- Food stamps have reduced poverty in the US.
- Statistics for malnutrition and death from starvation in Africa have been exaggerated.
- The power of Coke in Swaziland.
- ‘Cooking attracts roaches. Nobody realises that.’
- Urban bee-keeping will not address the decline in bee populations.
- The Norwegian army embraces Meat-free Mondays.
- American turkeys have been getting heavier.
- Can fish farms be organic?
- Depression influences how we taste food.
- ‘Milk from a variety of animals including camels, llamas and moose should be more widely used to counteract high cow milk prices due to growing demand for dairy in the developing world.’
- There is little evidence to suggest that eating placenta is nutritious.
- Havana’s food black market.
- Why juice cleanses are a bad idea.
- China’s enthusiasm for pecan nuts.
- Michael Pollan‘s dilemma.
- Vitamin Water really isn’t all that good for you.
- How to ensure a hangover.
- A list of food associated with jobs.
- The cockentrice. (With thanks to Nic Dawes.)
- Rock stars pose with their favourite food.
- Signs you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen.
- The shepherd who’s on Twitter.
- Good for laying down.
- Why turkey – and not beef – is the centrepiece for Thanksgiving.
- Soda. Pop. Coke.
- Photographs printed on marshmallows.
- Myths and legends around the plum pudding.
- Go gluten-free in northern India.
- The challenges facing food truck owners.
- Jane Austen and food.
- What Duke Ellington ate.
- The best supermarket mince pies in the UK.
- Using a beer bottle to make music.
- What people drank during the Middle Ages.
- Hot pancakes doused with Coca-Cola – one of Haruki Murakami‘s best-known dishes.
- The Bourbon family tree.
- ‘Nothing is prepared to order, and everything is served in a triangle-shaped brown-paper package.’
- On soju.
A while ago my friend Nafisa lent me Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. I was particularly taken by an essay by Jane Kramer called ‘The Reporter’s Kitchen.’ She describes exactly the connection between cooking and writing: how baking biscuits or, more usually in my case, bread can be fitted into the writing of an essay. How following recipes follows the same process of unfolding as constructing an argument. How cooking food can both distract from difficult writing, as well as address the causes of writers’ block:
[I] tried madeleines again, and discovered that, for me, they were just another cookie – which is to say, not the kind of cookie that belonged in the ritual that for years has kept me commuting between my study and my stove, stirring or beating or chopping or sifting my way through false starts and strained transitions and sticky sentences.
During times of stress, she turns both to writing and to cooking. I tend to do the same, but this week I’ve not been able to write. I was mugged in the Johannesburg CBD on Friday evening, and, at almost exactly the same time the following Monday, a man drove into the back of my car as I was on my way home.
I’ve hesitated about mentioning these events because they seem to confirm some of the worst stereotypes about Johannesburg, and, although annoying and stress making, they’re by far not the most important things that have happened in the past few weeks.
Instead of writing, I have spent quite a lot of time in my kitchen. I have a weakness for epic cooking, and over the weekend we made David Chang’s version of bo ssam, or Korean slow-roasted pork, a process which involved marinating, slow roasting, and long resting.
800g tinned plum tomatoes
1 onion, peeled and halved
5 Tblsp butter
salt and pepper
1. Place all the ingredients in a wide, deep saucepan. Bring to the boil, and then simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every fifteen or so, until thick and glossy. Discard the onion halves.
2. I like to stir some torn-up basil through this. Serve with spaghetti.
On Wednesday, having seen the doctor about my sore neck, I made granola (loosely based on this recipe), the basic proportions of which are:
3 cups oats
½ cup desiccated coconut (unsweetened)
½ cup brazil nuts, chopped
½ cup whole, raw almonds
2 Tblsp vegetable oil
6 Tblsp honey
½ cup dried fruit
1. Place all the dry ingredients, except the fruit, into a large bowl and stir to combine.
2. Heat together the oil and honey and pour over the oats mixture. Mix thoroughly, and bake in a roasting tin for about twenty minutes at 150°C, stirring halfway. I vary this recipe with flaked coconut, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and maple syrup instead of honey.
I have wondered, though, if I’ve been at the receiving end of some kind of elaborate cosmic joke,* and if it would be worth devoting myself to the preparation of lucky food.
