Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Liberated Feast

Friday night was the date of the second Liberated Feast in Cambridge, organised by the fabulous Jennie Debenham. This isn't a Transition event, but Jennie is very active in the Cambridge food group, and the topic of food waste is central to understanding how a transitional Cambridgeshire diet could look. In case the concept is new to you, the Liberated Feast is about using food which is past its best-by date, and unsaleable. Some of the food isn't even fated to be dug up out of the ground, as it isn't profitable for the landowners if the crop is too small, until it is rescued by gleaners and saved from rotting in the earth.

This took place at the St Paul's Centre on Hills Road, and was such a large banquet that the tables seem to go on forever. There must have been over a hundred diners, and plenty of volunteers running around trying to keep on top of things. For academics who are used to formal dinners this scene might not have looked so alien, but to me it was quite new and made me think of medieval banquets, with distinguished guests riding in by horseback to be entertained by lutes. The lutes failed to show up on this occasion though, so we had a very skilled hula hooping troupe to entertain us instead. I really don't think the lack of music was a problem - the hall was full of friendly lovely people who were very happy to chat, it would have just made it harder to hear each other if there was a live act.

Before the first course, Jennie addressed the crown and thanked the donors COFCO, Simon and Mayfield Organics, and Om chocolates. The co-op and Arjuna also gave some things, I'm not clear on the details. Bev Sedley from Cambridge Carbon Footprint also spoke to promote the Food for a Greener Future campaign and the Celebration of Local Food at Fitzbillies which will launch it. Both the Liberated Feast and the CCF event are emphasising vegan, local food as a sustainable and ethical choice.

The first course was rainbow carrot soup, a really tasty dish served in an impressive variety of vessels. I felt quite fortunate to have mine in a shallow bowl, some of my companions were given their soup to eat from a mug! This flexible approach to serving is a good way to cope with large numbers of diners - much better than buying a 100-piece matching china set. Maybe we could have brought more of our own tableware with us in fact. We also handed down the soup from one person to the next, until everyone had their meal. This made life easier for the volunteers, but I could imagine that not everyone would enjoy such a system. If the Liberated Feast was every to go more commercial, this might need a re-think, but with the largely green audience it was just a pleasant opportunity to co-operate and care for each other.

The main course was a mix of roast vegetables, sprouts, coleslaw and a sort of spanakopita thing, I didn't actually rate this so highly although I did like the sprouts. The coleslaw was the only thing where I got a vague sense that the food was past its best, perfectly edible but not delicious (as the rest of the banquet was). Maybe I was imagining it, or maybe I'm just a fussy eater, but a more spicy dressing would have made sense to cover up the slight fading of quality.

This is certainly a transition issue - in the post peak-oil economy we may have less access to fresh food and quality storage, so we will face eating older food day-to-day. Part of the solution is to use strong spices and herbs, as the southern Asian countries supposedly did to mask the unpleasant taste of ageing meat, and another part is just to eat it and be grateful to have food at all. Perhaps we will break from British manners eventually, and accept a culture of finishing each others food.

Anyway, the desserts on offer were a crumble of some sort, and a chocolate torte. I had the torte, which came with a frozen banana ice cream, and was very very nice.

I was astonished by how much work the volunteers did to make the event a success, I think a lot of people involved with this have really been unsung heroes because there were days and days of work done aside from Jennie's own marathon effort. I suppose there are economies of scale in something like this, but the amount of washing up at the end, and the amount of leftover food up for grabs by the crowd was staggering. A lot of the people who attended were able to see that, so I think we'll all learn quite a lot from seeing it.

All in all a remarkable achievement, a great event, and I'm looking forward to the next one!

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