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Food Links, 26.06.2013

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.


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.

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

Foodie Pseudery (44)

This foodie pseudery was spotted by my friend Lize-Marie, who came across an entirely nonsensical description of a burger at a branch of MacDonald’s in Sweden:


The text reads: ‘Sometimes the journey isn’t the goal, but the taste of something new and exciting. Join us during our taste explorations from spicy India to exotic South Africa via Greece, Mexico and Australia.’

Up to a point.

Food Links, 19.06.2013

Edible Animals

I have a weakness for strange novellas in translation, published by obscure imprints.* Last week I read Eat Him if You Like by Jean Teulé (Gallic Books, 2011). In slightly more than a hundred pages, Teulé describes a horrific incident which occurred in Hautefaye, a village in the Dordogne, during the summer of 1870. In the midst of drought, food shortages, and a disastrous conflict with Prussia, a mob of peasants turned on a young aristocrat, Alain de Monéys, and tortured him to death over the course of an afternoon.

In the evening, he was placed on a funeral pyre and set alight. His remains may have been eaten by his attackers.

The atrocity is the subject of Alain Corbin’s academic monograph, The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 (1992). He demonstrates that although the people who carried out the torture were mainly peasants, figures of authority were well aware of what was being done to De Monéys, as John Merriman explains in a review:

The mayor, despite wearing the tricolour sash symbolising his authority, was not much help… After a clumsy, ineffective effort to calm the crowd, he shut his door, fearing that the mob would smash his dishes. Worse, a witness reported that he told the crowd: ‘Take Monsieur de Moneys away from the front of the inn. He’s blocking traffic!’ And when someone shouted, ‘We want to kill him, burn him, and eat him,’ the mayor replied, if not ‘A table!’ at least ‘Eat him if you like’…

Why did this happen? Why did a group of three to eight hundred otherwise reasonable people – who, afterwards, deeply regretted their behaviour – turn on an innocent fellow subject? The immediate reason for the lynching was that De Monéys was accused of being a ‘Prussian’ and had shouted ‘Vive la République!’ at a time when France was ruled by Napoleon III.


Corbin argues that a collection of factors converged in Hautefaye on 6 August 1870, each of which contributed to the summer afternoon’s madness: a combination of hunger and desperation caused by the drought, growing peasant hostility towards the aristocracy, and anxiety about the progress of the Franco-Prussian War. Merriman writes:

There can be no question about the intrusion of national politics in the world of these peasants… Corbin sees the event as reflecting an intensification of a nationalism in the wake of the war, extending even into a peasant community in one of France’s most ‘backwards’ regions. …Corbin sees the community as affirming its own identity by ‘expel[ling] the monster from its midst.’

There is no evidence, only rumour, to suggest that De Monéys was eaten. In the novella, Teulé implies that, Christlike, in consuming his body, the mob is able to rid itself of its sins:

His ashes rose higher, swirling around in the air above the crowd who were feasting as they did on the most important holidays. They devoured their cannibal sandwiches. … Eating this body would purge the community.

As several of the reviews of Corbin’s book note, his explanation for the torture and possible cannibalism is not entirely satisfactory. And Teulé, despite his depiction of De Monéys as a scapegoat, implies that not all of his torturers may have had such elevated motives. The problem is that cannibalism in these circumstances – where a group of people willingly choose to eat another – transgresses so many taboos and social and cultural boundaries, that it seems to defy all logical explanation.

It’s little wonder, then, that cannibalism was central to the justification for colonialism – and, indeed, the word emerged at the beginning of the colonial encounter. Shirley Lindenbaum writes:

The word cannibal is said to be a legacy of Columbus’s second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493. Referring originally to the Caribs in the Antilles who were identified as eaters of human flesh, the term was subsequently extended as a descriptive term for flesh eaters in other populations. The discourse of cannibalism, which began with the encounter between Europe and the Americas, was to become a defining feature of colonial encounters in the New World

With its association with savagery, cannibalism was bound up with the construction of the colonial other.

But however much we may be appalled by cannibalism, it is very, very rarely done without reason. It’s easier to understand this by looking at the several forms of cannibalism which exist. I think we’re most familiar with survivor cannibalism, which occurs when people eat others in the absence of any other food, like the case of the 1972 Andes plane disaster, when a group of sixteen Uruguayan rugby players ate their deceased fellow passengers to survive freezing conditions. Also, cannibalism occurs during times of famine. There were instances of cannibalism in Russia in 1921, and, allegedly, in China’s Great Famine between 1958 and 1962.