So many societies eat coin-shaped and sweet things at New Year, for instance: from rice cake soup in Korea to lentil dishes in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern states of the US. Pomegranates in the Mediterranean world, cabbage and pigs in Germany, and long noodles in Japan symbolise prosperity and longevity. We stir Christmas pudding batter for good luck.
We can understand the social meanings of food particularly well through religion – the taboos which surround pork or beef, for example – and ritual. When Catholic monks insisted upon wheat communion wafers in colonial Mexico they did so because they associated maize with the ‘uncivilisation’ of the indigenous people to whom they evangelised. Ingesting maize wafers would have implied some kind of acceptance – a swallowing – of the customs and traditions of pre-colonial central America.
The significance of ‘lucky’ foods is that they are part of rituals: that they mark particular moments of time; that they call for pause and contemplation. In a way, they slow down time – as does cooking. I don’t want to make any grand claims for the healing powers of cooking, but being forced to focus and to work systematically and repetitively, offers one way out of panic and anxiety.
And, anyway, I can write now.
* Not really.
I have an odd enthusiasm for Iceland. I think it stems partly from the fact that in Brave New World, troublesome and insubordinate academics are exiled there. Although when Aldous Huxley published the novel in 1932, the Iceland he imagined was one of the least technologically advanced nations in Europe – and not the socially and politically progressive place it is imagined to be today. In fact, much of the current interest in Iceland stems from its response to the 2008 crash: Icelanders did what so many in the West wanted to do. Laurie Penny writes:
What most of the world appears to believe is that, some time between 2008 and 2009, the country refused to bail out its banks when the global economy crashed and that instead it jailed all of its bankers, overthrew the government, wrote a new constitution on the internet and elected a lesbian prime minister who solved all the nation’s problems with a flick of her magic wand.
Iceland became, seemingly, a Guardian reader’s paradise. But the reality is more complex, and, possibly, less attractive:
Although it is true that the three largest banks – Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki – were allowed to go bust in 2008, this was hardly a political choice: Iceland could do nothing else, because their debts were ten times the size of its GDP.
Popular protest did force the writing of a new constitution, but this has never been implemented. Earlier this year – for all the promise of Iceland being lead by a Pirate Party – Icelanders re-elected the centre-right coalition which was in power before the recession. And Iceland is no feminist paradise either.
But it remains a compellingly fascinating place. I think Penny sums this up particularly well:
Iceland has always been a land self-authored in myth and legend. Its lava fields and glacial plains are supposedly populated by elves, trolls and huldufólk – hidden folk – in whom 80 per cent of the population believes. At least, that’s what the PR for Icelandair wants you to think… In fact, it turns out that only 30 per cent of the population believes that fairies exist, although that third is prepared to agitate for roads to be diverted around their supposed homes. This is remarkable enough that one wonders why the tourist board bothered to exaggerate.
A few months ago, while visiting another city on the same latitude as Scandinavia – Edinburgh – I bought a copy of Sarah Moss’s memoir Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012). It’s an account of a British family’s year in Reykjavik, during which Moss taught English literature at the University of Iceland.
Interested in histories of eating and cooking, some of Moss’s most evocative passages are concerned with how she comes to terms with Iceland through food. The availability of a variety of – occasionally rotting, often seriously under-ripe – exceptionally expensive fresh produce imported from all over the world, suggested the enthusiasm with which Icelanders embraced consumerism during the boom. (Another potent example of this was the stigma attached to buying second-hand goods and clothes. Her efforts to buy a used washing machine were greeted with appalled horror by many of her colleagues and friends.) In fact, she and her family packed with them the foods of home – ‘the manifestations of English metropolitan middle-class identity’:
We have five litres of olive oil, a dozen tins of anchovies and a dozen jars of capers, miso paste, pomegranate syrup, cocoa nibs, seeds for growing coriander, basil and mint. Smoked chillies, sumac, allspice, dried dill, cumin. Preserved lemons, three kinds of paprika, dried lime leaves.
On a quick trip back to Kent, they bought and smuggled into Iceland
two whole salamis, a wheel of Kentish cheese … approximately three kilogrammes of chocolate, from Cadbury to Valrhona, two Christmas cakes and a stollen, half a dozen russet apples, a bag of unwaxed lemons and a couple of dozen tins of anchovies, capers and vine leaves.
