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A Pumpkin Spice too Far

I spent most of October and November in the United States and Canada, coinciding with Canadian Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, and, probably most importantly, pumpkin spice season. This blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves—the flavourings associated with pumpkin pie—has become comically ubiquitous in the US. Alongside pumpkin spice muffins, macaroons, and cupcakes, I saw pumpkin spice air freshener, rooibos tea, and beer. I tried pumpkin spice chips (inadvisable) and Icelandic yogurt (odd).

Too far, I think.

Too far, I think.

The pumpkin spice phenomenon originated in 2003, when Starbucks—then on the cusp of almost-global domination—debuted a new flavour for autumn. As reported last year to mark the drink’s ten-year anniversary, the company was hesitant to introduce the pumpkin spice latte. It already sold several flavoured coffees, but was not entirely sure that another seasonal drink would take off. They needn’t have worried. Forbes reports that in 2013 Starbucks had sold more than 200 million pumpkin spice lattes:

If you just do the math, that means Starbucks has sold an average 20 million beverages a year whose flavoring once belonged primarily in a seasonal pie…

At the basic price of about $4 for a 12-ounce tall size, PSL means at least $80 million in revenue … for Starbucks, which serves it beginning in September. … The company says the PSL is by far the most popular seasonal beverage in its lineup.

In fact, the pumpkin spice latte was held responsible for a bounce in the chain’s revenues this year. Outrages and fears over pumpkin spice shortages, and the annual dash for the first pumpkin spice latte of the season, are canny marketing strategies which have helped to position the drink—the #PSL on Twitter—alongside Starbucks’s red cups as a marker of the beginning of autumn and the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, other chains and supermarkets have begun to produce their own versions of the PSL.

Small, independent coffee shops—the alternatives to corporate caffeine—have also developed ways of cashing in on the pumpkin spice craze. I had a pumpkin pie flavoured latte at New Moon—an excellent café in Burlington, Vermont—and a lumberjack latte at Babo in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were sweet and spicy: less coffee than coffee flavoured drinks.

I don’t think that the wild enthusiasm for pumpkin spice—as a flavouring—is particularly surprising. After all, in the US, Europe, and some other parts of the world, this combination of spices has long been a feature of winter or festive cooking and baking. A more interesting question is why Americans drink so much flavoured coffee. In the interests of research, I also tried vanilla, and brown sugar and sea salt flavoured coffees, and resolved never to waver from the true path of Americanos, flat whites, and the odd cappuccino. For all the fact that new technologies and techniques—drip, siphon, cold brew—have gained wild popularity for making coffee which tastes, apparently, more acutely and complicatedly of coffee, the popularity of flavoured coffees continues unabated.

It's decorative gourd season at the Ann Arbor farmers' market.

It’s decorative gourd season at the Ann Arbor farmers’ market.

America remains the largest coffee market in the world, with a third of consumers drinking ‘gourmet’ (or specially prepared) brews every day. To some extent, the ubiquity of coffee today is linked to a major fall in the price of the commodity twenty years ago. In 1962, John F. Kennedy shepherded the International Coffee Agreement into existence. Including mainly Latin American countries—the producers of superior Arabica coffee beans—the ICA controlled the price of coffee globally and was also intended to stabilise these countries’ economies, immunising them against potential Soviet influence. The ICA favoured the US and Brazil, giving both countries veto rights on policy decisions.

The collapse of the ICA, along with the Berlin Wall, in 1989 was produced both by shifting Cold War politics as well as by the emergence of new coffee producing countries—like Vietnam—which were not signatories to the Agreement. The fall in the price of coffee meant a coffee boom, particularly in the US where enthusiasm for Arabica had grown steadily over the course of the 1980s. It is no coincidence that you may have tried your first cappuccino—in the US and elsewhere—in the early 1990s. The growth of Starbucks—founded as a small independent in Seattle in 1981—traced the demise of the ICA and the fall in the international coffee price.

It is now easier than ever to buy extraordinarily good coffee for relatively little money. I wonder if this could account for the amazing variety of coffee based drinks available in the US. As a cheap beverage—as an affordable luxury, as Sidney Mintz describes the consumption of sugar in the nineteenth century—has coffee become unmoored from its position as a bitter drink to be had in small quantities at defined moments in the day, to a sweet, comforting snack to be consumed at any time?

Further Reading

Isaac A. Kamola, ‘Coffee and Genocide,’ Transition, no. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72.

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Stefano Ponte, ‘Behind the Coffee Crisis,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 46/47 (Nov. 24-30, 2001), pp. 4410-4417.

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Human Beans

A few weeks ago, my friend Nafisa sent me a photograph of a banner outside a cafe in Linden in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. In a particularly good demonstration of why punctuation helps to avoid horrific confusion, it advertises that it ‘now serves TIM NOAKES’—with ‘breakfasts and lunches’ in smaller script below.

In Linden, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Nafisa Essop Sheik.

In Linden, Johannesburg. Courtesy of Nafisa Essop Sheik.

Personally, I would prefer neither to eat Tim Noakes nor his high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet. This sign is interesting, though, because it still refers to a Noakes, rather than Banting, diet. In the past couple of months, restaurants all over South Africa have added Banting friendly meals to their menus, and I think it’s worth taking a closer look at Banting, his diet, and context. William Banting (1796-1878) was a prominent undertaker and funeral director whose family had long been responsible for organising the Royal Family’s funerals. He and what became known as ‘Bantingism’ rose to prominence in 1863 with the publication of A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. In it, he described how he shrunk from obesity to a ‘normal’ weight as a result of a miraculous diet. The aptly named Michelle Mouton explains:

After many vain attempts to find a doctor with a cure for corpulence, and after futile experiments with Turkish baths and the like, it is ironically diminished sight and hearing that incidentally lead Banting to his miracle. His ear surgeon suspects a constriction of the ear canals, Banting reports, and advises him to abstain from what Banting terms ‘human beans’—‘bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes’—so called because they are as harmful to older persons as are beans to horses.

The diet was so efficacious that Banting lost forty-six pounds in a year, and reported feeling healthier than ever before. So what did he eat?

For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast. For dinner, five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, once ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira—champagne, port and beer forbidden. For tea, two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar. For supper, three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret. For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog—(gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar)—or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

Noakes-ites will note that Banting included some carbohydrates in his diet, and seemed to shun pork (if not bacon) and salmon, possibly on the grounds that they were too fatty. His injunction against sugar is mildly ridiculous considering the amount of fortified alcohol he drank. No wonder he enjoyed the diet so much—it gave him licence to remain in a permanent state of gentle tipsiness.

