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Forman’s Games: A song of Salmon and Brexit. Words by Mina Miller; Illustration by Olga Prager
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from editing this newsletter, especially fielding comments and complaints, it’s that the narratives we like to tell and want to be true are never quite as easy as they seem to be. You want that co-op’s model to be the solution to the food system’s woes, but it turns out they’re paying poverty wages; you want that vegetable supplier you love to expand their business and make their produce available to all, but it turns out the owner treats his workers like shit; you want that cutesy bakery serving heritage wheat croissants to…well, you get my point. You also want to be sure that the villains really are the villains, but sometimes they turn out to be quite alright (or at least they pay a lot better.)
Today’s newsletter by Mina Miller, and co-produced with the lovely people from The Fence, juggles several different narratives: food co-ops, Brexit, smoked salmon wars, right-wing failsons, the gentrification of Hackney Wick, and Michael Gove. The initial idea came out of an email Mina sent me a while back in response to another newsletter Vittles had published, which made me question some of the narratives I wanted to be true, and my easy acceptance of anything that confirmed them. Really though, it shouldn’t be surprising that the food producers that run solely on good intentions would be the ones that are least satisfying to work for, and that self-governance is always much harder than the revolution. It’s not that the answer is to give up your values, but we should acknowledge that the devil’s party is often a lot more fun.
Forman, Grilled, by Mina Miller
The first thing you noticed walking through the front door of H. Forman & Son was the smell: the pervasive, unmistakable aroma of smoked fish, poorly disguised by the brash floral notes of an industrial-grade air freshener. Along with the sombre tiling, and beatifically uplit sides of salmon in a viewing window, it gave the foyer an almost funereal vibe, like you’d walked into an undertakers, rather than an active factory in London’s industrial heartland. Not that I could smell the fish anymore: on some days, I’d come home and my boyfriend would look up and say, ‘you’ve been in the factory today’. Within a few weeks of working there I was totally nose-blind.
Just before I started at Forman’s in 2016, my interest in sustainable farming and small-scale food production had led me to coordinate the fruit and veg box delivery for an organic community farm and co-operative – a job which, despite its progressive credentials, paid me a meagre wage and left me physically exhausted, clinging to my sanity. While staffed exclusively with well-meaning people, the co-op was full of unspoken expectations. I shouldn’t buy my lunch at Tesco. I should spend my break talking to volunteers. I shouldn’t show too much enthusiasm for making the box scheme profitable – in fact, I shouldn’t use the word ‘profit’.
When I raised the fact that unpaid work wasn’t in the job description, I was told quite tartly that my willingness to go to the pub after work but not work (unpaid) open days had been noted. My job was terminated. Shortly after, I found out Forman’s home delivery subdivision, Forman & Field, was looking for a sales manager at its premises, a large, fish-shaped new build the colour of salmon, located, aptly, on Fish Island in Hackney Wick. I knew Forman’s well – the well-worn lore is that it’s been operational since 1905 and is the oldest smokehouse in London – so I applied, excited at continuing to work in the artisan food space and the ability to reliably pay rent. I met the owner, Lance Forman, who hired me at once.
Most people know Lance one of two ways: either for his political activity (he’s a prominent Brexiteer, former Brexit Party MEP and extremely active on Twitter) or because they’re interested in salmon. A short, charming man with an easy sense of humour, Lance gave the impression of being permanently amused, often at himself. Despite wearing braces in a salmon scale pattern and salmon-coloured ties, he exuded an air of eminent reasonableness and was unfailingly polite. If you asked him what his favourite food was, he’d laugh and say ‘salmon, of course!’
Lance did actually love salmon, and his enthusiasm (‘smoke is a process, not a flavour!’) changed my conception of what it should taste like. Most salmon is cured chemically, using a strongly flavoured liquid smoke that is either heated into a gas or brushed directly on the fish (a process Lance compared to spray tanning). Forman’s salmon is salted within 48 hours of being pulled from water, then hot- or cold-smoked in large smokers with oak chips, the salt hardening into a crust, the pellicle, which is sliced off, revealing tender fish with a hint of smoke flavour. Pellicle used to be a waste product until Lance thought to sell it as ‘salmon jerky’ (I used to nibble it at my desk until I realised it made me murderously thirsty).
