Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘gentrification’

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.

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

Observations

I’ve been in Johannesburg for nearly a month now. And although I’ve hardly even begun to explore one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s beginning to feel like home. Despite being a comparatively young city – it’s the product of the discovery and mining of the significant deposits of gold beneath the Witwatersrand during the late 1880s – partly because it’s had such a transient population since its founding, and has changed so profoundly over the past century (and continues to change), the city feels composed of layers of work, and experience, and change. In other words, for a newish city, it has a lot of history.

The city itself is often a strange – and rather ugly – mishmash of old and new buildings, businesses, houses, and developments. But I like how older ways of living often exist side-by-side with the new. What I mean is that for all of Joburg’s malls – and there are a lot of malls and they are very, very big – for instance, there are still surprising numbers of small, independent shops which seem, to me, to be very well patronised.

In Braamfontein.

In Braamfontein.

So here are a few food-related observations, made by a new, often ignorant, and probably over-optimistic resident:

1. There are so many lovely cafes and places to eat. I can’t comment about the fine dining scene – I don’t have enough money to eat in those kinds of restaurants – but it’s easy to eat well here, I think.

At the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein.

At the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein.

2. Also, as is the case all over the world, these cafes and restaurants are agents of change and gentrification. I spend a lot of time in Braamfontein – I work near there – and have been struck how much this inner-city suburb has changed since I visited at the end of 2011, when it still felt distinctly dodgy during the day. There is now a hipster café with either flat whites or burgers (obviously) on practically every corner.

Debating the gentrification of Braamfontein.

Debating the gentrification of Braamfontein.

3. I’ve yet to visit Arts on Main in the city centre. Just about every person I’ve asked about it has a different opinion of the development. Broadly, half say it’s a deeply problematic gentrification of a desperately poor area which serves only further to marginalise the residents of inner-city Joburg. The other half argue that it’s bringing the middle classes back to old Joburg, after the long flight northwards to Sandton.

4. The Spur in Braamfontein, a quick stroll from Cosatu House, must be the most politically influential steakhouse in South Africa.

Debating the gentrification of Tyrone Avenue in Parkview, on a public noticeboard.

Debating the gentrification of Tyrone Avenue in Parkview, on a public noticeboard.

5. There are so many markets. So far, I’ve been to the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein (and I’m still trying to understand how that stands in relation to Braamfontein’s gentrification) and the organic market in Bryanston. But there’s also the boeremark in Pretoria, the market at the Pirates Sports Club, and the farmers’ market in Fourways. And others.

6. In this city of malls – and I have yet to visit that ur-mall, Sandton City – it’s more possible for me to shop locally and from independent businesses than it was in Cape Town. There’s a butcher in Parkhurst, and my amazing fruiterer in Tyrone Avenue – one of dozens across the city – sell fresh produce, meat, cheese, milk, flowers, polenta, pasta, tinned tomato, and fish sauce. And the FT Weekend. And soap. I love it with an intensity which borders on the unreasonable.

The fruiterer on Tyrone Avenue.

The fruiterer on Tyrone Avenue.

I have yet to sample the delights of Fordsburg, Rosettenville, and the new and old Chinatowns. There are still the vast, sprawling worlds of Soweto, and the East and West Rand to explore. But as the city changes, I know I’ll enjoy visiting and revisiting areas that feel at once familiar and new.

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

Check Your Privilege

Yesterday, the circulation of a photograph of a new Hackney café, The Advisory, caused a minor flurry of controversy on social media. The restaurant has been established on the site of the – now closed – Asian Women’s Advisory Service. As many pointed out, its decision to retain the Service’s sign and to appropriate the language of the centre in the name of foodie-ism, is in exceptionally poor taste. A sign on its window advertises: ‘This centre is responsible for a refined preparation of brunch, lunch and dinners.’ It adds: ‘We also respond to thirst related needs.’

In response to this criticism, The Advisory has removed the sign and, in a statement, explained that the building had been derelict for several years. A review of the café on Cherie City – which praised its ‘rough-luxe feel’ – has also been taken down.

BNcDwnmCEAEfK07.jpg_large

Regardless of whether the building was empty or not, The Advisory’s decision to model itself as an advice centre in one of the UK’s poorest boroughs, and in the midst of debates over the effects of the ‘hipsterfication’ of east London, is deeply insensitive.

This certainly isn’t the only example of tone-deaf foodiesm that I’ve encountered. A couple of years ago, I attended an event in Cape Town where a well-meaning author attempted to recreate the life of Nelson Mandela for the audience by providing us with meals he ate at key moments, supplied by … Woolworths. (It’s rather like Marks & Spencer handing out packets of rice to help punters to understand Gandhi’s struggles better.)

These are, admittedly, particularly bad examples of foodie thoughtlessness. But I think that they point to a wider problem within the ‘food world’ (so to speak – I mean restaurateurs, food writers, and journalists). Since its emergence in the US and the UK, during the late 1960s, the food movement – which questions industrial agriculture, supports small farmers and co-operatives, opposes GM and buys organic – has remained largely middle class. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does mean that the movement has a tendency to ignore its own, vast privilege.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, after having come across a new book on how Londoners can eat locally and sustainably. It’s called The Modern Peasant. I understand why Jojo Tulloh wanted to call her book that – she wanted to evoke the small, self-sufficient, self-contained world of the peasants of pre-industrial Britain – but I think it’s an immensely problematic choice, not least because it seems to imply that peasants no longer exist. They do. In their millions. The vast majority of farmers in Africa and south Asia are small farmers. These peasants produce 70% of the world’s food supply.

La Via Campesina celebrates the tenth anniversary of its founding this year. It is the largest peasant organisation in the world and is, arguably, one of the most significant forces within food politics at the moment. It originated the concept of food sovereignty, which puts power relations at the heart of creating a fair food system:

Unlike food security, often defined as ensuring people have enough to eat, food sovereignty zeroes in on questions of power and control.

‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations,’ reads the final declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, held in 2007, held in 2007 in Sélingué, Mali. ‘Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.’