Much of Bantingism’s popularity was linked to the fact that it emerged during a period when diets, perceptions of physical and moral beauty, and ideas about health were undergoing rapid change. The wild success of his pamphlet in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere caused intense debate within a medical profession which was increasingly linking weight—Banting’s corpulence—to health. Urban living and industrialised food production reduced the price of food and altered eating patterns. For the middle classes, for instance, meals were now eaten three times a day, with dinner moving to the evening. At the same time, thinness was increasingly associated both with physical beauty and moral behaviour. This diet seemed to offer an easy way to achieve both ideals. Self-denial would result in a more moral, thinner person. Mouton writes:

Toward the end of 1864, George Eliot wrote to a friend, ‘I have seen people much changed by the Banting system. Mr A. [Anthony] Trollope is thinner by means of it, and is otherwise the better for the self-denial,’ she adds.

The diet also offered the new middle classes a way of navigating new food choices, in much the same way that their embrace of evangelical Christianity assisted them in finding a place for themselves within Britain’s class system. As Joyce L. Huff observes, Banting chose to write his pamphlet as a tract. Similar to other confessions of earnest Christians who had come to the light of God’s grace, Banting’s Letter traces the journey of a humble man—a sinner in a fat body—to the light and clarity of a high protein diet. He had achieved full mastery of both his body and his soul.

William Banting (from here), presumably after his diet.

William Banting (from here), presumably after his diet.

Enthusiasm for the diet petered out fairly quickly, but Banting’s writing has been resuscitated more recently by pro-protein evangelicals like Robert Atkins, Gary Taubes, and Noakes. Thinking about Banting’s diet in historical context draws attention to a few exceptionally important points:

Firstly, anxieties about diet occur in the midst of major social change. I don’t think that it’s any accident that Noakes has found an audience among South Africa’s middle classes: whose numbers are growing, but who are also feeling the impact of global recession. Diets—particularly strict diets—offer a sense of being in control and of group belonging in times of radical uncertainty.

Secondly, as a closer look at Banting’s day-to-day eating demonstrates, his diet and that advocated by Noakes are fairly different. In fact, I wonder if Banting lost weight simply because he was eating less food more generally, than as a result of his switch to greater quantities of protein. Noakes cites Banting and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century high protein dieters to lend his writing greater validity. This is knowledge, he implies, that has been around for some time. All he’s done is to bring it to wider public knowledge. Yet it’s clear that what we define as high protein has changed over time. Noakes’s diet is a diet of the early twenty-first century.

Thirdly, as the short lived initial enthusiasm for Bantingism suggests, this diet is no more successful than other diets at causing weight loss. Put another way, while eating a high protein diet will cause initial, dramatic weight loss—partly through dehydration—those who follow diets which encourage greater exercise and generally lower calorie intake lose the same amount of weight over a longer period of time. This has been demonstrated by study after study. More worryingly, we have no idea what the longterm health implications of high protein diets may be.

Connected to this, Noakes argues that it is largely industry—Big Food—which has been behind efforts to discredit high fat diets. Although Banting was ridiculed by some doctors during the 1860s, this was at a time when medical professionals jostled with quacks for recognition, and did not occupy the same position of authority that they have since the mid-twentieth century. Doctors could not band together to suppress this kind of information. Moreover, food companies were in their infancy. Clearly, people chose to relinquish the diet for a range of other reasons.

Finally, this—as Banting’s contemporaries pointed out—is a diet for the wealthy, and for a planet with unlimited resources. It is out of reach for the vast majority of people who are obese, most of whom are poor. We know that intensive livestock farming has a devastating impact on the environment. Addressing poverty and rethinking agriculture offer the best means of improving the health of the world’s population and of mitigating climate change. Not eating more animal protein.

Further Reading

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Joyce L. Huff, ‘A “Horror of Corpulence”: Interrogating Bantingism and Mid-Nineteenth-Century Fat Phobia,’ in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBresco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 39-59.

Michelle Mouton, ‘“Doing Banting”: High-Protein Diets in the Victorian Period and Now,’ Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 24, no. 1 (Oct. 2001), pp. 17-32.

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Starved Out

Two years ago today, police opened fire on a group of striking mineworkers encamped on a koppie outside of Marikana. Mainly rock drill operators doing some of the most basic and difficult work on the mine, these men demanded that Lonmin – in whose platinum mine they worked – raise their salary to match that of literate, better skilled miners, to about R12,500 per month.

After weeks of sporadic violence on both sides – during which policemen, shop stewards, and workers were injured and killed – mine bosses urged the police to end the standoff. Jack Shenker writes:

It was the police who escalated the standoff at Marikana mountain, bringing in large numbers of reinforcements and live ammunition. Four mortuary vans were summoned before a single shot had been fired. Lonmin was liaising closely with state police, lending them the company’s own private security staff and helicopters, and ferrying in police units on corporate buses. Razor wire was rolled out by police around the outcrop to cut the miners off from Nkaneng settlement; pleas by strike leaders for a gap to be left open so that workers could depart peacefully to their homes were ignored.

Police opened fire as workers approached them. In the end, thirty-four were killed, seventeen of them at a nearby koppie where it appears that they were shot at close range. The Marikana massacre has been described as post-apartheid South Africa’s Sharpeville. As the inquiry into the events near the mine has revealed, police arrived not to keep order, but, rather, to end the strike through any means possible.

Miners-Shot-Down-March-finalweb-450x640

The poster for Rehad Desai’s documentary on the Marikana massacre, Miners Shot Down.

The killings were followed by a strike – the longest in South African history – until May. Of all the details to emerge in the coverage of life in the platinum belt, the one that seemed to encapsulate the desperation of striking miners and their families was in a 2006 report commissioned by Lonmin: researchers had discovered children suffering from kwashiorkor near the mine.

Although already identified in 1908, kwashiorkor was named by Dr Cicely Williams, a Colonial Medical Officer, in the Gold Cost during the 1930s. Tom Scott-Smith explains:

she noticed a recurring set of symptoms amongst children who were aged between one and four: oedema in the hands and feet, darkening and thickening of the skin followed by peeling, and a reddish tinge to the hair in the worst cases. There was a clear pattern in the incidence of this disease, since it occurred in children who had been weaned onto low-protein, starchy foods such as maize, after being displaced from the breast by a younger sibling. Williams’ description first appeared in print in 1933, and two years later she identified the condition by its name in the local language: kwashiorkor, the ‘disease of the deposed child’.

