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Milking It

This week the committee organising the 2012 Olympics in London caused widespread anger when it announced that breastfeeding mothers would have to buy an extra ticket to bring their babies into sports venues. Some venues have a few discounted tickets for children, but others don’t. One commentator posted on Mumsnet

that while she and her husband were lucky enough to get tickets to an equestrian event in August, organisers had told her there are no children’s tickets so she will have to pay £95 for a three-month old in a sling.

Those who can’t afford an extra ticket, or who lose out in the next round of ticket allocation, are advised to stay away. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has suggested that this is potentially a case of ‘indirect sex discrimination’ because it will affect considerably more women than men.

This situation is ridiculous in so many ways. What angers me the most is that the Olympic committee took this decision in a country where the National Health Service advises that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life. The members of the committee seem either to think that women shouldn’t breastfeed in public – an irritating view about which I am going to be extraordinarily rude at some stage – or that mothers with babies have no desire to attend public events.

In the midst of the uproar, The Ecologist tweeted an article which it had published six years ago about the debate over whether women should breast- or bottle-feed their babies. It’s an argument that parents, doctors, and policy makers have been holding since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, and it’s to the credit of Pat Thomas that her piece provides a good overview of shifting attitudes towards infant feeding over the course of the past hundred years or so.

But it’s also a problematic piece of writing, and one which demonstrates particularly well why so many mothers feel bullied about how they decide to feed their babies. Thomas makes no attempt to hide her view that all mothers should breastfeed their children. She begins with a terrifying list of statistics:

The health consequences – twice the risk of dying in the first six weeks of life, five times the risk of gastroenteritis, twice the risk of developing eczema and diabetes and up to eight times the risk of developing lymphatic cancer – are staggering. With UK formula manufacturers spending around £20 per baby promoting this ‘baby junk food’, compared to the paltry 14 pence per baby the government spends promoting breastfeeding, can we ever hope to reverse the trend?

I’d love to know where she found these figures – particularly given her opening statement that women have breastfed for ‘nearly half a million years’. (How does she know this? Why the coy, qualifying ‘nearly’?) Thomas is, though, correct to point to the compelling evidence that breastfed babies tend to be healthier than those who are fed on formula, and that breastfed children may do better at school and have stronger immune systems. Also, there is a direct and proven link between the use of baby formula and high child mortality rates in the developing world.

She blames the slow decline of breastfeeding over the course of the twentieth century on the medicalization of childcare, and on the advertising strategies employed by formula companies – most notoriously Nestle. I have little to add to her second point, other that, broadly, I agree with her. The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, a response to the Nestle Boycott of the late seventies, needs to be properly implemented. But her argument about the medicalization of women’s experiences of childbirth and childrearing is not entirely correct. She quotes Mary Renfrew from the Mother and Infant Research Unit at the University of York:

‘If you look at medical textbooks from the early part of the 20th century, you’ll find many quotes about making breastfeeding scientific and exact, and it’s out of these that you can see things beginning to fall apart.’ This falling apart, says Renfrew, is largely due to the fear and mistrust that science had of the natural process of breastfeeding.

In particular, the fact that a mother can put a baby on the breast and do something else while breastfeeding, and have the baby naturally come off the breast when it’s had enough, was seen as disorderly and inexact. The medical/scientific model replaced this natural situation with precise measurements – for instance, how many millilitres of milk a baby should ideally have at each sitting – which skewed the natural balance between mother and baby, and established bottlefeeding as a biological norm.

During the early years of twentieth century, global concern about high rates of child mortality animated a child welfare movement which aimed to improve the conditions in which children were raised. In Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa and Latin America, medical professionals held up rational and scientific methods of feeding and caring for babies as the best means of eradicating the ‘ignorant’ practises which, many believed, caused babies to die. This new emphasis on hygiene, speedy medical intervention, and regular monitoring of babies’ development and health at clinics and hospitals did lower rates of morbidity – as did declining fertility rates, the control of infectious disease, economic prosperity, and increased attendance of school.

Doctors and specialists in the relatively new field of paediatrics were particularly interested in how babies were fed. Contrary to what Thomas suggests, the nineteenth-century orthodoxy that breastfeeding was the healthiest and best option for both mothers and babies lasted well into the 1940s. Innovations in artificial formulas provided mothers who couldn’t breastfeed – for whatever reason – with good alternatives, and doctors did recommend them. There were anxieties that malnourished mothers’ milk would not feed babies sufficiently, and doctors recommended ‘top ups’ with formula or other liquid.

The real difference between nineteenth- and twentieth-century attitudes towards breastfeeding was that it was increasingly controlled and patrolled by trained professionals. As Renfrew notes, mothers were told how much milk their babies needed at each feed, and there was a lot of debate in medical journals and in other professional forums about how and when babies should be fed.

The set of guidelines formulated by the incredibly influential, New Zealand-based Dr Truby King emphasised the importance of routine in feeding. King’s mothercraft movement – which established clinics and training centres around the British Empire during the first half of the twentieth century – taught mothers to feed ‘by the clock’. At five months, a baby was to be fed only five times per day – and at the same time every day – while one month-old babies had an extra, sixth feed.