So calling a book about eating well in London ‘The Modern Peasant’, displays rather a lot of ignorance about how the world’s food systems operate.

My point is not to bash well-meaning, if occasionally tin eared, middle-class foodies who only want to encourage others to eat good, ethically-produced food. But, rather, to argue that they need to recognise that – by virtue of their whiteness and class – they operate from a position of power.

There has been a lot of debate among feminists over the past year or so about the usefulness of asking or telling straight, white, middle-class feminists to ‘check their privilege’ when addressing issues relevant to LGBT and working-class feminists, or women of colour. Although I have fairly mixed feelings about how ‘privilege checking’ has been used, it is a useful way of encouraging those in privilege to become aware of how powerful they are – and to recognise that any attempt to remedy broken food chains and to ensure that everyone has enough (of the right kind of) food to eat, is dependent on addressing power imbalances. And not only foraging for wild garlic in Hackney.

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

Food Links, 07.11.2012

Well America, you had us worried for a moment.

What hurricane Sandy tells us about New York’s food supply chain.

New York’s chefs helping with the Sandy clean-up.

The implications of Sandy for New York’s bees.

Why food trucks won’t be a novelty after Sandy.

Three views on Prop 37.

Lester Brown on food inflation.

The state of the world’s harvests.

Land grabs are endangering food production.

Is this the year that the US food movement finally enters politics?

We’re facing rising food prices.

The French right wing hijacks the pain au chocolat.

The relationship between coffee shops, gentrification, and crime (pdf).

Evaluating Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.

Michael Pollan on corn.

Sectarian traybacks in Belfast.

The strange persistence of the First Lady Bake-Off.

The doorless fridge.

Mary Berry biting into things.

The science of the souffle.

The fifteen professions that drink the most coffee.

Elif Batuman on Çiya Sofrasi in Istanbul.

How to crack black peppercorns.

In praise of the prickly pear.

Can you get thrown out of an all-you-can-eat buffet?

Reviews of new food.

The most beautiful coffee shops.

Behind the wine label.

The strange history of the spork.

Beautiful apples.

The link between chocolate consumption and Nobel laureates.

Beautiful paintings of food at the Bowes Museum.

The Middle Class Handbook on flat peaches.

Craig’s Artisanal Pickles.

The strange variety of McDonald’s meals.

Why drinking liquid nitrogen cocktails is a very, very bad idea.

Feathers fly in the South African fried chicken industry.

How to introduce a two year-old to Malaysian street food.

A nifty idea for storing fresh herbs.

A man makes beer from yeast found…in his beard.

To peel, or not to peel?

These are courtesy of my mum:

The fortified food conundrum in Afghanistan.

A coffee cup in the shape of a bird.

Japan’s themed cafes.

How to flip food in a pan.

Eight paintings of ham.

Artisanal mayonnaise.

The search for authenticity is futile.

Good Neighbours

At the beginning of this year Michael Olivier asked me to contribute an article to his online magazine Crush!.  It could be on whichever topic I fancied, and because I had recently spent rather a lot of time at food markets both abroad and in South Africa, and had been thinking a great deal about the relationship between these markets and the communities in which they were held, I decided to write about Woodstock.

The point that I wanted to make in the piece is that there is considerably more to Woodstock than the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill: that this multiracial inner-city suburb has a long and complicated history, and that its transformation into the embodiment of Capetonian hipster cool is not only a relatively recent phenomenon, but has profound implications for the community who lives there.

Woodstock – originally called Papendorp after the farmer on whose land it was founded – has never been a wealthy suburb. Situated in the teeth of the Cape Doctor – the southeasterly wind which blasts the city during summer – its population has tended to be poor and working class. With its low rents and easy proximity to the city’s industrial and business districts, it drew many of the thousands of immigrants who arrived in Cape Town from southern Africa and the rest of the world during South Africa’s industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century.

Cape Town’s first factories – which manufactured jam, matchsticks, artificial feathers and flowers, sweets, and cigars – were established in Woodstock, and employed a large proportion of the people who lived in the suburb’s growing slums. In the 1880s and 1890s, a collection of ministers, city councillors, and philanthropic organisation launched a campaign to clean up the appalling conditions in which people lived in Woodstock – with many calling it Cape Town’s ‘East End’.

Given the racial politics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa, much of the concern about Woodstock stemmed from the fact that it was racially mixed. As a result of the Group Areas Act (1950), one of the keystones of apartheid legislation, black and coloured (or racially mixed) people were forced to move out of the parts of Woodstock which were declared ‘white’. Those people who, according to the Population Registration Act (1950), were not white, were required to move to areas classified ‘black’ or ‘coloured’.

My mother grew up in Fairview Avenue, which was part of an area zoned as white. During the early 1960s, several families in her street left for other parts of Cape Town, or immigrated to other countries, because they were deemed officially to be black or coloured. But other parts of Woodstock were allowed to remain racially mixed. It’s worth understanding the social make-up of Woodstock geographically: above the Main Road – where Fairview Avenue is located – it is lower-middle- to middle-class with a largely white population which includes many Portuguese and Jewish families.

Below Main Road and above the railway, Woodstock becomes poorer and more racially mixed. And it is lower Woodstock which has experienced the brunt of the recent gentrification of the suburb. The revitalising of the businesses along Sir Lowry Road – developments like the Palms Centre and Buchanan Square, and the cluster of cafes, restaurants, and shops which have emerged between these two business hubs – have drawn relatively little criticism, as far as I can see (although do please let me know if it has).

Most criticism has been levelled at the Biscuit Mill development in Albert Road in lower Woodstock. The consortium responsible for the development, Indigo Properties, has recently come under fire for its revamp of the Woodstock Industrial Centre, which provided cheap rents and space for the small collective of artists who work in the suburb. On the one hand, the restoration of buildings – and Woodstock has some lovely, albeit crumbling, Victorian and Edwardian architecture – and the attraction of business to an otherwise poor area could be seen as a Good Thing. In Sir Lowry Road, for instance, the increase of pedestrian traffic between the Kitchen, the Deli, and the various agencies and offices along the road has made the area feel decidedly safer.