Williams diagnosed kwashiorkor as a from of inadequate nutrition – similar to pellagra, which is caused by a diet insufficient in vitamin B3 – related specifically to an intake of too little protein. Williams had noticed that newly weaned babies and young children – the ‘deposed’ children referred to by the word kwashiorkor – were particularly vulnerable to the condition, and surmised that longer breastfeeding or a diet rich in the nutrients non-breastfed children lacked – protein especially – would eradicate kwashiorkor.

By the 1970s, though, doctors argued that this emphasis on protein supplements – which had driven United Nations and other organisations’ efforts to address kwashiorkor – was incorrect. Kwashiorkor, they argued, was the product of under nutrition: of not consuming enough energy. Scott-Smith writes:

Evidence from the 1960s demonstrated that a less protein-rich, more balanced diet could cure kwashiorkor equally well, and by the 1970s a number of other causes for the disease were suggested – even today, the details of kwashiorkor are still not fully understood.

Had scientists paid closer attention to the name ‘kwashiorkor’ they may have come to this realisation sooner. It is a disease of poverty where adults are unable to provide weaned children with adequate nutrition. As a result, its solution is distressingly simple: better and more food.

If there is any indicator of the extent of poverty in the platinum belt, then it is the fact that children suffer from kwashiorkor. While Lonmin has ploughed some of its profits back into communities surrounding the mines – opening schools and running feeding schemes, for example – it remains the case that mineworkers and their families are still desperately poor.

Keith Breckenridge argues that the wealth generated by workers operating in exceptionally dangerous conditions is channelled largely to a small group of beneficiaries. He adds:

Under the current arrangements in the platinum belt there is almost no movement of resources from mining to the wider problem of maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of the general population working in the mines. Mine managers have retreated from maintaining order and health in the hostels, and they have ceded control over the key human resource questions – employment and housing – to union officials and their allies. Like foreign shareholders and local royalty owners, these union leaders, using their monopoly over jobs and housing, have tapped into the demand for employment to enrich themselves (often at the expense of the working and living conditions of union members). Local government – caught between the mines and the prerogatives of tribal authorities – has all but abandoned the project of regulating the living spaces around the mines.

Where once miners were coralled into the prison-like conditions of single-sex hostels where their food, accommodation, and other expenses were covered by mining companies, now meagre housing allowances are meant to support these workers and their families in the otherwise badly provisioned and serviced towns and villages in the platinum belt. Salaries tend to go straight to pay interest on loans granted by micro lenders, charging exorbitant interest rates.

As the incidences of kwashiorkor reported to Lonmin suggest, these men were not earning enough to feed themselves and their children. While under cross examination at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre, Cyril Ramaphosa – current Deputy President and Lonmin board member who had emailed the then-Police Minister, demanding an end to the workers’ strike – remarked:

The responsibility has to be collective. As a nation, we should dip our heads and accept that we failed the people of Marikana, particularly the families, the workers, and those that died.

I dispute the ‘we,’ Mr Deputy President.

Further Reading

Keith Breckenridge, ‘Marikana and the Limits of Biopolitics: Themes in the Recent Scholarship of South African Mining,’ Africa, vol. 84 (2014), pp. 151-161.

Keith Breckenridge, ‘Revenge of the Commons: The Crisis in the South African Mining Industry,’ History Workshop Journal Blog, 5 November 2012.

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Take the Biscuit

This week I attended the Johannesburg launch of Gabeba Baderoon’s Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid. In it, she traces the long history of the representation of Muslims in South Africa, arguing that this is crucial to understanding how ideas around race and sexuality, for instance, have changed over time in this country. Importantly, though, she also looks at how Muslims themselves have both responded to and challenged the ways in which they have been portrayed.

She devotes an excellent chapter to the meanings and uses of ‘Cape Malay’ cooking. This is a cuisine, Baderoon notes, that carries with it the memory of enslavement and violence – a memory which was erased, in particular, by the recipe books written by white authors about the cooking of the Cape’s Muslim population, most of whom are the descendants of slaves. Part of the purpose of books such as Renata Coetzee’s The South African Culinary Tradition (1977) was to use this cooking to demonstrate the existence of a particularly South African cuisine which was linked more strongly to Europe – albeit heavily influenced by southeast Asia – than Africa.

When Muslim women – both in the Cape and elsewhere – began to write their own books during the early 1960s, they acknowledged the ‘Africanness’ of their cooking. Their recipe books

meant that Muslim food would no longer be a realm presided over by white experts who drew from silent or apparently submissive black informants in their kitchens, and spoke on their behalf. The transformation of Muslim cooks from silent informants to spokespeople of tradition began to subvert the use of ‘Malay’ food to solidify a ‘general’ South African cuisine that marginalised Africans and centred a European-oriented whiteness.

Baderoon uses the example of the Hertzoggie to demonstrate how Malay food encodes a fraught, but also subversive, history.

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Hertzoggies are small – delicious – cookies consisting of a layer of pastry, a blob of jam (usually apricot), and a dome of desiccated coconut. They’re named after JBM Hertzog, Prime Minister of South Africa between 1924 and 1939. Representing largely the interests of white Afrikaners, Hertzog oversaw legislation which further entrenched segregation. The landmark 1936 Native Trust and Land Act and Native Representation Act not only further restricted the land that Africans could hold, but also removed those Africans who qualified to vote from the voters’ roll in the Cape and dashed any hopes of extending the franchise to blacks nationally.

According to Cass Abrahams – an authority on Cape cooking – it was in this context that the Hertzoggie was invented. Baderoon quotes her:

[Hertzog] made two promises … He said that he would give the women a vote, en hy sal die slawe dieselfde as die wittes maak he will make the Malays equal to the whites. Achmat [Davids, the late linguist and historian] reckoned the Malays became terribly excited about this and they put this little short-crust pastry with apple jelly underneath and then had the egg white and coconut on top of it and baked it and called it a Hertzoggie in honour of General Hertzog. However, when he came into power he fulfilled one promise, he gave the vote to the women, but he didn’t make the slaves the same as the whites. So the Malays became very upset and they took that very same Hertzoggie and covered it with brown icing, you know, this runny brown icing and pink icing and they call it a twee-gevreetjie [hypocrite].