Like many childcare professionals of the period, King believed that feeding on demand was not only unhealthy – it placed babies at risk of under- or overfeeding – but it was morally and intellectually damaging too. Babies who understood that crying would cause them to be fed would become spoilt, lazy children and adults. Indeed, this points to the infant welfare movement’s more general preoccupation with mothers and motherhood. As the interests of the state were seen, increasingly, as being linked to the proper rearing and education of children, the role of the mother grew in importance. King called his centres ‘shrines to motherhood’, for instance.

But the naturally fussy, over-cautious, and credulous mother was not to be trusted to follow her own instincts: authorities and professionals, who tended to be male, were to provide her with rational, scientific advice on raising her baby. It’s difficult to gauge mothers’ response to the information aimed at them. In her study of mothers in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, Julia Grant concludes that mothers did heed childcare professionals, but modified their advice according to the views and experiences of their peers. Similarly, mothers in New Zealand took what they wanted from King’s pamphlets on childrearing.

Equally, mothercraft clinics and breastfeeding advice days were well attended by mothers and babies. Several mothercraft centres all over the world also included a dietetic wing, where nursing mothers could stay for up to a fortnight, learning how to breastfeed their babies. There, they would be taught how to breastfeed by the clock, and how to cope with mastitis and painful breasts and nipples. Wonderfully, hospital fees were means tested, so poor mothers could attend for free.

Throughout its existence, the Cape Town dietetic hospital never had an empty waiting list, and similar units in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand were as enthusiastically supported by women. Mothercraft seems to have been at its most successful when mothers could choose how and when they wanted to its advice and services.

While it’s true that the medicalization of breastfeeding transformed this act into a ‘science’ which needed to be re-taught to mothers – that it became possible to inform a mother that she was breastfeeding incorrectly – and that this was underpinned by misogynistic and eugenicist ideas around childhood, motherhood, and the nation, it is as true that mothers did respond positively to the advice provided by mothercraft and other organisations. Clearly, mothers wanted more advice about how to feed their babies – and that they altered it to suit their conditions and needs.

It’s for this reason that I think that Thomas is doing mothers a disservice. Encouraging more women to breastfeed needs to respect the fact that women’s choices about how to feed their babies are influenced by a variety of factors and considerations. Thomas – and other breastfeeding evangelicals – seems to buy into the same discourse of maternal irresponsibility as childcare professionals did in the early twentieth century: the belief that women somehow don’t really understand what’s best for their babies, and must be properly educated. Even if her – and others’ – motives are progressive and well-meaning, they still fail to take mothers seriously.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Rima D. Apple, Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890-1950 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

Linda Bryder, A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare 1907-2000 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003).

Julia Grant, Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).

Philippa Mein Smith, Mothers and King Baby: Infant Survival and Welfare in an Imperial World: Australia 1880-1950 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).

Other sources:

Linda M. Blum, At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

Molly Ladd-Taylor, Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890-1930 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Breast (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).

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

Food Links, 25.01.2012

Niger faces famine. Again.

The role of Glencore in the international food chain.

Badaude designs a sausage menu.

Awesome lunchboxes.

How to make orange beer.

A history of daft diets.

How smart are smart fridges?

Climate change and beer.

How to sell a burger.

The science of taste.

Baghdad Eggs.

Claufoutis by Virginia Woolf; Chaucer’s onion tart; and a recipe for lamb with dill sauce by Raymond Chandler: famous authors of literary fiction re-imagined as food writers.

Paula Deen’s most egregrious recipes.

The amazing history of the bendy straw.

Opening a bottle of wine…with a shoe.

Glass and sugar.

Cutlery as jewellery.

Cleaning up the Mexican dairy industry.

Cocktails exploding in slow motion.

Sex, death, and kefir.

The British government’s food buying standards are worse than McDonald’s.

In praise of my favourite fruit: quinces.

An interview with Heston Blumenthal.

A new hangover cure?

Big food opposes measures to encourage American children to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Decoding famous recipes.

Nerdalicious – a food blog for nerds.

Occupy Food

So. Farwell then, Occupy London? There’s nothing like writing a (relatively) topical blog to remind you of how fast news develops. When I began thinking about this post, the protestors at Occupy London outside St Paul’s had lost their appeal against their eviction. It seemed that this wing of the occupy movement had gone the same way as Occupy Wall Street when Zuccotti Park was cleared. But now the campers have found a new, fifth spot, still in the City of London: Roman House, an empty building in the Barbican.

I visited Occupy London in December last year. I had arranged to attend a drawing class presented by Baduade (this is her account of it, with some of our contributions) and was hopelessly early, so I decided to visit two of the protest’s other sites, in Finsbury Square and in the abandoned UBS building in Sun Street – now rechristened the Bank of Ideas. I was struck by the social and ideological complexity of the protest. Not only did the protestors represent a variety of opinions, but were a varied group of people who had decided to camp for different reasons. Laurie Penny’s recent article on Occupy London sums this up particularly well:

The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia.

