Sad Salads and Happy Hens: The Ethical Dilemma of Eating

Searching for a spot to luncheon around St. Paul’s in London last week, I found myself lost amongst a throng of frantically busy office-workers on their lunch breaks, and consequently followed several into a place called ‘Pod’.

The first thing that crossed my mind about this restaurant/ café/ eco-warrior melting pot, was that they had stolen both their name AND logo from the reasonably well-known retail chain, which sells popular kitsch and over-priced clobber to the wacky and ‘fun’ middle-classes. Stranger still, was that nobody had seemed to notice or mind…  Further investigations involving me typing the word ‘pod’ into Google have since resulted in the discovery of a whole range of companies, bands and people by the same name. Confusing to say the least.

This particular ‘Pod’ was open for the purpose of selling me “fresh, seasonal, healthy food in compostable packaging”, which is almost everything I look for in a meal asides from er, taste and enjoyment. Nevertheless, I had committed to this reassuringly ethical experience and headed over to see what goods were offered to me.

Pod’s menu ranges from piping hot stews and curries to several boxes of salads and… seeds. I certainly liked the flexibility of the arrangement: the food items are mostly kept very separate, for instance rather than saving themselves time and precious ‘compostable’ packaging by whacking a boiled egg into the box of salad which most compliments it, Pod sell individual boiled eggs in their own little pots- just in case picky and irritable business-woman type ‘A’ wants a salad but has a vendetta against eggs. If I had the time and money to do so, I could create my own lunch out of individual wee pots of eggs, seeds, olives and falafel. If I were a limp, anaemic tree-hugger that is.

I joke (mostly). The food at Pod is quite creative, definitely healthy and makes a pleasant change to the everyday chicken-mayo sandwich. But it is achingly middle-class in the sense that it feeds the seemingly growing population of business-types or hippy-happy middle-class mums who are willing to trade a bit too much money in return for feeling as if they have ‘done their bit’ towards ethical living, world peace or something similar. If I did choose to team up my delightfully colourful salad with a separately contained pot of dressing and a “protein” of my choice (I kid you not), I’d be spending close to £8. One might argue that this is a fair price to pay for healthy, responsibly sourced food, and they may be quite right. But I cannot help but feel that people here are buying into a whole rubbish dump of fake promises. The selection of salads and cold meal boxes for instance, are given names such as the ‘Gym Box’ and ‘Elixer of Youth’- as if after paying £5.50 for a bag of cabbage and kelp, the consumer will want to skip and giggle like an eight year old all the way back to the office.

Eventually I picked out a salad box called ‘The Slow Burner’, promising to keep me full for longer with an exciting list of ingredients such as peanuts and feta cheese. I remained sceptical however of just how filling this offering would really be, and decided to add some chicken from the available list of ‘proteins’. This was the moment at which I came across my next luncheon dilemma. The chicken was advertised as ‘open barn chicken breast’ and I spent a good few seconds deliberating over whether this was an ignorant way of assuring the customer that the chicken was free range, or a deceiving camouflage over the fact that it wasn’t.  I suspected the latter, and decided to be a bit of an arse about the whole matter by asking the poor girl behind the till. “Oh yeah, it means the chickens do live in a barn so they’re not quite free range but they have some space and they’re quite happy!” chirped the oblivious, anaemic vegan. I wanted to ask her if the hens themselves had told her that, but decided against it. I didn’t want anybody adding any unwanted extra ‘protein’ to my now out of sight salad box.

I’m slightly ashamed to say that although I could have changed my mind at that point about buying the chicken (mostly on principle), I just wanted the whole irritating process to be over so that I could eat my lunch. I’m also aware that there are probably hundreds of similar cafés from which I’ve eaten battery farmed chicken, and if Pod didn’t use barn-hens my box of leaves would inevitably have to be priced even higher. The difference with Pod is that unlike most of their contenders, they choose to publicly declare their sources, which perhaps I should really be crediting them for. But I’m still not so sure it all adds up- the eatery is very geared up to vegetarians and vegans, but will hardcore vegans want to buy their seeds from a place which still sells non-free range meat?Perhaps all this stress and kerfuffle could be amended by the end result of sitting down to enjoy my lunch. I was encouraged by the high ratio of generally very attractive people sat around me, and began to think that perhaps if I made a habit of this diet, I too would become a sleek, attractive business person…

The food was ok. As much as I scorn the seeds, I am a bit of a fruit and veg obsessive underneath it all; I have had many a rabbit-food resembling meal in my time and bloody enjoyed it. But in all honesty, my ‘Slow Burner’ was bland. And I was hungry again an hour later. Worse still was the fact that although I’d paid an extra pound to have the privilege of eating in, I still had to put my own rubbish away into various levels of recycle-bins and wasn’t even allowed real metal cutlery. Perhaps they were worried that after feeling disappointed with my meal, I’d be tempted to stab the staff, or hold the whole place hostage with a fork… but this was a respectable persons eating establishment for Pete’s sake, not a Ryan-air flight on the way back from Malaga.

So my final verdict on the super-keen-green food company is that of mixed emotions: I do like the idea of healthy, responsibly sourced food. Pod has an impressive website, illustrating all kinds of beautiful salad-y visions of eco-living. But I just feel that I can’t completely trust it. Perhaps the root of the problem is that there is something rather irritating about the place: if Pod were personified, it would be that girl from high school who sat at the front of the class desperate to please the teacher with all the answers. But I could imagine bumping into Pod at the high school reunion ten years later to discover that she had been involved in some filthy scandal and consequently fired from work- perhaps over drugs or a filthy affair- and was now divorced and living in a one-bed flat with an illegitimate child named Dez. I think what I’m trying to say is that Pod are very clever for making an awful lot of money out of very little substance, by way of both ethos and the physical amount of food stuffs on my plastic plate. I think next time I will just stick with a sandwich.

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