I had never heard this account of the origins of the Hertzoggie before and it rings entirely true for me – particularly because of the widespread use of desiccated coconut in Cape Malay baking. It demonstrates Baderoon’s point about the use of food as a form of subversion by people otherwise socially, politically, and economically marginalised, particularly well.

However, I think that it’s also worth thinking about the Hertzoggie in relation to other baking traditions. It’s a little difficult to keep apart these different strands of South African cooking. Hertzoggies appear in recipe books written by – and, presumably, for – white, middle-class class women during the 1930s. And, often, they placed alongside recipes for Jan Smutsies or Smuts-Koekies.

Jan Smuts – statesman, war general, philosopher – was Hertzog’s main political rival. Although the differences between Smuts and Hertzog’s politics, particularly as regards segregation, should not be overstated – after all, they formed the fusion government between 1934 and 1939 – they tended to represent opposing liberal and conservative impulses within South African politics during the 1920s and 1930s.

Smutsies are similar to Hertzoggies, but have a plain pastry instead of coconut lid covering the jam. Was the relative austerity of Smutsies a commentary on his asceticism? That said, other recipes imply that Smutsies and Hertzoggies are, in fact, exactly the same – only the name changes according to the political sympathies of the baker (or the eater).

The same recipe books which include Smutsies and Hertzoggies also refer to puddings and cakes named after other white, Afrikaans heroes: like General de la Rey (hero of the South African War) and President Steyn (the President of the Orange Free State during the same conflict) cake. (They’re both cakes heavy with dried fruit and nuts, although Steyn’s is decorated with meringue.)

I don’t write this to undermine Baderoon’s argument, but, rather, to note how entangled South Africa’s culinary traditions are. Also, I want to reinforce her point about the subversive potential of food: that a biscuit invented by poor, black, Muslim women first in support of, and then in criticism of, a political figure could be taken up and celebrated by precisely the people who voted for him.

Further Reading

Gabeba Baderoon, Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2014).

William Beinart, Twentieth Century South Africa, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Saul Dubow, Apartheid, 1948-1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

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Ideal Conditions

Earlier this month it was announced that the sport scientist turned diet guru Tim Noakes is in talks with Derek Carstens, former First Rand executive and now Karoo farmer, about improving the diets of farm workers. The Cape Times reported:

Once the project begins, the families on the farm will be monitored for five to 10 years. With a diet high in offal – which is readily available in the farmlands of the Karoo – the families will stop consuming carbohydrates, which Noakes says are of no benefit to the human body.

‘This is an ideal set-up,’ said Noakes. ‘And it would be much harder to do research of this nature in a place like Cape Town.’

Since the emergence of nutrition as a field of scientific enquiry in the early twentieth century, the poor, the hungry, and the socially and politically disenfranchised have often been the subjects of research into diet and malnutrition. Last year, University of Guelph-based food historian Ian Mosby published evidence that during the 1940s and 1950s, scientists working for the Canadian government conducted a series of experiments on malnourished residents of rural Aboriginal communities and residential schools.

Rural impoverishment in the 1930s – brought about by the decline in the fur trade and cuts to government provision of poor relief – meant that First Nations people struggled to find enough to eat. They could not, in other words, afford to eat, and this knowledge informed the advice they provided to researchers for eradicating malnutrition. Mosby writes:

Representatives of the various First Nations visited by the research team proposed a number of practical suggestions for ending the hunger and malnutrition in their communities. In addition to more generous relief during times of extreme hardship, these included increased rations for the old and destitute, timber reserves to be set aside for the building and repairing of houses, and additional fur conservation efforts by the federal government, as well as a request that they be given fishing reserves ‘so that they could get fish both for themselves and for dog feed, free from competition with the large commercial fisheries.’

However, researchers decided to set up an experiment in which First Nations peoples were provided with vitamin supplements to gauge their relative effectiveness in combating the side effects of hunger. Crucially, researchers were well aware that ‘vitamin deficiencies constituted just one among many nutritional problems.’ In fact, they calculated that the average diet in these communities provided only 1,470 calories per person during much of the year.’ First Nations people needed food supplies, not vitamin supplements. Mosby concludes:

The experiment therefore seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made ‘laboratory’ populated with already malnourished human ‘experimental subjects.’

In other areas, researchers regulated what kinds of food Aboriginals could purchase with their welfare grants (the Family Allowance):

These included canned tomatoes (or grapefruit juice), rolled oats, Pablum [baby food], pork luncheon meat (such as Spork, Klick, or Prem), dried prunes or apricots, and cheese or canned butter.

This experiment was also an attempt to persuade First Nations people to choose ‘country’ over ‘store’ foods. They were to hunt and to gather instead of relying on shops. To these ends, some officials tried to prevent some families from buying flour:

In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little or no evidence to suggest that the subjects of these research projects consented to being part of them.

In South Africa, anxiety about the productivity of mine workers in the 1930s drove the publication of a series of reports into the health of the African population. Diana Wylie explains:

The Chamber of Mines in particular was alarmed at the 19 per cent rejection rate for Transkei mine recruits. Some of the researchers urged the government to concern itself with nutritional diseases ‘as an economic problem of first importance in which not merely the health but the financial interests of the dominant races are concerned.’ Another warned, ‘unless a proper food supply is assured, our biggest asset in the Union, next to the gold itself, our labour supply, will fail us in the years to come.’

In response to these findings, mining companies introduced supplements to miners’ diets to combat scurvy and generally boost immune systems. They did not, obviously, address the causes of miners’ ill health and poor diets – which were partly the impoverishment of rural areas and the system of migrant labour.

Mine workers in Kimberley.

Mine workers in Kimberley. (From here.)

The Canadian experiments and South African research projects were produced by a similar set of concerns: by an interest in civilising indigenous people, but also because, in the case of Canada, ‘it [was their] belief that the Indian [sic] can become an economic asset to the nation.’ Africans also needed to be well fed and kept healthy for the benefit of the South African state.

Noakes is correct when he says that conducting the research he proposes to do on rural farm workers would be almost impossible in a city. Although he insists that he will seek ethics approval, I wonder how he and other researchers will go about winning the informed consent of a group of people who are dependent on their employer – Noakes’s collaborator – for their livelihoods, and who have, historically, very low levels of education.

Also, Noakes seems to believe that only carbohydrates are at the root of farm labourers’ poor diets. As the First Nations people referred to above argued, malnutrition is caused by an inability to access good, nutritious food – and usually because of low wages. Instead of feeding Carstens’s employees offal, it might be worth considering how much they are paid, and how easy it is for them to afford transport to shops selling healthy food.