In his account of a night spent at the St Paul’s camp, James Macintyre noted a class difference between the sites, with more middle-class protestors choosing to settle at Finsbury Park – the site which produces The Occupied Times. My experience certainly bore this out: as I arrived at the Finsbury Park welcome tent, the girl supervising it bounded up to me and exclaimed in tones which would cheer any elocution teacher, ‘oh I love your badges!’.

Part of the appeal of the camp, commented Macintyre, particularly for homeless people, is that it has a kitchen which provides food for free:

The campers, a multi-ethnic mix, are fed in the soup kitchen by volunteers, including several part-time chefs; they say they feed up to 1,500 people a day, most of whom are just around the camp during the day. The volunteers’ chief concerns are the need for more donations of vegetables, and the lack of storage facilities for meat, rather than the evils of global capitalism.

The same was true at Zuccotti Park which developed a reputation for the quality of the cuisine which its cooks – some of them professional chefs – prepared. In fact, the kitchen’s output proved to be so popular that overworked and apparently ‘underappreciated’ volunteers temporarily refused to make food. Indeed, there were even some reports that Occupy Wall Street decided to limit the kitchen’s output because of the numbers of homeless people the protest was attracting.

Whatever the politics of feeding so many protestors may have been, Occupy Wall Street’s achievements are worth celebrating: its kitchen relied entirely on donations, meaning that meal planning was almost impossible and relied on cooks’ inventiveness and ability to think quickly. Also, the kitchen was not allowed to use any form of open flame.

The kitchen at the St Paul’s protest was as heroic, and reminded me of the cooking done at the Climate Camps a few years ago (and I think that there’s more to be said about the overlap between the Climate Camp movement and Occupy London): using mainly donated produce and almost always vegan – a practical choice in terms of storage and dietary requirements – food was prepared using wood-fired rocket stoves and provided free to all people on the campsite. It was delicious – and I write this as one whose experiment with veganism lasted only a week.

In both cases, the food served at the camps was emblematic of the concerns and ideals of the protestors, as the New York Times described the Zuccotti Park protest:

The makeshift kitchen has fed thousands of protesters each day. Along the way, it has developed a cuisine not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement itself: free-form, eclectic, improvisatory and contradictory.

Requests for food go out on Twitter and various Web sites sympathetic to the protesters. And somehow, in spontaneous waves, day after day, the food pours in. The donations are received with enthusiasm, even when they are not precisely what the troops might have desired.

Robert Strype, 29, a protester from the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area who was wearing a T-shirt that expressed his displeasure with Monsanto, said that anger about practices like factory farming and the genetic modification of vegetables was one of the factors that had roused him and some of his fellow occupiers. ‘Food plays a huge part in this movement,’ he said. ‘Because people are tired of being fed poison.’

Of all the various manifestations of the occupy movement – from the recent Occupy Nigeria, to Occupy Art and Occupy History (my favourite, obviously) – one of the most persistent has been Occupy Food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it began in the United States. The Occupy movement was produced by the inequalities of Obama’s America, and no country on earth has as powerful a food industry as the US. Whereas it’s an exaggeration to refer to Big Food in South Africa or Argentina, this is certainly not the case for America. As Strype makes the point, Americans ‘are tired of being fed poison.’

But the idea has had a worldwide resonance, despite the fact that ‘occupying food’ seems like an inherently illogical idea: how can you ‘occupy’ something which is so ubiquitous? The organisers of the first Occupied Food protest at the re-named Zucchini Park explained:

We started Occupy Big Food because we thought it was really important to bring the discussion of food to what is happening at Occupy Wall Street. The goals of OWS and OBF are totally aligned — we are against the corporate takeover of our food system.

The Occupy Food rally was followed a month later by a farmers’ march to Occupy Wall Street to ‘to ‘fight and expose corporate control of the food supply.’ Willie Nelson – yes, for it was he – writing in his capacity as the President of Farm Aid, urged his readers to Occupy the Food System:

From seed to plate, our food system is now even more concentrated than our banking system. Most economic sectors have concentration ratios hovering around 40%, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40% of the market. Anything beyond this level is considered ‘highly concentrated,’ where experts believe competition is severely threatened and market abuses are likely to occur.

Many key agricultural markets like soybeans and beef exceed the 40% threshold, meaning the seeds and inputs that farmers need to grow our crops come from just a handful of companies. Ninety-three per cent of soybeans and 80% of corn grown in the United States are under the control of just one company. … Today, three companies process more than 70% of beef in the U.S.; four companies dominate close to 60% of the pork and chicken markets.

In an article for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott elaborated on Nelson’s point. Firstly, the food system is dominated by a handful of very big businesses, whose reach is global: Monsanto has a virtual monopoly of the world’s seed supply; only four companies – including Cargill (which begs the question why the World Food Programme sees fit to do business with it) – control the grain trade; and Walmart’s reach is extending around the world.

