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Throwing Light

At the beginning of this year, The Economist published a worried article about the state of South Africa’s electricity supply. Eskom – the parastatal responsible for both generating and transmitting electricity across the nation – is in serious trouble. Rolling blackouts – called load shedding – have become increasingly the norm, as they’re used to reduce pressure on a grid already under strain mainly because of poor maintenance of transmission infrastructure:

South Africans now check electricity reports that read like weather forecasts: ‘There is a medium probability of load shedding today and tomorrow, with a higher probability on Thursday and Friday,’ said a recent Eskom tweet.

The introduction of artificial light – first gas lamps during the eighteenth century, then gradually electricity – profoundly shaped the ways in which human beings lived and worked. With lamps and bulbs to light the early mornings and nighttime, the workday lengthened, dinner moved much later in the day, and the hours of sleep were limited to the darkest period at night and the very early morning. Experiences of walking the city after dark changed. Sean Cubitt writes:

The history of invention in lighting technologies is extraordinarily brief: for millennia oil, fat and wax candles were the only lighting materials, and flame the only energy; their expense made darkness common for the poor majority. Only in the 1780s did mantles appear. Then the flood: limelight, arc light, gas lighting and incandescent electric light arrived hand in hand with the industrial city, its extension of the working day and its rush to produce new consumer rituals and needs in the illuminated windows of the department store. It is scarcely possible to imagine the megacities’ 24/7 lifestyles, the perpetual-motion machinery of modern manufacture, the constant flow of transport, without neon, incandescent and fluorescent lighting, headlamps and streetlamps.

The gradual electrification of domestic appliances, the slow spread of gas and electric ovens and stoves, and the growing availability of better refrigeration not only changed how people shopped, cooked, and ate, but also freed up women from intensive domestic labour. For most of the world’s population, though, access to expensive electricity remains precarious. When Sierra Leone declared a three-day curfew to limit the spread of ebola, many worried that households would be unable to store fresh produce in a hot country where refrigerator ownership is rare. Going to market there – and other parts of the continent – doesn’t represent some kind of commitment to seasonal, locally produced, and organic eating, but is, rather, a product of necessity. Even in wealthier countries, irregular power supply is the norm, not the exception. As Alex Christie-Miller, a journalist based in Istanbul, remarked recently on Twitter, ‘people tweeting too much about power cuts’ is really a case of #SecondWorldProblems. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written eloquently about the frequent power outages in Lagos:

Day after day, I awkwardly navigate between my sources of light, the big generator for family gatherings, the inverter for cooler nights, the small generator for daytime work.

Like other privileged Nigerians who can afford to, I have become a reluctant libertarian, providing my own electricity, participating in a precarious frontier spirit.

As we adapted to light – as electricity or power is described in Nigeria – so we have had to adapt to darkness, to hot days in summer, to very cold nights in winter. To periods of internet-lessness, to laptops with better batteries. This disruption of patterns of living shaped by electricity has forced us all into a series of – reluctant – accommodations. Solar panels and lamps, miners’ lamps, generators, inverters, hot boxes, and gas stoves all help to facilitate some form of normality. But we’ve had to change our routines too. Friends with light at night entertain those whose houses are in the dark. If my suburb is due to be load shed at the worst time – between 18:30 and 22:00 – I rush to finish as much work as I can before then, and spend the hours of darkness cooking because I have a gas stove, and then reading by my solar lamp.


Streetlamp and power lines, Gardens, Cape Town

Load shedding cuisine has become a feature of these blackouts too. Food magazines post lists of restaurants which continue to serve food – albeit frequently from a load shedding menu – when the power is cut. More often, we have to plan more carefully what and when we cook and bake. My mother managed to make enough brownies to feed 150 people at my sister’s wedding, and all through keeping a beady eye on load shedding schedules. A couple of weekends ago, unsure if the electricity would go off in the afternoon, I made a cheesecake that didn’t require baking, only setting in a fridge – and fridges and freezers remain cold without power unless their doors are opened too often.