But on the other, it is questionable whether the Biscuit Mill and, now, the Industrial Centre developments benefit the community who lives in lower Woodstock.

On a ferociously hot Saturday towards the end of January, I parked as near to the Neighbourgoods Market at the Biscuit Mill – as near as I could, given its phenomenal popularity on weekends – and then made my way down Albert Road. Cars of eager market-goers zip down Albert Road on Saturdays, making only for the Biscuit Mill and the shops and restaurants which have opened around it. They ignore the large section of lower Woodstock which they pass through to get to the end of Albert Road.

My aim was to talk to the owners of the cafes and corner shops who actually sell to the people who live in lower Woodstock. I asked several what they thought about the Neighbourgoods Market and the response was similar: a shrug, followed by a comment that the people who go to the Market don’t really seem to be all that interested in the rest of the suburb. One or two laughed when I asked if they had benefitted from the opening of the development.

Just as I was nearing Gympie Street – infamous for its association with the gangs which have long blighted life in lower Woodstock – a man standing outside Saleem’s Café beckoned to me. He was Rashied, the brother-in-law of the owner of the café, and seated comfortably indoors on upturned plastic crates, we had a chat about the development on the area. Rashied was deeply critical of the Neighbourgoods Market and the Biscuit Mill, making the point that they had done little to regenerate an extremely poor suburb. What profits they do make – and there is good reason to believe that the development is lucrative – benefit the shopkeepers, stall owners, and, of course, Indigo Properties.

Rashied is involved with I Art Woodstock, a project launched by Ricky Lee Gordon of A Word of Art last year. I Art Woodstock brings artists from around the world to paint murals in lower Woodstock. The project involves the suburb’s children, and it aims partly to encourage more people to visit the area, to look at the murals – and they are truly magnificent. Rashied invited me to take a look at the murals with him: he was due to check up on two artists, one from Sao Paulo, the other from New York, who were at work on a new mural, and he wanted to distribute yogurts to the area’s children.

The state does not exist in lower Woodstock. There are houses owned by gangs where drugs are sold and taken. There are people who live in shacks, with no hope of ever moving into houses with electricity and plumbing. It is unlikely that most of the children playing in the streets are attending school. These streets are dirty and unkempt. When incidences of domestic violence occur, the chances of police being called – or, if they are called, of arriving – are very slim.

As a recent, powerful editorial in the Mail and Guardian argued, South Africa’s policy makers and politicians must recognise the link between the appalling conditions in which people live, and the very high rates of violent crime which characterise so many poor communities:

we are building settlements that reproduce sexual violence, crime and xenophobia: shoddily constructed, disconnected from economic opportunity, home to failing schools that sit cheek by jowl with shebeens on shit-soaked streets.

It is certainly true that there are people in lower Woodstock who are employed, who send their children to school, and who manage to save a little towards their retirement. Their children will go on to tertiary education and to employment. They will move out of lower Woodstock and join South Africa’s growing middle class. But these constitute only one, small group of people within a much larger population, most of whom live in desperate poverty.

And within ten minutes’ walk of lower Woodstock – with its murals, yes, but also with its population of shack dwellers who do not have access to flushing toilets – is the incredible wealth and luxury of the Neighbourgoods Market, and the thousands of wealthy Capetonians who drive past lower Woodstock every Saturday morning to buy ice cream and artisanal, free-range bacon.

I don’t object to gentrification per se. Salon has reported recently on the so-called ‘Whole Foods effect’, where the opening of a new branch of Whole Foods – the US-based chain of organic supermarkets – is an indicator, and also cause, of the revitalisation of suburbs which have become crime-ridden, grimy, and run-down. The business is about to open a Whole Foods store in Midtown Detroit – signalling to many that the city’s long decline is now in reverse.

As Will Doig writes:

the Whole Foods Effect isn’t caused by the store itself, it’s caused by the events it sets into motion. And one thing Whole Foods does is stay open later than a lot of the other shops around it, laying the groundwork for expanding the length of that neighbourhood’s day.

The Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein – the sister of the market in Woodstock – is doing precisely this in Joburg. Situated in the parking lot of a skyscraper, that Neighbourgoods Market attracts footfall to an inner-city suburb which would usually be deserted – and dangerous – over the weekend. Similarly, the Hope Street Market in Cape Town brings life into an otherwise quiet corner of the CBD on Saturdays.

What angers me about the Biscuit Mill and the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock is that they exist within a community which desperately needs investment: which needs housing, plumbing, and, above all, jobs. Of course, it is primarily the function of the state to provide basic services, policing, and social welfare – but where there is so much wealth, there is a moral imperative to improve the lives of so many who have so little.

The Neighbourgoods Market’s success has grown partly as a result of an increased interest in the provenance and production of good, ‘whole’, food among Cape Town’s middle classes. This is excellent. But how do these customers – who desire to live and eat ethically – drive past such incredible poverty every Saturday, without thinking twice about the people who live there?

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

Free Markets

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

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

The entrance to Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

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

Inside Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

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

At the Woodstock Neighbourgoods Market

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

The view from the Williamsburg Flea

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

At the Williamsburg Flea

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

At the Long Table night market in Dalston

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

More of the Dalston night market

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

As one commentator explains:

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

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

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

At the Union Square farmers' market

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Braamfontein Neighbourgoods Market

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

From Customers to Consumers

I love this video – it’s an overview of a century of fashion, music, and dance in London’s East End:

It’s not an art installation. It’s not part of a community project. It’s an ad. For a shopping mall. And this isn’t any mall – it’s Europe’s biggest, and one of the key developments in the Olympic site in Stratford. In fact, it seems that most of the spectators attending next year’s Summer Olympics will enter the games through Westfield Stratford City: its casino, 300 shops, 50 restaurants, three hotels, and 17 cinema screens.