Though my responsibilities at F&F were ostensibly that of a manager, I soon learned there was little to do but show up. Because the majority of orders went out in the three weeks before Christmas, we were only really needed to keep things ticking along for the rest of the year. Just two of us took orders, managed customer service, organised product photoshoots, made sales calls, printed the delivery manifests and ensured the parcels made it onto the courier’s van at the end of the day. In the long hours of spring and summer downtime, I taught myself coding and digital marketing and made a great number of eBay purchases.
Then, at peak time, the work became relentless, with the phone ringing non-stop. Courier troubles let us down repeatedly, with harried drivers jettisoning hundreds of pounds of food over random fences and boxes of caviar being held in eternal limbo at sorting centres. We prided ourselves on our customer service, so I remember the painful time I had to call up a woman on Christmas Eve and explain to her that, despite our repeated efforts, none of her family’s festive dinner would make it and to go to the shops before they closed. When the factory got overwhelmed, we’d head down to help pack box after box, readying them for dispatch, stuffing them with shredded paper and carefully wrapped packets of food in freezing temperatures.
As for the customer calls, they were like dispatches from another time. A large portion of the customer base was elderly and upper-class, seemingly confined to their estates in far-flung reaches of England, befuddled by the changes happening around them. They would unfailingly answer the phone by stating the final digits of their phone numbers with shaky voices in received pronunciation. One odd thing happened quite frequently: rather than adhering to standard phonetic code (N for November, etc.), callers would instead creakily spell out their addresses saying ‘it’s N… like for nobody!’ Some were confused about the orders they had placed. One customer with suspected dementia put in so many lavish orders in quick succession that we intervened to check if the food was really needed (it was not). They were quick to complain and expected freebies and refunds for the tiniest mishaps, such as the food arriving cool (and fine to eat) but not ice cold. Couriers enraged them, particularly ones they suspected to be foreign. Shortly after Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory, I received a number of calls that started off with an angry aside about London not being London anymore because a Muslim was in charge. Sometimes, if I couldn’t steer the conversation back to food, I would gently place the phone back in its cradle and let someone else pick it up the next time it rang.
When I joined the Forman’s team, Lance had just written a book with a Grisham-style cover, titled Forman’s Games – a sort of business history-cum-memoir of Lance’s dual career in politics and fish, in which Lance takes on the Olympic Delivery Authority and wins. He was keen to sell copies and made sure the book had a full-page spread in the back of the F&F catalogue, perhaps fitting for a person who goes by a professional name that matches his business (his real surname is Anisfeld). Status and privilege can confer an authority, even to food, that seems foundational, unquestionable. That’s not to say that the heritage isn’t real – I do believe Lance has the trade in his blood, and his book contains photos of old storefronts on Ridley Road and Queen’s Yard as far back as the 1960s – but every Google search yields the same result: page after page of glowing articles repeating Lance’s key talking points ad infinitum (I should know; I ghost-wrote a couple of Spectator pieces).
As much as I enjoyed him cheerfully talking to me about whether solar flares might be causing climate change, Lance’s idiosyncrasies and warmth were hard to reconcile with his political outlook. He would often come by my desk to share his thoughts on Nigel Farage (the right ideas but too tough a line on immigration); Brexit (essential for business); Jo Cox (deep sadness about the needless loss of life, real shame the left was politicising her death); the gentrification of Hackney Wick (inevitable, but good to keep the artists on side). Sometimes, Lance’s son would come in to see his dad and I heard he was planning to start a media channel of some sort, which was just the sort of vague endeavour you would expect of a smoked goods heir. (I had underestimated him: he later became the chief executive of Turning Point UK, a rabidly right-wing advocacy group imported from the US.)
