I Dream of Canteens

Hospitality, Massness & Calorie Density
 
Space
 
There is a space for everyone. A space, a glass of water, and a plug socket.* Chairs and tables and cleaned toilets. So many chairs so that no one is without one. Enough napkins to blow your nose or wipe your mouth. The chairs take different forms and there are chairs placed in designated areas (a praxis of positive discrimination). High and low chairs create a varied landscape and the opportunity to avoid eye contact if wished (privacy); low, brightly coloured plastic chairs are a good height for children; there is an area reserved for women who want to breastfeed without negotiating the uncomfortable gaze of uncomfortable men if they don’t want to. An adequately equipped counter allows people to warm up baby food or homemade food and this acknowledges that babies exist and that people who bring their own food exist and that these people need space to eat, too. Stacks of trays, clean and ready to use, are placed at the start of the queue for food. Some trays can be placed onto Zimmer-frame-like devices on wheels with shelves for trays so that people for whom mobility is challenging, or people with children, or people who need multiple plates, can lean on it while queuing and place food on it without having to bear the weight of the tray.
 
Food is cheap. I can afford it and everyone else here can afford to buy it for themselves and their child without anxiety. There are no instances of that tightening around the throat when you do not have the money to buy food, but you are hungry and in a place that serves it. For those who have more money the price is a joyful novelty; for those who have less, the prices are a blessed relief that allows eating to take place. The food is as cheap as fried chicken shops and like the meals served in fried chicken shops the food here has enough calorie density to sustain a child or an adult for a good while.
 
Most people put their used trays that are covered in crumbs and licked plates in designated area for used trays, and pick up all of their soiled napkins. Most people do not leave the remains of their lunch on the tables, even though there are no signs telling them not to do so. Furthermore, there are enough staff so that too much rubbish never builds up and also, staff are not overburdened or racing around, stressed and exhausted.
 
Time

There is also time for everyone. No one is asked to leave and no one feels anxious about out-staying their welcome. Of course people do leave, but still, staying is not suspicious. No laminated signs about leaving or staying or eating food bought here or elsewhere are on the tables or the walls. Indeed, in the fine Western tradition of hospitality that dates back to Homer’s epics ~xenia ~ no one who is hosted here will be asked to leave and everyone will be fed and watered and allowed to wash without question. No body becomes abject and disgusting through staying and crossing over an ambiguous but clearly defined boundary of time and space (at least not during opening hours). Such provision allows the existence of privacy in public, that is, if privacy is defined as the ability to be present without being suspected of anything. The causes of suspicion in London in 2019 are principally, to have no money, along with the constantly evolving intersectional biopolitics that make skin colour, gender, sexuality and religion causes for anxiety when in public.
 
Unlike in Homer’s Odyssey, there will be no massacre if people stay longer than they should or have more free refills than is calculated to be ideal. After all, some people don’t take a free refill at all. In other places, say, in small and charming yet inefficient and expensive independent coffee shops where the rent and running costs mean that spending a short time and a large sum is essential, there is an unwritten-but-clearly-defined time limit that induces anxiety in everyone (owner, worker, customer). This time limit is present even though the wages are the lowest they can be and workers are sent home during fallow periods. Also, in the clean grey square around King’s Cross staying for too long will certainly elicit the discomforting gaze of a private security guard: what reasons for standing still or sitting down, if not spending? Or that is how it feels sometimes. In these places and in most places now, the body begins to cross over into a state of abjection the longer the period of time spent since spending money.
 
Pleasure 
 
I began by describing some of the characteristics of the canteens in one out-of-town and one suburban branch of IKEA that I visited recently in Reading and Croydon. I am under no illusion as to why IKEA have canteens in their shops: the shops are huge and exhausting to navigate. Providing comfortable and affordable sustenance makes a visit bearable and even very fun. IKEA use canteens to show how generous, hospitable and socially magnanimous they are: a living vision of what they sell you. At both IKEA canteens I experienced high levels of pleasure when eating and sitting and I witnessed many others who seemed to feel the same. I tried different dishes on the three occasions that I ate there: meatballs with chips and various sauces, a sweet tart, a prawn salad, vegetarian balls with bulghur wheat pilaf, a yogurt, several slices of garlic bread, cheesecake, coffee, elderflower cordial, fizzy apple. I ate all of the food, there was nothing I disliked and yet there were more things on the short menu that I wanted to try but didn’t. If such a place existed in the city, I would go there every day. It is telling that while there are no public canteens in the city (what council could now afford to hang on to such a quantity of land after cuts?), the houses of parliament have ten canteens.
 
The idea that mass catering must be devoid of pleasure is false. The levels of pleasure derived from eating a meal or drinking a drink without the anxieties of restricted time and space and money can be great indeed. The levels of pleasure derived from food prepared from canned and frozen ingredients can also be great indeed. In her book How to Cook a Wolf the American food writer from the mid-twentieth century, MFK Fisher discusses the virtues of canned and frozen vegetables and sets out her recipe for petit pois à la Française with frozen peas; likewise in her book The Food of Italy, Claudia Roden confesses to always buying frozen artichoke hearts for her recipes that use them and Ruth Rogers, co-founder of The River Café makes tomato sauce for guests using a tin of tomatoes from a recipe by Marcella Hazan. Likewise, the food served in the IKEA canteen and many other canteens whose food I have enjoyed, takes advantage of innovations such as freezing and canning to provide a high volume of food with little wastage. Frozen and canned vegetables are picked at the peak of their season when they are plentiful and prices are at their lowest. The same cannot be said of imported fruit and vegetables that remain unripe weeks after being picked and often rot without ever ripening to an acceptably edible point.  Compare a fresh, uncooked tomato in January, or a tin of cooked tomatoes harvested in August in Italy. Those from the tin are cheaper, sweeter, more delicious.
 
