The Empire Bites Back
Well, HELLO there! Dear readers, I have missed you dreadfully. I return to normal service as the madness of the past few weeks simmers down. Also, I have a re-enamelled bath, which is useful.
This veeeery long post is a paper I presented a few weeks ago at the ‘Breaking the Boundaries‘ seminar series organised by the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. I’m hoping that this will form the basis of a new research project, so all comments, criticism, and feedback (ho ho) are particularly welcome. It’s very draft-y, so please excuse the wonkiness of the writing and the inevitable inaccuracies and omissions. If you’d like a properly referenced version with all the academic bells and whistles – although I have listed the sources I’ve cited, below – please let me know (sarahemilyduff [at] gmail [dot] com) and I’ll email you a copy.
In the preface to her eponymous recipe book, Alice B. Toklas noted:
Though born in America, I have lived so long in France that both countries seem to be mine, and knowing, loving both, I took to pondering on the differences in eating habits and general attitude to food and the kitchen in the United States and here. I fell to considering how every nation…has its idiosyncrasies in food and drink conditioned by climate, soil and temperament. And I thought about wars and conquests and how invading or occupying troops carry their habits with them and so in time perhaps the national kitchen or table.
Toklas’s point that national cuisines are produced as much by local circumstances as they are by war and conquest – by global forces, in other words – is worth considering. The study of food, and particularly of food in history, requires us to think beyond boundaries and borders: ingredients travel around the world, and, at least since the seventeenth century, we have become accustomed to eating things – plants and animals – alien to our natural environments; regional patterns of cookery are shaped by migration and occupation by foreign forces; local customs, techniques, and flavours are exported around the world. The way we produce, distribute, prepare, and consume food is determined by a range of factors, many of which operate on a global scale. The study of food also exceeds disciplinary boundaries: it opens a window on to the linkages between political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. By its nature, this study is universal: all people eat and experience hunger. Food history has an immediacy which links the personal with the historical.
Despite the growing popularity of the field of food history, little has been written about the place of food within the British Empire, one of the most important global networks of trade, administration, and communication in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. The purpose of this paper is twofold: firstly, to provide an introduction to the origins, development, and nature of the field of food history, and, secondly, to suggest ways in which food can be inserted into histories of British Imperialism. I conclude with the outline of a project which I hope to pursue in the future.
We are what we eat: food histories
‘The history of food’, writes Raymond Grew, ‘can be thought of as beginning with biology and the hard realities of climate, soil, property, and labour; but it continues through social structure, economic exchange, and technology to embrace culture and include a history of collective and individual preferences.’ In other words, food history seems to offer a way of studying change over time which takes into account nearly every sphere of human activity. It bridges the gap between the cultural and the material. Food provides nourishment, but it also carries with it a range of assumptions, symbols, and signs which are occasionally as important as its primary function. When Spanish missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico refused to celebrate communion using maize, instead of wheat, wafers, they did so purely on the grounds that wheat, an imported crop, represented Europe and, thus, civilisation. Similarly, when well-meaning lady food reformers attempted to ‘Americanise’ the cuisine of recent immigrants to the United States during the 1920s, they did so because the cooking of Italy, Poland, and Ireland was seen as less ‘civilised’ than that prepared by white, Protestant Americans.
Given their aim to write total history, it seems inevitable that the first examples of food history were published in the journal of the Annales school in France in the 1960s. Beginning with a series of articles which examined the diets of a group of former European servicemen during the Second World War, Annales ESC regularly featured writing on food history. An edited volume of the best scholarship on the topic, Food and Drink in History, appeared in 1979. The Oxford Symposium for Food and Cookery was founded by Theodore Zeldin and Alan Davidson, the editor of the Oxford Companion to Food (1999), in 1981. Beyond Annales and the papers read at the Symposium, the first significant work in the field was Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972). Crosby’s achievement was to write about the implications of the conquest of Latin America for human bodies and for landscapes – both Latin American and European. By writing about disease (specifically syphilis), plants, animals, and other foodstuffs, he demonstrated the extent to which political conquest altered the environment, demographics, and social and cultural life of Latin America and Europe. This study, along with Bridget Ann Henisch’s Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (1977), and Savouring the Past: The French Table from 1300 to 1789 (1983) by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, heralded the beginning of a flood of histories of national and migrant cuisines, recipes, particular ingredients, hunger and famine, gender and food, and food and imperialism.
