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The institute at which I’m based regularly hosts book launches, seminars, and workshops. This past week was particularly busy. There was a daylong workshop and I attended two launches and four seminars, one of them the first in a major series connecting academics and policy makers.

All this meant that I didn’t do terribly much cooking, relying instead on the buffets provided at these events. These ranged from middling wine and taco chips, to nice beer and miniature versions of comfort food. I tend to give anything containing fish and eggs and most forms of meat a wide berth (I’ve long experience with dodgy seminar food), and stay with the vegetables. I’ve written before how important food is to academic gatherings: it helps to force otherwise shy graduate students to interact with senior staff; it pushes along conversations, facilitates discussion.

The said, terrible conference food can create a kind of solidarity. At a conference in Gaborone last year, colleagues and I almost wept with joy at the discovery of a nearby supermarket that sold yogurt and other alternatives to the almost inedible lunches and dinners we were served. On the other end of the scale, I spent quite a lot of time at events at the London Review Bookshop as a PhD student because their snacks were so substantial I could easily eat supper there.

These kind of finger foods are now so ubiquitous at academic – and other – events that it’s easy to assume that it was ever thus. It is certainly true that many cuisines have invented small snacks to fill the void between meals, and to accompany alcoholic drinks: canapés – fish, meat, and other toppings on pieces of toasted bread – were developed in the French court during the eighteenth century. Similarly, tapas, crostini, and even sandwiches evolved as bread-based snacks to eat alongside beer and wine.

There is a difference, though, between finger food and snack food: the former is usually eaten as a light meal alongside whatever’s being served to drink, and often at formal occasions. Snack food – sometimes renamed street food today – exists for eating on the run: quick bites taken in a busy day. (Contemporary bemoaning of the fact that people tend to snack or ‘graze’ all day instead of eating three ‘proper’ meals ignores the fact that the idea of eating only during the morning, at midday, and in the evening, is a relatively recent one.)

The finger food that we’re familiar with today has a relatively short history, and emerged in the United States in the 1920s. During Prohibition (1920-1933), owners of speakeasies and hosts of private parties serving alcohol illegally, began to offer patrons and guests small snacks to eat alongside their cocktails. These needed to be small – easily held in one hand and eaten in a couple of bites – and enticing: speakeasies could drive up their profits by charging extra for food.


But as Sylvia Lovegren notes, the popularity of finger food spread beyond places where alcohol was served. Middle-class American kitchens and eating habits were being transformed by the greater availability of relatively cheap canned and bottled products, and new appliances, like refrigerators and freezers. The rise of what she calls ‘dainty food’ was in many ways a reaction against the heavy, elaborate cooking of the turn of the century. Dainty food consisted of salads in jelly (not aspic), of vegetables and meat mixed with mayonnaise and arranged in hollowed-out melons or iceberg lettuces (a cultivar developed specifically to withstand long journeys from farms to greengrocers), and of very sweet, tiny puddings. The marshmallow was ubiquitous on party menus.

This food was, quite obviously, gendered too. As more women entered the kitchen in the absence of cheap servant labour, the slew of recipe books – many of them published by food companies and appliance manufacturers – and magazines aimed at these new housewives, emphasised the ease of making this food, and also that it was small and ‘ladylike’. Being based on processed food made in factories described as hygienic and using ‘scientific’ processes, this was food that was neither messy to make, nor messy to eat. Jelly out of a packet took a few hours to set, while making aspic from cows’ hooves – as cooks would have done only a few years previously – was a time-consuming, labour-intensive, and smelly process.

Although finger food may have been popularised by the fashion for cocktail parties during the 1920s – a worldwide phenomenon – they became part of the way we eat because of how kitchen technologies changed, and how women’s position in households altered. For young women with relatively little knowledge of food or cooking, they were an attractive, apparently scientific, and easy way of feeding a horde of guests.


Sylvia Lovegren, Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Jessamyn Neuhaus, ‘The Way to a Man’s Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 3 (Spring 1999), pp. 529-555.