It’s used in rituals to strengthen bonds within groups or communities, and also as a weapon of terror in warfare. It’s a symptom of psychopathology – as excited reports of the ‘face-eating man’ in Miami last year confirmed. But it’s also been done for medical reasons:

Medicinal ingestion involving human flesh, blood, heart, skull, bone marrow, and other body parts was widely practiced throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Human flesh obtained from ‘mummy shops,’ where the remains of an embalmed, dried, or otherwise prepared human body that had met with sudden, violent death, was considered to be a ‘universal panacea’… Samuel Johnson’s 1785 dictionary of English includes a description for preparing mummy, indicating that it was still being sold at that date, and it was still available in 1909 from a reputable German pharmaceutical company.

Placentophagy – where mothers eat their new-born babies’ placenta – falls within this definition too.

Cannibalism is more familiar to us than we probably realise – and certainly to those of us who’ve been to church:

Sacrificial cannibalism, in which the victim is treated with solicitude and honour as a prelude to sacrifice to the gods, is a widely reported form of aggression. Aztec cannibalism in fifteenth-century Mexico, as well as nineteenth-century Fijian practises, belong in this category. The Christian ritual of the Eucharist is its symbolic extension.

Even the use of organs in transplants involves a recycling of body parts between different people.

I want to emphasise that my point in writing this is not to horrify – and I think it’s absolutely imperative for every adult to consider signing up as an organ donor. Rather, thinking about cannibalism helps to illuminate aspects of our relationship with food and eating.

Firstly, there is nothing ‘savage’ or ‘senseless’ about cannibalism. It occurs for a range of reasons and takes a variety of forms, only some of which I’ve mentioned here. When people consume other people, it is for specific, well thought-out reasons. In fact, the contexts which cause people to break this taboo are, I think, more interesting than the cannibalism itself.

Secondly, cannibalism is the supreme example of eating being done for reasons not connected to nutrition: it was and is done – either by literally eating bodies or consuming them symbolically – to create and maintain group identities.

But it also draws our attention – uncomfortably – to ourselves as animals. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Soylent Green, and, even, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, there are moments of profound – horrifying – realisation that humans are, like cattle or pigs, potentially edible, or (re)usable, animals. In other words, understanding how and why and what we ate – and eat – changes over time, is intertwined with histories of cannibalism, and of ourselves as members of the food chain.

* Have you read The little girl who was too fond of matches, Pereira Maintains, or The Marquise of O-? You really should.


Edward Berenson, Review of The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 by Alain Corbin, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 66, no. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 815-818.

Rachel B. Herrmann, ‘The “tragicall historie”: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown,’ The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1 (January 2011), pp. 47-74.

Shirley Lindenbaum, ‘Thinking about Cannibalism,’
Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33 (2004), pp. 475-498.

John M. Merriman, Review of The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 by Alain Corbin, The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 3 (Jun., 1993), pp. 883-885.

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

Food Links, 12.06.2013

1. It’s very, very hard to run a food truck in New York. | 2. ‘the bosses from Seoul began slipping their North Korean workers a Choco Pie or two as a perk.’ | 3. ‘The Chinese corporation Shuanghui International … has just bought US giant Smithfield, the globe’s largest hog producer and pork packer, in a $4.7 billion cash deal.’  | 4. Half a million Britons are using food banks. | 5. On granola. | 6. Jeppson’s Malort. | 7. Are wild, edible plants more nutritious than cultivate varieties? | 8. Espresso drinks, deconstructed. | 9. Gin does not make you sad. | 10. The new fashion for chocolate bags. | 11. The ramp harvest. | 12. ‘One day I will live like a vegan Gwyneth, another day I will eat like a child of Gwyneth.’ | 13. How to de-seed and juice pomegranates. | 14. Georgian pound cake. | 15. Japanese prison food. | 16. ‘Like tulips in Holland, chickens were once the subject of near-insane interest and wild financial speculation.’ | 17. The art of bees. | 18. 3D-printed sugar. | 19. How to brew coffee.

Foodie Pseudery (43)

The transcendence of onions – a discussion between Ruth Reichl and Michael Pollan:

R: In your new book, Cooked, you said, “There’s nothing ceremonial about chopping vegetables on a kitchen counter.” I have to tell you, I so don’t agree with you. For me, chopping onions, putting them in butter, the smells coming up, that’s all totally sensual, totally seductive. And truly ceremonial, in the best way. I built a kitchen so that people can stand around and watch me cook.