This historical research was complimented by a range of anthropological and, to a lesser extent, sociological studies published at around the same time: Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked (1965), Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), and Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (1982) by Jack Goody being some of the most influential texts. It was the publication of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz in 1985 which blurred disciplinary boundaries between history and anthropology. Indeed, more recently, the field has as frequently been called ‘food studies’ as ‘food history’ to indicate its interdisciplinary nature.
It is no coincidence that food history emerged as a field in its own right during the 1970s. The effects of Green Revolution, which used technology to increase wheat, maize, and rice yields all over the world, but most spectacularly in Mexico, India, and Vietnam, became particularly evident in this decade – and these, along with the oil crisis and a spike in global food prices between 1972 and 1974, were partly responsible for the emergence of a more vocal green movement. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and in 1972 the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth argued that humanity must learn to live within the earth’s natural limits. One of the important streams within the movement was the food counterculture – sometimes dubbed the ‘counter-cuisine’ and exemplified by the cooking of Alice Waters at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse – which had particularly strong support in California in the 1960s and 1970s. Food activists argued for a rejection of industrialised food production and encouraged consumers not only to buy ‘natural’, locally sourced food, but also to grow their own. In Diet for a Small Planet (1971), the book which summed up much of the thinking of the counter-cuisine, Frances Moore Lappé wrote that the meat-centred diet favoured by most Americans threatened the ability of future generations to feed themselves. Later, she argued that meat-centred diets were not only unhealthy, but also as socially and ecologically unfair.
It is not surprising, then, that historians should turn to food history as a way of accounting for contemporary diets and explaining how tastes and food preferences change over time. Like environmental and women’s history, then, the origins of food history overlap to some extent with a kind of activism. This is particularly evident in the body of work which has been produced since the 1990s. There are few more potent indicators of global inequalities than the over-abundance and waste of food in the West, and the scarcity of food and famine in the third world. With concerns about food supplies, food security, changing eating patterns, obesity, and the industrialisation of food production escalating, it is unsurprising that the history of food has emerged as a popular field over the past decade. Food history is now as frequently styled food studies – even when written by historians – and the best known food historian is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, Michael Pollan, author of the wildly popular The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006).
If there is anything unusual about the field of food history, other than its plurality of focus, it is its popularity among lay audiences. Indeed, Gastronomica, one of the three main journals for food history (the others being Food and Foodways and Food, Culture, and Society) is a popular periodical sold in upmarket American supermarkets. The discipline is largely based in the United States. Its professional organisation, the Association for the Study of Food and Society, is located there, and the most prominent food historians are American: Jeffrey Pilcher has written extensively about histories of food, identity, and nationalism in Mexico – his study ¡Que vivan las tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998) is considered by many to be the founding text for the new generation of food historians; and Harvey Levenstein and Warren Belasco both focus on the nature and history of the American food industry since the beginning of the nineteenth century – the oldest, most extensive, and most influential such industry in the world. There is a strong streak of activism in Levenstein and Belasco’s writing. In Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food (2006) by Belasco and Levenstein’s The Paradox of Plenty (2003), the authors argue that their purpose is to account for, and offer solutions to, the pervasiveness of bad American eating habits. Similarly, Italian food historians – who constitute the second biggest grouping within the field – have allied themselves closely to the Slow Food Movement.
But like the heavily interdisciplinary, largely US-based history of childhood (or, increasingly, childhood studies), the ascendancy of food history is due also to the ‘cultural turn’ in the humanities during the early nineties which drew attention to the interconnectedness between the discursive and the material. And it is related to the growing popularity of the field of global history. Interest in global or world history is linked as much to contemporary concerns about the implications of globalisation as it is to efforts within the discipline to write from less ‘West-centric’ points of view. Food history is particularly suited to understanding history in global or transnational terms. As Raymond Grew notes, the ‘universality of food gives it enormous potential as an indicator of cultural differences and historical change’. He adds: ‘food can be used as a kind of trace element, tracking the direction of change, revealing the complex intersections of old and new that demark the global and the local but belong to both.’