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

Food Links, 26.03.2014

  • ‘No female serving staff are working in the plenary room of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague where the main talks are being held.’
  • The implications of high fructose syrup for bees.
  • Should we buy walnuts from California? And how the drought in California will impact on America’s food supply.
  • The threat to bananas. And the cost of cheap bananas.
  • How ethical are your eggs?
  • An interview with Denmark’s agriculture minister.
  • The rise of discount supermarkets in the UK.
  • A bigger font on food labels.
  • Should you eat saturated fat?
  • Americans are drinking less orange juice.
  • Butter and soy.
  • How to peel a banana.
  • Against non-stick pans.
  • Make your own soil.
  • Medieval people drank water.
  • Eat more Brussels sprouts.
  • The all-pizza diet.
  • How to make a banhi mi sandwich.
  • The cragel.
  • An interview with the chef who invented the cronut.
  • Some very, very old cheese.
  • Hungarian dishes.
  • Make your own za’atar.
  • What Jesse Ball eats.
  • ‘He has made only one type of bread, a light rye sourdough, for 25 years.’
  • Strange tongues.
  • Food that speaks in the first person.
  • Tasty and quick mince.
  • What goes into a San Francisco burrito?
  • A new pizza cutter.
  • The built the world’s largest salad.
  • These links are courtesy of my mum:
  • The Bloomsbury Group’s relationship with food.
  • Designers, artists, and cooking.
  • The long history of marketing and branding.
  • Always know where your food comes from.

Hope is a good breakfast

Forty-five years ago, the Black Panther Party (BPP) established a programme for free school breakfasts in a church in Oakland, California. By  1970, the following year, similar projects were being run by local chapters of the BPP across the United States, feeding thousands of school-age children a breakfast which included orange juice, eggs, bacon, toast, and grits.

These breakfast clubs were only one manifestation of the Panthers’ extensive social welfare programmes, which ranged from the provision of healthcare and legal aid, to anti-drugs projects. As Alondra Nelson has argued, these projects have gone largely unremembered

due to a failure of our collective memory. We tend to remember the Black Panther Party through iconography – the symbol of the black panther borrowed from civil rights activists in Alabama and other idiosyncratic political art; the graphic identity the organization established with its newspaper, The Black Panther; and the many photographs that captured the Panther posture.

However, the BPP’s ‘survival programmes’ were integral to its wider political aims.

The first group to take the name ‘Black Panther’ was founded in Alabama in 1965, partly by the civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael. This all-black group inspired the formation of similar organisations elsewhere, and particularly in Harlem, where young African-Americans were influenced by Carmichael’s waning enthusiasm for the civil rights movement’s embrace of non-violent protest, and his formulation of a ‘Black Power’ political programme.

The most influential of these Black Panther groups was founded in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Armed with rifles and other weapons, the initial focus of the Oakland chapter was on defending the local African-American community against the police department. However, and despite fierce and occasionally debilitating infighting within the movement, the BPP soon developed a radical vision for the political, social, and economic upliftment of African Americans.

The Black Panther Party's Free Breakfasts for Children Programme (from

The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfasts for Children Programme (from the British Library)

The BPP’s Ten-Point Programme established a revolutionary agenda which, among others things, demanded equality before the law, an end to police brutality, and social rights: housing, employment, education, and ‘bread’. Creating what was, effectively, a welfare system for poor and disenfranchised African-Americans was the logical outcome of this programme. Father Earl Neil, at whose church the breakfast project was founded, remembered:

the party was focused on developing further points of their ten- point programme, and one of the things that Bobby [Seale] and Huey [Newton] used to ruminate about and discuss, is that when they went to school and then they noticed a lot of the children go to school hungry, so there was the idea of starting a breakfast programme. … We started out with 11 youngsters, and by the end of the week it was up to around 140. We didn’t need to advertise, we just had to say ‘Do you want a free breakfast?’ Of course the word spread.

Although the US Department of Agriculture had piloted a free breakfasts programme in 1966, its reach was fairly limited. Because the BPP’s project was run by individual chapters of the Party – and it was soon compulsory for each branch of the BPP to have its own breakfast programme – it was able to reach the very poorest African-American children, particularly in urban areas. The success of the programme soon drew the attention of the FBI, which labelled both free breakfasts and the BPP ‘communists’. In 1969 an FBI memo argued:

You state that the bureau should not attack programs of community interest such as the BPP ‘Breakfast for Children Programme.’ … You have obviously missed the point. The BPP is not engaged in the program for humanitarian reasons. This program was formed by the BPP … to create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.

Although police and FBI agents attempted to disrupt this and other survival programmes – even assassinating Fred Hampton, one of the BPP’s key organisers in Chicago – these efforts served only to draw support to the Free Breakfast Programme. Much to the chagrin of the FBI, one imagines, in 1975 Congress rolled out a fully funded, nation wide free breakfast programme, modelled, to some extent, on the one pioneered by the Panthers.