Some tips for coping with an uncertain electricity supply (when schedules fail, and when the inevitable barbecue isn’t possible or desirable):

  • If in possession of a gas hob: buy long matches to light the burners without toasting your fingers; invest in a stovetop, whistling kettle; remember that leftovers need to be easily reheated on the stove (and not in the oven or microwave); add cold sauces to hot, almost-cooked pasta in the pan in which the pasta cooked to avoid having to use more than one burner; couscous and bulgur wheat need only to be steeped in boiling water; toast can be made in a frying pan.
  • A hot box, or wrapping a casserole dish in a thick blanket, will cook a pot of rice or a stew once they’ve been brought to the boil on a stove.
  • Make bread in darkness, allow it to rise overnight, and then bake it the following morning.
  • Open the fridge and freezer sparingly.
  • Keep frequently used ingredients – oils, vinegars, tinned goods, spices, pasta, rice – at the front of cupboards for easy location in the gloom.
  • Buy cooked chicken, fish, salami, and other protein to add to salads.
  • Not all cakes and puddings need to be baked: cheesecake, fridge cake, mousse, trifle, fool.
  • Plan ahead: allow things to defrost slowly instead of relying on the microwave; make dishes which can be eaten at room temperature; prepare sauces for pasta in advance.

More suggestions welcome.

In ‘A Temporary Matter,’ the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a couple working out the devastating consequences of a miscarriage find a new way of speaking the truth to each other during a series of planned power cuts. The darkness allows them to say all the things they’d kept secret or avoided thinking about during the short period of their marriage.


In the Company’s Gardens, Cape Town

Partly because electricity has shaped our lives to such an extent that it’s unusual to live in complete darkness, we attach all sorts of positive meanings to the dark and being without light. In disconnection, we find connection. Temporary darkness becomes a space for contemplation, for self-reflection, for re-connection with one another and the natural world. I don’t have much patience for those who suggest that this current round of load shedding will be morally improving for South Africans – that it’ll teach us the virtues of slowness, for instance – as access to electricity still remains fairly uneven, despite the post-apartheid’s state’s success in increasing the numbers of households with electricity from 35% in 1990, to 84% two decades later. Also, as Ngozi Adichie writes:

I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of ‘no light,’ how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered.

Hospitals are exempt from load shedding in South Africa, but her point still stands. The country comes to a grinding halt whenever electricity cuts. Nonetheless, in a way, the darkness has become a space for a kind of truth-telling in South Africa: of an increasingly discredited state unable to fulfill one of its most basic functions – keeping the lights on.

Neighbourgoods Market, Braamfontein, Johannesburg

Neighbourgoods Market, Braamfontein, Johannesburg

I am, though, interested to see how frugal cooking habits shaped by unpredictable electricity will change over the next few years – and not only in South Africa. Increasingly fragile electricity grids are not limited to the developing world. How will food writers rewrite recipes that depend on long periods of braising in expensive-to-heat ovens? How will recipe books make allowance for the difficulties of keeping fresh produce, fresh? How will our shifting relationship with energy produce new ways of cooking and eating?

Further reading

Sean Cubitt, ‘Electric Light and Electricity,’ Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 30, nos. 7/8 (2013), pp. 309–323.

David E. Nye, When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

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

Food Links, 15.04.2015

Fresh produce from a community garden in  Gugulethu, Cape Town.

Fresh produce from a community garden in Gugulethu, Cape Town.

  • In praise of the food bank manager.
  • Rising temperatures may deplete fish stocks in the North Sea.
  • Fighting racism through cooking kebabs.
  • We all need to eat less meat.
  • ‘The Kraft/Heinz deal makes it “even more difficult for us to envision a world where we [have] a competitive market for food”.’
  • An overview of South Africa’s food systems.
  • Remaking pre-colonial American cuisine.
  • The libertarian embrace of the local food movement.
  • Recipes in newspapers from World War One.
  • India’s complicated relationship with alcohol.
  • Flavour and nutrition.
  • There is a market for ugly produce.
  • Tracing the history of peanut allergies.
  • Sound and taste.
  • Food safety and fermentation.
  • Cricket flour.
  • ‘The USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains images of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942.’
  • The Four Seasons Restaurant and the invention of the power lunch.
  • The invention of curry.
  • Persuading shoppers to use trolleys.
  • A defense of the breakfast sandwich.
  • The man who brought KFC to Britain vows never to eat it again.
  • ‘The pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew more about it’.
  • How to make hash browns.
  • How to make maple syrup.
  • How to use up sweet potatoes.
  • How to use up molasses.
  • How to use up milk.
  • How to clean your kitchen.
  • Coffee in space.
  • ‘Texans and Vikings: not as different as one might think.’
  • The eighteenth-century vogue for asses’ milk.
  • Why truffles smell so interesting.
  • Unusual drinking experiences.
  • New cooking skills.
  • Photographs of Streit’s matzo factory in New York.
  • ‘Braun claims that he’s been riding his horse to the Taco Bell in Allen since he moved to the area eleven years ago.’,
  • All about vinegar.
  • Revisiting Marco Pierre White’s White Heat.
  • The joy of vegetarian cooking.
  • Tracing the history of rice pudding in the New York Public Library’s menu collection.
  • A month of being vegan.
  • Powdered peanut butter.
  • Daag.
  • ‘I do love watching the oblivious rich in surroundings of acute bad taste masquerading as good.’
  • The Birth of Saké.
  • A brief history of tea sets.
  • Books made out of gingerbread.
  • Peanut butter and jam muffins.
  • How to shower in a Portland coffee shop.
  • Cooking with Jane Austen.
  • A Japanese doughnut museum.
  • Embrace burned toast.