Secondly, the size of these businesses allows them unprecedented power over the whole food chain. In an effort to drive down prices, farmers and suppliers are put out of business, wages plummet, standards of animal welfare decline steeply, and the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other poisons increases.

Thirdly, the growing involvement of hedge funds and banks in the commodities market – which now includes food commodities – has led to concern that speculation on wheat, maize, and other staples is driving up the price of food. The best known example of this occurred two years ago when hedge fund Armajaro bought up Ghana’s total cocoa crop – about 7% of global production – causing a 150% rise in cocoa prices and many Ghanaian farmers to go out of business. Several economists have drawn a link between high food prices and the origins of the Arab Spring.

Finally, the relationship between food companies and governments can be uncomfortably close. In the United States, intense lobbying from the food, agriculture, and beverage industries has caused already light regulation to crumble. In the UK, a collection of food companies – including PepsiCo and Mars – advise the government on how to curb obesity and have formulated a programme which helps to swell their profits.

In other words, the food system is controlled by too few organisations. A lack of regulation of both industry and the economic system has driven up prices, contributed to a decline in the quality of food, and undermined job security, animal welfare, and ethical farming practices. On its own, this is enough to compel us to occupy the food system by growing our own food, supporting small farmers and producers, lobbying supermarkets to stock sustainable and ethically-produced food, and taking action against the cosy relationship between business and government.

But beyond this, there are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. The Occupy movement came to prominence partly because of, as my friend Seb commented, one of the best slogans in history: ‘we are the 99%’. It’s catchy and, most importantly, accurate (even if it may be the case that we’re actually the 99.9%). We know that the poorer people are, the poorer their diets are. In extreme cases, they simply can’t afford food, and starve and suffer from extreme malnutrition. But for most of the 99%, good, fresh, ‘whole’ food – the food that the shrinking middle classes can afford to buy from Woolworths, Waitrose, and Trader Joe’s – is simply too expensive, or too far away. They rely instead on heavily processed food.

As a recent report published by the World Health Organisation indicates, obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases are now as much a problem in the developing world as they are in the developed. This is partly the result of prosperity – the new middle classes crave McDonald’s burgers and Coca Cola as indicators of status – but mainly because of shifts in eating patterns caused by high food prices and the greater availability of cheap, processed proteins and non-foods.

In an extract from his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, Paul Mason responds to critics who argue that the Occupy movement – and, indeed, the other protests which dominated the news in 2010 and 2011 – had few clearly defined goals and viable alternatives to the social and political status quo. Referring to Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1980), he explains:

parts of the book now bear rereading, in particular Gorz’s definition of revolution: taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.

If this is so, the occupy movement signals a beginning in a shift in our understanding of how power should work in society, and particularly as regards inequality.

We are the 99%. And we demand to eat well too.


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

Foodie Pseudery (15)

The following comes courtesy of this excellent article on bad food writing, passed to me by Signe Rousseau. It’s Paul Theroux on tomatoes:

Slicing a sun-warmed, home grown, vine-ripened tomato is, first, an aesthetic satisfaction, as formal as dissection. Once the skin is split and the tang of tilled soil released, the fruit offers no resistance to the blade, which slides unchecked, as if through the pulpy meat of a melon.

Food Links, 18.01.2012

Why pupils at a Los Angeles rejected new, healthy school dinners.

Three utopian feasts at the School of Life.

America: the land of the free and the hungry.

Food trends that fizzled out. (I’m particularly sorry about Mupcakes.)

Bizarre: a Russian ad for Burger King.

The history of the Chinese take-away container.

A taxonomy of bread in New York.

The guerilla grafters.

Hmmm…. I’m not all that sure about this, but it’s interesting: the difference between ‘Western’ and ‘Asian’ food flavours.

Slow Food USA appears to have gone into meltdown. (Unsurprisingly: it’s based on an entirely misguided set of principles.)

Occupy the food system.

The making of Italian American cuisine. (Thanks, Mum!)

On the mallow plant.

Are supper clubs the future of the restaurant?

The shady world of sugar substitutes.

Paintings made out of spices and salt.

Kitchens from the 1950s.

January is be kind to food servers month.

The ten best non-burger fast food dishes.

The Philosophy of Food Project.

Tips for freezing stock.

In search of the endangered Melipona beecheii bee.

Introducing LUPEC, Ladies United for Preservation of Endangered Cocktails.

The most dangerous tea in the world.

This is really, really good: testing the belief that McDonald’s burgers don’t rot.

A toaster made from cinderblock.

Free Markets

A couple of months ago I spent a weekend in Johannesburg to celebrate my friend Kate’s thirtieth birthday. Knowing me well, she suggested that we have lunch at the newish Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, a neighbourhood which has been included in Joburg’s inner city improvement district scheme. Alongside 70 Juta, a small row of shops (one, inevitably, devoted to lomography), galleries, and cafes, the Neighbourgoods Market is part of a wider effort to attract people – and particularly those with disposable income – back into the city’s centre.