I’m not a massive fan of shopping malls, and said as much when I posted this video on Facebook. And then my friend Jean-François, who’s an architect, made the point that the development will create a massive 10,000 jobs, and has funded literacy classes for the astonishingly high number of applicants who seemed to be illiterate. In an area as deprived as Stratford, surely this shopping centre could only be a Good Thing?

There has been a great deal of criticism of the way in which Stratford has been transformed by the Olympic site. I don’t want to romanticise life in a very poor borough of London, and I’m not sure that commentators like Iain Sinclair – who has been vociferous in his opposition to the 2012 Olympic bid – offer much in the way of ideas for providing jobs, decent housing, and education for the area. But I feel uncomfortable about the way that a temple to consumerism seems to be offered up as the only possible way of raising living standards in Stratford. As Suzanne Moore – not, admittedly, my favourite columnistwrote in yesterday’s Guardian:

Next week a new Westfield opens. It’s not in west London, it’s in the east, in Stratford. It will cash in on the Olympics. Is this what this deprived area really needs? Another giant, weatherless mall that has exactly the same shops as everywhere else? Maybe this deliberately disorientating social space will be a place of connection and hope. Maybe it will offer the local youth something other than an expensive bowling alley, a multiplex and some minimum-wage jobs.

But is this just a case of lefty, middle-class squeamishness? When I buy a Margot Molyneux blouse from Mungo & Jemima, or even a dress from an upmarket chain like White Stuff or online store like Toast, it’s not any ‘better’ than purchasing a t-shirt from Mr Price. Both decisions support people who designed and made the garment. When I buy from small, local grocers and food shops, it’s partly because of a belief that this is good for our food system, but it also says something about me – about how I choose to constitute my identity in relation to a particular way of thinking about being an ‘ethical’ shopper. However critical I may be of consumerism, I am, inevitably, bound up in it.

I am interested in the shift from defining people who buy things from shops as ‘customers’ to being described as ‘consumers’. There’s a growing collection of historians interested in tracing and analysing this transition. One of the reasons why I’m so interested in it is because of the pivotal role played by the food industry in creating consumers.

Given the dire state of the average American diet, it probably comes as no surprise to learn that the United States was the first country to witness the rise of a food industry reliant on consumers who had begun to buy an increasing number of good produced in factories by big food companies towards the end of nineteenth century. Consumerism is inextricably linked to the industrialisation of food production.

The first people to benefit from the Industrial Revolution were the middle classes. In Britain, Europe, America and elsewhere, the newly-wealthy bourgeoisie could afford to buy more food, and employed more servants to prepare it. They had leisure in which to enjoy the eating of this food – and it became a way of marking newly-acquired middle-class status.

Until 1850 in Europe, and 1830 in the US, the diets of the urban poor actually deteriorated. The average height of working-class people living in the rapidly expanding cities of the industrialised world actually declined – one of the most potent indicators of the levels of deprivation experienced by this new proletariat. This was the first generation of workers to be disconnected from food production: these were people who no longer grew their own food, and were dependent on inadequate and expensive food systems to supply towns and cities. Poor diets were centred around starches and cheap, poor-quality food.

But from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, food became progressively cheaper, more plentiful, and varied – and this happened earlier and more quickly in the United States. So what caused this drop in price and greater availibility in cities? A revolution in transport made it easier to take produce from farms to urban depots by rail, and shipping brought exotic fruit and vegetables from the rest of the world to Europe and the United States. When Europe’s grain harvest failed during the 1870s, the continent was fed with wheat imported by steam ship from Canada. Farmers now began to cultivate land which had previously been believed to be inaccessible – and to grow market-oriented produce. The rise of the iceberg lettuce – which could cope with being transported over vast distances with little bruising – is directly attributable to this.

The agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century made farming more productive. New systems of crop rotation, the use of higher-yielding plant hybrids and improved implements, and the enclosure movement in Britain meant that fewer farmers were producing more food than ever before. And this produce was processed far more quickly, and cheaply. With innovations in the preservation of food through refrigeration, bottling, and canning, food could be transported over greater distances, but also, and crucially, manufactured in larger quantities and then kept before distribution on a mass scale.

Food companies began to control nearly every aspect of the newly industrialised food chain: businesses like Heinz formed alliances with farmers and transportation companies which supplied their factories with meat, fruit, and vegetables. Increasingly, they also began to advertise their products. The rise of these ‘food processors’, as they’re often called, caused a fundamental change in the way in which people ate. Most Americans began to eat similar diets based around processed food produced in factories.

Americans weren’t, of course, compelled to eat processed food. They did so for a number of reasons. Factory-baked bread, tinned vegetables, and processed meat were cheap, easy to prepare, and, importantly, believed to be free from contamination and disease. But with most people’s basic nutritional and calorific needs now met, food processors began to use advertising and brands to a far greater extent to encourage customers – dubbed ‘consumers’ – to buy more and that which they didn’t need. Susan Strasser explains:

Formerly customers, purchasing the objects of daily life in face to-face relationships with community-based craftspeople and store keepers, Americans became consumers during the Progressive Era. They bought factory-produced goods as participants in a complex network of distribution – a national market that promoted individuals’ relationships with big, centrally organised, national-level companies. They got their information about products, not from the people who made or sold them, but from advertisements created by specialists in persuasion. These accelerating processes, though by no means universal, had taken firm hold of the American way of life.

Food processors needed to persuade consumers to buy their products, and in greater quantities:

People who had never bought cornflakes were taught to need them; those once content with oats scooped from the grocer’s bin were told why they should prefer Quaker Oats in a box. Advertising, when it was successful, created demand…. Advertising celebrated the new, but many people were content with the old. The most effective marketing campaigns encouraged new needs and desires…by linking the rapid appearance of new products with the rapid changes that were occurring in all areas of social and cultural life.

We have always attached a variety of meanings to food, but within a consumer society, the decisions we make about what to buy and eat are shaped to a large extent by the desires and needs manufactured by a massive advertising industry.