Anxious about being caught by immigration officials, she hurries her husband and children through the airport. Max, her eldest son, ‘looks anxiously into [her] face. He’d make a lousy chorizo mule.’
Moss is not unaware of the irony of importing what are, essentially, the ingredients of Mediterranean peasant food to Iceland, a nation apparently with a close relationship with the natural world. However, she sympathises with the taste that Icelanders’ developed for imported food, given the relative monotony of diets until, at least, the mid-twentieth century. These were heavy in smoked and dried fish, and meat often preserved in whey, blood pudding and liver sausage, potatoes, and plenty of dairy products. Grains and green vegetables were a luxury.
These high-fat diets seemed, though, to sustain farmers through long winters. Matthew, a colleague also from Britain, remembered his introduction to rural cuisine in the 1960s:
the worst imaginable kind of food I could ever think of was put on the table, steaming salted fish with a terrifying smell to it, and hot sheep fat, and potatoes. That’s all there was. And I knew I was going to be there for six weeks, and I would have to eat it or starve. I told myself, you wanted to come to Iceland, you wanted to find out what it’s like here, you bloody well eat their food, and I forced myself to eat it. And it was delicious, absolutely glorious. It’s one of my favourite dishes today.
Matthew’s answer to why they didn’t fall ill – in the absence of fruit and vegetables – was that they ate a lot of fish:
And Iceland moss, swede, and white cabbage. A lot of white cabbage. … And of course a lot of milk, and skyr [curd cheese].
Why didn’t they get scurvy?
People drank a lot of Iceland moss tea, and they were probably using many more grasses and herbs than is recorded. That knowledge has gone.
I think his point about forgetting what people used to eat is an important one. I was reminded of Moss’s book a little while ago when – for various reasons – I attended a lecture presented by Tim Noakes. Once best known for his deep knowledge of sports science, Noakes has recently developed a reputation for his almost evangelical faith in the carbohydrate-free, meat-heavy Paleo diet.
I was struck by Noakes’s use of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts which recommended excluding carbohydrates from diets, to bolster his arguments. And by his insistence that because people – like Icelanders – in the past were able to live healthily off diets consisting mainly of red meat and animal fat we should attempt to replicate them in the twenty-first century.
There are many problems with Noakes’s arguments – not least his dubious methodology in a recent paper – but I’d like to focus on his use of history to argue for a return to what our ancestors (allegedly) ate. As Moss’s friend Matthew makes the point, our knowledge of how eating habits changed over time is patchy, at best. Peasants did not painstakingly record every slurp of nettle tea. Also (and this is taken from a satirical piece, but it’s accurate):
You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it. Our adaptability is the hallmark of the human species. We’re not called omnivores for nothing.
Noakes’s reliance on an idealised vision of the past is a significant weakness in his argument. It ignores the fact that we have a tendency to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible: when vegetables and fruit became more easily available, Icelanders happily included them in their diets.
The current obesity ‘crisis’ cannot, in other words, be fixed by returning to the mythical diets of the past. It is caused by such a myriad range of factors – ranging from poverty to urban planning – that to blame a taste for carbohydrates is to demonstrate a very narrow understanding of the problem.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This morning I went to re-register in time for next year’s elections. My voting station is at the Ridge School, an elite primary school for boys perched at the top of the startlingly rich suburb of Westcliff. It is one of the oldest parts of Johannesburg, with its Arts and Crafts mansions and streets lined with old, well-established trees. It is where industrialists, whose fortunes were made on the mines, settled to live in the comfort that a city with cheap land and even cheaper labour could provide.
In some ways, it feels that Westcliff has changed very little since the early twentieth century. There were two black domestic workers, in uniforms and aprons, waiting to check if they were registered to vote. And there was a huddle of affluent white people gathered around the stall operated by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Unsurprisingly, the ANC was nowhere to be seen.
Old is a relative term, though, and particularly for Johannesburg, a city founded only in the mid-1880s. For all that its northern suburbs give the appearance of static, solid, prosperity, it is a city which continues to evolve at a frantic pace: it grows, is torn down and rebuilt, has been run down, and is being gentrified. In fact, the urban forest of Joburg’s affluent areas is a pointed example of the constructedness of this city: planted to provide timber to the city’s mines, the canopy of green and purple which covers old Johannesburg in the summer has created a new ecosystem, replacing the original grassland of the Highveld.