Noakes argues that ‘We can’t build this nation in the absence of sufficient protein and fat.’ To what extent is this project purely for the benefit of Karoo farm workers? And to what extent to prove a controversial theory proposed by a prominent researcher?

Sources

Ian Mosby, ‘Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,’ Histoire Sociale/Social History, vol. 46, no. 91 (May 2013), pp. 145-172.

Diana Wylie, ‘The Changing Face of Hunger in Southern African History, 1880-1980,’ Past and Present, no. 122 (Feb. 1989), pp. 159-199.

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Old Bottles

I realised that I am a kind of wine snob when I moved to Joburg last year. (A year! I’ve been here a year. It’s been interesting, Joburg.) At a party I was asked if I wanted ice in my white wine. Having been raised in the Boland – one of South Africa’s oldest and most popular wine-producing regions – I know enough about wine to feel fairly strongly that it shouldn’t be diluted with water.

Most of my knowledge about wine I’ve learned thought being around my father and sister – whose blog you must read – and from spending a childhood in a region where we would spend Saturday mornings visiting wine estates in the area, where there were goats and ducks to feed, and my sister – an oenophile with strong opinions at the tender age of five – would have the odd sip from my father’s glass.

This was a time just before wine estates – and South African wines more generally – were marketed to foreign audiences. The standard guide to local wines – Platter’s pamphlet-sized annual rating of all the wines produced in South Africa – was only a centimetre thick. It’s now a dense, detailed compendium of a vast array of regions which had yet to come into being in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the Breede River Valley, West Cost, and Hermanus, for instance. It was a time when my sister and I could wander into the cheese room at Fairview, have a chat with old Mrs Back, and then see what wine my father was tasting.

Now, though, the winelands are a standard feature on tourists’ itineraries – after the delights of Cape Town and just before safaris in the northern provinces, quickly skipping over altogether more complicated Johannesburg. They have been used to denote a particular kind of South African-ness (or, more accurately, Cape-ness) of being at once part of an experience that is African and reassuringly European. They are Africa-lite.

The use of the wine industry to construct a version of national identity is not particular to South Africa. In When Champagne became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity, Kolleen M. Guy argues that, contrary to official histories of the French wine industry which portray it as forever having embodied the very essence of French-ness, the notion of French identity being expressed through its wine is a relatively recent phenomenon. As an international market for expensive champagne began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century – and as mechanisation of the wine industry allowed for increasing volumes of wine and champagne to be produced – the export of these luxury goods became increasingly associated with what it meant to be French.

These luxury goods were taken up to indicate France’s commitment to good wine and to good eating, as a prosperous nation which, although fully modernised, still relied on the work and wiliness of its peasants to produce goods for an international market. The idea of terroir was particularly important in constructing France as a nation with a uniquely perfect food culture: only French soil – and no other land – could produce wines as distinctive as France’s. These narratives hid fractures and changes within French society, as the new middle class sought ways to manifest their wealth and, they believed, their sophistication.

The opposite – the erasure of a winemaking tradition in aid of national re-making – has also occurred. For various reasons, I’ve recently been re-reading Robert Byron’s classic travelogue The Road to Oxiana. The story recounts his journey – on horseback, in cars, busses, lorries, and trains – from Palestine to Afghanistan, and from there to India, where the narrative ends. Although Byron’s interest in food is fairly limited, one of the most interesting and unexpected themes in the book is his commentary on local wines. Particularly in Persia, he comes across wines grown in the region, and of varying quality. He writes while staying in Shiraz:

Wine is another boon of the Persian South. Its fame has spread and etymologists argue as to whether sherry derives its name from Xerez or Shiraz. So far we have discovered three varieties here: a very dry golden wine, which I prefer to any sherry, though its taste is not so storied; a dry red claret, nondescript at first, but acceptable with meals; and a sweeter vin rose, which induces a delicious well- being.

In Azerbaijan he finds a wine which ‘tastes of a Burgundy grown in Greece. We have drunk a bottle apiece today.’

Gonbad-e Qabud, Maragha, Iran (from here).

Gonbad-e Qabud, Maragha, Iran (from here).

Iran has a long history of wine production:

Many believe this rugged area of southern Iran was the original source of the grape used to create the world-famous Shiraz wine – today produced in vineyards in California, Australia, France and South Africa. The claim is disputed by some experts, who believe the grape to have originated in France. What is not in doubt, however, is the central place of wine in an ancient Persian culture held dear by many Iranians.

Iran’s most revered poet, Hafez, wrote voluminously on wine’s virtues, as did several of the nation’s other prominent bards. Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the famously ascetic father of the revolution – and an amateur poet in his spare time – composed verse praising ‘wine bearers and wine shops’, although it is widely assumed his references were allegory for the spiritual joy of religious belief.

The 1979 revolution banned the production and consumption of alcohol in Iran. Some religious minorities are allowed to serve alcohol at private gatherings, and there is a thriving trade in smuggled wine and spirits.

The Road to Oxiana was published in 1937, and it is in many ways a melancholy read at the beginning of the twenty-first century: several of the mosques, monuments, and tombs described by Byron have been destroyed during recent conflicts. And the relative religious tolerance he refers to has disappeared, particularly in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The odd presence of Persian wine in the book is a reminder of a more complicated past than the current regime would like to allow.

I don’t want to make a glib point about using food to understand common heritages and shared histories, but, rather, at this moment of stand-offs, of stupid, pointless attack and destruction, that it’s worth paying attention to how narratives of national strength and vulnerability are constructed. Like Persian wine, they are often based on erasure and distortion.

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Icing on the Cake

When I lived in London and commuted between Holloway Road and Goldsmiths in Lewisham, one of my favourite moments in my journey was when the train slowly rounded the bend into Cannon Street Station. On my right, the skyscrapers and churches of the City came into view, and if I looked quickly, I’d spot the spindly, delicately ornate spire of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, traditionally the spiritual home of Britain’s journalists.

I’ve been thinking of St Bride’s rather a lot recently. This is turning out to be a year of weddings: my best friend’s in Canada, my sister’s in February 2015, and at least two in-between. Although four very different weddings in terms of size, formality, and religiosity, I’ve been amused by how vehemently each of the couples has not wanted an old-fashioned wedding cake.