Modern Times

A month or so ago, the food writer Todd Kliman was criticised for publishing an article in the Washingtonian titled ‘Can Ethiopian Cuisine become Modern?’ Although much of the response to the headline was, I agree, entirely justified – this is a silly, insulting question which invokes a stereotype about Africans being forever stuck in pre-modernity – Kliman’s article presents a considerably more nuanced argument. He is interested in why the Ethiopian food which he eats enthusiastically in Washington DC – a city famous for its Ethiopian restaurants – has changed relatively little in the past few decades. He writes:

But even though the cuisine’s profile has risen, the food itself hasn’t exactly evolved. Ethiopian restaurants have become markedly more fashionable over the last 20 years – gone are the days of sitting around woven-grass tables in dark, sometimes dank dens – but the cooking is hardly different from what you would have found four decades ago. A meal then is a meal now.

Put another way, Kliman investigates why Ethiopian food – particularly as it is prepared in the US – has not been made cosmopolitan. He acknowledges that what we now define as Ethiopian cuisine has only been so since the 1970s, when refugees fleeing the civil war opened restaurants selling cheap, delicious, and exotic-yet-familiar food to curious eaters in the West:

The educated elite who came to America in the ’70s might not look like culinary pioneers … but in selecting the roughly two dozen dishes they would introduce to American diners, they in effect codified the meaning of Ethiopian food in the West. (Most of these dishes come from the Gondar region … so just as Sicilian and Neapolitan red sauce and pizza came to mean Italian food to most Americans, Gondarean dishes have come to mean Ethiopian.)

These restaurants included special, vegetarian feast dishes on ordinary menus. They prepared puddings, added raw vegetables to salads, and cooked with boneless meat. Ethiopian cooking needed to be made palatable to foreign audiences. A good comparison to Ethiopian food in the US is Indian food in Britain. There, after the Second World War, largely Bengali cooks remade some of the dishes of the region to British tastes: not as hot, richer, and with a greater proportion of gravy to meat. The difference between these two cuisines, though, is that while it’s still possible to find old-fashioned curry houses across Britain, the numbers of restaurants specialising in regional cuisines and in remaking Indian cooking traditions have also proliferated. Kliman suggests that one reason for Ethiopians’ hesitancy to embrace change – both in the US and, interestingly, in Ethiopia – has to do with the country’s fraught politics. One diner in Addis Ababa explained:

He talked about the coup, the war, the decades of suppression and fear. Just as Ethiopians are enormously proud that their country has been called the birthplace of civilization, he explained, they’re proud of the fact that they’re eating the same food as their nomadic, tribal ancestors. (And, not least, eating that food in the exact same way: with their hands.) Continuity can be equated with conservatism, yes. But in a country with a long history of political uncertainty and upheaval, it also signals stability and comfort.

Ethiopian cuisine has long been shaped by nationalism. During the late nineteenth century, at a time when a national identity and the idea of an Ethiopian state were being forged, the Ethiopian court pioneered a kind of cooking which it described as the national cuisine. This was a selective vision of what the majority of Ethiopians ate, but, nonetheless, became the basis of the cooking in cafes and restaurants that began to open in the early 1900s. In the past three decades or so, this national cuisine has been adopted as somehow encapsulating Ethiopia’s national identity – despite the fact that it bears little resemblance to what nomads would have eaten even in the recent past.