I am writing this shortly after South Africa’s Human Rights Day, held annually to recommit the country to upholding citizens’ human rights, and also to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. In a particularly ugly juxtapositioning, on the day before Human Rights Day, the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, announced the findings of her investigation into renovations done to President Zuma’s private homestead in the rural KwaZulu-Natal village of Nkandla. She found, to no-one’s surprise, that millions of public funds were spent on upgrading his home – so much, in fact, that she argued that no single individual would ever be able to pay back that amount of money to the state.

Madonsela drew attention to the fact that spending on several of the additions to Zuma’s home – including a swimming pool, helicopter pads, amphitheatre, cattle kraal, and clinic – was justified on the grounds that these amenities would be to the benefit of the impoverished community in Nkandla. However:

Accessing the clinic would mean entering Zuma’s homestead, either by scaling the security fence or through a police checkpoint. The swimming pool has never been used by the local residents. The clinic remains without stock….

When the Mail and Guardian first reported on the development of the Nkandla homestead it added that a vegetable garden had been planted to ensure the ‘food security’ of the compound. In a country where around one fifth of all children have stunted growth because of poor nutrition, fencing off a vegetable garden seems particularly callous.

It is certainly true that the Panthers’ Free Breakfast Programme was ideologically driven (and that its roll-out and operation reflected the ingrained misogyny in the BPP (breakfast programmes were run mainly by women)), but it was part of a vision for remaking American society that recognised that the fight for civil rights had to be accompanied by demands for social rights. In other words, desegregating schools had to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that all children had access to the resources, like breakfast and books and transport, which would allow them to participate fully in education.


David J. Garrow, ‘Picking up the Books: The New Historiography on the Black Panther Party,’ Reviews in American History, vol. 35, no. 4 (Dec. 2007), pp. 650-670.

Nik Heynen, ‘Bending the Bars of Empire from Every Ghetto for Survival: The Black Panther Party’s Radical Antihunger Politics of Social Reproduction and Scale,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 99, no. 2 (2009), pp. 406-422.

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

Yohuru Williams, ‘“Some abstract thing called freedom”: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 22, no. 3, Black Power (Jul. 2008), pp. 16-21.

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

Food Links, 19.03.2014

  • ‘The days bled into years. Hang. Rehang. Pull guts.’
  • There is still widespread mislabelling of meat sold in the UK.
  • McDonald’s employees are suing the chain.
  • A photo essay on the fishermen of Kalk Bay in Cape Town.
  • Does it matter that there is azodicarbonamide in a lot of processed food?
  • ‘Behind the counter at a café sit two five-gallon tanks of bottled water hooked up to the coffee machines. At a local eatery, when I order a soda, the bartender explains that it comes from the tap. “Are you sure you don’t just want bottled water?” he asks.’
  • Nogales and America’s supply of vegetables.
  • The ‘meatification‘ of our diets.
  • The rising price of breakfast.
  • On Pizza Hut’s 2,880-calorie pizza.
  • ‘Thousands of young people in Britain have been forced to go without food or other essentials after their benefits were wrongly stopped under a “draconian” new sanctions regime’.
  • FoodCycle.
  • How common is salmonella in eggs?
  • Food waste around the world.
  • McDonald’s in Vietnam.
  • How to make strawberries delicious again.
  • The bacon-scented alarm clock.
  • The five-second rule is worth obeying.
  • It’s alright to eat sugar – in moderation (even is it the worst thing in the world).
  • ‘He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Théophile Papin, of Ivry, collapsed.’
  • World’s End Pie.
  • ‘I used to say that all I had left in life was my integrity and my cleavage. Now it’s just my integrity.’ Rest in Peace, Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda Dickson Wright.
  • The rise and rise of Japanese cuisine.
  • Why add chicory to coffee?
  • Hampton Court’s chocolate kitchen.
  • Cooking with Harper Lee. (Thanks, mum!)
  • The first ‘British‘ restaurant in China.
  • An appeal for help about potatoes.
  • Deborah Levy’s Diary of a Steak.
  • Why is caffeine so addictive?
  • Cookbooks as science fiction.
  • The significance of tea jars in Japan up until the end of the seventeenth century.
  • Lentil cookies.
  • How to be a vegetarian in Paris.
  • Eating terrible food with the super rich.
  • Maps of countries made of their national foods.
  • What to do with leftover mashed potato.
  • Where to drink coffee in Chicago.
  • The EU may ban foreign cheese manufacturers from using names like ‘feta’ and ‘Parmesan’.
  • Five ways to use one batch of bread dough.
  • Understanding umami.

