People Have Been Making Their Own Bread and Beer, Butter and Cheese for Thousands of Years

By Dylan Roberts

Lost in the Supermarket

If supermarket just isn’t as pleasant as it was, it might be worth asking why that is. So, next time you go, don’t zone out whilst you’re purchasing. Rather, stay alert. Don’t rush to get it over with, slow down and take your time. Notice what’s around you, the controlled space and the industrial products. Pay attention to what you are doing, and to the quality of your happiness. If you don’t like it, what are your options? Where else can you go? How many days can you go without buying from a supermarket?

For as long as anyone can remember, supermarkets have had a range of products at reasonable prices, and have been the only realistic option for a lot of people. That said, there have always been plenty of concerns, whether it’s quality of ingredients, pesticides and other chemicals, manipulative marketing, driving smaller shops out of business, predatory control of farmers and food suppliers, or any of the other criticisms. Lately, however, things have got worse: inflation means mediocre food at high prices; “Great New Size!” means less produce for the same money. The ability to use cash is being sponged away. There’s increasing surveillance with cameras and security guards, facial recognition technology, and automated checkout with point-of-sale data capture; even a passive link to your bank account via your smartphone.

As the ease and convenience fades, the costs come more into focus. Our unthinking retail decisions sustain unaccountable corporations that care nothing for our health or wellbeing; the globalised food supply erases any link we have with the local economy. Supermarkets are looking more like a classic slow-burn bait-and-switch; cheap and convenient to encourage dependence and see off the competition; then the hidden costs and damaging effects on your freedom and your quality of life. That’s a business model we’ve seen a lot of.

There are psychological effects too. Passive consumption of corporate retail is a powerful symbol of a way of life that makes personal agency a challenge. Most urban people grow up with little experience of self-reliance, and with the expectation of getting everything from corporate retail. For many people, most intense experiences, even experiences of belonging and freedom, are mediated through entertainment and industrial products. At worst, we are not just passive, atomised consumers, but sheep or cattle, zoned out and grazing; nudged into helplessness not just in shopping, but also public affairs; deferential to experts and obedient to authority.

Make your own

Happily, supermarkets are not the only way: making your own stuff is the easy road to doing things differently. To take just one example, making your own bread is not a bad place to start.

The nowness is strong in a loaf you’ve made yourself. You’re invested like you never will be for shop-bought bread, not even some fancy artisan brioche. It will vary, which is part of the fun: it’s not a standardised commercial product. If it goes well, it’s an achievement: it’s a great feeling when you stumble on something you really like. If it’s terrible, no-one need know.

Even when it’s a bit crap, eating your own bread is interesting and meaningful. Supermarket bread will never look the same, and you may well not want to go back there. And if you make your own sandwiches, you will never again have to look at that soul-crushing wall of ghastly supermarket sandwiches in the 20 minutes you have away from your desk.

The first rule of Home Brew Club

If you can make it social, so much the better. There is nothing like a shared interest for making connections: there’s plenty of other people making their own bread. Have a couple of friends around to make their dough, and have a chat whilst they are baking. A home-made loaf is a forcefully personal gift: it might be too wholesome for urban sophisticates, but try it on your mum.

Alcohol is another obvious opportunity. How much do you spend on it? Your own is only uncool if you think the bought stuff is better. But, honestly, how much of that booze is a shockingly poor industrial product? If you spend a fraction of your spend on learning to make your own, you will never go back to Duff. Get a spreadsheet going and work out how long it would take to save enough for a holiday. And if you get good, even your modern friends won’t say no to a bottle of your latest.

Try it: it’s not that difficult. People have been making their own bread and beer and butter and cheese for thousands of years. It’s only daunting if you grow up with the expectation of buying everything. The fashionable people will never respect you for it, but it is a bit of something you can’t buy in the supermarket: being present in your own life.

See also: