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Food Links, 23.04.2014

  • About 27% of food insecure people – including 32% of food insecure children – live in households which are ineligible for food stamps’.
  • Fast food restaurant workers are striking back.
  • Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term’.
  • What happened when a school district stopped providing chocolate milk.
  • Restaurants in poor areas tend to sell unhealthy food.
  • Racism and obesity.
  • The Mail on Sunday‘s attempt to smear foodbanks has backfired spectacularly.
  • Cow insurance.
  • The failed rebranding of fast food chains.
  • The drought in California.
  • An Argentinian ranch sticking to traditional farming methods.
  • Should farmers grow alfalfa?
  • Gendered toys in Happy Meals.
  • How to trick people into eating more.
  • Seychelles beer production halts for eleven weeks.
  • How much wine should we drink?
  • Reintroducing veal.
  • Ikea introduces vegetarian meatballs. Haagen-Dazs introduces vegetable ice cream.
  • The Russian supermarkets of Berlin.
  • Where to eat in Peru.
  • ‘The bumblebee is the most charming of the lot; even its Latin name, Bombus, is amusing’.
  • The future of food criticism.
  • Atlanta‘s best restaurants.
  • Powdered alcohol.
  • More people are drinking tea in France.
  • Dr Bobb’s Kitschen.
  • When vanilla wasn’t white.
  • How to use up leftover hard boiled eggs. And Easter eggs.
  • A year without sugar.
  • A brief history of General Tso’s chicken.
  • ‘Hunting humans for sport? I’ve tried it. Sure. But I still won’t eat at Chili’s.’
  • Wine myths debunked.
  • Beautiful chickens.
  • ‘In putting coffee at the heart of our lives we are returning to how things used to be.’
  • The rise of milk substitutes.
  • How to make tortillas.
  • Ancient Rome’s tap water was contaminated with lead.
  • ‘In the grand tradition of such things, the veneer of civilization has quickly eroded, and the lime-deprived populace is left clamoring, bestial, ruthless.’
  • How to make a notebook out of a paper bag.
  • Under Julia Child’s kitchen counter.
  • Sellfridges is no longer selling fridges.
  • Cleaning with vinegar.
  • How to tell if eggs are still fresh. (Thanks, mum!)
  • You can make graphene at home.
  • On saffron.
  • A sushi chef’s guide to eating sushi.
  • David Bowie, with pig.
  • What restaurants do badly.
  • How to clean crabs.
  • An interview with Allan Jenkins, editor of Observer Food Monthly.
  • ‘T.C. Clissold, cook for Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 British expedition, brought seal meat within kissing distance of haute cuisine.’
  • On Renfield syndrome.
  • Indispensable utensils.
  • The trendy bar name generator.
  • Coffee keeps you honest.
  • ‘the Keyneses were considered somewhat miserly when it came to food; they once served three grouse to 11 guests’.
  • Make your own earth cake.

In Good Books

Over the past week or so, five or six people have sent me a link to a Brain Pickings post about Dinah Fried’s new book, Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals. What began as a project at the Rhode Island School of Design soon transformed into an attempt to recreate, and then photograph, meals eaten in well-known novels.

Fried includes the picnic of baked potatoes and eggs (I’ve never encountered a baked egg, have you?) from The Secret Garden, the avocado and crabmeat lunch that causes riotous vomiting among the finalists of the Ladies’ Day writing competition in The Bell Jar, the chowder in Moby-Dick, and Holden Caulfield’s cheese sandwich and milkshake.

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Food, like sex (as the annual Bad Sex Award makes abundantly clear), is very difficult to write about without descending into cliché or embarrassingly purple prose. There are some writers who evoke cooking and eating particularly well. I think immediately of AS Byatt and her descriptions of the jugged hare in The Biographer’s Tale, and the tennis ball-sized profiteroles in a lake of chocolate sauce consumed by awkward Maud and Roland in Whitby in Possession. Virginia Woolf, for all her complex problems with eating, writes well about food too: the boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse, for instance, and the evocation of the meals eaten in the men and women’s colleges in A Room of One’s Own.

In fact, her description of the food at the latter institution (the ‘plain gravy soup’, the ‘sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge’, the ‘prunes and custard’, and the ‘dry’ biscuits) is an excellent portrayal of unappetising food. In The Years Woolf writes about a depressing dinner consisting of a tough, underdone leg of mutton (when it’s sliced with a carving knife a ‘thin trickle of red juice ran out’ and collects ‘in the well of the dish’), ‘a slabbed-down mass of cabbage in oozing green water’, and ‘yellow potatoes that looked hard.’

In A Passage to India, EM Forster writes about the meals served at the club for British officers and civil servants:

Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale, the peas might rattle less   or more, the sardines and the vermouth be imported by a different firm, but the tradition remained; the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand it.

In Jane Eyre our heroine arrives at Lowood School to discover that her fellow pupils exist on the brink of starvation:

Ravenous, and now very faint, I devoured a spoonful or two of my portion without thinking of its taste; but the first edge of hunger blunted, I perceived I had got in hand a nauseous mess; burnt porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it. The spoons were moved slowly: I saw each girl taste her food and try to swallow it; but in most cases the effort was soon relinquished. Breakfast was over, and none had breakfasted. Thanks being returned for what we had not got, and a second hymn chanted, the refectory was evacuated for the schoolroom. I was one of the last to go out, and in passing the tables, I saw one teacher take a basin of the porridge and taste it; she looked at the others; all their countenances expressed displeasure, and one of them, the stout one, whispered –

‘Abominable stuff!  How shameful!’

Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky is, in some ways, a progression of increasingly appalling meals. The subject of Margaret Atwood’s first novel The Edible Woman is disgust at food: the protagonist, Marion, finds herself unable to eat a variety of foods as she begins to anthropomorphise everything she tries to cook, including cake and tinned rice pudding.

In her discussion of Fried’s book, Maria Popova writes about the ways in which both food and reading are different kinds of nourishment: for the body, and for the mind (and the soul, I think she’d add). But reading has another history too. As Jane Austen – who uses food skillfully to demonstrate both class divisions and her characters’ pretensions – parodies in Northanger Abbey, young women in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were warned against the effects not only of reading frivolous novels, but of reading too much. This kind of binge reading was believed to be as bad for the morals, as eating too much was harmful to health. Marianne Dashwood’s reckless, wild behaviour in Sense and Sensibility is partly the product of too much reading. (Although Austen implies that her sensible sister Eleanor could certainly read a little more.)

We celebrate the value of reading – and voracious reading – so much at the moment that we forget that it hasn’t always been seen as an unalloyed virtue. Novels, especially, were held up as potentially dangerous to impressionable young (female) minds, in much the same way as video games and the internet have been in the twentieth- and twenty-first century. Victorian moralists argued that in the case of both sweets and Mrs Radcliffe, they could be too much of a good thing.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 16.04.2014

  • ‘The demand for sugar is set to rise by a further 25 percent by 2020.’
  • A map of Walmart taking over America. And how it’s taking over organic food production.
  • ‘like employees at Foxconn, the company that manufactures Apple products, Cargill’s poultry workers will live on-site.’
  • Demand for food banks in the UK has been produced by cuts to welfare.
  • Droughts are raising the cost of tea and coffee.
  • Hormone-free milk contains … hormones.
  • Sriracha has been declared a public nuisance in California.
  • Is it worth adding folic acid to bread flour?
  • The many meanings of green food on St Patrick’s Day.
  • How chain restaurant menus are engineered.
  • Why milk bottle tops are changing colour in the UK.
  • Are you drinking the wrong kind of milk?
  • Hungry + angry
  • Unusual ways of preserving vegetables.
  • Using bees to protect elephants.
  • Peecycling.
  • Coffee accounts for about half of the U.S. fair-trade market in volume terms’.
  • A brief history of bananas.
  • How sound influences the way we taste food.
  • San Francisco takes steps to ban plastic water bottles.
  • A history of London in five beers.
  • Hay art.
  • Eating with our hands.
  • Lydia Davis on frozen peas.
  • ‘one of the most effete turf wars in history, with skinny bearded guys trying to kneecap each other without spilling their macchiato.’
  • Learning about Georgian cuisine.
  • How to make the perfect burger.
  • Should men pay more at all-you-can- eat buffets?
  • Slavery and the history of maple syrup brittle.
  • Dock, dandelion, and nettle puddings.
  • Understanding Peruvian food.
  • How coffee is made around the world.
  • A prom dress made out of cans.
  • Who buys cookbooks, and why?
  • The dangerous, competitive world of mushroom picking.
  • A dystopic fruit and vegetable future.
  • The fast food breakfast wars.
  • ‘Across multiple variables, online review narratives reveal the reviewers’ concern with face and the presentation of self’.
  • Drawings with coffee rings.
  • A brief history of hot cross buns. And of Sinmel cakes.
  • How to move a restaurant across the world.
  • Mapping Waffle Houses across the US.
  • Duck fat cookies.
  • The Sydney Harbour Bridge made out of Tim Tams.
  • How to grow green beans.

This Little World

Like so many children on the former fringes of empire, much of my imaginative life was spent abroad: the England of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, I Capture the Castle, and, later, Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, and Woolf. I discovered Australia through My Brilliant Career, Canada in Margaret Atwood’s novels, and America in Little Women.

During a period when nearly every one of Austen’s novels was being made and re-made for film and television, I think I spent most of the mid-nineties somewhere in 1811. But at the same time as reading the nineteenth century, I was consumed with enthusiasm for Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books: a series set in Thatcher and then Blair’s Britain, which chart not only Adrian’s agonisingly hilarious development from the age of 13¾ to middle age, but the politics, preoccupations, and often, injustices of the period.

In some ways, Jane Eyre – mad wife in the attic and all – was, initially, easier to understand than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾: I had never heard of The Archers, the dole, the Co-Op, The Morning Star, or Melvyn Bragg. Sue Townsend died this week, and I’ve been reminded over and over again how much my knowledge of ordinary life – in council estates, in unfashionable parts of the midlands – in 1980s and 1990s Britain comes from Adrian’s secret diaries. She made ‘the little world’ of Adrian’s England – and he is supremely parochial – open up to a reader very far away.

Townsend had an eye for telling detail: the object or event that somehow managed to sum up a particular moment in time. Often, she did this through food. At the beginning of the Mole series, we come across Adrian learning to cook. As his mother embraces feminism – his first diary is written in the early 1980s – the family relies increasingly on boil-in-the-bag instant meals, then a relatively new convenience food. Bert Baxter, the communist-sympathising, irascible pensioner for whom Adrian cares periodically, will only eat Vesta curries, the first commercially available Indian food in Britain.

Adrian Mole

As the books move closer to the present, so food plays an ever more important role – mirroring, to some extent, middle-class Britain’s embrace of foodie-ism. In The Cappuccino Years – in which Adrian drinks at least three cappuccinos, that drink so emblematic of Blair’s Cool Britannia, per day – he works as a chef at the coolest restaurant in London: Hoi Polloi. The point of the restaurant is that it serves up the cheap instant food slowly being rejected as Britain rediscovers (or reinvents) its culinary heritage: he makes lumpy Bird’s Eye custard, heats up Fray Bentos pies, and serves instant coffee. Despite the fact that the food is – by Adrian’s admission – appalling and vastly overpriced, it is the place to be seen, particularly by New Labour politicians.

After its closure, Adrian becomes an early celebrity chef on a show called Offally Good! It also receives terrible ratings, and it’s only because his mother steps in at the last minute that he’s able to write a book – which sells next to nothing – based on the series.

Despite the fact that the Mole books are so deeply embedded in their social and political contexts, they are, I think, unlikely to date, and partly because they are informed by Townsend’s politics: her outrage at Thatcher’s attempts to roll back the welfare state; her disgust at the cynicism and duplicity of Labour under Blair and Brown. She is particularly good at depicting the slow slide into financial trouble, and then poverty: when bureaucratic bungling prevents Adrian’s mother – on her own and with two children to support – from collecting her welfare payment, the family reduces how much it eats.

Although this section of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole is very funny – the situation is only resolved after his mother calls a local radio station and a stand-off ensues at the social security office – it was based on Townsend’s own experiences of poverty in Britain in the early 1980s: of having to cook her children a soup made of an Oxo cube and tinned peas when her welfare money was delayed.

She wasn’t the only writer of books for children and young people who describes hunger and poverty: I Capture the Castle notes, carefully, how the Mortmain family’s diet shrinks to bread, margarine, and the occasional egg during their worst period of hardship. The March sisters gladly give up their Christmas feast so that a poor immigrant family may eat. Jane Eyre’s depiction of pupils’ slow starvation in a sadistically run school is one of the most shocking passages in nineteenth-century fiction.