The decline of the Joburg CBD since mid-90s has been well documented: the flight of businesses to suburbs like Sandton and developments such as Melrose Arch means that the old city centre has changed beyond recognition. Buildings are derelict and crumbling, and crime is a significant problem. To my shame, I don’t know Joburg terribly well, even though I enjoy visiting it enormously. What struck me was not that the city centre has ‘died’, but, rather, that it is vibrantly alive, albeit – with the abundance of cheap Chinese shops, fast food joints, and street stalls – not in ways we would usually define a bustling, ‘healthy’ CBD.

The entrance to Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

The point is that something needs to be done to bring businesses back to central Johannesburg, crime and grime must to be brought under control, and the city’s amazing mid-century architecture should be restored. The Neighbourgoods Market is in the parking lot of the most incredible brutalist skyscraper, the façade of which was designed by Eduardo Villa. Open on Saturday mornings, it brings people in to an area which would be otherwise deserted – and dangerous – on weekends. I really, really enjoyed it: the food was great and, as is usually the case in Joburg, both punters and stall holders were fantastically friendly.

Inside Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

In fact, I liked it rather more than the original Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town. Established for similar reasons as the Joburg incarnation, the Market in Cape Town is located in a newish redevelopment of an old biscuit mill in the traditionally working- and lower middle-class suburb of Woodstock – although this area is now achingly cool, having been dubbed ‘Cape Town’s Manhattan’ by the New York Times. The more gentrified sections of Woodstock are now awash with vintage stores, bicycle shops, and Michelle Obama-attracting organic lunch cafes. Particularly on the main road, it’s all beginning to look like a set for a Wes Anderson movie.

At the Woodstock Neighbourgoods Market

There’s been a fair amount of debate about the gentrification of Woodstock, and much as I find the Neighbourgoods Market unpleasantly overcrowded and many of the people it attracts deeply annoying, I am less unsettled by its effects on the suburb than the wholesale transformation of the Bo-Kaap, near the centre of Cape Town, where a very poor group of people – many of them descendants of slaves – have slowly been evicted from their picturesque, brightly-painted cottages by landlords keen to attract yuppies in their massive Chelsea tractors.

The view from the Williamsburg Flea

The debates we’re having in Cape Town about gentrification are by no means particular to South Africa. In New York last year, my friend Geoff commented that he found the new-found coolness of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg – a working-class suburb once dominated by Orthodox Jews – baffling. I went to the Williamsburg Flea, a market selling food, craft, and an assortment of handmade and vintage clothes and furniture. My friends and I enjoyed it enormously – as much as we did exploring Bedford Avenue – but I could understand the original inhabitants’ unhappiness at how much this hipster invasion has changed the neighbourhood.

At the Williamsburg Flea

The point about the Neighbourgoods Market and the Williamsburg Flea is that they both attract people who are either new to those suburbs, or who don’t live there at all: they’re not aimed at the existing communities. (They’re too expensive, to begin with.) At a hipster night market in Dalston in December – it sold food, not hipsters because that would be illegal – I stood for a half an hour in a queue, risking hypothermia to buy supper at a food market in a covered parking lot near the Dalston Kingsland overground station.

At the Long Table night market in Dalston

Dalston has followed on from Islington, Shoreditch, and Stoke Newington as being the favoured spot for not-particularly-wealthy lefties looking for somewhere cheap and central to stay. It’s in Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, and not overwhelmingly picturesque, but it’s now overrun with hipsters and Guardian-reading lefties (I count myself as one of these, obviously, I mean obviously). I didn’t see any members of Dalston’s original community at the night market – which included a stall run by Moro.

More of the Dalston night market

As I’ve noted before, this link between food and gentrification is nothing new. Kathe Newman has argued that ‘cupcake shops can provide a more accurate and timely guide to the frontiers of urban gentrification than traditional demographic and real estate data sets.’ Danya al-Saleh demonstrates this particularly well in her map of the slow encroachment of cupcake bakeries in San Francisco’s gang territories (click here for a bigger version):

As one commentator explains:

In the 1990s, it might have been the proliferation of Starbucks coffee houses that indicated gentrifying neighbourhoods, and in the 1980s, perhaps gourmet yoghurt shops moving into an area, etc. I don’t know about other cities, but in NYC where I live, right now it would be the new doggie day care centres that are springing up in many places that appear to designate a change to a more affluent, up-and-coming hipster-ish nabe.

Markets, cafes, and restaurants increase footfall in cities. I had breakfast at the newly-opened Clarke’s in the Cape Town CBD yesterday morning (it was fantastic – go), and was struck by how busy the area was: aside from the tourist traps around Greenmarket Square (not a green market) and Long Street, the CBD used to be deserted over weekends. Now, though, Capetonians are flocking to Jason’s, Skinny Legs & All and other places. The city feels safe, and alive again. The Cape Town Partnership, which has driven much of this renewal, has recognised the power of coffee shops in attracting pedestrians into the city.