All societies produce, distribute, prepare, and consume food, and all societies construct rules around the preparation and consumption of food. The study of food is a useful means of gauging economic progress: it links labour systems with technological innovation, transport, social organisation, environmental factors, and nutrition. Since the sixteenth century, at least, the distribution of food has occurred on a global scale. As Grew notes, food history provides ‘particularly satisfying evidence of how ordinary, daily activities are related to larger, historical trends’. The study of food encourages the comparison of different societies on equal terms, and avoids imposing western models on non-western societies. The tracing of the diffusion of ingredients across the globe allows for the comparison of different responses to the same product, showing up the ways in which groups of people define themselves against others. Food history examines how food is used in the definition and demarcation of social and national identities, and how these change over time. It draws attention to how power is implicated in the distribution and consumption of food. Grew explains: ‘the study of food demonstrates how deeply processes of political and social change can reach into society. No wonder then that commentary on contemporary cuisine is often also a comment on politics, commercialisation, the ecology, and cultural decline.’ Food opens up ways of understanding how power operates within societies.
It is unsurprising that the field of food history is extraordinarily varied, and although generally politically left leaning, it is not dominated by any particular dogmas or controversies. This may be related to the fact that food historians do frequently write for lay audiences. One of the strongest and most popular trends within the field is the fashion for writing histories of single dishes, ingredients, or foodstuffs: like tea, salt, or milk. These are useful in showing how societies give ‘new’ cultural and social meanings, how these ingredients are integrated into existing social structures to reinforce or undermine identities and boundaries. Histories of chocolate and coffee, for example, trace how two beverages became quickly associated with elite status during the sixteenth after having been introduced to Europe, and then slid down the social scale as free trade policies, the development of the plantation system, and industrialisation caused prices to drop.
There is also a growing literature on the industrialisation of food production, and on the construction of national and immigrant identities. But possibly the most significant trend within recent food history has been its focus on addressing contemporary food-related problems – such as obesity, famine, unsustainable agriculture, and the apparently unstoppable power of the largely American, yet increasingly globalised, food industry – through food history. Grew notes that ‘commentary on contemporary cuisine is often also a comment on politics, commercialisation, ecology, and cultural decline’ and I think that this is true of food history as well. Indeed, this may be the cause of one of the field’s greatest weaknesses: historians’ present-mindedness often produces a rose-tinted view of the past, and a desire to return to a way of cooking and eating that never really existed. In fact, one of the most sustained criticisms of the field is that it is academically lightweight. Much of what passes under the name of food history can best be described as pedantic antiquarianism. And for all the field’s claims to being truly global in focus, it has largely ignored Africa and large swathes of Asia.
There is some scholarship on African food history, although much of it has been produced by anthropologists and archaeologists. Southern Africa has a kind of inadvertent food history: Diana Wylie’s Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (2001), Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa (2010) by Anne Mager, and Lance van Sittert’s research on the South African fishing industry, and William Beinart’s writing on large-scale livestock farming, and especially sheep in South Africa, constitute, among others, a significant body of work. Elias Mandala’s The End of Chidyerano: A History of Food and Everyday Life in Malawi, 1860-2004 (2005) and Igor Cusack’s writing on recipe books and the construction of new, national identities in sub-Saharan Africa, engage with the field of food history to the greatest extent.
One way of addressing this lacuna is to consider the role of food within histories of imperialism, and especially of British imperialism.
Food and Empire
Histories of national cuisines are, inevitably, transnational histories too. In Britain, for example, the national dish of chicken tikka masala does not exist as such in south Asia, but was invented in ‘Indian’ restaurants staffed mainly by Bengalis in centres like London and Birmingham to invent a meal that would appeal to British palates while simultaneously appearing to be exotic and, at least at first, sophisticated. A history of twentieth-century cooking in Britain is as much a history of the British Empire, the Commonwealth, India, and Bangladesh. Indeed, the history of imperial conquest since the sixteenth century cannot be disentangled from histories of food. Sidney Mintz argues:
Sugar did more than revolutionise the tastes of the British people. It put into place a major economic and strategic system which lasted for more than two centuries and saw the lines of British trade and production directed along routes and towards destinations which were to dominate British global interests long after.
