Briefing

Project Bridging TIME Theory & Practice ESRC (R000222946):
A pilot to a large Europe-wide project that explores processes and barriers involved in translating into practice academic knowledge about pertinent TIME issues in the food system. The aim is to enlist the help of key players in the food system in order to make transparent what at present is an implicit and taken-for-granted dimension of the food system, that is, TIME in its multiple functions, dimensions and uses. Project Leader: Barbara Adam
School of Social Science, Cardiff University,
50 Park Place, Cardiff CF1 3AT
Tel: 01222-875565 FAX 01222-874436
E-mail: Adamtime@Cardiff.AC.UK

Food TIMES & Cooking
Food is a hot issue. It is both fashionable & scary, fascinating & alarming. Its media re/presentation engenders nostalgic desires & fears.

TIME underpins this ambivalence. It permeates the current contradictions in our approach to food.

  • Safety and quality
  • wholesomeness and taste
  • convenience and cost,
each of these public concerns has an inescapable TIME dimensions which tends to be implicit rather than explicit and taken-for-granted rather than publicly debated.

In the media in general and TV cooking programmes in particular the conflicts over economic and natural TIME are not addressed. The link to quality and safety is not spelled out explicitly. Food TIME is simply not on the public agenda.

Yet, TIME is of the essence for making sense of the ambivalences, giving expression to consumer fears and for re/building public confidence in the food we eat and competence in its preparation.

When TIME is Money
The industrial way of life is tied to a particular approach to TIME where TIME is money. This economic TIME is rooted in the machine TIME of clocks. It knows no seasons, no context, no periods of peaks and troughs. It is part of the non-stop world of 24-hour, all-year-round trading and finance. Fast food is one of its key developments and expressions.
In a world where TIME is money

  • speed is tied to efficiency because of a) economic competition and b) the need to have a quick return on investment. This means, the faster something moves through the system the better it is for business;
  • control of seasonality, reproduction cycles, ripening TIMES and 'freshness' of food increases productivity. It irons out peaks and troughs, creates a just-in-time food system, improves transportability, storage and shelf life and it enhances export capacity;
  • any unused TIME is money wasted, any unproductive TIME is money lost - hence the development towards a 24-hour, non-stop, a-seasonal food system & fast food;
  • to save TIME is to save money. Fast food therefore is efficient. It saves time for consumers and money for caterers.
TIME in Production & Consumption
TIME enters food production & consumption in a number of ways:
  • SEASONALITY alongside all-year-round availability
  • TIMING of harvesting, sale & consumption
  • sell-by DATE and 'freshness'
  • DURATION of storage, transit & shelf-life
  • TEMPO of maturation and ripening
  • RHYTHMS of growth and decay
  • fast food and TIME saving
  • taste of TIME - quality
  • just-in-TIME retailing and consumption
  • production in PAST, consumption in PRESENT, health/hazard for the FUTURE
In nature everything has it's TIME and SEASON. From an economic perspective, however, this natural TIME is a barrier to efficiency and improvements in productivity. In order to be economically efficient, therefore, food producers, traders, caterers and cooks have to transcend natural TIME and impose economic TIME on processes governed by natural time.
This tension affects not just the cost of food but has consequences for food safety, wholesomeness, quality and taste on the one hand and for the convenience and speed of food preparation on the other.

Conflicting TIMES
In their daily lives people live in an economic system where TIME is money but they live with family and friends, plants and animals in socio-environmental relations that are governed by a TIME system that works to different principles. For numerous dimensions of our lives the assumption that time is money is highly inappropriate.