At the furthest extreme, there is the urban farming which is seeking to transform Detroit, a city brought to the edge of collapse by bad urban planning and, more recently, the 2008 recession. But Detroit is a deeply unusual case. What’s happening in Braamfontein, Woodstock, Williamsburg, Dalston, and elsewhere is part of a trend which began in the 1990s: the connection between the, then, new-found enthusiasm for whole, ‘real’ food  brought into city markets by farmers and small producers, and the regeneration and gentrification of poor or decayed urban districts. Visiting the Union Square farmers’ market now, it’s difficult to imagine that Union Square used to be extremely dangerous.

At the Union Square farmers' market

These are markets for the middle classes, and it’s easy to criticise them for not doing more to integrate wealthy newcomers and less well-off original inhabitants – which is why, I think, the Joburg Neighbourgoods Market is a potentially less awkward experience than the Woodstock version. There aren’t very many people actually living in Braamfontein.

But I’m interested in the continuing success of these markets – and they’ve proliferated – in a time of economic downturn. They’re sustained by gentrification, but why their continuing success during times of financial insecurity? Will they continue to flourish as the tide of gentrification begins to recede? Are they sustainable?

As sales of organic vegetables in supermarkets have plummeted during the recession, there are more food and farmers’ markets than ever before. Last week’s coverage of Tesco’s extraordinarily bad performance over Christmas in the UK referred to the fact that part of the business’s problem is that it hasn’t responded adequately to changing patterns in consumer culture. As one article noted, people are relying increasingly on the internet for basic food shopping because it’s convenient and also allows them to compare deals and prices more efficiently. Shoppers are savvier in the recession.

But they still buy treats and luxuries – hence the success of Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, and John Lewis. Waitrose has been particularly clever in opening convenience stores in city centres: they’re certainly pricier than the ubiquitous Tesco Metro, but shoppers seem to be willing to fork out cash to shop in bright, clean, and, yes, convenient shops. The Tesco model of establishing enormous, town centre-decimating, and car-reliant hypermarkets on the edge of urban developments no longer appears to be successful. Tesco CEO Philip Clarke

was not sure Tesco needed any more of the sprawling out-of-town Extra stores it has spent so long battling planners to build – and that were vital in its conquest of Britain’s retail sector in the 1990s. He didn’t want to go as far as to label its more than 200 out-of-town hypermarkets as ‘white elephants’ but said they were now a ‘less potent force’ as electricals and clothing sales shifted online.

I think we can account partly for farmers’ markets’ continued success in similar ways. Even if very few people can afford to do a weekly shop at them, many will buy small luxuries to perk up meals in a time of financial insecurity: nice chunks of unusual cheese, proper bread, and handmade sausages. I wonder, though, if this change in shopping patterns indicates a fundamental shift in the functioning of consumerism – and in attitudes towards food.

At the Braamfontein Neighbourgoods Market

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

Food Links, 11.01.2012

Capetonians! Worried about the rolling blackouts threatened by Eskom over the next few weeks? Fear not, and join this amazing workshop on Sunday to learn how to make your own hot box.

A Child’s Larder of Verse.

Matthew Fort demonstrates why the UK government’s Change for Life programme is serious bollocks.

Thanksgiving-like holidays around the world.

What do we really mean by ‘organic’ food? (Thanks Mum!)

How the meat industry re-brands itself.

How British supermarkets fare abroad. (Not well.)

Food and provenance.

A poem about cheese. And a woman.

Tea in Britain and the thirteen colonies – with lovely pictures.

Behind the scenes at a flavouring factory.

How the Obamas are changing the way Americans eat.

Eat leftovers and save the world.

Producing food from waste.

The ten best food moments from film.

Extreme locavore-dom.

Diners and American politics.

New York’s juice bar craze.

How to shuck an oyster.

A project to rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them how to cook.

Eat more kale.

Real Revolutions

When Keenwa opened in Cape Town last year, much was made of the fact that it serves ‘authentic’ Peruvian food. I put ‘authentic’ in quotes partly because I’ve read far too much Derrida and Foucault, but mainly as a result of some scepticism. I doubt that any of the reviewers who’ve eaten at Keenwa have ever been to Peru, and there’s something odd about deciding how a varied and changing cuisine can be made ‘authentic’. The bobotie I cook has grated apple in it, but a friend’s doesn’t: which is more authentic? Neither, obviously.

I was thinking about this a month ago when I had supper with my friends Katherine and Ricardo in London. Ricardo is from Cuba, and cooked us a Cuban-themed dinner. The only Cuban food I’ve ever eaten was at Cuba Libre, a restaurant and tapas bar in Islington. It’s the kind of place which people recommend by saying ‘it’s not authentic, but….’ I haven’t the faintest idea if it’s authentic (whatever that may be), but it was certainly fun.

The food that Ricardo made showed up the problem with the mania for ‘authenticity’ particularly well. We had fried plantain, tortilla, and congrí. This is, to some extent, the kind of food his family would eat in Cuba, although because he and Katherine are vegetarians, we had tortilla instead of the usual, more meaty accompaniment to the meal (hurrah – I love tortilla), and the congrí was pork-free. It was delicious, but was it any less authentic? You tell me.