Although Mintz overstates his case, his point that imperialism, and particularly in its early stages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was driven by demand for luxury goods – such as spices, tea, and coffee – is an important one. Even if there is no acknowledged subdiscipline on imperial food histories, there is a large body of work which understands the complex workings of power within the British Empire through food. So much so, in fact, that some commentators have noted the absence of food in the recent Oxford History of the British Empire (2002). As in the case of the larger field of food history, there is no single approach or focus which distinguishes this historiography on food history in the British Empire. Some of the most popular works have been on single foodstuffs, like tea, curry, and, most recently, opium. These studies attempt to bridge cultural, social, and economic history by demonstrating how the meanings attached to particular ingredients or commodities change over both time and space – and the implications of these shifts for imperial networks of trade and finance.
Perhaps the best place to begin looking for such a history is the large scholarship on nineteenth-century domesticity. In an article about curry and cookbooks in Victorian households, Susan Zlotnick concludes:
As figures of domesticity, British women helped incorporate Indian food into the national diet and India into the British empire; and this process of incorporation remains etched on the pages of the domestic cookery books written by middle-class women like Eliza Acton and Isabella Beeton. If a later, more aggressively masculinist imperial discourse tries to erase them from the annals of empire …early Victorian cookery books attest to the important ideological function women performed in the construction of Victorian imperialism. At both the symbolic and the practical level, Victorian women domesticated imperialism.
As middle-class notions of domesticity were evoked in missionaries’ attempts to ‘civilise’ African subjects, so food, its preparation, and its consumption became increasingly significant in defining who was, and who was not, civilised. Nancy Rose Hunt demonstrates this in her study of the role of missionaries in educating young Congolese men and women during the early twentieth century, pointing out the number of ‘evolutionary theme[s]’ evoked by the missionaries to emphasise the progress of their protégés, from ‘darkness to lightness, savagery to civilisation, heathens to Christians, monkey stew to roast beef.’ ‘Civilisation’ is achieved when a traditional European meal replaces that originating from Africa.
Histories of food are, then, particularly useful in explaining the cultural and social implications of British Imperialism for both men and women. To my mind, the most interesting work on food history within the British Empire is being done in a relatively new sub-field which focuses on imperial trade, commodities, and consumerism during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Commodities of Empire research project run jointly by the Open University, the British Academy, the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and London Metropolitan University, ‘explores the networks through which such commodities circulated within, and in the spaces between, empires’ as a means of understanding how ‘local processes…significantly influenced the encounter between the world economy and regional societies.’ Arguing that imperial expansion, the trade in commodities, and the industrial revolution should be understood in relation to one another, the project considers how the ‘expanded production and global movements’ of commodities ‘brought vast spatial, social, economic, and cultural changes to both metropoles and colonies.’ It is telling that of the seventeen working papers produced by the project so far, nine are on food, and half of the articles in the Journal of Global History’s special edition on commodities, empires, and global history are on food. Alan Pryor explains how the study of Indian ‘pale ale’ provides new ways of understanding the construction of imperial identities and the workings of imperial free trade:
The story of the development of Indian pale ale is one of cultural invention. This was a new product that was neither British nor Indian, occupying the space in between those two cultures in British India. In the late eighteenth century, George Hodgson developed a new beer for India in an obscure brewery on the eastern periphery of London. Hodgson’s pale ale was a light beer with a refreshing bitter taste, which was to become a signifier of Anglo-Indian identity in numerous accounts of life in India. Eighteenth-century beer was a relatively low-value product, and its export to India was only made possible by the Byzantine economics of the East India Company. The growing demand for pale ale in India brought competition from other brewers, particularly from Burton-on-Trent. …the difficult trading conditions of India were instrumental in the development of new marketing techniques, were subsequently employed to introduce a new genre of beer into Britain, Indian pale ale.