I have a dim memory of that kind of cake – comprised of dense fruit cake and covered in a thick layer of marzipan and royal icing so sturdy it could be used to plaster houses – from a cousin’s wedding in the late 1980s, where I was a not particularly successful flower girl. (I didn’t realise that my role was to hold the bride’s bouquet during the ceremony. And I refused to be in any of the photographs. I still have no idea why.)

Cake and sweet things have been eaten at weddings around the world for thousands of years, to symbolise fertility, wealth, and a sweet life for the couple. But the vogue for large, white wedding cakes is a more recent phenomenon. What we think of as traditional wedding cakes originated in Britain during the Victorian period, and was based on the sweet, fruit-heavy bride’s cake served at early modern weddings to ensure the luck and fertility of the bride. The myth is that William Rich, a baker apprenticed near Christopher Wren’s St Bride’s church with its tiered steeple, modelled his own multi-layered wedding cake on Wren’s design.

St Bride's Church, Fleet Street

St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

To some extent, the British royal family popularised tall, ornately decorated cakes. Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding cake seems to have been a consisted mainly of decorations:

This royal cake weighs nearly 300 lb. weight. It is three yards in circumference, and about fourteen inches in depth or thickness. It is covered with sugar of the purest white; on the top is seen the figure of Britannia in the act of blessing the illustrious bride and bridegroom, who are dressed somewhat incongruously in the costume of ancient Rome. These figures are not quite a foot in height; at the feet of his serene highness is the effigy of a dog, said to denote fidelity; and at the feet of the queen is a pair of turtle doves, denoting the felicities of the marriage state. A cupid is writing in a volume expanded on his knees the date of the day of the marriage, and various other cupids are sporting and enjoying themselves…

Simplified designs were copied by an emergent Victorian middle class, eager to show off their good taste and wealth through increasingly elaborate weddings. These cakes were expensive: white sugar cost more than the unrefined brown, and bakers needed to be trained in the art of piping royal icing, a fashion imported from the continent.

The double layer of marzipan and royal icing had a practical function too: not only were pieces of cake sent home with guests and to family and relations far away, but the top tier of the cake was kept for the christening of the couple’s first child, or to be eaten a year later for luck.

As the meanings of weddings and marriage have changed, so has the significance of wedding cake. At recent weddings, I have eaten carrot, chocolate, and red velvet cake. Although decorated elaborately, these are not cakes to be kept, but rather to be eaten as pudding at the end of the reception. But although couples are choosing to reinvent wedding cakes, these cakes are as full of meaning as they were in the nineteenth century.

As a recent report in the Atlantic argued, particularly in the West, marriage and weddings are an increasingly middle-class phenomenon – and I think that some of its arguments describe changes which have occurred beyond the West too. Olga Khazan explains:

Culturally, young adults of all social classes and income levels are less likely to think of marriage as the ‘cornerstone’ of their lives – that is, the first thing they do as adults. Instead, people now think of it as a ‘capstone’ – sort of a trophy for having earned a BA, obtained a job, and generally learned to live on their own for a while.

As a result of this, weddings are intended to express the likes and enthusiasms of the couple, from their clothes to the cake they serve at the reception. If anything, weddings have accrued more meaning as they occur later in couples’ lives and relationships.

The irony, though, is that the enormous wedding-industrial complex which has emerged in recent years to facilitate these increasingly elaborate middle-class weddings, has worked to settle a particular conformity on them: from the artfully posed engagement and wedding photos, to the matching outfits for attendants, and the painstaking attention to every detail from confetti to favours for the guests and the fonts used on the stationery.

My point is that wedding cakes are a particularly useful means of demonstrating how weddings are used to denote a range of meanings: from middle-class claims to respectability, wealth, and sophistication in the middle of the nineteenth century, to a marker of full entry into adulthood and financial independence in the early twenty-first century.

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Youth must be served

This weekend the Observer predicted the demise of the hipster. Because markers of hipsterdom – like tattoos, beards, topknots, bunting, and cocktails in mason jars – have been increasingly widely adopted (moving from being exclusively hipster affectations, to being cool and then mainstream), the article asks if hipsterdom is at an end. The answer – as the piece acknowledges – is that what it means to be a hipster is evolving: that this group of young and young-ish people, most of them middle class and well educated, who seek to live in (some) ways which differ from social norms, will adopt new and different markers of their ‘otherness’.

Arts Cafe, Montreal

Arts Cafe, Montreal

Part of the problem with writing about hipsters is that they are so hard to define – which accounts, I think, for why there has been such a focus on what hipsters look like. Skinny jeans, brogues, and flat caps define hipsters more easily than a set of ideas or principles. Also, the stereotype of hipsters liking things before they were cool inevitably emphasises these ‘things’ rather than any set of reasons for liking those things. (I hope this makes sense.) With their thrift store shopping, and embrace of cooking, baking, and crafts, they have all the appearance of an enthusiasm for the handmade, the artisanal, and the environmentally friendly. But as Alex Posecznick observes:

hipsters are voracious consumers of a style that is constantly shifting desirability in order to promote endless consumption. A hidden shop selling vintage clothing is popular for a short time before it is made irrelevant the next day. They have turned consumption itself into an art, where the fine distinction of this hat over that invests cultural capital, and where although it is used and battered, it can be sold for four times the value of a new hat.

So are hipsters all show and no content? The Observer article’s distinction between proto-hipsters (those who originate what it means to be a hipster) and hipsters (those who follow, buying in to the aesthetic but not necessarily the ideals on which this outward manifestation is based) is useful here. Firstly, I would argue that what it means to be a hipster differs according to geographical context: it is different being a hipster in Johannesburg or Lagos than to being a hipster in Montreal or Melbourne or, even, Cape Town. Any suggestion that hipsters are going to disappear really is not borne out by my experiences of Joburg. Secondly, hipsters have certainly made an impact on some of the ways in which we live, particularly in cities.

Cafe Pamenar, Toronto

Cafe Pamenar, Toronto

Despite my view that Joburg hipsters are really quite different from those in Brooklyn, there are some characteristics which travel quite easily over space. And one of these is the hipster café. I have eaten or drunk coffee in a series of small, independent, and fairly earnest eateries in Melbourne, Perth (yes, even Perth), London, New York, Montreal, Toronto, Cape Town, and Johannesburg which are, really, virtually interchangeable: they share the same incandescent light bulbs, wood panelling, metal stools, amazing coffee, homemade soft drinks in jam jars, and interesting food. Father in Braamfontein could just as easily change places with Café Pamenar in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

In Williamsburg, NYC.

