? Once again, quality is being sacrificed for the sake of quantity.

As I look back at how Malta has changed in the last 40 years or so, it is almost bewildering to think that it is the same country. It is like we are still trying to compensate for the austerity of the 70s and early 80s, when there was not much choice of what one could buy, so now we are just buying everything in sight. In fact, I regularly see posts by people who are clearing out their wardrobes of clothes which are new or ‘hardly worn’. It is admirable that they are generously giving them away to charity, but what does that tell us about ourselves, that we have so much of what we don’t really need, that we sometimes forget what we have purchased, and simply stick it in the back of our wardrobe, and yet keep purchasing more? It is definitely a compulsion which is inexplicable and, in a way, worrying.

We are gorging ourselves silly, buying things we don’t really need and gobbling up land relentlessly. As a nation we are officially among the most obese, and yet our legacy will be towns and villages which have merged into one another, dotted by petrol stations for the cars we cannot live without, to drive us to the next fast food outlet or shopping mall for our next consumption fix.

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