Christiane Paponnet-Cantat describes the food eaten in Cuba as ‘contact cuisine’, a concept borrowed from Mary Louise Pratt’s conceptualisation of the colonial space as a cultural and social ‘contact zone’ which ‘treats the relations among colonisers and colonised…not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practice’. She suggests that Cuban, and colonial cooking more generally, is a manifestation of the complex relationships between different groups of people in colonies.

Congrí is an excellent example of this contact cuisine. As in the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba’s indigenous population was eradicated – by disease and conflict – after the arrival of European colonists during the seventeenth century. Slaves were imported from West and Central Africa to work on sugar plantations. In the nineteenth century, indentured labourers from India replaced slaves. Along with foodstuffs introduced by the Spanish – like rice in the 1690s – these groups brought with them a variety of cuisines.

Congrí – at its most basic, a dish of rice and beans – can be found in various forms around the Caribbean. It’s a version of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) and rice and peas. And jollof rice, popular in West Africa, is similar too. The term congrí seems to have originated in Haiti and is a combination of ‘Congo’ and ‘riz’ (the French for rice), suggesting its African origins.

The recipe that Ricardo used for his congrí was by Nitza Villapol. To my shame, I’d never heard of her until Ricardo mentioned one of her best-known recipe books, Cocina al minuto. This was published in 1958, four years after Cocina criolla, the Bible of Cuban cuisine. Villapol seems to have been a kind of Cuban Delia Smith or Julia Child: she was as interested in writing about Cuban cuisine as she was in communicating it to people. She had a long-running television series which aired between 1951 and 1997. (She died in 1998.)

Villapol would be interesting simply on these grounds, but she was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Born into a wealthy family in 1923, she was named after the Russian river Nitza by her communism-supporting father. She spent her early childhood in New York, returning to Cuba with her family at the age of nine. During World War Two she trained as a home economist and nutritionist at the University of London.

This experience of wartime rationing proved to be surprisingly useful. In Cuba, Villapol began her career during the 1950s by teaching cookery classes to young, middle-class brides and her earliest recipe books emerged out of this work. But after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, she devoted to her formidable talents to teaching a kind of revolutionary cuisine. Tellingly, editions of her recipe books published after 1959 no longer included advertisements for American consumer goods.

Under the new communist regime, food distribution was centralised, and rationing was introduced in 1962. People collected their allowances of food – listed in a libreta (ration book) – from the local bodega, or depot. Villapol’s aim was to teach Cubans how to cook when they had little control over the quantity or the nature of the ingredients they would receive at the bodega. She taught a cuisine developed to underpin the goals of the revolution. Unfortunately, I don’t read Spanish and I haven’t been able to track down any substantial scholarship on Villapol. From what I’ve gleaned, though, it seems to me that she was interested in cooking a form of a ‘traditional’ Cuban cooking – but the cooking of ordinary Cubans, rather than those at the top of the social scale who would, presumably, have favoured American or European dishes as a marker of wealth and sophistication. This elevation of ‘every day’ Cuban food would have meshed well with the aims of the revolution.

By writing recipes for favourites like congrí and flan, Villapol created a kind of canon for Cuban cooking. The popularity – and possibly the ubiquity – of her writing and television programmes meant that not only was she seen as the authority on Cuban cuisine, but she also became the source for all that was (or is) ‘authentically’ Cuban. The irony is that this happened during a time of rationing, when what people ate was determined by supplies available to the state.

This system functioned relatively well until the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989. Peter Rosset et al. explain:

When trade relations with the Soviet Bloc crumbled in late 1989 and 1990, and the United States tightened the trade embargo, Cuba was plunged into economic crisis. In 1991 the government declared the Special Period in Peacetime, which basically put the country on a wartime economy-style austerity program. An immediate 53 percent reduction in oil imports not only affected fuel availability for the economy, but also reduced to zero the foreign exchange that Cuba had formerly obtained via the re-export of petroleum. Imports of wheat and other grains for human consumption dropped by more than 50 percent, while other foodstuffs declined even more.

There was simply not enough food to go around. (A similar set of factors caused the famine in North Korea, a country as dependent on trade with the USSR as Cuba.) As a 1998 article from the sympathetic New Internationalist noted:

The monthly rations from the State for a family of four cost around 50 pesos ($2.15), almost a quarter of the average salary of 214 pesos ($9.30). Food from the bodega is not enough to live on and no-one, neither the Government nor the people, pretends it is. It may take you halfway through the month, but no more.

Even though he was shielded – to some extent – from the worst food shortages because he was in school and university accommodation during the Special Period, Ricardo described what it was like to live while permanently hungry – and entirely obsessed with the next meal, even if it was likely to be thin, watery soup or overcooked pasta. In fact, one of the most traumatic features of the Special Period was that staples like rice and coffee – things which most people ate every day – were no longer available. Some people seem to have made congrí from broken up spaghetti.

Drawing on her experience of wartime cooking in London, Villapol used her cookery series to show her audience how to to replicate Cuban favourites with the meagre rations available to the population. Ricardo mentioned one episode during which she fashioned a steak out of orange peel. She received widespread ridicule for doing this, and I think deservedly so.