A while ago, some lovely friends took me to dinner and pudding in two parts of the city which also show particularly well how South Africa’s shifting demographics – its growing middle class, in particular – are helping to change the city.
One of the oddest spaces to contemplate this transformation is Mandela Square in Sandton, a suburb in the north of the city which has, since the 1990s and especially after the Johannesburg Stock Exchange moved there in 2000, become an alternative city centre to the old CBD. The middle of Sandton is dominated by shiny corporate headquarters and a collection of high-end shopping malls – one of which is Nelson Mandela Square. Known until 2004 as Sandton Square, the mall was renamed after the installation of a massive, six-metre statue of Nelson Mandela.
The statue – which is slightly out of proportion – is to one side of the piazza at the centre of the mall, and overlooks a fountain. To its left and right are restaurants, some of them branches of popular, but pricier, franchises. We had excellent ice creams at an Italian place, and watched as tourists posed in front of Madiba, and took photographs of the water feature.
Mandela Square – and, indeed, Sandton – is often held up as an example of the crass materialism which has accompanied – and has been produced by – South Africa’s transition to democracy after 1994. Uncomfortably, and ridiculously, it links a depoliticised Mandela – Madiba-as-friendly-giant – to a celebration of post-apartheid consumerism. It is true that Sandton is, to some extent, an unpleasant example of the city-as-anodyne shopping mall. Architecturally, Mandela Square – and Sandton City, and the Sandton Convention Centre, and Michelangelo Towers, and the Da Vinci Hotel – could be just about anywhere, and that, really, is part of the point.
My friends and I began our evening, though, at a wonderful, and in some ways equally incongruous, Thai restaurant in Edenvale, a suburb on the border of Johannesburg and the East Rand. It is one of a collection of towns and settlements established to the east of Joburg as result of mining (for gold and coal) and manufacturing. Recently, though, its low property prices and new malls have drawn the city’s new middle classes. It is, in some ways, the epitome of big city suburbia. And yet, down a not-particularly-lovely street, is a place which serves delicious Thai food.
In some ways, the South African taste for Thai has been driven by the fact that Thailand is one of the few countries to which South Africans may travel without visas, and, even with the current weakness of the Rand, remains relatively inexpensive. Thai restaurants – some of them part of the Wang Thai chain – have popped up in middle-class suburbs, alongside pubs and steak ranches.
Rising above the noise and bustle of Johannesburg – and with a clear view of the Sandton skyscrapers – Westcliff, secure in its incredible wealth, seems to be immune from the change happening around it. But Westcliff is as entangled in Johannesburg’s making as are Sandton and Edenvale: it was shaped and produced by the mineral revolution at the end of the nineteenth century. It was modelled on similar, upper middle-class suburbs in Britain. It is as much a construct as Sandton and Edenvale.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
New York Magazine on the juice craze:
Juice announces that America is still a bountiful land of plenty despite our abuse of the Earth. Juice announces that you are hip to the trends, part of the scene that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, and other toned-and-together Celebrity Juice Fans featured in Star magazine. Juice says you don’t do manual labor: You make money with your fingers in the new economy, nails painted a cheery neon or pastel gel as you text. … And for a certain, uniquely American urban tribe, juice is a sacrament—or at least part of the sacrament.
A few weeks ago I was accepted on a writing retreat held periodically at Pullen Farm, a facility owned by Wits University about five hours’ drive northeast of Johannesburg. One afternoon we made the short journey to Barberton, a small town whose chief attraction is that there was a short-lived gold rush there more than a century ago.
Like other countries with vast, sparsely populated interiors – I think of Australia and the US – South Africa does weird towns very well. I’d visited Barberton once before, on an epic family road trip in the late-1990s, and we’ve all since remembered it as epitomising rural South African strangeness. In some ways we’d been primed to look out for the odd, having seen a newspaper headline which screamed ‘Vampire Mermaid Strikes Again!’ in nearby White River. (It’s the ‘again’ which I find so intriguing.)
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what made Barberton so strange: the quiet, deserted town centre in the middle of the day; the old-fashioned shops selling unusual combinations of things (kitchen utensils with shoes, for instance); or the unfriendly townspeople. It has some magnificent, deserted, Victorian buildings, which sit side-by-side with Art Deco and 1970s brutalist municipal offices.