  • Between family members and friends most TIME is not exchanged for money but given. Thus, for feeding a baby, it makes no sense to speed up the process as this increases not the efficiency of the activity but the unhappiness of the baby.
  • The quality of TIME matters for a special meal with friends; the quantitative time-money-efficiency-productivity link in contrast is clearly irrelevant in such a context.
  • The TIME of plants and animals is species-specific and context-dependent. It varies with seasons and place. Land, plants and animals change with the seasons. They pulse to the natural rhythms of the sun and moon, night and day, growth and decay.
  • The trade-off between these conflicting TIME systems is part and parcel of food production, consumption and preparation.
  • Getting the balance right is a key to being competitive in a global economy, central to taking account of animal welfare and the land's long-term productiveness, crucial to the taste and wholesome of the food we buy, prepare and eat.
'Quality TIME' and Taste
The immense gains in efficiency and productivity - ever increasing quantity and size in ever decreasing TIME spans - has a price tag attached. This cost tends to be left implicit in media presentations of food. In other words, the food media lack a coherent and explicit time theory that spells out the connection between time and food prices, quality, taste and safety.
  • Quality - We can taste TIME in the quality of the food we eat. Loss of taste is an inevitable by-product of TIME that has been a) compressed by artificially forcing growth and harvesting in an unripe state and b) controlled in ripening chambers. Ripening guided by the food's TIME rather than economic TIME, in contrast, translates into quality. However, the slower pace, higher human labour and shorter shelf-life make this food more expensive.
  • Quality - In food preparation quality relates to knowing the right and optimal TIME, TIMING & SEQUENCING of production and preparation. Over- and under-cooking are judgements about the wrong TIME having been applied to the cooking of a particular food.
  • Wholesomeness - Animals and plants farmed under the TIME-is-money regime tend to require more medical intervention, more antibiotics, more remedial labour, more chemical assistance. Where ripening is controlled with chemicals and by means of irradiation the vitamin level is reduced and some of the nutritional value lost. It is the TIME factor that makes organic farming and locally produced fresh food so expensive.
    Whilst TIME compression in production tends to reduce wholesomeness, reduction of the gap between harvesting and cooking has the opposite effect: it maximises wholesomeness.
  • Safety - In the trade-off between natural and economic TIME safety can be compromised. Moreover, what is declared safe now may not be so in the future and for subsequent generations. The BSE crisis and dioxin in breast milk are just two pertinent examples.
Just-in-TIME & Fast Food - the Price of Convenience
The fast food, a-seasonal, just-in-time approach to food has its earliest history in the conquering of food TIME through various forms of preservation and conservation which ranged from burying to drying, smoking and pickling.
These methods made foods available outside their growing season. They thus severed the link between harvesting and consumption and thereby helped to bridge the lean periods in the annual cycle of production.
Industrialisation further advanced this trend through bottling, freezing, the production of concentrates and, during this century, the creation of chemical food substitutes, aids and enhancers, each with its own means of time control and compression.
When time is money then 'ever more in ever faster time spans' becomes the motto for production, 'ever less time spent to achieve the same outcome', the rational goal of food preparation and consumption.
Fast food, however, comes with a price tag attached. There is a substantial difference in taste, wholesomeness and food experience between, for example,
  • mashed potato from a packet and puree prepared from freshly harvested potatoes;
  • the mass-produced, sliced loaf and freshly baked, home-made bread;
  • a micro-waved meal served in a restaurant and a meal where the ingredients have been freshly cooked on the premises;
  • the speedy consumption of food during the lunch-time break at work and a leisurely Sunday dinner.
Everything at all TIMES means jet-setting and jet-lagged foods, counterfeit freshness, reduced taste and wholesomeness, increased hazard potential, a decline in consumer knowledge about seasonal foods and a rise in unease that is difficult to articulate.
There is, however, a deeply embedded public knowledge, expressed in the saying 'We are what we eat'. It acknowledges that our health and well-being are intricately webbed with that of the plants and animals we eat. It recognises that their stress and artificiality does not leave them before they are ingested by us, that it matters, therefore, what happens to them before they get eaten.
Today's popularity of cooking programmes and food magazines is an expression of nostalgia for a PAST when MONEY-TIME was not the uniform taste and primary experience of our daily food.
To close the gap between experience and desire, practicality and nostalgia requires an effort in public re/education about the price and prize of TIME. Food TIME needs to be lifted from the invisible deep structure of economic action and become an issue for public debate.
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Cardiff School of Social Sciences