The difference, I think, with Townsend is that, despite some of her characters being able to pull themselves out of poverty, all the Mole books hint at the precariousness of prosperity: while we know that Cassandra Mortmain will never really starve, that all will be well when Mr March returns, and that Jane will eventually leave the school, Townsend’s politics never really allow her to make her readers feel that comfortable about her characters’ prospects.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 09.04.2014

  • The United Nations has been forced to cut the size of food parcels for those left hungry by Syria’s civil war by a fifth because of a shortage of funds from donors‘.
  • Chocolate and the crisis in Ukraine.
  • ‘Between a fifth and a third of the wild-caught seafood imported into the United States was caught or trafficked illegally’.
  • Why are so many Walmart employees on food stamps?
  • The rise of UK food banks run by Muslim charities.
  • Why are Americans getting fatter?
  • The UK supermarket ‘sector is in structural decline, with no end in sight.’
  • Are we eating too much meat?
  • ‘The world needs an Agrarian Renaissance.’
  • Beware contaminated soil.
  • Vitamin supplements do not prevent colon cancer.
  • Shaping children’s appetites in the womb.
  • Measuring agricultural productivity with satellites.
  • Coffee, gentrification, and being a barista.
  • Anissa Helou on her new restaurant.
  • Cooking with Bengali lime.
  • The implications of having to rename some kinds of cheese.
  • Making grits and polenta.
  • A collection of Russian drink labels.
  • How to find and eat calçots in London.
  • The Wellcome Library’s recipe books project.
  • ‘Good, quotidian food has the capacity to bring joy to all, not just the wealthy.’
  • Make your own mustard, and coconut milk.
  • Remaking Vietnamese cuisine.
  • ‘a chocolate cake with whipped cream that the chef calls, “With the Sun in Your Heart”‘ – eating in Iceland.
  • New kinds of tartare.
  • The creation of Korean-American cuisine.
  • Mondrian cake, and Rothko dessert.
  • An advertisement for radium-laced cooking utensils.
  • The creators of some of the most distinctive craft beers in the world are identical twins from Denmark who can’t stand each other.
  • Street food in Mexico City.
  • Scottish wine.
  • The Annual Edible Book Festival.
  • Food-themed Italian idioms.
  • From milk to yogurt.
  • With Ferran Adrià at the Museum of Sex.
  • Intermittent fasting.
  • Fourteen recipes for chocolate cake.
  • Twelve recipes containing vanilla.
  • Eat more insects.
  • Eat more invasive species.
  • Werner Herzog hates chickens.
  • Will Self hates artisinal crisps.
  • The sauce of leeks.
  • Make your own paneer.
  • Make your own cheese crisps.
  • The return of Green Goddess dressing.
  • A champagne bottle dancer.
  • Is it alright to reuse biodegradable spoons?

Peas in a Pod

For various reasons I once attended a talk by Tim Noakes, the sport scientist-turned-diet guru. I use the world ‘guru’ deliberately. Although many of his arguments are thought-provoking and, to some extent, compelling – essentially, he suggests that we should switch to a low-carbohydrate, protein-based, high fat diet – much of what he said was undermined by the manner of his delivery.

He presents his findings in the manner of a big tent evangelist. In a room packed to capacity by the middle classes anxious to discover the elixir of thinness, Noakes spoke for almost two hours, painting himself as a champion of natural eating, maligned by Big Food companies hell bent on making us eat more sugar and carbohydrates. If the back row had leapt to its feet, shouting ‘hallelujah!’ I would not have been surprised.

As I sat there, my mind wandered to a contemplation of diets eaten and advocated by other evangelicals. The leadership of the nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony were all evangelicals, who, during the American Civil War, refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the struggles of that country’s slaves. In doing so, they were part of an international boycott, supported by Christian churches all over the world.

These Christian evangelicals believed that their faith should manifest itself in every aspect of their day-to-day lives. In other words, piety was not to be kept for Sundays. Not drinking and refusing to gamble, avoiding debt, and becoming involved in good works were all manifestations of leading good Christian lives. Partly because many of the new middle classes produced by industrialisation were members of these churches, up until around the middle of the century evangelicals managed to exert a profound influence over public life in Britain, and parts of Europe, North America, Australia, and South Africa.