Cuba managed to pull itself out of its food crisis by radically reorganising its agricultural sector. The state transformed most of its farms into worker-owned co-operatives which

allowed collectives of workers to lease state farmlands rent free, in perpetuity. Property rights would remain in the hands of the state, and [co-operatives] would need to continue to meet production quotas for their key crops, but the collectives were the owners of what they produced. What food crops they produced in excess of their quotas could be freely sold at newly opened farmers’ markets.

In addition to this, urban agriculture helped to provide a supply of vegetables and pork:

The earlier food shortages and resultant increase in food prices suddenly turned urban agriculture into a very profitable activity for Cubans, and, once the government threw its full support behind a nascent urban gardening movement, it exploded to near epic proportions. Formerly vacant lots and backyards in all Cuban cities now sport food crops and farm animals, and fresh produce is sold from stands throughout urban areas at prices substantially below those prevailing in the farmers’ markets.

Food may not be abundant now, and there are still occasional shortages of particular items, but no-one goes hungry anymore. Cuba does offer a model of a sustainable, largely organic and pesticide-free food system, and we can learn a great deal from it.

I’m interested, though, in how Cuban food has changed as a result of the Special Period. From a quick trawl of the internet, it seems to me that Nitza Villapol still exercises a kind of nostalgic appeal to some Cubans living in Miami – there’s even one woman who’s heroically cooking her way through Villapol’s oeuvre. But for those still in Cuba – and those who experienced the deprivations of the Special Period – she seems to be tainted by association. It’s certainly the case that despite Villapol’s best efforts, Cuban diets are more meat-heavy and vegetable-poor than ever before. I wonder if this is the effect of the hunger of the nineties: a diet which was based once mainly on rice and fresh produce, has become increasingly focussed around red meat because meat is associated with plenty – and with having a full stomach.

So where does that leave us on ‘authentic’ Cuban cuisine?

Sources cited here:

Mavis Alvarez, Martin Bourque, Fernando Funes, Lucy Martin, Armando Nova, and Peter Rosset, ‘Surviving Crisis in Cuba: The Second Agrarian Reform and Sustainable Agriculture,’ in Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform, ed. Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, and Michael Courville (Food First Books, 2006), pp. 225-248. (Also available here.)

Christiane Paponnet-Cantat, ‘The Joy of Eating: Food and Identity in Contemporary Cuba,’ Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 3 (Sept., 2003), pp. 11-29.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821-1911,’ The Americas, vol. 53, no. 2 (Oct., 1996), pp. 193-216.

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).

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

Foodie Pseudery (14)

Every now and again, the FT publishes a letter from a bemused reader asking if the paper’s weekend columnist Tyler Brûlé is actually an elaborate hoax. But I’ve seen him on Bloomberg, so he must be real. This is real gem of food-related pseudery from a few months ago, courtesy of my Dad:

Breakfast is a finely tuned, precision operation in our household. While the menu alters slightly depending on where it’s being prepared, it’s almost always assembled by Mats (though my mother occasionally stands in when she’s visiting) and it tends to be a spare, brisk affair. Last weekend in St Moritz breakfast involved cappuccinos served in cosy yellow Dibbern mugs and Gipfeli (German Switzerland’s less buttery and more fluffy answer to the croissant) with apricot jam served on maple plates from the Tokyo retailer Play Mountain. When we’re in Sweden it’s cappuccinos in white Iittala mugs and egg, chive and Kalles kaviar open-face sandwiches on toasted Finnish rye bread served on small rectangular teak plates. With a bit of luck all of this is consumed on the jetty in the morning sun followed by a dip in the Baltic.

On Wednesday the breakfast routine in London started with coffees served in mugs from One Kiln ceramics in Kagoshima but there was a problem in the kitchen. The Poilâne bread that had been purchased the evening before at our local branch of Waitrose was still mushy in the middle and started smoking in the toaster. This caused a minor fuss but Mats and Mom managed to salvage some end pieces and breakfast was saved. As far as I was concerned the episode was over and I headed off to work.

continues ad infinitum ad nauseum

Food Links, 04.01.2012

I’ve an article in the Christmas edition of the amazing Fire and Knives (this is Tim Hayward, its editor, deep-frying a turkey). In Cape Town, Fire and Knives is available at The President.

Flour: surprisingly dangerous.

A very, very long lunch at Noma.

Paintings of American food.

The Canadian Supreme Court rules that cheese must contain milk. Which is nice.

The Thanksgiving meal in pill form. (Thanks Mum!)

Political recipes, including JFK’s waffles.

Occupy Big Food.

Some thoughts on the history of cake.

A food adventure in Detroit.

Supper clubs in Wisconsin.

A chef takes a swipe at restaurant reviewers.

Vintage weight gain advertisements.

Is homemade always better?

How to make mustard at home.

The myth of ‘use-by’ dates.

How safe is silicone bakeware?

Community food enterprises – the model of the future?

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