Signs and Wonders

In the middle of last year, the City of Johannesburg was ordered to take down its advertisements describing Joburg as a ‘world-class African city’. The Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints that the City’s claims that it is as financially stable and well run as any big city abroad, were untrue:

The advertisement, which boasted of the city’s ‘many significant achievements’, was heavily criticised by Johannesburg resident Steven Haywood, who lodged a complaint at the authority about it in July, after hearing it on Talk Radio 702.

The advertisement included the words: ‘Imagine a city where you can rest assured, knowing that it is financially stable … A city that continues to create new jobs despite the economic downturn. … Can you imagine living in such a city? You do.’

Mr Haywood claimed that the commercial told ‘blatant untruths’.

He questioned how the city could claim to be financially stable when it had received three qualified audits from the auditor-general; its waste-management service provider, Pikitup, was bankrupt and left ‘refuse lying in the streets for days’; and the Johannesburg Roads Agency was unable to repair the city’s roads.

Although the ASA overturned its decision a few months later, Joburg residents still view the radio ads and billboards comparing their city to New York or London with a certain degree of scepticism.

It’s not only the potholes, the malfunctioning street lamps, intermittent electricity supply, and traffic lights which stop working the moment it rains, but the fact that this unpredictable, occasionally chaotic, and ever-changing city, is plastered with signs. These are not the usual posters for political parties – we’re heading for a general election on 7 May – and music concerts and exhibitions, but small, A5 bills pasted on to buildings advertising penis, breast, and hip enlargements, help with procuring abortions, advice for finding lost lovers, and the services of a variety of prophets.

In Sophiatown.

In Sophiatown.

There are flocks of these little signs on lampposts, walls and bridges, public buildings – I’ve spotted some even on the Constitutional Court – and bus shelters. Thabisani Ndlovu, a sociologist at Wits University, has argued that the booming business for penis, breast, and hip enlargements can be understood as being part of a wider process of urban dwellers’ self-invention.

Joburg is by no means unique in being understood as a site for remaking its residents’ identities – that is, and has long been, part of the appeal of city living – but there are very few cities in the world where this desire for remaking bodies and selves is so very obvious.

At Constitution Hill.

At Constitution Hill.

But a few weeks ago I saw a sign – similar in size and design to the ones for prophets and lost lovers – in the CBD advertising something I never realised could be sold for profit: seawater. I was in a car at the time, so I couldn’t photograph the sign, but I’m curious as to why someone would sell seawater in a city centre. I asked around, and my father answered that, when he was a child in Olifantsfontein in the 1950s and early 1960s, then a small mining town halfway between Pretoria and Johannesburg, the family’s African servants would ask him and his brothers to bring back bottles of seawater from their holidays at the coast:

They always had the same plea: Please ensure that there was at least an inch of sand in the bottom of each bottle. I eventually discovered that … the sand was indisputable proof that the bottle contained genuine seawater. … It almost became a ritual for my brothers and I to visit the beach for the last time and carefully rinse and fill … [glass] bottles with seawater. We never forgot to put in the sand.

Seawater has a long history of being used in the manufacture of medicine by sangomas and other healers – practitioners operating outside of the parameters of Western biomedicine. I seem to remember, though, that seawater is also understood by members of the Zion Christian Church – and other, affiliated, churches – as having religious, almost magical, significance. Is this true? Any and all ideas and suggestions are welcome.