Although as far as I can see, none of South Africa’s evangelicals were particularly interested in shaping their or their congregants’ diets, it was certainly not unusual for evangelicals and Christians who were members of smaller, splinter groups to embrace restricted diets as manifestations of their piety. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some Christian sects practiced forms of vegetarianism for a variety of reasons: because a diet containing fewer animal products was ‘purer’ than those that did; or because killing animals was sacrilegious. Roger Crab, a seventeenth-century vegetarian believed that meat eating was a consequence of the Fall, as Alan Rudrum explains:

By the age of twenty he was restricting himself to a diet of vegetables and water, ‘avoiding butter, cheese, eggs and milk’, that is, he was what we now call a vegan. As time passed he became more austere, dropping carrots and potatoes as luxuries, though in old age (he lived to be 59) he allowed himself parsnips. Crab’s vegetarianism seems partly to have been dictated by a self-administered vow of poverty; living on dock-leaves and grass, he claimed to live on three farthings a week. But he argued that ‘Eating of Flesh is an absolute Enemy to pure Nature’.

William Cowherd founded the vegetarian Bible Christians near Manchester in 1809. Ian Miller notes:

the Bible Christians … had hoped to create a new form of Christian church with its unique rituals and dietary regulations. For the adherents to this group, meat eating was conceived of as the most vivid symbol of man’s fall from grace, as well as being a source of social evil. William Cowherd (1763-1816) ran the Bible Christian chapel at King Street, Salford, attracting a large following of working-class people, who were encouraged not least by offers of hot vegetable soup, medical help, and a free burial ground.

Crab and Cowherd may appear to be fairly extreme examples, but their influence was felt far beyond their immediate communities. The Vegetarian Society was established in Ramsgate in 1847. Its founders were a motley collection of socialists and other progressives, many of them heavily influenced by the thought and pedagogy pioneered by Bronson Alcott (father of the more famous Louisa May), as well as by representatives of the Salford Bible Christians. One of these, James Simpson, was elected the Society’s first president.

As Ian Miller argues, in its early years, the Vegetarian Society used markedly religious language to promote and explain vegetarianism to an otherwise sceptical audience. One contributor to the Vegetarian Messenger wrote that

abstinence from meat appeared to supply man with important pre-conditions for the perception, understanding, application, and obeying of the teachings of Christ while removing some of the difficulties which lay in the way of the carnal man’s submission to his rule and governance. Vegetarianism alone, it seemed, could not bring about a more spiritual outlook by itself but could at least act as a starting point given that the individual was situated within the right conditions.

Miller adds:

the early writings of the vegetarian movement regularly emphasised a vegetarian world that had existed prior to the Fall that was to be restored following the end of the present age of spiritual and social progress…

This was a vegetarian propaganda which would have been palatable, so to speak, to non-vegetarian evangelicals who shared a similar world-view. However, other, more mainstream, Christian groups have long been sympathetic to vegetarianism, and particularly the Quakers and the Seventh Day Adventists. The latter’s commitment to lifelong, healthy eating has, in fact, influenced the ways in which many of us eat: the Adventist-owned Australian and New Zealand food company Sanitarium produces muesli, granola, and, most famously, Weet-Bix.

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John Harvey Kellogg was an Adventist too. Other than breakfast cereals, the Kellogg company also popularised graham crackers – biscuits invented in the 1830s by the deeply pious Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham from Connecticut, who believed that the passions and emotions could best be mastered by eating plain, bland food.

Noakes’s preaching uses, probably unwittingly, the same techniques employed by evangelicals since the end of the eighteenth century. I think, though, that are other similarities between his enthusiasm for a high-fat diet and the Christians involved in the early Vegetarian Society. They all believe that changing eating habits will be better for the whole world – that the transformation of the individual will lead to the remaking of society more generally. After all, the subtitle of Noakes’s new book is ‘Changing the World One Meal at a Time.’

Sources

Ian Miller, ‘Evangelicalism and the Early Vegetarian Movement in Britain, c.1847-1860,’ Journal of Religious History, vol. 35, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 199-210.

Alan Rudrum, ‘Ethical Vegetarianism in Seventeenth-Century Britain: Its Roots in Sixteenth-Century Theological Debate,’ The Seventeenth Century, vol. 18, no. 1 (2003), pp. 76-92.

