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Whose Slow Food?

While I was a PhD student in London I stayed at a really magnificent residence for postgraduate students in Bloomsbury. Our closest supermarket was a Waitrose which distributed leaflets to the local student population every September (the beginning of the academic year in the UK). Their most successful campaign stated simply, ‘Make your Mum happy. Shop at Waitrose.’ I did as I was told, and shopped at Waitrose. And Mum was indeed very happy.

In Britain, admitting that you shop at Waitrose is similar to calling yourself a Guardian reader: it denotes not only class status (Waitrose is very bourgeois), but also a set of values. Waitrose is like Woolworths in South Africa or, to a lesser extent, Trader Joe’s in the United States. It’s a business which has a commitment to stocking ethically-sourced, free range, and organic products and groceries – hence its association with the lefty, greeny, and affluent middle classes.

It does seem to be hypocritical to admit to shopping at Waitrose – or the even more expensive Marks & Spencer, which attracts a slightly different demographic – while vilifying those who depend on budget chains like Tesco in the UK or Shoprite in South Africa. After all, they’re all supermarkets, and it’s clear that supermarkets are responsible for over a million tonnes of wasted food per year in Britain alone; engage in environmentally harmful practices; exploit their employees; stifle small and local producers; destroy communities; and encourage poor eating habits.

But not all supermarkets are the same. Tim Lang, the food policy expert who invented the term ‘food miles’, suggests that one of the best ways of eating responsibly is to shop at supermarkets which preselect their products on ethical lines. So instead of buying free-range beef directly from the farmer (something which very few of us can do, in practical or financial terms), we should – if we can – shop at supermarkets which encourage this kind of farming. And we should place pressure on bigger chains to stock free range eggs and meat.

I love supermarkets. They’re one of the first places I visit when I go to new cities. When I stayed with a friend in Zürich last year I enjoyed the Swiss supermarkets (the yogurt!) almost as much as the Kunsthaus (the Giacometti statues!). Supermarkets tell us things about how a population thinks about its relationship with food.

It’s partly for this reason that I am concerned about the motives of the Slow Food Movement. Founded in Italy in 1986, and as a global organisation three years later, the Slow Food Movement is now a wealthy, international network of ‘convivia’ – or local branches – which encourage a ‘slow’ attitude towards food. Its members are encouraged to cook and to eat slowly, and also to think more carefully about how their food is produced and sold.

With its emphasis on localism and sustainability, Slow Food has, I think, done a great deal of good. It’s one of the forces behind the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets, and I’m particularly impressed by its publicising of the working conditions of farm workers, many of whom are migrants who are exploited ruthlessly by their employers.

The world is certainly a better place for the existence of Slow Food, but I am concerned by two aspects of its manifesto: its enthusiasm for regional food, which I’ll discuss next week, and its argument that we all cooked and ate better in the past. As an interview with the Movement’s founder and chair, Carlo Petrini, notes:

Slow Food launched courses to put consumers in touch with the producers of the food and wine they enjoyed, recreating the umbilical cord that was cut when supermarkets invaded the market place.

Petrini adds:

‘The idea of the modern has been superseded; the challenge today is to return to the small scale, the handmade, to local distribution – because today what we call ‘modern’ is out of date. The crisis we have been facing in the past year is not merely a financial crisis but also a crisis of systems and values. To overcome it we need to change our behaviour.’

Slow Food was founded at a time when McDonalds and the first big supermarkets opened their doors in Italy. It disapproves of supermarkets on the grounds, as Petrini suggested, that they facilitate a ‘fast’ way of living which relies on the consumption of processed food and does not allow for the enjoyment of cooking and eating. Slow Food asks for a return to ‘traditional’ eating patterns which celebrate ‘ancient’ knowledge about food. For all its efforts to think about the future of food, Slow Food seems to build its model of an ideal system on a set of ideas about ‘traditional’ cooking and eating.

As an historian, I am always suspicious of any movement or organisation which demands a return to or rekindling of tradition. Petrini and Slow Food are pretty vague as to which ‘tradition’ – which ‘past’ – they’d like to return. And considering that Slow Food is a global movement, they seem to imply that all countries and regions have a similar, glorious food past which they should revitalise.

I’d like to know how they would propose to do this in South Africa. Even the most cursory overview of life in late nineteenth-century Cape Town suggests that a return to the past isn’t necessarily a great idea. All white, upper middle-class households employed cooks who, although supervised by their mistresses, were responsible for providing families’ meals. These families ate well: meat every day, even if it was reheated meat, with a variety of vegetables, both cooked and raw, starch of some kind, and usually a pudding with tea or coffee. This was an international diet. Visitors to Cape Town and surrounding towns commented that they ate as well – or even better, given the quality of local produce – in these affluent homes as they did at home in Britain or the United States.

Depending on the generosity of the household, servants may have eaten the same as their masters and mistresses, but, more likely, ate scraps from the table. So most of the food in these families was prepared and cooked by employees, many of whom did not share the same good diet.