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

Food Links, 12.03.2014

  • Gas companies are putting Mozambican fishermen out of business.
  • The GOP has abandoned farmers.
  • A tale of two food bank vouchers.
  • The Thai seafood industry uses slave labour.
  • The crisis in California’s agricultural sector.
  • Alcohol and apartheid.
  • How China became the world’s largest pork producer.
  • A woman designed the paper bag.
  • McDonald’s tries to encourage Europeans to buy its breakfasts.
  • Pepsi was perceived by the population as a Soviet product, and Soviet products were truly bad. While Pepsi was reasonably good, it was not as good as Western Pepsi.’
  • More people are making moonshine in the US.
  • Why did adult humans start drinking milk?
  • Salted caramel cream puffs with warm chocolate sauce.
  • With a pinch of salt.
  • Eat more roadkill.
  • Eat more grapefruit.
  • An amazing pizza box.
  • How to make your own butter.
  • Egg puns.
  • The town which grows half of America’s mushrooms.
  • How well do you know your ancient grains?
  • A sandwich for each state in the US.
  • How not to get fat.
  • The evolution of pastrami in New York.
  • Making mozzarella.
  • The etymology of ‘hangover‘.
  • Dutch food is the best in the world.
  • Make your own kimchi.
  • How rotten food has changed history.
  • Who drinks what.
  • On Lee Miller‘s enthusiasm for cooking.
  • Soon it’ll be possible to buy Soylent.
  • The Kit Kat shop in Tokyo.
  • On marmalade. (Thanks, dad!)
  • Repurposed Pizza Huts.
  • Cooking with Frida Kahlo.
  • What if every state in the US has its own meat?
  • How to cook with teff.
  • A list of women in the food world for International Women’s Day.
  • Make your own preserved lemons.
  • Degeneration and drink.
  • What people ate and drank in Pompeii. (Thanks, mum!)

Things that have happened in Johannesburg recently

Things that have happened in Johannesburg – second greatest city after Paris – recently:

A spitting cobra was seen slithering into a car parked at the Gautrain Midrand station. A spokeswoman commented: ‘Specialist negotiators were brought in from the SPCA but the standoff continues.’

At the Maboneng Precinct.

At the Maboneng Precinct.

There is a new prophet in Johannesburg.


In Braamfontein.

On Thursday, there were power cuts across the country because the coal supply for the national grid had been drenched with rain.

In Cyrildene, Johannesburg's second Chinatown.

In Cyrildene, Johannesburg’s second Chinatown.

The trial of Oscar Pistorius in Pretoria ‘has also attracted a new political party called Africa Unite, which says it hopes to attract attention by being outside the court.’

In Hillbrow.

In Hillbrow.

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

Food Links, 05.03.2014

  • ‘An estimated 174 million people in southern Africa – almost two thirds of the total population – lack access to basic latrines, while more than 100 million go without clean drinking water.’
  • Sugar does not kill more South Africans than HIV/AIDS.
  • The implications of the crisis in Ukraine for global grain prices.
  • A diet high in protein and animal fat may not be very good for you.
  • ‘Starving and drenched journalists ate 250kg of chips and 700 pieces of chicken on the opening day of the Oscar Pistorius trial.’
  • On Food4Patriots.
  • Class and sustainable food.
  • Organic and non-organic produce have the same nutritional value.
  • Why is thinness the ultimate female ambition?
  • Using Instagram to sell sheep in Kuwait.
  • The adulteration of Italian olive oil.
  • The marketing of yogurt to women.
  • A response to Tim Noakes.
  • Substitutes for egg.
  • The trials and tribulations of running a stall at a farmers’ market.
  • Creating a market for skimmed milk.
  • American beer is getting better.
  • A recipe for baked feta.
  • Durian has gone on sale in the UK.
  • Food textures.
  • ‘He complained that his wife was “unable to lunch elsewhere” because she was wearing a tiara.’
  • A Renaissance recipe for panzanella.
  • Make your own coffee creamer.
  • China’s growing enthusiasm for food museums.
  • A breakfast menu as a Venn diagram.
  • The return of the soufflé.
  • Tips for biscuit baking.
  • Chinese charcuterie.
  • The chemistry of Sriracha.
  • Terrible food photography.
  • Diet fads.
  • Birkbeck’s wine society.
  • The man who delivered pizza to the Oscars was tipped $1,000.
  • Teff, the new fashionable grain.
  • The first cat cafe in North America is in Montreal.
  • Americans prefer mayonnaise to ketchup.
  • The Kitchen of Tomorrow.
  • London’s best new chocolate shop.
  • Pancakes in the shape of parasites, and butterflies.
  • Facts about (mainly processed) food.
  • Bindaetteok.
  • A brief history of marshmallows.
  • A brief history of popcorn.
  • How best to make Buffalo wings.
  • Rembrandt‘s ‘The Pancake Woman.’ (Thanks, mum!)
  • Mary Beard on her milkman.
  • Pizza feminism.
  • A coffee in a cake.
  • New breakfast trends in London.
  • A custard recipe inspired by the Geffrye Museum in London.
  • How to make a King Cake for Mardi Gras.