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 02.04.2014

  • Eat more fat. Fat-free food is very bad for you. Don’t bake with Splenda. Don’t eat more fat. Don’t be too thin. Eat more fruit and veg. Eat whatever you like.
  • Become a vegetarian to combat climate change. Vegetarians have worse health than omnivores.
  • Climate change should be reframed as a food issue.
  • In the US, a ‘black child age 2 to 5 is more than three times as likely to be obese as a white child that age. Hispanic children in that age group are nearly five times as likely to be obese.’
  • Aid and the new colonisation of Africa.
  • A world map of childhood malnutrition.
  • Is Monsanto evil?
  • How the world’s armies are fed.
  • There could be a global coffee shortage. Climate change may wipe out coffee plantations in Central and South America, making coffee more expensive.
  • Sales of soft drinks continue to decline.
  • Coffee pods are very bad for the environment.
  • Innovative food companies.
  • The Chinese government’s crackdown on corruption and extravagant living is having repercussions for high-end restaurants.
  • Star Wars cupcakes.
  • Eat salt, eggs, and chocolate.
  • On kimchi.
  • Offending bread in Russia.
  • Growing food underneath Clapham. (Thanks, Raffaella!)
  • ‘As most people would be aware, this mango is three storeys high, about 10 metres high, and weighs seven to 10 tonnes, so it’s very surprising that it’s gone.’
  • A woman called 911 over an undercooked waffle.
  • Rules for photographing food in restaurants.
  • Hestom Blumenthal’s Fat Duck moves to Australia. René Redzepi’s Noma moves to Japan.
  • A menu printed the wrong way.
  • Edible water containers.
  • Raw milk from a vending machine.
  • The American cafes which take milk seriously.
  • On muldoshin.
  • Food-themed April Fools’ jokes.
  • Photographs of Victory Gardens.
  • A review of Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire.
  • How to pronounce ‘croissant‘ in America.
  • Klimt cake.
  • Most of the New Yorker‘s artists are not vegetarian.
  • Gardening while commuting.
  • The Captain’s Chicken.
  • Klingon beer.
  • ‘there’s one ghost who has taken an industrious approach, choosing to operate a creepy Coca-Cola machine on an innocuous corner in Seattle’s Capitol Hill.’
  • How to make blancmange.
  • Beer brewed from trees.
  • Do not make this cake.
  • Goats are very intelligent.
  • Beautiful wooden spoons.
  • Drinkers in art.
  • In praise of kale.
  • Literary drinking spots.

Small Things

The institute at which I’m based regularly hosts book launches, seminars, and workshops. This past week was particularly busy. There was a daylong workshop and I attended two launches and four seminars, one of them the first in a major series connecting academics and policy makers.

All this meant that I didn’t do terribly much cooking, relying instead on the buffets provided at these events. These ranged from middling wine and taco chips, to nice beer and miniature versions of comfort food. I tend to give anything containing fish and eggs and most forms of meat a wide berth (I’ve long experience with dodgy seminar food), and stay with the vegetables. I’ve written before how important food is to academic gatherings: it helps to force otherwise shy graduate students to interact with senior staff; it pushes along conversations, facilitates discussion.

The said, terrible conference food can create a kind of solidarity. At a conference in Gaborone last year, colleagues and I almost wept with joy at the discovery of a nearby supermarket that sold yogurt and other alternatives to the almost inedible lunches and dinners we were served. On the other end of the scale, I spent quite a lot of time at events at the London Review Bookshop as a PhD student because their snacks were so substantial I could easily eat supper there.

These kind of finger foods are now so ubiquitous at academic – and other – events that it’s easy to assume that it was ever thus. It is certainly true that many cuisines have invented small snacks to fill the void between meals, and to accompany alcoholic drinks: canapés – fish, meat, and other toppings on pieces of toasted bread – were developed in the French court during the eighteenth century. Similarly, tapas, crostini, and even sandwiches evolved as bread-based snacks to eat alongside beer and wine.

There is a difference, though, between finger food and snack food: the former is usually eaten as a light meal alongside whatever’s being served to drink, and often at formal occasions. Snack food – sometimes renamed street food today – exists for eating on the run: quick bites taken in a busy day. (Contemporary bemoaning of the fact that people tend to snack or ‘graze’ all day instead of eating three ‘proper’ meals ignores the fact that the idea of eating only during the morning, at midday, and in the evening, is a relatively recent one.)

The finger food that we’re familiar with today has a relatively short history, and emerged in the United States in the 1920s. During Prohibition (1920-1933), owners of speakeasies and hosts of private parties serving alcohol illegally, began to offer patrons and guests small snacks to eat alongside their cocktails. These needed to be small – easily held in one hand and eaten in a couple of bites – and enticing: speakeasies could drive up their profits by charging extra for food.

