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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.

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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.

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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.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Barely related factoid — “Light represents a constant fraction of per capita GDP over time; the world has been spending 0.72 percent of its GDP for light for 300 years now.”

    April 30, 2015
    • That’s fascinating – thank you! (Also – hello.)
      -Sarah

      May 1, 2015
  2. Thanks Sarah, I hadn’t realised there were so many issues with South Africa’s electricity supply. We thankfully have few blackouts here in Australia, and the sort of rolling blackouts you describe I’ve only heard of on a few occasions when there has been damage to electricity generation in the peak of summer for example, so supplies then have to be rationed.
    I was interested in the quote from the Nigerian writer about being a libertarian in relation to power, as I think this is an increasing trend even in affluent countries due as much to concerns about climate change and the unsustainability of current systems as necessity. It will be really interesting to see the impact of innovations such as Tesla’s new battery technology in this context – http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/13/8033691/why-teslas-battery-for-your-home-should-terrify-utilities

    May 2, 2015
    • Thanks so much for this, and yes! I couldn’t agree with you more.
      -Sarah

      May 6, 2015
  3. Reblogged this on fashion.

    June 9, 2015

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