The industrialisation of food production has, as I noted last week, allowed more people to eat better than ever before. But this has come at a cost: we know that many food companies engage in ecologically unsustainable practices, mistreat their employees, hurt animals, and occasionally produce actively harmful food. Moreover, it was part of a process which transformed people from customers into consumers – into individuals whose happiness is linked to what and how much they buy. This does not make us happy – nor is it environmentally or economically sound. Justin Lewis writes:

the promise of advertising is entirely empty. We now have a voluminous body of work showing that past a certain point, there is no connection between the volume of consumer goods a society accumulates and the well-being of its people.

The research shows that a walk in the park, social interaction or volunteering – which cost nothing – will do more for our well-being than any amount of ‘retail therapy’.  Advertising, in that sense, pushes us towards maximising our income rather than our free time.  It pushes us away from activities that give pleasure and meaning to our lives towards an arena that cannot – what Sut Jhally calls ‘the dead world of things’.

As customers were made consumers, so it is possible for us to change once again. How we are to achieve this, though, is difficult to imagine.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Nancy F. Koehn, ‘Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food,’ The Business History Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 349-393.

Rebecca L. Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusadors, 1879-1914 (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

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

London Meals

Like many people, I spent this week glued to the news, following the riots in Britain. I have friends who live in the parts of London which witnessed some of the worst violence, and I was stunned how areas of London I know and love – areas which I think of as home – were transformed by the rioting and looting. Even Bloomsbury was not left unscathed: Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street, one of the most beloved bookstores in London, had its windows smashed, rather undermining claims that the looters tended to leave book shops alone. (And such a pity they missed Alain de Botton’s daft School of Life next door.)

So when I read on Twitter that Broadway Market was a potential target for the rioters, my heart sank. When I moved to London to begin my PhD, I remapped the city according to the destinations I most loved: book shops, art galleries (so that was central London, South Kensington, Pimlico, the south bank, Whitechapel, and Dulwich sorted), and places to eat. I did this because I have a comically bad sense of direction. During a holiday in Ireland a few years ago, my friend Carina realised quickly that the best way of discovering the correct direction to walk in, was to go in the opposite way I suggested. If I turned left, it was almost certainly the case that we should have gone right.

Guided partly by the London Farmers’ Markets website, I came to know London through its markets, delis, and kitchen and food shops. I walked all the way to Notting Hill from Bloomsbury once (map-reading has never been a strength) and, disappointed by that farmers’ market, spent the morning at Books for Cooks and discovered possibly the best culinary invention in the history of humanity at a local deli: glass jars containing crème de marrons and vanilla-flavoured yogurt. When Charles Saatchi (re-)opened his gallery in the Duke of York’s Building, it gave me another reason to visit that part of Sloaney London: Partridges also sells those crème de marrons-and-yogurt concoctions (admittedly for £1.50 each, but with all that yogurt they’re practically health food).

At Broadway Market

If I was feeling uninspired on Saturday mornings, I would walk to the inevitable Borough Market through the eerily silent City, and buy coffee from Monmouth and a bacon roll – easy on the mustard, heavy on the brown sauce – and watch the stall holders set up before the tourist hordes arrived.

But my favourite parts of the city were further east. Broadway Market, near London Fields, trades on a stretch of road which has been used by merchants and travellers for around a thousand years. It’s ancient and at the same time, emblematic of the regeneration of Hackney, London’s poorest borough, but also, arguably, its most socially diverse. On Sundays it was a long walk through Clerkenwell, Old Street, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green for breakfast at Columbia Road Flower Market – with coffee bought from what must be the city’s smallest coffee shop – a splurge at the second hand bookshop, and an attempt not to knock over any plants (I once caused, accidentally, an avalanche of Christmas trees).

My other guide was sent to me by my mother: the fantastic London Review of Breakfasts. It’s a website which takes breakfast Very Seriously Indeed. Listing cafes, greasy spoons, and restaurants from all over London, it considers not only what these establishments serve and how they go about doing this, but why. What I like about it most – other than its understanding of the psychologically restorative nature of breakfast – is its anti-snobbery.  Bermondsey’s Cat and Cucumber is given higher – and deserving – praise for its breakfast, than the branch of Whole Foods in Kensington:

It just doesn’t feel organic in the way I understand it. And frankly neither do any of the 26 varieties of killer tomatoes on sale, particularly the insipid orb that is part of my tepid, refectory-style ‘English Breakfast; on the first floor. The rest of this dry, fatty, Americanised assembly – grey-green scrambled eggs, semi-raw sausage, bacon jerky, white toast (‘no brown available’! In the temple of choice!) – requires five separate squirts of ketchup to render it edible. It is pathetic.

More of Broadway Market

No other collection of reviews is this relentlessly entertaining. My favourite remains of the Euphorium Bakery in Islington:

you started to tremble and had to content yourself with an egg mayonnaise sandwich on thick brown bread. It would have been an eggy, creamy delight, I think, if there had been any filling to delight in. But alas, a mere smear across the bread, a hint of a yolk and a whiff of white was all that was present. We wept. I craved a sympathetic glance from the staff. They were oblivious to our pain and announced that “that was how they made their sandwiches”. How they let themselves down. How they let us down. The pastries so perfect. The sandwiches so disappointing. My fan dropped to the floor, you rose from your chair, nearly careering into one of the many mothers with babies as you hastened to exit.

‘Pierre!’ I shouted, ‘Don’t leave me! I will make you an egg sandwich wearing nothing but a silk negligee whilst I recite passages from Voltaire!’

In short, the London Review of Breakfasts sets a standard not only for eating breakfast, but for living.

It’s particularly fitting that this website devoted to breakfast should be based in London. We know that mass urbanisation at the beginning of the nineteenth century caused changes in people’s behaviour. Quite simply, people lived and behaved differently in cities – where most of them were crammed into tenements and slums – than they did in the countryside. This change was caused overwhelmingly by the fact that the nature of work altered during the 1800s. Cities grew as a result of industrialisation. Factory employees, as well as the office workers who staffed the businesses that serviced these new industrial economies, worked longer and more regular hours than ever before.

