I like minor disasters. Not big ones like earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis that wipe out homes, decimate populations, and leave a wake of painful misery from which recovery is impossible. But small things like blackouts and snowstorms. And ash clouds. Things that reroute our journey and reschedule our week. I love it when nature stands up and roars, or at least huffs and puffs, and says “heed me, mortals” — or at least think about what your doing. These disruptions make us stop and consider nearly everything we take for granted. But especially what we eat.
There are two major upsides in the food world to the insanity of the Icelandic ash cloud.
First, all that food that was destined for Europe didn’t get there, which means people had to get smarter about what to eat and they had to think about where it all comes from in the first place. The Kenyan roses and the baby sweet corn from Thailand and the pineapple from Ghana. Much of it was just dumped. Which makes you ask why we were dependent on it in the first place. I don’t want to make light of the serious situation with suppliers and the employees who depend on working for them but you have to ask if this is a smart food system to begin with. Food miles are important, yes, but a system which is so easily disrupted doesn’t necessarily makes sense. A friend of mine in Birmingham reported finding a childhood love in eating fruit preserves in a jar when she couldn’t get melons. Others have been spurred into growing their own window boxes with exotics like lemongrass or realizing that Scottish lamb is preferable to that from New Zealand. Londoners could rely on asparagus and potatoes at Borough Market instead of insisting on out-of-season tomatoes from Spain and Italy. I don’t know if it will last. We are all fallible. But just that we tried, and stopped, and thought is worth something.
Secondly, I like to think about all the new foods so many people were trying. Consider all the travellers stranded in places they didn’t mean to be stranded in. Passing through is one thing – okay, I’ll try this street cart thing on a stick or maybe just rely on the kinds of foods I know from the hotel bar for just one night – but having to find food for so many more days is another. Suddenly there was time to explore and fall in love with a new cuisine. People in Paris trying to get home to Kuala Lumpur likely found cheap crepes in a park or ventured further than the business account usually allows to a hip new eatery. Those in Singapore trying to get home to Manchester, may have actually tasted real Asian noodle dishes not from a microwave cup when the one night business trip turned into a week. And I’d like to believe that even students from the US taking a spring break trip in London, took time for cream tea and enjoyed the food away.
I know there’s the loss of business and lots of products going to waste because they can’t be flown in. And there’s the loss of everyone’s patience and many people’s minds. I’m not saying it’s rosy all around. Just that this ash cloud might have a silver lining, which is that we stopped and thought about one of the most basic things we do every day and how we might be just a little more enlightened about it in the future.