Ethiopian tea and coffee at Arts on Main, Johannesburg.

Arts on Main, Johannesburg.

But even if Kliman isn’t really interested in Ethiopian food becoming ‘modern,’ this question about diet and modernity is an important one. The appeal of Ethiopian restaurants to leftwing Americans in the 1970s (ironically in Washington DC, one of the key cities of the Enlightenment) was precisely because it seemed to speak to their anxieties about modernity in an era of oil crises, rising anxiety about ecological disaster, and the slow emergence of finance capital. This was – they believed – food from a simpler, gentler, pre-modern time.

But American progressives have not always been so enthusiastic about immigrant cooking. In his wonderful book Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (1988), Harvey Levenstein devotes a chapter to the New England Kitchen (NEK), a project established in Boston in 1890 by Edward Atkinson, Wilbur Atwater, and Ellen Richards. Concerned about the growing potential for strikes and other forms of collective action in American industry, Atkinson, a prosperous Boston businessman, was interested in ways of improving the living conditions of his employees without raising their wages. Nutrition seemed to offer one way of solving this conundrum – an impression confirmed by the hugely influential scientist of nutrition, Wilbur Atwater. Ellen Richards, a chemist and the first woman graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that ways needed to be found to apply scientific research and principles to the improvement – the modernising – of American households.

The result of this collaboration was the NEK, which was intended both as a research institute and as a school where working people could learn to prepare simple, nutritious meals. Initially, it appeared to be a raging success, attracting funding from Andrew Carnegie, and with branches soon opening in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. But the NEK model failed quickly, and largely because it could not attract adequate numbers of the urban poor to attend classes. This was due in part to the fact that the diet recommended by the NEK was distinctly dull, heavy in refined carbohydrates, and sparingly flavoured. (This was in a time before the discovery of vitamins, so NEK staff were dismissive of the usefulness of fruit and vegetables.)

The ethnically varied working poor – constituted mainly of Italians, French Canadians, the Irish, and Jews from eastern and central Europe – apparently served by the NEK were not interested in this bland, heavy ‘American’ cooking. Moreover, as Levenstein makes the point, the cuisines brought by these immigrants was far more than simply sustenance: they were the basis for new identities in a foreign land, they created social cohesion, and they were closely intertwined with women’s own positions within both families and communities. Although the NEK project failed in some ways, its work was picked up in the early twentieth century by nutritionists who campaigned for the ‘Americanisation’ of immigrant diets, arguing that the strong flavourings of foreign diets served only to overwork digestive systems and encourage drinking. Meals had to be eaten on plates, rather from bowls, and with knives and forks. Spaghetti was not deemed an appropriate dinner. This was modern eating for modern Americans.

This process was not particular to the US. Missionaries in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa taught converts on mission stations to eat with knives and forks, instead of communally, with hands. Home economics classes, the homecraft and Jeanes movements, and other interventions were intended to teach African women how to run modern, civilised homes shortly before and after independence.

But this suspicion of immigrant food and eating as being somehow both anti-modern and unpatriotic is worth considering. American nutritionists in the early decades of the twentieth century were also suspicious of how immigrant women bought their food, choosing to go to small delis owned by other immigrants, instead of larger grocery stores. South Africa is experiencing yet another wave of xenophobic violence again – attacks on foreigners, most of them from the rest of the continent, as well as China and south Asia, never really cease, but we’re witnessing a moment of particularly heightened violence – and targets are often small spaza shops in informal settlements. Locals accuse foreigners of buying stock in bulk, thus undercutting South African businesspeople. One of the implications of the closure of these businesses is hunger: they sell food at much lower prices than the big supermarkets, which also tend to be taxi- and bus-rides away.

Apartheid’s project of race classification insisted that the race categories into which the population was divided were culturally defined: Indian people in Durban ate curry, ‘Malay’ people in Cape Town cooked bredie. Apartheid ideologues went out of their way to erase centuries of entangled histories. A refusal to engage with others – a refusal to understand our reliance on others – simply continues that project.


Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

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).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, OH.: Ohio University Press, 2009).

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