Now, Barberton has a new shopping centre which seems to be pulling people away from the rather dilapidated main road. But there is still a general dealer there that buys everything ‘from teaspoons to your mother-in-law.’ I found a copy of Die Volkome Huwelik (The Complete Marriage), the Dutch Reformed Church-endorsed sex manual of the 1970s, for R5 at a junk shop also selling mannequins, a till, and a couple of washing machines.
Barberton seems to be trying harder to make something of its brief moment of international significance in the 1880s, with a collection of museums relating to the gold rush. We had lunch at the Phoenix Hotel, established in 1886 to provide accommodation to visiting mine magnates and better-off prospectors hoping to find their fortunes in the newly discovered gold deposits near the town. With the opening up of richer gold seams on the Witwatersrand, these wealthy investors packed up and moved to Johannesburg.
It is now a Chinese restaurant and sushi bar. The menu – which is extensive, and split between the staples of mid-market South African dining and some ‘Chinese’ dishes and sushi – provides diners with a handy guide to using chopsticks. There are lanterns and banners with shiny lettering draped around the restaurant, which was mainly empty.
I had vegetables and stir-fired noodles, and others had Szechuan beef, prawns with rice, spring rolls, and sushi. I’ve certainly eaten more interesting Chinese food elsewhere, but this certainly counts as one of the most unexpected Chinese meals I’ve ever had.
In some ways, though, the presence of a Chinese restaurant – and one run by a Chinese family – in Barberton should not be at all surprising. In the light of China’s growing investment in Africa, recent immigrants from China have settled across the country, mostly opening small businesses. Along with the inevitable Pep Stores, Sasko bread truck, and branch of Absa bank, the Chinese shop is becoming a feature of rural towns and villages.
Johannesburg now has two Chinatowns. There has been a small Chinese-South African population, based mainly in the country’s larger cities, since at least the nineteenth century. Between 1904 and 1907, around 63,000 Chinese indentured labourers were brought to the Witwatersrand to work on the mines, but the vast majority of these men returned home afterwards. Under apartheid, there was an influx of people from Taiwan after it was recognised by the National Party over mainland China.
In 2008 the Chinese Association of South Africa succeeded in compelling the government to reclassify Chinese South Africans as ‘black’ so that they, too, can benefit from post-apartheid black economic empowerment and affirmative action policies. This was in recognition of the fact that Chinese people also were discriminated against on the grounds of their race before 1994.
There are around 200,000 Chinese people living in South Africa at the moment. The increase in this small population – since the early 2000s, around 24,000 Chinese have settled in South Africa (and I’m not absolutely certain of that figure) – has given rise to warnings of a ‘yellow peril’. Chinese people have been victims of xenophobic attacks, and last year the investigative magazine Noseweek published a disgraceful article alleging that, among other things, Chinese shopkeepers deliberately drive South African businesses into the ground.
This suspicion of recent Chinese immigrants would be interesting were it not quite so old. Similar allegations were levelled against the Chinese in early twentieth-century California and New York, for instance, and particularly on the grounds that Chinese refused, apparently, to integrate socially and culturally.
Ironically, though, the food served so successfully by Chinese cooks to Californian gold diggers or New York construction workers was a kind of hybrid of Chinese – and given the heavily regionalised nature of China’s cooking, there isn’t really a single ‘Chinese’ cuisine – and American cooking. Chop suey and other dishes were invented to use ingredients Chinese chefs could find in the US, as well as to appeal to American tastes.
Having become increasingly accustomed to the more sophisticated Chinese food now fairly easily available outside of China, the menu at the Phoenix Hotel, along with the dragons and fans of the décor, felt strangely retro. It listed the amalgam, ‘Western-Chinese’ dishes – including chop suey – which can be found just about wherever Chinese cooks have set up shop.
Sitting in this small, depressed mining town – there is still a gold mine and a prison, but unemployment is very high – despite the incongruity of eating Chinese food in the Phoenix Hotel, I was struck by the continuities of this situation. The family running the restaurant are part of yet another wave of immigrants – following on from the prospectors and diggers of the late nineteenth century – drawn to a country which seems to offer them a better chance, and certainly more political freedom, than does their homeland. And they continue to serve a cuisine which attempts to be both exotically enticing and comfortably familiar to their customers.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.