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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.

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

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

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

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.

Long Walk

This morning I went to the unveiling of a blue plaque in Fietas, a small, increasingly rundown suburb to the west of the old Johannesburg CBD. It was to commemorate the establishment of the Save Pageview Association, and particularly the work of its founder, Adam Asvat, on whose house the plaque had been placed.

Today, twenty years ago, all South African adults were eligible to vote in the country’s first democratic elections. Also, today sixty-four years ago, the Group Areas Act was passed. This piece of legislation had devastating consequences for Fietas and other, similar suburbs with racially mixed populations.

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We remember the agonising destruction of District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, but the attempt to rub out Fietas, its mosques and churches, its shopping street – Fourteenth Street – made famous by Nat Nakasa, and its history of anti-segregation and anti-apartheid struggle is, possibly, less well known. Although eviction orders were sent to Pageview’s residents from 1964 – the area was rezoned ‘white’ – the bulldozers moved in only a decade later. Shopkeepers were required to move to the purpose-built Oriental Plaza in nearby Fordsburg, and families were to leave for Lenasia, a relatively far-away suburb for Indians.

The Pageview Association resisted the removals at every step. In 1989 – a year before the release of Nelson Mandela, and fours years after the declaration of the first state of emergency – a court case initiated by the Association successfully ended the evictions.

Pageview – or Fietas as it is also known – had no happy ending, though. It was not properly rebuilt after the removals. The suburb is desperately poor and crime-ridden. Its streets need renovating and sweeping. The first poster I saw for the Economic Freedom Fighters – a far-left, nationalist organisation purporting to represent the very poor and marginalised – was in Fietas’s main road.

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But today, as a group of people, some in their nineties and others just learning to walk, a few residents and former residents, a couple of students and journalists, a sprinkling of academics and activists, gathered to celebrate the lives of Adam and Khadija Asvat, I was reminded that when South Africans went to vote on 27 April 1994, it was by no means certain that the outcome would be even remotely peaceful.

I was about to turn twelve years old during those elections, and I spent them shuttling between the television and a science project. (The public holidays played havoc with the curriculum.) My parents voted, and my mother volunteered at the polling station in the Paarl town hall, fielding questions from old ladies (‘do I need to vote for the National Party twice?’). I was old enough to understand the significance of the election, but young enough to be reassured by my parents when they said that everything would be alright.

Although we lived in a smallish town in an agricultural district near Cape Town, we were acutely aware of the violence and radical uncertainty of the period, and not only because both my parents were opposed to the apartheid regime. There were riots in Paarl after Chris Hani’s assassination; the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging arrived to protect my white, girls’ school from whatever they believed we needed protecting from (and were told exactly where they could go and put their rifles by our outraged – Afrikaans-speaking – headmistress); the bomb drills; our neighbour who horded tinned food before the election; the threatening phone calls from the police when my mother’s work for the Black Sash drew too much attention to herself; the radio announcer counting the numbers killed overnight in violence in the Vaal Triangle, in KwaZulu-Natal, and elsewhere, as we ate breakfast before school.

Today’s guest of honour was Judge Johann Kriegler, who headed the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in 1994. He spoke about the chaos of the election: of the difficulties of getting ballot papers and even telephone lines to the very rural parts of the country, and how they had to scramble to include the Inkatha Freedom Party on the ballot papers, after its last-minute decision to participate in the election.

To reduce election fraud and because so many people were scared to vote, the IEC imported invisible ink from the United States to mark the hands of those who had voted. This ink would be visible only to ultraviolet lamps distributed to polling stations. But the lamps didn’t always work, and the ink soon ran out. What to do? Officials were told to continue pretending that the lamps did work, and to use water instead of invisible ink.

And yet things worked out.

I wish the police would stop shooting protesting civilians; that the Department of Education would send adequate supplies of textbooks to schools; that so many officials – from police in my local traffic department to the President – were not implicated in corruption; that there was no need for people to take to the streets to protest lack of service delivery; that there were no attempts to stifle freedom of expression; that the incidence of gender-based violence was not so high.

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But as we gathered in the Fietas Museum after the speeches and the unveiling, drinking tea and eating samoosas and koeksisters and chilli bites, I felt that for all this – for all that we have so much still to do, for all that we never really defined what we mean by ‘transformation‘ – we’ll be alright. It’ll work out. Somehow.

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

In Good Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Abominable stuff!  How shameful!’

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

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

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

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

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