In a predominantly agrarian society, work is determined by the weather and is seasonal – hours tend to be longer in summer than in winter, for example. In the factories and offices of Victorian Britain, the clock – and then laws governing how long people were allowed to work – ruled the working day, something Dickens satirised in Hard Times. Work began promptly at around seven or eight o’clock, and continued without stopping until the evening. Gas lamps and, later, electricity, meant that work could go on regardless of when the sun rose or set. Work was decoupled from nature.

The tiny coffee shop at the Columbia Road Flower Market

One of the first aspects of people’s lives to change as a result of these new working patterns was how they ate. In Britain, up until the early nineteenth century, most people ate a substantial breakfast at around ten or eleven o’clock (what we’d now refer to as brunch), and then dinner, the main meal of the day, in the mid-afternoon. In the evening, before they went to bed, they’d have tea with biscuits or a light snack. Supper was a late, savoury meal eaten by the wealthy, and usually after an evening’s entertainment.

With the coming of industrialisation, mealtimes changed and particularly according to the kind of work people performed. For the urban middle classes, dinner moved later into the day, partly as an indicator of the fact that they were wealthy enough to afford candles, gas, or electricity to light the meal. Luncheon and afternoon tea, served with cake and sandwiches, emerged to fill the long gap between breakfast and dinner. Further down the social scale, tea, served at the end of the working day, frequently replaced dinner. This tea – referred to as ‘high tea’ or ‘meat tea’ – included protein, usually potted meat or smoked fish, to assuage the hunger pangs of tired labourers.

The strange British snobbery around the names of mealtimes emerges from this period: it’s upper- and middle-class to refer to breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or supper), and lower-middle- and working-class to say breakfast, dinner, and tea. Breakfast, though, changed in the same way for workers of all kinds: it was eaten earlier in the

day, but remained fairly substantial.

Flowers at the Columbia Road Flower Market

Our eating habits are still evolving – and they’ll continue doing so, particularly as urbanisation continues. It’s estimated that seventy per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and we know that this will have massive implications for how we live: from the way in which we plan our cities, to how we eat. It’s not simply a case that our food systems will have to accommodate the fact that food will have to travel further – or will need to be grown in cities – to feed us all, but our working patterns will change too. What and how we eat cannot be disentangled from where we live.

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

We could be anywhere

I’ve spent the past fortnight in New York – mainly for a conference at Columbia – and on my last morning had breakfast at a restaurant which could only have been in New York, and, more specifically, in Morningside Heights. The Hungarian Pastry Shop is a shabby, comfortable, and much adored cafe among local residents and Columbia’s students and academics. It serves a range of unbelievably good cakes and pastries, the menu for which is an ancient and faded handwritten banner above the counter. Mothers with small children munch apple strudel alongside workmen in overalls, lecturers with textbooks, and small old ladies with thick foreign accents.

The Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, New York

Founded by immigrants, this could only be called The Hungarian Pastry Shop outside of Hungary. Over the years, it’s been tweaked to satisfy the demands of now elderly mittel-European customers, a group of whom was sitting in the sunshine when I arrived, as well as the undergraduates who spend long hours reading over its big mugs of strong coffee. The Shop has a menu in German and table service, as well as an exterior decorated with murals, a graffiti-covered loo, and posters advertising digs, extra tuition, and auditions for student productions.

Breakfast at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

Over a cherry danish, orange juice, and iced coffee, I considered a comment made by my friend Ester a few weeks ago when we had lunch at a new cafe which has recently opened in Cape Town. Skinny Legs and All (yes, as in the novel by Tom Robbins) in Loop Street serves ‘real food, unadulterated, and unadorned’. We had homemade lemonade, soup, and excellent coffee.

As we were admiring the cafe’s interior, Ester noted perceptively that we could have been anywhere – that we could have found this restaurant and eaten similar food, underpinned by the same values and ideas about cooking, in any other city with a demand for sophisticated good food, be it Melbourne, San Francisco, or London. I think that this is a point worth exploring.

The menu at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

In New York I had coffee and lunch in cafes which I could have described in precisely the same terms. At Bubby’s in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, Tablespoon in the Flatiron District, and the City Bakery off Fifth Avenue I could have been anywhere. Of course, all of these restaurants say a great deal about New York, its gentrification and the role of food and restaurants in this process. The City Bakery was founded in 1990, at a time when the slow regeneration of Manhattan was nearing completion and when enthusiasm for artisan bread (best exemplified by the craze for sourdough in San Francisco) was beginning to peak. Bubby’s and Tablespoon – both of which emphasise the extent to which they source seasonal ingredients locally – ride on the City Bakery’s success. In a similar way, Skinny Legs and All is an indicator of the success of Cape Town’s central city improvement district, and also of the very, very slow emergence of a food-focussed South African green movement.

For all their localism, these restaurants are very similar: they serve similar food, they’re influenced by the same collection of chefs and food writers, their attitude towards cooking is based on an understanding of the value of seasonality, and they are influenced by global fashions in decor. Even the cafe I went to in achingly cool Williamsburg – populated by hipsters who conformed pleasingly to type with oversized sunglasses, topknots (for the girls), v-necked t-shirts (for the boys), and MacBooks – could as easily operate in Cape Town’s Woodstock, or in the trendier parts of east London.

Tablespoon in the Flatiron District

To note this similarity isn’t a criticism – it’s simply to point out that these cafes are local manifestations of a global phenomenon. But not all aspects of globalised eating are seen in such positive terms. Since the 1980s at least, there has been a heightened concern that globalisation is causing diets to become homogenised: that the international popularity of fast food chains, supremely McDonald’s, signals the end of discrete, local food cultures.

