Everybody knows what authenticity looks like. Hand-made, artisan, rustic, wooden, hearty, traditional, handed-down, rough around the edges, folk, old-fashioned. Certainly this is what recent claims to authenticity, especially in the world of food, have foregrounded.
But of course what is always elided is how this authentic food is made available to the consumer. Medieval artisans had a shit life, and the only thing of their’s that today’s artisanal food retains is their image.
As was recently pointed out by Rachel Laudan in Jacobin the history of food has been one of the overwhelming success of culinary modernism. For thousands of years advances in technology and science have improved our ability to grow, harvest and process food to the point where we are able, without too much difficulty, to feed 7 billion mouths with nutritious food. It is as a direct result of the industrialisation of food production that we have within our grasp, a slightly iniquitous distribution of property notwithstanding, the ability to grow more than enough food for everyone with relatively little human labour.
However, in spite of the staggering human achievements of culinary modernism and industrialised agriculture, the last five to ten years have seen a cultural turn away from the modern and the industrial and back to the hand-crafted and artisanal. Which is why a recent trip to Five Guys in Cambridge was so refreshing.
The restaurant is on a new-build entertainment development, and it has the high-ceilings and plate glass windows of the sort of standardised ‘commercial unit’ that has sprung up on brownfield in every town in the country in recent years. But instead of taking this box and turning it into a cosy ‘authentic’ ‘restaurant experience’, such as the faux-50s Italian diner of Frankie and Benny’s next door, this standardised industrial aesthetic has been embraced. There is no suspended ceiling; the lighting and various ducts and pipes are visible above your head. The floor is made of simple, inexpensive, plain grey tiling. The bins are simple cheap moulded plastic. The tables and chairs are made from plain and cheap plywood and vinyl. Dotted around the restaurant are stainless steel racks where boxes of peanut oil and sacks of potatoes for use in the kitchen are stacked.
The kitchen itself is also proudly displayed to the customers. It is a gleaming, stainless steel machine, clearly designed to be as efficient and clean as possible. All of which makes for a surprising antidote to the usual authentic artisanal schlock that has become unavoidable in the last few years.
But Five Guys, in spite of this industrial aesthetic, still manages to claim the label of authenticity for its food. Its menu is tiny, its food is relatively expensive, and the overall effect it creates is of an All-American staple, of a proper well-cooked hamburger with excellent fresh crisp fries. But the message of Five Guys’ aesthetic is that this authenticity, the ability to create such excellent food in the quantities in which they do, is a direct result of the industrialised mode of its production. It’s a different route to authenticity based in honesty, in the sense of transparency, rather than the simulacrum of authenticity that has recently swamped our lives.
How is this of any importance? Food is a basic everyday necessity – it takes a major chunk out of the pay packets that we all give up the better parts of our lives in search of. Five Guys’ aesthetic is a reminder of the fact that what we’ve been told, that it requires all of us to work all of the time in order to reproduce society, to house and feed ourselves is a lie. Centuries of human ingenuity and inventiveness have enabled us to meet all of our collective needs with very little work at all. Machines haven’t made us redundant; they’ve liberated us.
Indeed, it is telling that the authentic artisan has reappeared as a figure of the zeitgeist in the years since the financial crisis of 2008. Of course, Borough Market has been back on its feet for nearly fifteen years now, but it is only in the past five that it has become a congested nightmare of tourists and slightly pissed money enjoying the weekend. And it is in this period, as the artisan has taken its place as the figure of our time, that we have been working harder and harder for less and less money. The gains of the twentieth century, under the welfare state, made possible through the use of modern machinery, have only recently begun to unravel. Diseases virtually nonexistent since the last Queen was on the throne have reappeared, pay has stagnated or fallen and people are working harder for longer.
It no longer feels like we’re benefitting from the onward march of modernity, even as that march rushes ahead faster than ever, and our eating habits have changed to keep pace with our experiences and expectations of the economy.
But it’s not that modernity has stalled or that the machines have delivered us into a nightmare of low-wages, longer hours, ecocide and rising instances of mental health problems. The problem is that the machines have owners, and their owners prefer us poor.
But there is no liberation to be found in going back to making everything ourselves by hand. Machines have created the conditions in which we could all, if we wanted to, spend the vast majority of our time in leisure, enjoying the fruits of communal luxury. We need to reclaim modernity, and the idea that we can use technology and machines to improve our lives.
The more machines that we can make to carry out essential work, the less work we will have to do ourselves and the more time we will be able to spend as we please. Five Guys, with a gleaming kitchen stuffed with labour-saving machines, staffed by only a handful of workers, and with a fancy self-service soft drink machine that lets you choose between dozens of different drinks at the swipe of a touch screen, suggests what such a world might look like.