Soon after I started, Lance hosted a Brexit rally, featuring Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Michael Gove. When I came into the office the morning of the Brexit vote I asked my director, Lance’s number two, how he was doing while he briskly walked by. His reply boomed through the office: ‘It’s a great day, Mina, we’ve taken our country back!’ I wondered how the mostly Lithuanian workers in the factory felt: not that I had much chance to socialise with the factory, whose workers clocked in and out much earlier than us in the office.
Ironically, the most notable thing that happened at Forman’s while I was there was its star product, the ‘London Cure’ salmon, receiving the European Commission’s PGI protection, which can’t be restricted to one business: it’s about geography and production methods, as Lance knew when submitting the application. In this case, the salmon needed to be cured and smoked with rock salt and oak smoke, and could only be manufactured in the London boroughs of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets. The reason cited for this in the application was to preserve the East End’s rich heritage of salmon smoking, but of course, Forman’s was the only smokehouse meeting that criteria at that time. The successful PGI certification was celebrated in an early morning ceremony during which Michael Gove made a brief appearance to give a speech, with attendees making wink wink nudge nudge references to the EU being pointless. Soon after, Secret Smokehouse, based in Hackney, wrestled in on the action, leading to a very public salmon war.
If Lance was the easy-going owner, seemingly more interested in his nascent political career and prodigious tweeting, my direct boss was the director of operations, Lance’s ‘right hand man and rock’ (Lance’s own words). A bulky man with a no-nonsense disposition, the director was once a chef at Le Gavroche and brought the hierarchical energy of old-school kitchens to his management style. He would drive in from Essex shortly before dawn most days and clock in 12 hours of work or more before leaving, unless he decided to sleep on a camp cot.
They were a typical good cop-bad cop duo. Lance was forgiving of staff fuckups, having seen it all before. My boss, however, would stalk the office and factory. You didn’t want to be on the receiving end of his criticism. He talked a lot about how we were ‘a family’ and I think he sincerely believed this. Whereas the co-op talked a lot about community, and there was a notion that, together, members would batten down together to carve out a space of respite from the harsh realities of capitalism, this family was a fiefdom. Dissent was never tolerated, and what was expected was nothing short of total fealty. One Saturday, not long before my second Christmas at Forman’s, I received a group email from my boss, subject line: in the words of. It continued to reference the great MLK, but stated that my boss also had a dream – one in which his team would go into work on the weekend to support him, each and every week. When no one responded within a few minutes, he emailed again, displeased that no one had answered.
Somehow, this was the decisive moment. After my next pay day, I simply never turned up again.
Despite being on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, both food producers I worked for were inherently conservative: Forman’s politically and socially, and the co-op in its refusal to engage with the outside world. Even though the co-op wasn’t run by a political conservative, its reticence to affect material change stood at odds with the core tenets of progressivism and this meant it was putting its own survival at risk. At least at Forman’s the food was reaching a market, and by stocking Selfridges, Waitrose and restaurants up and down the country, it showed that artisan food could be produced at scale and be commercially viable. Unlike the co-op, with its existential anxieties about selling out or going mainstream, Forman’s had no problem being successful. In a journal at the time, I wrote: ‘They don’t seem to have the same set of facts about how the world works as I do. Their relationship with foreigners is riddled with contradictions. But they’re better to work for than a worker’s co-op: this is the real kicker.’
In May 2019, a little over a year after I left, Lance became a Brexit Party MEP. This made sense, I thought. Forman’s was an environment in which risks were taken all the time. It’s not that they didn’t ever fail – it’s that they were shielded enough from failure that they could keep trying things until something stuck. The bigger the punt, the bigger the potential success. From the salmon jerky to the politicking, Forman’s wasn’t a dysfunctional workplace after all. Everything was running just as it was meant to: I simply hadn’t been in on the joke.
Mina Miller is a writer and recipe editor based in Sheffield. You can follow her on Twitter at @mina_um_so
The illustration is by Olga Prager. You can find more of her illustrations here.
Many thanks to Charles Baker and the editorial team at The Fence. Issue 10 is now out, which you can buy at https://www.the-fence.com/shop