The apparent ubiquity of the golden arches seemed to indicate a kind of culinary ‘end of history’: as liberal democracy appeared to triumph with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did the eating habits of the West. The opening of a branch of McDonald’s in Red Square in Moscow in 1990 was the final nail in communism’s coffin. I remember clearly going to eat at one of the first McDonald’s to open in South Africa after the end of the international business boycott. Eating there was as much an affirmation of South Africa’s re-entry into the world as was the country’s participation in the 1992 summer Olympics.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that McDonald’s no longer means these things – which isn’t to suggest that it’s not doing well. A recent article in the Economist predicts that McDonald’s and other budget chains, like Aldi, are set to profit out of a world in recession. However much revelations about the chain’s profoundly unhealthy products and poor environmental and labour practices have dented its apparent invincibility, it is still believed to be part of a broader shift in an international Westernisation of diet. This was confirmed, apparently, by Oxfam’s recent report on the global food crisis, Growing a Better Future, which claims that pasta is the world’s favourite food.

The City Bakery, off Fifth Avenue

But is this anything new? And it is possible for all of us, truly, to eat the same diet? As I wrote a few weeks ago, the survey on which Oxfam bases its report on favourite foods seems to be pretty dubious to me. It’s also worth noting that the success of global brands depends on their ability to ‘localise’ their products. McDonald’s has diversified its menu to appeal to local tastes, with a greater number of vegetarian options in Indian branches, smaller portions in Japan, rice products in Singapore and Taiwan, kebabs in Isreal, and pita bread in Greece. In other words, the success of McDonald’s lies not in the imposition of a foreign brand, but in its ability to make its products at once familiar and enticingly exotic.

Restaurants on the upper end of the scale use precisely the same strategy. Writing about the opening of a branch of Les Halles in Tokyo, Anthony Bourdain describes how he adapted his French bistro cuisine to suit Japanese tastes:

I…scale[d] down the portions and [prettied] up the presentations. …I rearranged plates to resemble smaller versions of what we were doing in New York: going more vertical, applying some new garnishes, and then observing customer reactions. I looked for and found ways to get more colour contrast on the plates, moved the salads off to separate receptacles, stuck sprigs of herb here than there.

At Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre in Dubai, the head chef had to become accustomed to cooking halal meat, which is drained of much of its blood and can’t be aged. Jay Rayner writes:

Then there was local taste. Some ingredients simply didn’t sell. If he brought in pigeon, he told me, they would lie in the fridge for a week, neglected by the customers, until, in desperation, he would turn them into a terrine. ‘And then I would eat the terrine.’ He also found himself serving a lot of meat well done.

On a domestic scale, the middle classes have eaten strikingly similar things all over the world since at least the nineteenth century. The movement of people within the British Empire caused the same dishes and menus to be served up on at last four different continents. When Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss arrived at the Cape from Connecticut in 1873 to establish an elite girls’ school, they were pleased – and relieved – to find that their middle-class Dutch-Afrikaner hosts ate the same meals, and in the same way, as they had done in the United States. Bliss wrote to her mother:

thus far I have seen quite as well regulated families & as much attention paid to ‘propriety’ as in America. … Wherever I have taken a meal there has been a servant in the room to wait on table or one has come at the tap of the bell, & all done so quietly & orderly.

The circulation of recipe books and advice on cookery in newspapers and in private correspondence around the Empire demonstrates the extent to which these diets remained fairly similar. They were, as today, inflected by local tastes and produce. In the Cape, the American teachers commented on the colonial habit of eating ‘yellow rice’ (rice cooked with turmeric and raisins and flavoured with cinnamon and bay) with every meal – something introduced by slaves from southeast Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The City Bakery, New York

In other words, the diets of the wealthy have tended to be fairly globalised since international travel was made easier, and more common, from around the beginning of the nineteenth century. With the invention of the jet engine in the mid-twentieth century and, latterly, the internet, these trends have moved around the world more quickly and we’re also considerably more aware of them. It’s the poor – those whose diets we have an unfortunate tendency to romanticise – who have historically tended to eat a fairly limited range of things.

The difference now is that there are far more middle class people wanting to eat similar diets. Oxfam also notes that the newly-affluent Indian and Chinese middle classes consume more meat and dairy products than ever before. Exactly the same trend occurred in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, but this was a shift on a far smaller scale and in a world where food systems were not as globalised as they are today.

How to find the City Bakery

I think that it’s misleading to suggest that diets are becoming progressively more Western. Rather, particular ingredients – meat and dairy above all – are increasingly popular in societies which, traditionally, have tended to eat more fish, vegetables, and other starches. Our planet simply can’t sustain meat- and dairy-heavy diets. Refocusing our attention to responding to the demand for these foodstuffs would be considerably more effective than simply bemoaning the Westernisation and homogenisation of global diets. This is an argument which not only draws an impossible distinction between ‘bad’ global and ‘good’ local diets, but also ignores a long history of global culinary exchange which has been mitigated by local tastes and preferences.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury, [2000] 2001).

Sarah Emily Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner (London: Headline Review, 2008).

James L. Watson (ed.), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’ Theory and Society 24 (1995), pp. 201-243.

Claude Fischer, ‘The “McDonaldisation” of Culture,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 530-547.

Brian Harrison, ‘The Kitchen Revolution,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 139-149.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 516-529.

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

Is Baking Feminist?

Life in post-1994 South Africa can be very strange. Yesterday morning my friend Ester and I went to the National Gallery’s retrospective on…Tretchikoff. Yes, apartheid South Africa’s favourite producer of kitsch, bad, and, occasionally, bizarre artwork has earned himself a serious exhibition and re-evaluation. As far as I can see, his sole redeeming feature was his consistency: Vladimir Tretchikoff was never mediocre, but always uniformly, consistently, bad.

But on our way into the Gallery, we came across Cape Town’s first experiment in yarn bombing. This is a form of graffiti or street art where knitting and other needlework is used to decorate public spaces. Statues get scarves; railings are covered in woolly tubes; and trees are festooned with crafty baubles.