…there was an unofficial agenda to commodify the British Empire, particularly India, which is epitomised with the development of Indian pale ale. Heroic accounts of colonial adventures were often peppered with references to its restorative qualities. The sub-text was that India was Britain’s challenge, particularly the climate, but the superiority of her manufacturing ability was able to produce a beer that was able to meet it. This fitted with an idealised version of empire, where the metropole imported the raw materials for its manufacture, rewarding the colony with manufactured goods, education, governance and progress. By following the marketing and development of this product it becomes possible to gain greater understanding of the emerging debate over protectionism and free trade as it affected Britain’s relationship with its empire.
Frank Trentmann has shown how the development of the Empire Marketing Board during the early twentieth century to protect and encourage imperial trade in food was connected to the development of early consumerism: the ‘imperial consumers’ – rather than customers – of the 1920s who could afford to choose between a new range of branded food, bought foodstuffs promoted by the Empire Marketing Board for the good of the Empire. In a study of the Empire Marketing Board’s promotion of the King’s Christmas Pudding in the late 1920s, Kaori O’Connor concludes:
The incorporation of specifically empire ingredients in a symbolic dish made especially for the king, and the partaking of the royal pudding in households throughout the kingdom, the dominions, and the colonies that Christmas Day of 1927, was an act of secular communion, the enacting of empire through consumption. It emerged as a unifying force during a time of social dissent and division at home and abroad, and it appealed to the public on many levels and across social classes. To begin, the King’s Christmas pudding was highly popular with the new breed of women consumers. It validated the social activism of women previously engaged in the empire and related movement; it was a gift to all the women to whom Christmas dinner in general, and the pudding in particular, were the ultimate test of their skills and taste as cook or hostess; it empowered women by giving them the opportunity to practise critical consumption. Retailers and wholesalers welcomed the promotion of the King’s Christmas pudding and empire ingredients as an additional spur to trade. After EMB initiatives, Sainsbury, for example, actively promoted ‘Empire’ goods across their product range and the firm’s Christmas advertisements began to specify the origins of dried fruit: ‘Australian sultanas’; ‘Special Offer for your Christmas Pudding and Mincemeat – try our Empire Raisins’. Origins had always been important in the luxury trade, and now they acquired a more general political significance. Above all, as a recipe the King’s Christmas pudding provided the vital link between production and consumption, becoming an instrument of social action.
By focussing on the production and reception of one commodity or product – be it Christmas pudding, pale ale, cassava, or tobacco – historians are able to construct an understanding of how the effects of imperial trade were felt and shaped by a range of people: housewives in Britain, businessmen in the City of London, producers in the colonies, and traders in imperial cities like Cape Town, Delhi, and Melbourne.
I would like to sketch briefly a project which addresses a lacuna in this imperial history of food commodities.
In a country where Heritage Day is renamed National Braai Day (or barbeque day), it seems that historians should not have to work very hard to justify the study of the historical significance of meat eating in South Africa. I became interested in tracing attitudes towards eating meat – and examining how these attitudes influenced and were shaped by the introduction of livestock farming and the growth of a meat industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – when thinking about why it is that no meal is seen as complete unless it contains meat of some kind. As Pollan writes about vegetarianism, meat is not only convenient and quick to cook, but most of our cultural and religious celebrations are based around the consumption of some form of meat. In a time of growing anxiety about the ever-increasing amounts of meat which the world’s population appears to be demanding – although there is some reason to believe that this concern is not based on any firm evidence – as well as mounting evidence to demonstrate the ecological unsustainablility of the meat and dairy industries, it seems reasonable to ask why meat is associated with prosperity and with eating well.
It also seems logical to base this study on a series of examples drawn from the southern hemisphere. Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil all have prosperous meat industries which supply both local and international markets with beef and lamb. This is a transnational history of meat-eating. All of these countries and regions are also all former colonies and dominions, and an understanding of how meat industries developed in these regions must be understood within imperial contexts. There is a small body of work on meat-eating, the best known of which is Roger Horowitz’s history of the American meat industry, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (2006). And research into livestock and cattle- and sheep farming in southern Africa, Australia, and other places constitute a foundation for such a study. But equally importantly, all of these nations constitute national and gendered identities around the consumption of meat – and particularly red meat.