Sweetness and Light

This weekend some friends and I cooked a Lusophone world-themed dinner. I contributed pudding: an updated version of bebinca – a Goan dessert consisting of layers of coconut pancakes – and brigadeiros, a Brazilian interpretation of chocolate truffles made of condensed milk and cocoa. The recipe for the latter is incredibly easy:

1 tin sweetened condensed milk

½ cup cocoa (not drinking chocolate)

2 Tblsp butter

Silver balls, hundreds and thousands, or more cocoa, for coating

1. Combine the condensed milk, cocoa, and butter in a heavy-based saucepan.

2. Stirring continuously (preferably with a rubber spatula), cook over a low-to-medium heat until the mixture is so thick it’s possible to draw the spatula across the bottom of the pot, leaving a wide gap.

3. Pour the mixture into a well-greased 20cm square cake tin, and allow to cool.

4. Pinch off pieces of the mixture and roll into small balls – about halfway in size between a hazelnut and a walnut. Roll in the extra cocoa or decorations. Allow to set in the fridge.

This is an unbelievably sticky procedure: oil everything (utensils, crockery, yourself) before attempting to roll the mixture because otherwise there may be, frankly, quite a lot of swearing. Also, clean up thoroughly. The ants which attempt periodically to invade my kitchen had a short-lived fiesta on my counter tops before being swiftly washed away.

As I was looking for recipes, I was struck by how frequently particular ingredients and dishes recurred within Brazilian, Mozambican, Goan, and Macauan cuisines: limes, chillies, coconut, spicy chicken (sometimes called piri piri, or similar), and custards. These continuities are not particularly surprising. In the circulation of people and things around the Lusophone world – from Portugal to Brazil, to Angola and Mozambique, to Goa, and parts of southeast Asia – recipes, plants, and animals were exchanged and traded.

Another, more unexpected, similarity between these cuisines is sweetened condensed milk. It appears in beverages, cakes, and other puddings, be they Brazilian or Goan. For cultures unused to cooking with dairy products – in India, for instance, or parts of southeast Asia – condensed milk is more easily incorporated into dishes as a sweetener. Also, tins of milk keep far more easily than bottles of fresh milk in warm climates.

The person who patented the recipe for condensed milk was the American inventor, adventurer, and politician Gail Borden. Having initially devoted himself to coming up with a recipe for ‘meat biscuits’ (high protein bars to be supplied to soldiers), he turned his attention to preserving milk. He was not the only person interested in extending the shelf-life of milk: evaporated and dried milk products were being experimented with at the same time. The process that Borden used – adding sugar and then condensing milk via a vacuum process – created a product which tasted delicious and had a long shelf life. In 1858, he and Jeremiah Milbank founded the New York Condensed Milk Company. Their fortunes were assured when, from 1861, the Company supplied the Union Army with condensed milk throughout the Civil War.

The first overseas condensed milk factory opened in Switzerland in 1866. Owned by two Americans – George and Charles Page, the latter being the US Consul at Zurich – the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company eventually merged with Nestle, another manufacturer of condensed milk, in 1904. Sweetened condensed milk spread around the world after the First World War. It arrived in Brazil in 1921, and was almost immediately incorporated into the cuisine.

Borden’s interest in milk and meat stemmed partly from anxieties about the cleanliness and purity of processed food. His Eagle Brand of condensed milk was advertised on the grounds that it was produced in hygienic conditions and could safely be fed to the very young and the very old. Indeed, sweetened condensed milk was regarded as having potentially healthy properties. The earliest incarnation of bircher muesli – fed to patients at Maximilian Bircher-Benner’s sanatorium in Switzerland – consisted of condensed milk, fruit, and oats. And it was seen as a decent substitute for breastmilk.


The marketing of condensed milk coincided with heightened concerns about high rates of infant mortality in industrialising cities all over the world. Having noticed that exclusively breastfed babies tended to be healthier than those who were not, by the end of the nineteenth century, scientists had established that the leading cause of death in early infancy – diarrhoea – was caused by ingesting dirty and rotting food, mainly milk products. For instance, in 1895 and 1896, Dr EB Fuller, Cape Town’s Medical Officer for Health, conducted a survey into the causes of infant diarrhoea in the city and discovered, as Peter Buirski explains:

Of the 140 deaths examined, the survey revealed that 97 were stated not to have had any breastfeeding, but to have been entirely dependent on the bottle and other sources, whilst 16 were said to have been fed on both breast and bottle. As Fuller noted, ‘we have…very clear evidence of the fact that it is the hand fed children who succumb most extensively to the disease in question.’