In Williamsburg, NYC.

It is in these places that I think it’s possible to see the ideas which underpin hipsterdom, best played out: in their commitment to using organic and free range produce, in their interest in recovering and remaking old recipes, and in their enthusiasm for experimentation. Flat whites and drip and cold brew coffee originated in hipster-run cafes.

Market Lane Coffee, Melbourne

Market Lane Coffee, Melbourne

It’s difficult, though, not to have some sympathy with arguments that some hipsters are fairly clueless politically. Having witnessed the slow gentrification of lower Woodstock in Cape Town – one of the city’s most deprived and rundown areas – with hipsters opening cafes for other hipsters, and selling coffees which most of the suburb’s original inhabitants could never even dream of affording, I feel that these criticisms have a point. I was reminded of this point in an excellent review of Marc Spitz’s book Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film. A lot of the hipster aesthetic embraces twee, and this definition of twee could quite as easily apply to some iterations of hipsterdom:

twee is anti-greed and suspicious of an adult world that revolves around avarice. More importantly, twee is aware of humanity’s capacity for violence and evil, but chooses to be optimistic about human nature nonetheless. This could be a progressive stance – one that not only believes we’re capable of improvement but works toward it. In practice, though, twee politics too often prescribe escapism and isolation, allowing the privileged to respond to crises both global and personal by sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, ‘Na na na, can’t hear you!’

The point about hipsters and their predecessors – beats, hippies – is that these are, largely but not exclusively, subcultures of the relatively wealthy and the privileged. The unthinking transformation of very poor parts of cities has certainly involved hipsters, but their social and cultural insensitivity is also closely connected to their own unawareness of their privilege rathern than to the fact that they’re hipsters. Instead of dismissing hipsters, I would suggest, rather, that like other youth subcultures before them, they have despite having no defined political programme and with a fairly flexible set of markers which define them, had a subtle influence over how food is thought about and consumed, particularly in urban areas. I think it is as interesting to consider the widespread dislike of hipsters, as it is trying to pin down hipsters themselves.

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

Breaking Bread

In Montreal, I ate bagels instead of poutine. I had planned on visiting Mile End – the suburb described as the city’s coolest quarter – because my friend Susan lives there, I wanted to go to Drawn and Quarterly, and I continue to add to my (as yet unwritten) international taxonomy of hipsters. If Mile End is supposed to be the hipster capital of Canada, then I needed to see it.

It was described to me as the Montreal equivalent of Williamsburg: a formerly poor and fairly run-down, largely immigrant suburb, popular with artists, slowly being encroached upon by students, young middle-class families in search of beautiful but affordable homes near the city centre, and hipsters. It also has a substantial population of Orthodox Jews.

My friend Carina and I took the bus from Westmount – where we were staying with our friend, the bride-to-be – and walked up St-Laurent, all the way up the Plateau. It was early on Saturday morning, so we arrived in Mile End in search of breakfast. Having heard about the wars between two rival bagel bakeries in the area, we bought breakfast at Fairmount Bagel. It was, incidentally, the place recommended to us as the superior bakery.

Fairmount Bagel.

Fairmount Bagel.

And the bagels were delicious. I now know that the traditional Montreal bagels are white (with sesame seeds) or black (with poppy seeds), but our cinnamon and raisin bagels, fresh from the oven, were some of the best I’ve ever had. I was also starving and frozen by the time, so that may also have influenced my verdict. In contrast, the bagel I tried a few hours later – for the purposes of science, you understand – from the rival St-Viateur bakery, seemed not as good. St-Viateur is also the subject of Donald Bell’s comic novel Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory (1973).

These Mile End institutions are testimony to the many groups of immigrants who settled in Canada, particularly during the early twentieth century. Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe settled in Montreal partly because it offered jobs and security. The city’s Jewish population grew from around 7,000 in 1900, to nearly 64,000 in 1941, with many of them settling in Mile End and surrounds. The Orthodox Jewish community began to grow there during the 1980s.

St-Viateur Bagel

St-Viateur Bagel

Until this visit, I didn’t know that Montreal bagels are distinct from other varieties: they are smaller, flatter, with bigger holes, and are baked in wood-fired ovens. They have a complex, sweeter flavour, and a drier, more chewy texture. In fact, there is now a restaurant in New York which sells Montreal bagels.

Alas, the slightly inferior bagel from the St-Viateur bakery. (I ate the one from Fairmount Bagel too quickly to photograph.)

Alas, the slightly inferior bagel from the St-Viateur bakery. (I ate the one from Fairmount Bagel too quickly to photograph.)

In her excellent We are what we eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Modern Americans, Donna R. Gabaccia explores the evolution and changing of immigrant cuisines in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. She traces the history of the bagel there: how it shifted from being made almost exclusively by Jewish delis for Jewish customers in the 1890s, to being a ubiquitous snack food available throughout the country by the 1970s and 1980s. She writes:

The bagel was not a central culinary icon for Jewish immigrants; even before Polish and Russian Jews left their ethnic enclaves or ghettoes, their memories exalted gefilte fish or chicken soup prepared by their mothers, but not the humble, hard rolls purchased from the immigrant baker. As eaters, Jewish immigrants were initially far more concerned with the purity of their kosher meat, their challah, and their matzos, and with the satisfactions of their Sabbath and holiday meals, than with their morning hard roll.

However, bagels found an enthusiastic audience among other immigrant communities, particularly in New York, where the bagel came gradually to symbolise the city. Eating cream cheese and smoked salmon on these bagels transformed them from being a part of a Jewish baking tradition, to signifying its multicultural heritage.

I wonder to what extent the same is true for Montreal? And it feels likely that this city in a country with an official policy of multiculturalism – although in a province which has a far more conflicted attitude towards this policy – would embrace this immigrant food as one symbol of what it means to be from Montreal. (In much the same way that a café near to these bakeries sells a souvlaki version of poutine.)

Multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism?

I think, though, that these bagels are also taking on a new meaning. Gabaccia notes that the mass production of bagels from the 1970s made them more widely available, but also turned them into an altogether softer, sweeter, and easier bread to snack on. Bagels made in factories by Kraft – and not hand-rolled in small bakeries – lacked the texture, crust, and savouriness of the product first made in the northeast.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has recently been a renewed enthusiasm for Jewish deli foods. Julia Moskin writes in the New York Times:

Artisanal gefilte fish. Slow-fermented bagels. Organic chopped liver. Sustainable schmaltz.

