Last week I wrote a post outlining the threat to the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) in Cape Town, asking why the city’s food bloggers and foodies – its chefs, restaurateurs, and writers – seemed to have such little interest in the proposed development of a piece of land which grows half of Cape Town’s fresh produce.
The response has been fantastic: Food24 picked up the post, and some magnificent people got in touch with ideas. (I’ll tell you more about them in due course.) More importantly, and not related to my post, the campaign to save the PHA has stepped up. Other than signing the Avaaz petition, do please watch and share this excellent short documentary about the PHA:
Anyone keen to help out with the Save the PHA Campaign should email Nazeer Sonday, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Rob Small, email@example.com.
With a few exceptions, though, the majority of people who have expressed dismay at the development of the PHA and who have offered to do something about it, have not been involved in Cape Town’s food world. In fact, again with a few exceptions, it seems to me that the city’s foodies remain unmoved about the issue – which is quite an achievement given the amount of coverage the development of the PHA has received.
As I wrote last time, considering that these are people with an unusually intense interest in food and where it comes from, I would have thought that they’d be lining up to condemn the development of land which produces their vegetables. Moreover, some of them have such enormous readerships and access to the media, that their ability to communicate with large numbers of people would allow them to be exceptionally helpful to the campaign.
If a blogger with a fairly small readership (and I love each and every one of you) sitting in Joburg can help to get two projects off the ground in Cape Town, imagine what someone with a massive audience and the odd TV appearance could achieve?
In this post, though, I’m interested in why the city’s bloggers – and there are lots of them, and they wield some power – have displayed such little concern for the PHA. One of the excuses that readers of my post offered for not wanting to become involved in the campaign is that it’s too ‘political.’ This is an interesting comment, and worth unpacking.
I think that by ‘political’ respondents meant that they did not want to be associated with a campaign that confronts Patricia de Lille, the Mayor of Cape Town, and the members of the Mayoral Committee who took the decision to develop the PHA.* It’s more likely that bloggers would mobilise to raise funds and awareness around poor children or abused animals. My point is not that we shouldn’t support the SPCA or Nazareth House – far from it, and please do because they do vital work – but, rather, that these causes are more easily depoliticised.
The irony is that all food writing is political: it’s all implicated in the ways in which power works in society. There are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. Some of the most evocative reporting on the effects of Europe’s austerity regimes has focussed on the rise of food insecurity: from the organisations which have emerged to feed people in Greece, to the increasing numbers of food banks in the UK.
As a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s excellent Food Programme reported, austerity eating has been reflected in a shift in food blogging too. Jack Monroe has documented, eloquently, her struggle to feed herself and her young son on almost no money at all:
Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix and says ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.
Part of the appeal of Monroe’s blog is that she is able to connect her delicious, nutritious, and incredibly cheap recipes with, as she says to Sheila Dillon, ‘a political spike’: an awareness of the connection between what she eats and the social, political, and economic context in which she and her audience operate.
What Monroe, as well as the brilliant Skint Foodie and North/South Food, is doing is not anything new: there have been other attempts to describe budget cooking (I think of Catherine Whitehorn’s altogether frothier Cooking in a Bedsitter (1961)), and the best food writing and reporting connects what people eat with the circumstances in which they buy, cook, and consume food. What these bloggers are achieving – articulately, effectively – is to demonstrate how the UK government’s attempts to dismantle the welfare state are causing an increasingly large number of people to go hungry in the eighth richest nation in the world.
I would not be surprised to see other, similar blogs being established over the coming few years. And I’m interested in answering why South African food blogging has not demonstrated a similar awareness of the country’s vast inequalities. A cursory reading of most South African food blogs would not reveal that they are written in a country where one fifth of children have stunted growth and one in ten children suffer from severe malnutrition.
I don’t want to suggest that every blog must be a worthy condemnation of the gap between South Africa’s very poor and very, very rich – continue to eat your cupcakes with impunity, please – but I’ve often been struck by just how incredibly unaware so many bloggers are of their privilege: that their ability to buy their food from upmarket supermarkets and cute urban markets is a very rare thing indeed in South Africa.
In some ways, this lack of awareness among Capetonian bloggers is particularly obvious because of the city’s affluence and its ‘whiteness’: because, unlike other South African cities, its middle-class suburbs, expensive food shops, farmers’ markets, and top-end restaurants remain overwhelmingly white.
I’m not really sure how to end this post. I think that some bloggers’ unwillingness to engage with the politics of cooking, eating, and growing food are probably the product of a range of anxieties around race, class, and an uncertainty about where to fit into post-1994 South Africa. But this is pretty obvious.
All comments welcome.
*I’d point out that one of the chief joys of democracy is that you can criticise the DA and still vote for it.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.