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But as Sylvia Lovegren notes, the popularity of finger food spread beyond places where alcohol was served. Middle-class American kitchens and eating habits were being transformed by the greater availability of relatively cheap canned and bottled products, and new appliances, like refrigerators and freezers. The rise of what she calls ‘dainty food’ was in many ways a reaction against the heavy, elaborate cooking of the turn of the century. Dainty food consisted of salads in jelly (not aspic), of vegetables and meat mixed with mayonnaise and arranged in hollowed-out melons or iceberg lettuces (a cultivar developed specifically to withstand long journeys from farms to greengrocers), and of very sweet, tiny puddings. The marshmallow was ubiquitous on party menus.

This food was, quite obviously, gendered too. As more women entered the kitchen in the absence of cheap servant labour, the slew of recipe books – many of them published by food companies and appliance manufacturers – and magazines aimed at these new housewives, emphasised the ease of making this food, and also that it was small and ‘ladylike’. Being based on processed food made in factories described as hygienic and using ‘scientific’ processes, this was food that was neither messy to make, nor messy to eat. Jelly out of a packet took a few hours to set, while making aspic from cows’ hooves – as cooks would have done only a few years previously – was a time-consuming, labour-intensive, and smelly process.

Although finger food may have been popularised by the fashion for cocktail parties during the 1920s – a worldwide phenomenon – they became part of the way we eat because of how kitchen technologies changed, and how women’s position in households altered. For young women with relatively little knowledge of food or cooking, they were an attractive, apparently scientific, and easy way of feeding a horde of guests.

Sources

Sylvia Lovegren, Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Jessamyn Neuhaus, ‘The Way to a Man’s Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 3 (Spring 1999), pp. 529-555.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 26.03.2014

  • ‘No female serving staff are working in the plenary room of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague where the main talks are being held.’
  • The implications of high fructose syrup for bees.
  • Should we buy walnuts from California? And how the drought in California will impact on America’s food supply.
  • The threat to bananas. And the cost of cheap bananas.
  • How ethical are your eggs?
  • An interview with Denmark’s agriculture minister.
  • The rise of discount supermarkets in the UK.
  • A bigger font on food labels.
  • Should you eat saturated fat?
  • Americans are drinking less orange juice.
  • Butter and soy.
  • How to peel a banana.
  • Against non-stick pans.
  • Make your own soil.
  • Medieval people drank water.
  • Eat more Brussels sprouts.
  • The all-pizza diet.
  • How to make a banhi mi sandwich.
  • The cragel.
  • An interview with the chef who invented the cronut.
  • Some very, very old cheese.
  • Hungarian dishes.
  • Make your own za’atar.
  • What Jesse Ball eats.
  • ‘He has made only one type of bread, a light rye sourdough, for 25 years.’
  • Strange tongues.
  • Food that speaks in the first person.
  • Tasty and quick mince.
  • What goes into a San Francisco burrito?
  • A new pizza cutter.
  • The built the world’s largest salad.
  • These links are courtesy of my mum:
  • The Bloomsbury Group’s relationship with food.
  • Designers, artists, and cooking.
  • The long history of marketing and branding.
  • Always know where your food comes from.

Hope is a good breakfast

Forty-five years ago, the Black Panther Party (BPP) established a programme for free school breakfasts in a church in Oakland, California. By  1970, the following year, similar projects were being run by local chapters of the BPP across the United States, feeding thousands of school-age children a breakfast which included orange juice, eggs, bacon, toast, and grits.

These breakfast clubs were only one manifestation of the Panthers’ extensive social welfare programmes, which ranged from the provision of healthcare and legal aid, to anti-drugs projects. As Alondra Nelson has argued, these projects have gone largely unremembered

due to a failure of our collective memory. We tend to remember the Black Panther Party through iconography – the symbol of the black panther borrowed from civil rights activists in Alabama and other idiosyncratic political art; the graphic identity the organization established with its newspaper, The Black Panther; and the many photographs that captured the Panther posture.

However, the BPP’s ‘survival programmes’ were integral to its wider political aims.

The first group to take the name ‘Black Panther’ was founded in Alabama in 1965, partly by the civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael. This all-black group inspired the formation of similar organisations elsewhere, and particularly in Harlem, where young African-Americans were influenced by Carmichael’s waning enthusiasm for the civil rights movement’s embrace of non-violent protest, and his formulation of a ‘Black Power’ political programme.