These aren’t punch lines to a fresh crop of Jewish jokes. They are real foods that recently arrived on New York City’s food scene. And they are proof of a sudden and strong movement among young cooks, mostly Jewish-Americans, to embrace and redeem the foods of their forebears. That’s why, at this moment in 21st-century New York, the cutting edge of cuisine is the beet-heavy, cabbage-friendly, herring-loving diet of 19th-century Jews in Eastern Europe.

Much of the recent enthusiasm around the rediscovery of the hand-made and the artisanal (whatever we may mean by that) has been driven by hipsters (whatever we may mean by them). In a series of posts about the anthropology of hipsters – and the hipsterdom of anthropologists – Alex Posecznick notes that one of the defining features of ‘the hipster population’ is a rejection of ‘mainstream, capitalist and individualist norms in favour of tactile crafts, free-trade coffee and styles that physically mark that rejection.’

For the hipsters of Mile End, the Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries exemplify this refusal of the mass-produced, and the adoption of the local, the ethical, and the somehow ‘real.’ But, as Posecznick acknowledges, this never-ending search for cool in the form of the authentic can also been seen as representing no real break from other forms of capitalist consumption:

They have turned consumption itself into an art, where the fine distinction of this hat over that invests cultural capital, and where although it is used and battered, it can be sold for four times the value of a new hat.

My point is that the bagel’s meanings have changed once again: those produced in small quantities in small bakeries now suggest gritty, cool urban living, as well as a return to old-fashioned, wholesome ways of making food. The irony, though, is that this shift of meaning has occurred within the context of the gentrification of once-poor, often (Orthodox) Jewish, neighbourhoods, where rent increases have meant that their populations are becoming increasingly homogenous: largely middle-class, mostly white.

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

Sweet Talk

The language of maple syrup production is remarkably similar to that of drug dealing. Buyers try to make contact with dealers – who manufacture the syrup in deep, rural Ontario and Quebec – in search of the purest, most refined version of the product. I imagine the white middle-classes descending on isolated outposts of the countryside, in search of the good shit.

I spent most of May in Canada: mainly in Montreal, but also in Kingston for a wedding, and fleetingly in Toronto. I had a most fantastic and excellent time. (Except for the bit where I threw up every two hours on the trip from Toronto to Montreal. I could not recommend Via Rail’s bathrooms more highly.) Until this visit, my main exposure to Canadian cuisine had been in the form of Kraft dinner and poutine. A few years ago, a friend and I were locked in a basement kitchen and made to cook poutine for fifty homesick Canadians. If needs be, I may claim Canadian citizenship on the grounds of this experience. So with expectations suitably adjusted, I was curious about the food I would encounter.

In Toronto's Kensington Market.

In Toronto’s Kensington Market.

I ate exceptionally well and at such a range of cafes and restaurants, which is not surprising considering how multicultural some parts of Canada are. I was interested in the number of distinctly Canadian dishes I encountered: turtles, Nanaimo bars, and butter tarts. I would have tried a sugar pie in Quebec were I not concerned about early-onset diabetes.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando in Montreal.

And while staying with my friend Jane’s parents in Kingston, I learned a great deal about maple syrup. (Not least via the medium of her mum Elva’s amazingly delicious maple syrup muffins.) I discovered:

-       It’s possible to freeze maple syrup.

-       Maple syrup is best stored in empty, but unrinsed, rum, whisky, or brandy bottles.

-       The syrup ages as it keeps.

-       Each vintage is unique.

-       A collection of maple trees tapped for resin is called a sugar bush.

Subsequently, my friend Theo mentioned the Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. This really does exist and is not, as I first suspected, the basis of Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy (neutralising enemies with extreme sweetness). Theo explains:

Cartel logic. The reserve is there to maintain the ‘right’ balance of sales and prices year to year, maintaining predictability for the many, many small producers of maple syrup. They sell off the reserve if there are new markets or a bad frost reducing the supply, and they build up the reserve in years with good production. OPEC does the same thing with petrol.

Maple syrup is so important to the Canadian economy – Quebec alone produces three quarters of the world’s supply – that the reserve is essential for protecting both the nation’s income and individual suppliers’ livelihoods. This is why the 2012 heist, during which thieves made off with around $30 million worth of maple syrup, was such a calamity.

In Mile End, Montreal.

In Mile End, Montreal.

But maple syrup means more than money. One of my favourite accounts of a first visit to the motherland is an essay by Margaret Atwood. In ‘Tour-de-Farce’ she describes how this 1964 trip to Britain and ‘a dauntingly ambitious quest for cultural trophies,’ which was supposed to ‘improve’ both her and her writing, helped her to understand her own Canadian-ness. Or, rather, that the people she encountered abroad could not position her within a cultural context:

For the Europeans, there was a flag-shaped blank where my nationality should have been. What was visible to me was invisible to them; nor could I help them out by falling back on any internationally-famous architectural constructs. About all I had to offer as a referent was a troop of horsey policemen, which hardly seemed enough.

Canadian food historians have begun to do excellent work on how Canadian identities have been constructed around food, cooking, and eating – around Tim Horton’s, immigrant cuisines, vegetarianism – and have thought about the position of maple syrup within this national identity- and mythmaking. (In what other country is it possible to consume a national emblem at breakfast?)

Its origins are in the wilderness, it was produced first by First Nations people and then by settlers, particularly dairy farmers in need of income during long, freezing winters. It was the virtuous substitute for sugar among nineteenth-century abolitionists, and figured prominently in the country’s commitment to an imperial war effort during the Second World War. Maple syrup’s usefulness is that because it’s a product that is linked to Canada’s landscape – it is ‘natural’ and, thus, somehow pure – it is able to by-pass a range of concerns that upset ideas of a Canadian-ness constructed around goodness and sweetness. Like wild salmon, maple syrup can be sold as a kind of pure, depoliticised embodiment of all that is ‘Canadian.’

Further Reading

Atsuko Hashimoto and David J. Telfer, ‘Selling Canadian Culinary Tourism: Branding the Global and the Regional Product,’ Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment, vol. 8, no. 1 (2006), pp. 31-55.

Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp (eds.), Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Carol I. Mason, ‘A Sweet Small Something: Maple Sugaring in the New World,’ in The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, ed. James A. Clifton (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007), pp. 91-106.

Ian Mosby, Food will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front (Vermont: University of British Columbia Press, 2014).

Steve Penfold, The Donut: A Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

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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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