Middle- and lower-middle-class households would have employed a maid-of-all-work who would have done some cooking, assisted by her mistress. The reason why a cook was such a desirable addition to the household – and cooks were the most expensive servants to employ – was the sheer backbreaking nature of nineteenth-century cooking. Meat was bought in bulk, with the cook or mistress having to cut down a whole or half-carcass of beef, lamb, or pork herself. All baking had to be done on one day per week – leaving little time for the equally laborious weekly laundry – and the lack of refrigeration meant that dairy products had to be used quickly. A spoiled batch of bread on Monday meant no bread for the rest of the week. Want to make a jelly? Well, you’d have to buy calves’ feet, crack them open, and boil them down to create a jelly which could be added to milk or a fruit puree.

‘Malay’ households padded out diets with rice and fish. The bredies and breyanis which we associate with Cape Malay cooking today were reserved for special occasions. Eggs and dairy products were expensive, even for wealthier households. For the poor in Cape Town’s slums, most meals consisted of a starchy staple – maize porridge, rice, or, possibly, bread – along with fish or whatever else could affordably garnish an otherwise unappetising, and not particularly nutritious, meal. And poor households would have had only one main meal.

These are only some of the diets eaten in South Africa during this period, but I’ve used them to demonstrate how difficult it is to define what we mean by a food tradition. Which one of these Capetonian diets should we return? To the one eaten by white, upper-middle class families? If so, should we ask one member of our households to devote her- or himself to the laborious preparation of these meals? This tiny proportion of colonial society ate precisely the kind of diet promoted by the Slow Food Movement – completely locally-sourced and homemade – but it required one person working all day to execute it in its entirety.

Women, in particular, need to take a closer look at Slow Food. We’re the ones who tend – still – to cook for our families, and much of Slow Food’s criticism of contemporary eating rests on a belief that something in the way in which families ate went profoundly wrong during the 1960s and 1970s. The mass entry of women into employment during these decades did mean that eating patterns changed, but I refuse to return to a time when my role would be limited to keeping house. And I can’t, and won’t, employ someone else to do my cooking for me. It’s interesting that Slow Food emerged from Italy, a country with a distinctly bad track record on women’s rights.

It’s for this reason that I think that Slow Food’s opposition to supermarkets is misguided. Of course, and as I’ve noted above, supermarkets do an enormous amount of harm, but they do allow us to feed ourselves affordably and conveniently. To reject them entirely, when so many people rely on them, is not the way to create a sustainable food system. But, possibly more importantly, I disagree with Slow Food’s belief that we need to return to the past to improve the future. We can certainly learn from the past, but this reification of ‘tradition’ can only be dangerous. Who decides which ‘tradition’ we should turn to? And who’ll cook it?

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

S.E. 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).

SE Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and Dutch Reformed Evangelicalism in the Cape Colony, 1860-1895’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 2010).

Tim Lang, David Barling, and Martin Caraher, Food Policy: Integrating Health, Environment and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Other sources:

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).

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.

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy (London: Berg, 2004).

Tim Lang and Michael Heasman, Food Wars: The Battle for Mouths, Minds, and Markets (London: Earthscan, 2004).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘The Tortilla Discourse: Nutrition and Nation Building,’ in iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), pp. 77-97.

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

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

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. thank goodness! I thought I was the only one harbouring suspicions about them! Admittedly less on the feminist bit (hadn’t realised) but definitely on the ‘return to tradition’ bit!

    May 29, 2011
    • I wish they’d realise that their organisation is strong enough without having to invent traditions to return to. Next week is going to be about their enthusiasm for regional/local cuisines.

      May 29, 2011
  2. Jo #

    Fantastic article which put into black and white some of the vague misgivings I have long held about the Slow Food lot. Reducing food miles is a worthy goal; encouraging people to eat seasonal food is fine; supporting local shops and farmers is a praiseworthy objective. But does a single mother working two jobs have time to do all that, and to prepare everything from scratch? No. Do people living in food deserts have the option of buying fresh seasonal veg? Of course not. Slow Food as a movement seems very self-regarding and bourgeois. Perhaps the movement has taken steps to change that perception, but if so, they need to shout louder because the message has not got through.

    Every so often, misogynist newspapers like the Daily Mail will run articles blaming feminism for the “obesity crisis” [sic] and poor childhood health and anti-social behaviour and so on and on and on. Slow Food seems to be pulling the same trick but more subtly.

    May 31, 2011
    • Thank you! I couldn’t agree with you more: their agenda is a conservative one, albeit dressed up in the usual range of middle-class, greeny, lefty concerns. I think that the problem with Slow Food is that it attaches a set of moral values to the way in which we eat. It simply is not the case that shopping at a supermarket because you have to makes you a bad person. I can’t see how such an approach will ever achieve anything.

      May 31, 2011
  3. Katherine Twamleyq #

    Hey Sarah,

    For more ‘academic’ data on Italy and their quite appalling stats on the division of domestic labour, check out this article hot off the press:

    Kan MY, Sullivan O, Gershuny J (2011) ‘Gender Convergence in Domestic Work: Discerning the Effects of Interactional and Institutional Barriers from Large-Scale Data’ in Sociology, 45(2): 234-251.

    Katherine

    ps Good article!

    May 31, 2011
    • Thanks – and thanks also for the article. I’ll definitely read it. I remember seeing a piece in a newspaper a few months ago about an Italian organisation promoting the cooking of the ‘correct’ version of Italian classics, like lasagne al forno. It collected housewives together, taught them the right versions – as if they weren’t cooking them already – and then encouraged them to give cookery classes – but only to other women. Bizarre.

      May 31, 2011

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