The most influential of these Black Panther groups was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Armed with rifles and other weapons, the initial focus of the Oakland chapter was on defending the local African-American community against the police department. However, and despite fierce and occasionally debilitating infighting within the movement, the BPP soon developed a radical vision for the political, social, and economic upliftment of African Americans.

The Black Panther Party's Free Breakfasts for Children Programme (from http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/counterculture/liberation/blackpanther/blackpanther.html)

The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfasts for Children Programme (from the British Library)

The BPP’s Ten-Point Programme established a revolutionary agenda which, among others things, demanded equality before the law, an end to police brutality, and social rights: housing, employment, education, and ‘bread’. Creating what was, effectively, a welfare system for poor and disenfranchised African-Americans was the logical outcome of this programme. Father Earl Neil, at whose church the breakfast project was founded, remembered:

the party was focused on developing further points of their ten- point programme, and one of the things that Bobby [Seale] and Huey [Newton] used to ruminate about and discuss, is that when they went to school and then they noticed a lot of the children go to school hungry, so there was the idea of starting a breakfast programme. … We started out with 11 youngsters, and by the end of the week it was up to around 140. We didn’t need to advertise, we just had to say ‘Do you want a free breakfast?’ Of course the word spread.

Although the US Department of Agriculture had piloted a free breakfasts programme in 1966, its reach was fairly limited. Because the BPP’s project was run by individual chapters of the Party – and it was soon compulsory for each branch of the BPP to have its own breakfast programme – it was able to reach the very poorest African-American children, particularly in urban areas. The success of the programme soon drew the attention of the FBI, which labelled both free breakfasts and the BPP ‘communists’. In 1969 an FBI memo argued:

You state that the bureau should not attack programs of community interest such as the BPP ‘Breakfast for Children Programme.’ … You have obviously missed the point. The BPP is not engaged in the program for humanitarian reasons. This program was formed by the BPP … to create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.

Although police and FBI agents attempted to disrupt this and other survival programmes – even assassinating Fred Hampton, one of the BPP’s key organisers in Chicago – these efforts served only to draw support to the Free Breakfast Programme. Much to the chagrin of the FBI, one imagines, in 1975 Congress rolled out a fully funded, nation wide free breakfast programme, modelled, to some extent, on the one pioneered by the Panthers.

I am writing this shortly after South Africa’s Human Rights Day, held annually to recommit the country to upholding citizens’ human rights, and also to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. In a particularly ugly juxtapositioning, on the day before Human Rights Day, the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, announced the findings of her investigation into renovations done to President Zuma’s private homestead in the rural KwaZulu-Natal village of Nkandla. She found, to no-one’s surprise, that millions of public funds were spent on upgrading his home – so much, in fact, that she argued that no single individual would ever be able to pay back that amount of money to the state.

Madonsela drew attention to the fact that spending on several of the additions to Zuma’s home – including a swimming pool, helicopter pads, amphitheatre, cattle kraal, and clinic – was justified on the grounds that these amenities would be to the benefit of the impoverished community in Nkandla. However:

Accessing the clinic would mean entering Zuma’s homestead, either by scaling the security fence or through a police checkpoint. The swimming pool has never been used by the local residents. The clinic remains without stock….

When the Mail and Guardian first reported on the development of the Nkandla homestead it added that a vegetable garden had been planted to ensure the ‘food security’ of the compound. In a country where around one fifth of all children have stunted growth because of poor nutrition, fencing off a vegetable garden seems particularly callous.

It is certainly true that the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Programme was ideologically driven (and that its roll-out and operation reflected the ingrained misogyny in the BPP (breakfast programmes were run mainly by women)), but it was part of a vision for remaking American society that recognised that the fight for civil rights had to be accompanied by demands for social rights. In other words, desegregating schools had to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that all children had access to the resources, like breakfast and books and transport, which would allow them to participate fully in education.

Sources

David J. Garrow, ‘Picking up the Books: The New Historiography on the Black Panther Party,’ Reviews in American History, vol. 35, no. 4 (Dec. 2007), pp. 650-670.

Nik Heynen, ‘Bending the Bars of Empire from Every Ghetto for Survival: The Black Panther Party’s Radical Antihunger Politics of Social Reproduction and Scale,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 99, no. 2 (2009), pp. 406-422.

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

Yohuru Williams, ‘“Some abstract thing called freedom”: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 22, no. 3, Black Power (Jul. 2008), pp. 16-21.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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