P: To me onions are the metaphor for kitchen drudgery. Cutting them is hard to do well and they fight you the whole way. But I worked at this for a long time, learned everything I could about onions—why they make us cry, how to prevent it, why they’re such a huge part of cuisine worldwide, and what they contribute to a dish. I finally learned this important spiritual truth, which is bigger than onions: “When chopping onions, just chop onions.” When I finally got into the zen of cutting onions, I passed over to another place. Part of the resistance to kitchen work like chopping is a macho thing. Men like the big public deal of the grill, the ceremonies involving animals and fire, where women gravitate toward the plants and pots inside.

R: Chopping is like a meditation.

P: A zen practice, I agree. I learned that from my cooking teacher Samin Nosrat, who is a serious student of yoga. She talked to me about patience, presence and practice. She thought they applied equally well to cooking and yoga. And they do.

Food Links, 05.06.2013

1. Why British fishermen cannot rely on the shellfish boom. | 2. Byron, BrewDog, and the recuperation of radical aesthetics. | 3. Michael Pollan’s rose-tinted view of domesticity. | 4. Eat less meat for the good of the planet..  | 5. The plight of the honeybee. (And how bumblebees – whose numbers are being boosted – can help to save this year’s UK strawberry crop.) | 6. On cast iron pans. | 7. The growing interest in brewed coffee. | 8. The taco waffle. | 9. Mumbai’s Parsi cafe culture. | 10. Urban chicken coops. | 11. The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative. (And mapping Africa’s soil diversity.) | 12. A brief history of Angostura bitters. | 13. Collectable wedding cake. | 14. Blueberry tall pie. | 15. Hackney’s boutique spoon whittler. | 16. On #guardiancoffee. | The return of the prune.

Let them eat burgers

Earlier this month, Patricia de Lille – the former firebrand stalwart of the radical Pan Africanist Congresshanded over the key to Cape Town, to a man dressed up as a hamburger.

Now the mayor of the opposition-controlled City of Cape Town, De Lille met with the senior management of Grand Parade Investments, as well as the hamburger, to celebrate the opening of the first branch of Burger King in South Africa.

Since selling its first burger on 9 May, queues have snaked all the way down Heerengracht Street – not Cape Town’s loveliest quarter – as punters wait hours to try Whoppers and the chain’s other products.

So far the only controversy that the chain seems to have generated is a call from People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) to boycott Burger King because Grant Parade Investments also owns Grand West Casino – to which Pagad is opposed on the grounds that gambling further impoverishes the poor communities which surround Grand West.

There has been a lot of chatter about the opening of a new fast food chain in South Africa: will the 120 planned Burger King outlets contribute to the country’s increasingly high instance of obesity? How will existing brands respond to this new competition? And is Burger King’s arrival part of a ‘McDonaldisation’ of South African food? In other words, is a kind of globalised junk food changing the ways in which South Africans eat?

All of these are complex questions which are impossible to answer less than a month after the opening of one branch of Burger King. But we can begin to address the last because South Africa’s experience of global Big Fast Food is fairly similar to what has happened abroad, and in the past.

In the weeks preceding the opening of Burger King, Grand Parade Investment’s CEO, CFO, and Chairman lovebombed the South African media. In the several radio interviews that I heard, they reiterated over and over again that although the product they’re bringing into South Africa is the same as that served in the US – and of the same quality – it will be produced by well-trained South African employees, and made using ingredients processed locally. (Burger King will open a factory in Philippi.)

The flagship Burger King has a mural of Table Mountain and the Grand Parade in a prominent place. For all the fact that Burger King’s appeal is based on its status as an exotic foreign product, it’s been modified to appeal specifically to South African customers.

This, however, is not unique. One of the main reasons for the incredible success of McDonald’s all over the world is that while it maintains the pretence of selling precisely the same product in India, Belgium, and Argentina, each of those countries has both a menu and a dining experience which is – more or less – tailored to the expectations and preferences of local diners.

For instance: recently, there has been some coverage of McDonald’s attempt to add pasta to its menus in Italy. Although this has been greeted with derision, the chain has done similar things elsewhere. It tried to introduce falafel to its menu in Israel, and yak burgers in Mongolia.