A yarn-bombed lamp in Hay-on-Wye

Yarn bombing is now a global phenomenon, and it’s part of a broader craft movement which seeks to celebrate, promote, and often re-learn hobbies like knitting, crotchet, and tatting. Stitch and Bitch societies – founded originally in the United States – can be found now in nearly every major city, and knitting is particularly hip. Much of this is given a feminist spin. It’s an attempt to reclaim activities once derided as unimportant because they were performed largely by women. Some craftivists make the – legitimate – point that suffragettes used embroidery, tapestry, and quilting to create banners and to raise funds for their cause.

Baking has undergone a similar transformation. At the Hay Festival a fortnight ago, Nigella Lawson argued:

Baking is the less applauded of the cooking arts, whereas restaurants are a male province to be celebrated. There’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female.

I agree.

She added that How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000), the recipe book which kick started both her career and the British enthusiasm for cupcakes, is an ‘important feminist tract’. Now if this is the case – and I write this as one whose copy is scuffed, stained, and torn from extensive use – then I am a three-toed sloth. But her point that baking is seen as a particularly feminine, and, as a result of this, frivolous, pursuit is worth considering.  In fact, professional cake-baking seems to be dominated by women: most pastry chefs are female. Restaurant cooking and bread baking are largely a male preserve, and are seen as more serious, complex, and creative activities.

The yarn-bombed National Gallery in Cape Town

But feminists are not the first women to celebrate baking and home cooking as part of the construction of particular femininities. However much money suffragettes may have raised with their needlework, even larger numbers of women organised tea parties and sold cakes, cookies, and delicately embroidered goods at fetes and bazaars to support missionary work and other more conservative causes. In 1881, the Huguenot Seminary, an elite girls’ school near Cape Town in the Cape Colony, organised a bazaar selling cake and embroidery and raised enough to fund a year’s rent and living expenses for a woman missionary working on a Dutch Reformed mission station in the Transvaal.

Baking has been used by different women at different times to mean many things. What is so interesting about the recent rediscovery of baking (and knitting too, for that matter) is that it’s been embraced enthusiastically by young, educated, middle-class women. I think that this is the product of a variety of factors: the impact of a resurgent green movement and the global economic recession have encouraged a rediscovery of craft and cooking both to save money and to reduce our impact on the environment; young fashion designers and cooks’ interest in knitting and baking have made these fashionable pursuits and rendered ‘make-do-and-mend’ cool; the impact of television series like Mad Men have prompted a (hopefully ironic) re-embrace of domesticity; and this is also a reaction to the feminism of the 1970s which rejected traditionally feminine pursuits because of their connection to women’s subordination.

And here is a crucial point: middle-class women now have no need to bake or to knit. These are leisure activities, to be done in the evenings and over weekends. We forget that until relatively recently in the West, most women baked and sewed not out of choice, but because they had to: because shop-bought cakes and clothes were expensive. One of my maternal great-grandmothers was a seamstress because that was deemed to be an appropriate trade for a white, lower middle-class adolescent in pre-War Cape Town. But my very bourgeois paternal grandmother employed a cook, nanny, and maidservant to do her domestic work for her – as indeed her mother had done too.

I don’t know what my great grandmother would have made of yarn bombing, nor of the slow gentrification of the Cape Town suburb in which she lived for most of her life. Woodstock, recently dubbed ‘Cape Town’s Manhattan’ by the New York Times, is being gradually transformed into a hip, middle-class enclave. And baking is an aspect of this transformation.

This map drawn by UC Berkeley student Danya Al-Saleh plots the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District through bakeries. (See here for a bigger version.)

She’s not the first to do this. Kathe Newman has argued that ‘cupcake shops can provide a more accurate and timely guide to the frontiers of urban gentrification than traditional demographic and real estate data sets.’ This is certainly true for Cape Town. The very traumatic gentrification of parts of the Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter – where families were forced to move out of houses which they had rented for generations – was signalled by the arrival of upscale bakeries. In Woodstock, where  gentrification seems to be proceeding at a slower pace and without the fracturing of existing communities, bakeries and cafes have begun to appear along the main road and near the Neighbourgoods Market, that ultimate expression of Capetonian cool.

In the city’s eastern precinct – the district which stretches from Parliament at the top of Roeland Street and all the way to the Cape Archives – people have been lured out of their cars and onto pavements first by Charly’s Bakery, and then by Mugged on Roeland Street (ho ho), and the coffee- and cupcake-selling Book Lounge. When I first started working at the Archives in 2005 for my MA thesis, the furthest I would go for lunch was to dash across the parking lot to a slightly dodgy sandwich shop. I returned in 2008 while researching my PhD, and could choose between at least five different places to eat – and felt safe to walk to all them.

As one commentator notes, it’s because cupcakes and cake shops are fashionable at the moment that we can use them as an indicator of gentrification:

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

The point remains that cupcakes have been embraced with enthusiasm by middle-class women and have been implicated in the creation of contemporary middle class femininities. Activities once performed by women out of necessity have been transformed into hobbies – and because of middle-class buying power, cake shops and cupcake bakeries are now involved in the gentrification of poor, often crime-ridden neighbourhoods.

More yarn bombing at the National Gallery in Cape Town

I am not suggesting, to paraphrase Cyril Connolly on George Orwell, that I can’t eat a cupcake without commenting on the appalling working conditions in the icing sugar industry. I understand how fraught and disruptive processes of gentrification can be, but I really enjoy being able to walk down main road Woodstock to buy coffee and cake at The Kitchen. And I think that it’s fantastic that so many cake shops and cafes are run by women, and I’m so pleased that the craft movement is reviving and remembering skills which were at risk of being forgotten.

But I do think we need some perspective. Our enthusiasm for cupcakes and cakes is helping to fuel gentrification of poor neighbourhoods – and we need to think carefully about the implications of this. As my friend Shahpar pointed out a few weeks ago, cupcakes are snack food for Dhaka’s busy street vendors. In other words, cakes and baking mean different things all over the world. Cakes, cupcakes, and baking can only be associated with feminism for white, affluent middle-class women. Baking a tray of cupcakes may be a subversive, feminist act for me, but it’s a well nigh impossible one for a woman living in Gugulethu.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,819 other followers