I would like to trace not only the origins of the meat industries in these regions, but also consider how the origins of these businesses were linked to the complicated ways in which meat was used to define social, national, or gendered identities. Preliminary research on South Africa positions food, and particularly meat, as being central to the early colonial encounter, and I’ll end with a tentative discussion of how attitudes towards meat can be used to illustrate the first interactions between white settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of the Cape in the seventeenth century.
In a history of cassava production in Brazil, Kaori O’Connor notes:
It is a curious feature of colonial and imperial studies that food security and details of food production, preparation and consumption, which contemporary documents show was the overriding concern of settlers’ daily lives and the motivation for many of their relations with Amerindians and slaves, has been consistently overlooked or minimised in academic and economic histories of the period. A preoccupation with food and the dread of scarcity and famine runs through all the early European accounts of New World colonisation generally….
Indeed, Jan van Riebeeck’s journal of his time as Commander of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) settlement at the Cape is preoccupied with food. This was overwhelmingly the result of the fact that the settlement’s primarily – indeed only – goal was to produce and, where possible, procure fruit, vegetables, and meat for passing Company ships. Failure of the settlement’s gardens meant a failure of the scheme altogether. But Van Riebeeck and the other employees of the DEIC spent their first few years at the Cape with very little to eat: feeding themselves was considerably more difficult than they had anticipated it to be. Additionally, the consumption of particular foodstuffs was a marker of identity, and food became a means of facilitating contact between indigenous peoples and European settlers. The first communication between the employees of the DEIC and the Khoikhoi centred around food: two representatives of a Khoikhoi group were invited on board a DEIC ship and the Dutch ‘generously filled their bellies with food and drink’ in exchange for information about Khoikhoi willingness to barter cattle for DEIC goods. Later, a skipper who had gone ashore to find fresh provisions was presented with ‘4 bags of beautiful mustard leaves and sorrel and also a catch of about 750 lovely steenbras’.
There is evidence of some exchange of culinary traditions – the Khoikhoi developed a taste for bread and the Dutch took to penguins’ eggs – but this was no example of happy multiculturalism: exchanges occurred because these foodstuffs tasted good and did not fundamentally alter the ways in which identities were forged through food. One of the most constant refrains in the journals is Van Riebeeck’s relief that the edible plants and animals at the Cape were similar to those ‘at home’. He wrote that the fish at the Cape were ‘quite as good and tasty’ as ‘any fish in the Fatherland’. Even hippopotamus meat tasted ‘like calf’. This meant that the Cape was a viable place for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables grown from European seeds for European ships, and that European settlement was possible in this part of Africa. It also meant that this landscape could allow Europeans to be ‘civilised’ in it.
For instance, in October 1652, nearly six months after landing in Table Bay, DEIC employees held a farewell dinner for a group of visiting Company officials. Van Riebeeck described the menu: ‘Everything on the table was produced at the Cape: the fowls were reared here, new green peas, spinach, chervil, pot-herbs, asparagus (a finger’s thickness) and lettuce as hard as cabbage and weighing at least 1¼ lbs each.’ It is reasonable to assume that his cook did his best to replicate the cooking of the Netherlands. This was European cuisine prepared using vegetables grown from seeds imported from Europe, but produced in the Cape. This feast was more than a meal: its purpose exceeded simply providing a group of DEIC employees with dinner. The inclusion of local ingredients or aspects of Khoikhoi cuisine would have been seen to undermine the authority of European settlement in the Cape.
Food did facilitate contact with indigenous people: the Khoikhoi were as willing to accept bread, tobacco, and alcohol in barter as they were copper wire or beads. Yet the Khoikhoi did not willingly relinquish the one possession which the Dutch desired above all: their cattle. After an initial exchange of a cow and her calf for ‘3 small plates of copper and 3 pieces of ½ fathom copper wire’, the Khoikoi were considerably less forthcoming. Cattle were not only a source of protein for the Khoikhoi, but represented wealth and status. There is some evidence to suggest that the Khoikhoi actually ate very little red meat, keeping it – like many societies all over the world – for times of celebration and, even then, only slaughtering as few animals as possible. Bags of copper wire could not compensate for the loss of such valuable beasts.