Public health officials and infant welfare campaigners not only doubled their attempts to persuade mothers to breastfeed for as long as possible, but also established depots where they could receive clean, pasteurised fresh milk and, importantly, healthy preserved milk products too – mainly dried or evaporated milk.

But some paediatrians had been pointing out since at least the 1890s that even if sweetened condensed milk was a useful dietary supplement for particularly malnourished children, it was hardly health food. The doctor and public health campaigner Cicely Williams – who identified the disease kwashiorkor – had noticed as early as 1933 that adults in parts of West Africa were adding sweetened condensed milk to their diets. Soon she connected widespread malnutrition in babies and young children with the use of sweetened condensed milk in the place of more nutritious products – including, worryingly, breast milk. Writing about Singapore in the early 1940s, she explained:

there is the misguided popularity of sweetened condensed milk. The palatable sweetness of this, when it is once started as a supplementary or as a complementary feed, often results in the baby refusing to take the breast, or taking the breast with no enthusiasm and finally in the drying up of the milk. With wearisome and deadly frequency one hears ‘the baby would not suck,’ ‘the breast milk disappeared in three weeks,’ and in every case it is proved that sweetened condensed milk had been given.

Although recognizing that doctors and clinics could do more to inform mothers about breastfeeding, Williams argued for the better control of milk companies:

The advertisements of the milk firms are responsible for a certain amount of misguided propaganda. The people they employ are not always wise in their methods and it may be found that artificial feeding and infant mortality are higher in those areas where milk firms have their ‘nurses’ working than in those where they do not.

In 1939 she published the pamphlet ‘Milk and Murder’ in which she blamed the advertising strategies of companies like Nestle for causing mothers to give up breastfeeding – contributing, thus, to high rates of infant mortality in regions such as West Africa and South Asia. That pamphlet formed the basis for War on Want’s 1974 report The Baby Killer – the manifesto for the Nestle boycott which resulted, eventually, in the adoption of the 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes by the World Health Organisation.

Even if its advertising of artificial baby food had been largely constrained, Nestle still seeks out ways of selling its products – including sweetened condensed milk – to new, unsuspecting markets. Four years ago it was particularly sharply criticised for sending ‘floating supermarkets’ down tributaries of the Amazon, aimed specifically at potential shoppers unaccustomed to processed food.

My point is not that we should all abandon sweetened condensed milk. Far from it. What an understanding of the fraught history of sweetened condensed milk demonstrates is a continuity in the ways in which ingredients and foodstuffs are circulated around the world. As chillies and limes and coconuts were carried around the Portuguese empire, shaping and remaking local cuisines, so Nestle has added sweetened condensed milk to an increasing number of Brazilian and Indian kitchens during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The difference, obviously, is that Nestle could advertise its products as the healthy, responsible choice for nursing mothers – piggy-backing, effectively, on to public health concerns about infant mortality. The question then, is should we control or limit the sale of sweetened condensed milk and other, less-than-healthy processed foods, in poor areas unaccustomed to the wiles of Big Food?


Rima D. Apple, Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890-1950 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

PJ Atkins, ‘White Poison? The Social Consequences of Milk Consumption, 1850-1930,’ Social History of Medicine, vol. 5 (1992), pp. 207-227.

Peter Buirski, ‘Mortality Rates in Cape Town 1895-1980: A Broad Outline,’ Studies in the History of Cape Town, vol. 5, ed. Christopher Saunders, Howard Phillips, Elizabeth van Heyningen, and Vivian Bickford-Smith (History Department and the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 1983).

M. Hickey, ‘Current Legislation on Concentrated and Dried Milk Products,’ in Dairy Powders and Concentrated Products, ed. AY Tamime (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Harvey Levenstein, ‘“Best for Babies” or “Preventable Infanticide”? The Controversy over Artificial Feeding of Infants in America, 1880-1920,’ The Journal of American History, vol. 70, no 1 (June 1983), pp. 75-94.

Cicely D. Williams, ‘A Nutritional Disease of Childhood Associated with a Maize Diet,’ Archives of Diseases in Childhood, vol. 8, no. 48 (1933), pp. 423-433.

—. ‘Rickets in Singapore,’ Archives of Diseases in Childhood, vol. 21, no. 37 (1946), pp. 37-51.

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