One of the reasons for Taco Bell’s relative lack of success outside of the United States is its inability to adjust its model to local tastes. Indeed, McDonald’s isn’t the only chain to allow its menus and, even, restaurant design to be fairly flexible: Subway, for example, sells a Chicken Tikka sandwich – flatbread optional – in the UK.

In France, despite sustained opposition from anti-globalisation activists and the food movement, McDonald’s has more than 1,200 branches. In contrast, South Africa – considered to be one of McDonald’s most successful ventures – has only 161. Why? Because it uses ingredients popular with French customers – cheese, Dijon mustard – allows for diners to stay longer in their restaurants (French customers are more likely to eat full meals at McDonald’s rather than to snack), and it opened the McCafe, which sells patisserie.

I use the example of France deliberately, because it’s usually described as having an admirably distinct and healthy food culture (whatever we may mean by ‘food culture’). McDonald’s success there not only suggests that this reputation is based, to some extent, on myth and a lot of PR, but also that the implications of the presence of Big Fast Food for people’s diets, are complex.

Although the ‘South Africanisation’ of Burger King is interesting to explore, I think it might be more useful to understand the arrival of the chain in relation to the country’s shifting demographics and economic development. Arriving almost two decades after the dawn of democratic government, Burger King has certainly taken its time to get here.

McDonald’s opened its first branch in 1995, and, initially, exerted the same appeal in South Africa as it did in Russia during the late 1980s.  Similar to South Africa’s participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, it symbolised the end of the country’s isolation.

In 2013, Burger King has arrived to take advantage of the growth of South Africa’s middle class. As Jonny Steinberg notes in a recent article:

It is true that our politics is increasingly corrupt, that people express discontent by throwing stones and burning things, that yawning inequalities cause much resentment. Less well known is that the income of the average black family has increased by about a third since the beginning of democracy; that 85% of homes are electrified compared with just over half on the last day of apartheid…

Despite the slowing down of economic growth – despite the fact that at the moment R10 will buy only $1 – there are still more South Africans to spend cash on fast food, and other consumer goods, than ever before. It’s telling that the malls and other locations at which the new Burger King branches will open tend towards the upper end of the market – and that the chain will focus its operations on the Western Cape and Gauteng, the country’s two wealthiest provinces.

In his study of the exponential success of McDonald’s in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, James L. Watson argues that McDonald’s took off at the same time that family structures in these countries changed: as the size of families shrunk, as women began, increasingly, to work outside the home, and as it became more common for nuclear families to live separately from grandparents, so McDonald’s found a market in these comparatively wealthy families with children to spoil. He writes:

American-style birthday parties became key to the company’s expansion policy. Prior to the arrival of McDonald’s, festivities marking youngsters’ specific birthdates were unknown in most of East Asia. … McDonald’s and its rivals now promote the birthday party – complete with cake, candles, and silly hats – in television aimed directly at kids.

As in China, Burger King is a treat for South Africa’s newly-affluent middle-class families, and not (yet) associated with absolutely cut-priced eating. The association of big fast food chains with poverty seems to remain limited to wealthier nations.

My point is that the arrival of Burger King now – in 2013 – says far more about South Africa than it does about Burger King.

I think one of the best examples of the massive change which the country has experienced, is the rise and rise of the current Deputy President of the ANC – and future Deputy President (and President?) of South Africa. In 1994 he was known as a founder of the National Union of Mineworkers, arguably South Africa’s most powerful union, and as a key figure in the negotiations which ended apartheid. Now Cyril Ramaphosa is one of South Africa’s wealthiest people. And, until recently, the owner of the local franchise for McDonald’s.


Ian Brailsford, ‘US Image but NZ Venture: Americana and Fast-Food Advertising in New Zealand, 1971-1990,’ Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 22, no. 2 (December 2003), pp. 10-24.

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’
Theory and Society, vol. 24, no. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 201-243.

EU Igumbor, D. Sanders TR Puoane, L. Tsolekile, C. Schwarz C, et al., ‘“Big Food,” the Consumer Food Environment, Health, and the Policy Response in South Africa.’ PLoS Med, vol. 9, no. 7, (2012), e1001253.

John W. Traphagan and L. Keith Brown, ‘Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns,’ Ethnology, vol. 41, no. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 119-134.

James L. Watson, ‘China’s Big Mac Attack,’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 3 (May-Jun., 2000), pp. 120-134.

Jianying Zha, ‘Learning from McDonald’s,’ Transition, no. 91 (2002), pp. 18-39.

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