It is, thus, telling that one of the few recorded Khoikhoi outbursts against the Dutch centres around food. The diarist and DEIC official JG van Grevenbroek spent much of his time at the Cape – which spanned between c.1685 and his death in c.1726 – compiling a study of a group of people whom he dubbed ‘Hottentots’, based on a series of interviews which he conducted with them. By 1705, Grevenbroek had written an account of various Khoikhoi groups in the western Cape. He paid a great deal of attention to their eating habits, and recorded one Khoikhoi man: ‘You eaters of grass and lettuce. Feed it to your oxen: personally we would rather fast. Your habits disgust and sicken us: we never belch or fart. With your foolish values, you treasure a woman’s necklace of tiny beads above sheep.’ Here, the Khoikhoi – accused by white settlers of being dirty, smelly, and uncouth – turn the tables on the Dutch colonists, describing them as uncivilised, and partly for their enthusiasm for ‘grass and lettuce’ – foodstuffs considered by the Khoikhoi to be cattle feed.
But Grevenbroek notes that Khoikhoi tastes did change:
Our lettuces also and other vegetables they have at length learned to eat greedily, thought at first, mocking the indiscriminate taste of Europeans, they would say that they were only fit to be eaten by cattle along with the grass of field. Then, if asked to lunch or dinner, they would retort, make the oxen your guests, pile up the grass, boasting that they could endure fasting and had learned to bear poverty from childhood.
Ironically, travellers to the Cape during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries echoed the Khoikhoi outburst against Dutch settlers, describing the farmers of the rural interior as uncouth and uncivilised for their almost exclusively meat-based diets. James Ewart, a British officer stationed at the Cape between 1811 and 1814 described the ‘Boer’ – who was also, significantly, a stock farmer – with whose family he lodged on the eastern frontier:
At his meals that is dinner and supper the only which are regular, he eats an enormous quantity of beef or mutton swimming in the fat of the sheep’s tail, with a proportionate allowance of coarse bread or vegetables; this he washes down with liberal potations of common brandy, being excessively fond of ardent spirits, seldom using wine which he could easily procure. Having sufficiently gorged himself during dinner, he takes a sleep for two or three hours, and on rising again, resumes his pipe which is seldom out of his mouth.
These few examples demonstrate how food, and meat in particular, mediated the colonial encounter – and from both sides. I think that they are suggestive of a wider history which needs to be written about histories of meat, and especially red meat, in transnational perspective.
As histories of childhood tend to be about adults’ views of children rather than of children themselves – and the same could possibly said of animal history – so the history of food is not so much about food, but rather the complex interactions around it. Indeed, some of the worst examples of food history tend to focus on food itself, producing painfully nitpicking histories of ingredients and recipes. Nevertheless, a history of the ways in which we have used food to construct identities, to forge and break relationships, to fund and found empires, and to sustain economies provides us with new ways of understanding the functioning of imperialism, and of connecting global trends and changes with local, and even individual, experience.
Texts quoted here:
Ken Albala, ‘History on the Plate: The Current State of Food History,’ Historically Speaking, vol. 10, no. 5 (Nov. 2009), pp. 6-8.
‘An Elegant and Accurate Account of the African Race Living Round the Cape of Good Hope Commonly Called Hottentots, from a Letter Written by J.G. van Grevenbroek in the Year 1695,’ trans. B. Farrington, in The Early Cape Hottentots, ed. I. Schapera (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1933).
Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (London: Vintage  2006).
Donna R. Gabaccia, We are what we eat: Ethnic food and the making of Americans (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Raymond Grew, ‘Food and Global History,’ in Food in Global History, ed. Raymond Grew (Newton Centre: New Global History Press,  2004).
Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, ‘Hidden in Plain View: The History of Children (and Childhood) in the Twenty-First Century,’ JHCY, vol. 1, no. 1 (2008), pp. 43-49.
Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).
James Ewart’s Journal Covering his Stay at the Cape of Good Hope (1811-1814) and his Part in the Expedition to Florida and New Orleans (1814-1815), ed. A. Gordon-Brown (Cape Town: Struik: 1970).
Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. 1 1651-1655, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town and Amsterdam: AA Balkema, 1952).
Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
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