Hiding 
 
In most weeks of the ten years I have spent London I long for such well-managed massness and hospitality and affordable and appealing, calorie-dense food such as I experienced in the IKEA canteen and in a few other places: the Indian YMCA canteen in Fitzrovia; the canteen in the Muslim World League on Charlotte Street; McDonalds everywhere; at a Tamil funeral where catering was done by a caterer who could feed ‘from 10 to 10, 000’; the university canteen. For example, I have longed for the hospitality of a good canteen on the hundreds of occasions that I have cowered and sat on the cold stone floors around the British Library so that I can eat food I have brought from home using stolen plastic cutlery, or summed up the courage to buy a tea and brazenly but shamefully eaten my own food in the library restaurant seating where there are clearly displayed signs saying that the seats are for patrons only
 
Hiding one’s body and one’s lack of money has become part of survival in London. I have hidden sandwiches or hidden myself where I should buy before sitting in places all over town: haven’t you? Last summer a woman nervously approached me while I ate a cheeseburger in McDonalds near The British Library to ask for the tokens attached to my coffee cup so that she could get a free coffee and then I watched her fill it with as many free sachets of sugar as was required to achieve an intake of calories that might sustain her life for one more day – a sugar-sachet black market that casts a long shadow on London’s status as a gastronomic destination. I have seen queues outside food banks and the arrival of food donation boxes outside supermarkets. The government allows effective starvation to proliferate without lifting a finger. The streets of the city no longer acknowledge the perpetual motion of the gut and the bladder that is part of every human life. The Victorians knew about guts even if they didn’t know about women having the vote, and their underground lavatories have become coffee shops with no lavatories. A moving moment of hospitality (xenia) that I experienced recently, happened after I knocked on the door of the cleaning attendant for the public lavatory in Peterborough; he released the barrier for me without question, even though I did not have the necessary 20p. Such moments of resistance are reassuring and suggest the will for a different situation to the impoverishment of municipal hospitality that increasingly defines public space.
 
 
British Restaurants 
 
Seeing a book I had in hand but had not yet read, called Slice of Life, The British Way of Eating Since 1945, a female security guard in the British Library let me know that she knew about mass hospitality, about the provision of canteens for all – and not the one where she worked now. “That book must talk about British Restaurants, then”, she said. I said: “what are they?” She said that when rationing was going on and there wasn’t enough food during the war the government set up ‘British Restaurants’ to serve cheap hot food for everyone so that people had enough to eat things like semolina and stew, she could just remember the smell. It was in the 1950s or 1960s. They were for workers and ordinary people and children, she said. She used to go when she was at school in Red Hill in Surrey, and they had died out by the time she went to secondary school.
 
She said yes, the food wasn’t too bad and they were really cheap. She was very keen to tell me about the British Restaurants, very excited; she remembered them fondly. I tried to imagine a British Restaurant now, a government-backed scheme to make sure all comers were fed as a matter of the greatest national importance: I couldn’t. When I spoke to the security guard, I’d just that day found out that while the British Library restaurant does continue to serve filter coffee, its cheapest offering, the new caterer (the third in ten years as none of the private companies can make it work) no longer advertise it, only displaying prices for more expensive coffees, alongside £17 hot mains and £5 cakes. It has phased out filter coffee by now.
 
Then I looked in my book and found that the British Restaurants served nutritionally balanced meals (according to contemporary science) and had libraries and fresh flowers on the tables and gramophones and pianos and felt as if I were reading about a utopian vision of the future like I would see in a science fiction film. Further research in the Mass Observation Archives shows numerous interviews with people who felt delighted at feeling so full, that the food was hot. They served 50 million meals a week in 1945. Lord Woolton, the conservative minister for food, who had asked a socialist friend he knew to design the state-subsidised canteens, called them ‘one of the greatest social revolutions that has taken place in the industry of our country’. Discussions were had in parliament about how the canteens produced astonishing improvements in workers’ wellbeing. After the war Conservatives dismissed them in parliament because they weren’t making profit. The canteens were allowed to decline, then disappear. Now food deserts and food banks proliferate and people do not have enough food to live. It is a strange situation that, as food poverty surges, we forget that we built canteens, once. The wartime memory of eating that has been encouraged to survive is of rationing, of lack, but for many people, there had never been so much hot, filling food. A seat, a table, a glass of water, a plate of food with the calorie density to sustain a life for a good while; the space and the time in which to unfold. I dream of canteens.
 
 
 
 
*Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know 
 

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7 Comments

  1. Thank you for a thoroughly enjoyable read. I think back to my university canteen with great fondness. A hub for hungry students and the engine room of the whole campus although not many admitted it at the time…

  2. Thanks Rebecca, I really enjoyed your piece. Growing up with a father and grandfather as academics, eating in the university canteen (doesn’t exist anymore) was a highlight of my childhood. The only place that matches that now in Melbourne (Aust) is Crossways Hari Krishna restaurant in the heart of the city. I will cry when that closes.

    1. Thanks for sharing this memory Angela, that sounds wonderful. Canteens really are for the good of everyone, aren’t they – even if the food isn’t always spectacular (and sometimes it IS fantastic) they are such an importance space / service

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