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Breaking Bread

In Montreal, I ate bagels instead of poutine. I had planned on visiting Mile End – the suburb described as the city’s coolest quarter – because my friend Susan lives there, I wanted to go to Drawn and Quarterly, and I continue to add to my (as yet unwritten) international taxonomy of hipsters. If Mile End is supposed to be the hipster capital of Canada, then I needed to see it.

It was described to me as the Montreal equivalent of Williamsburg: a formerly poor and fairly run-down, largely immigrant suburb, popular with artists, slowly being encroached upon by students, young middle-class families in search of beautiful but affordable homes near the city centre, and hipsters. It also has a substantial population of Orthodox Jews.

My friend Carina and I took the bus from Westmount – where we were staying with our friend, the bride-to-be – and walked up St-Laurent, all the way up the Plateau. It was early on Saturday morning, so we arrived in Mile End in search of breakfast. Having heard about the wars between two rival bagel bakeries in the area, we bought breakfast at Fairmount Bagel. It was, incidentally, the place recommended to us as the superior bakery.

Fairmount Bagel.

Fairmount Bagel.

And the bagels were delicious. I now know that the traditional Montreal bagels are white (with sesame seeds) or black (with poppy seeds), but our cinnamon and raisin bagels, fresh from the oven, were some of the best I’ve ever had. I was also starving and frozen by the time, so that may also have influenced my verdict. In contrast, the bagel I tried a few hours later – for the purposes of science, you understand – from the rival St-Viateur bakery, seemed not as good. St-Viateur is also the subject of Donald Bell’s comic novel Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory (1973).

These Mile End institutions are testimony to the many groups of immigrants who settled in Canada, particularly during the early twentieth century. Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe settled in Montreal partly because it offered jobs and security. The city’s Jewish population grew from around 7,000 in 1900, to nearly 64,000 in 1941, with many of them settling in Mile End and surrounds. The Orthodox Jewish community began to grow there during the 1980s.

St-Viateur Bagel

St-Viateur Bagel

Until this visit, I didn’t know that Montreal bagels are distinct from other varieties: they are smaller, flatter, with bigger holes, and are baked in wood-fired ovens. They have a complex, sweeter flavour, and a drier, more chewy texture. In fact, there is now a restaurant in New York which sells Montreal bagels.

Alas, the slightly inferior bagel from the St-Viateur bakery. (I ate the one from Fairmount Bagel too quickly to photograph.)

Alas, the slightly inferior bagel from the St-Viateur bakery. (I ate the one from Fairmount Bagel too quickly to photograph.)

In her excellent We are what we eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Modern Americans, Donna R. Gabaccia explores the evolution and changing of immigrant cuisines in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. She traces the history of the bagel there: how it shifted from being made almost exclusively by Jewish delis for Jewish customers in the 1890s, to being a ubiquitous snack food available throughout the country by the 1970s and 1980s. She writes:

The bagel was not a central culinary icon for Jewish immigrants; even before Polish and Russian Jews left their ethnic enclaves or ghettoes, their memories exalted gefilte fish or chicken soup prepared by their mothers, but not the humble, hard rolls purchased from the immigrant baker. As eaters, Jewish immigrants were initially far more concerned with the purity of their kosher meat, their challah, and their matzos, and with the satisfactions of their Sabbath and holiday meals, than with their morning hard roll.

However, bagels found an enthusiastic audience among other immigrant communities, particularly in New York, where the bagel came gradually to symbolise the city. Eating cream cheese and smoked salmon on these bagels transformed them from being a part of a Jewish baking tradition, to signifying its multicultural heritage.

I wonder to what extent the same is true for Montreal? And it feels likely that this city in a country with an official policy of multiculturalism – although in a province which has a far more conflicted attitude towards this policy – would embrace this immigrant food as one symbol of what it means to be from Montreal. (In much the same way that a café near to these bakeries sells a souvlaki version of poutine.)

Multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism?

I think, though, that these bagels are also taking on a new meaning. Gabaccia notes that the mass production of bagels from the 1970s made them more widely available, but also turned them into an altogether softer, sweeter, and easier bread to snack on. Bagels made in factories by Kraft – and not hand-rolled in small bakeries – lacked the texture, crust, and savouriness of the product first made in the northeast.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has recently been a renewed enthusiasm for Jewish deli foods. Julia Moskin writes in the New York Times:

Artisanal gefilte fish. Slow-fermented bagels. Organic chopped liver. Sustainable schmaltz.

These aren’t punch lines to a fresh crop of Jewish jokes. They are real foods that recently arrived on New York City’s food scene. And they are proof of a sudden and strong movement among young cooks, mostly Jewish-Americans, to embrace and redeem the foods of their forebears. That’s why, at this moment in 21st-century New York, the cutting edge of cuisine is the beet-heavy, cabbage-friendly, herring-loving diet of 19th-century Jews in Eastern Europe.

Much of the recent enthusiasm around the rediscovery of the hand-made and the artisanal (whatever we may mean by that) has been driven by hipsters (whatever we may mean by them). In a series of posts about the anthropology of hipsters – and the hipsterdom of anthropologists – Alex Posecznick notes that one of the defining features of ‘the hipster population’ is a rejection of ‘mainstream, capitalist and individualist norms in favour of tactile crafts, free-trade coffee and styles that physically mark that rejection.’

For the hipsters of Mile End, the Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries exemplify this refusal of the mass-produced, and the adoption of the local, the ethical, and the somehow ‘real.’ But, as Posecznick acknowledges, this never-ending search for cool in the form of the authentic can also been seen as representing no real break from other forms of capitalist consumption:

They have turned consumption itself into an art, where the fine distinction of this hat over that invests cultural capital, and where although it is used and battered, it can be sold for four times the value of a new hat.

My point is that the bagel’s meanings have changed once again: those produced in small quantities in small bakeries now suggest gritty, cool urban living, as well as a return to old-fashioned, wholesome ways of making food. The irony, though, is that this shift of meaning has occurred within the context of the gentrification of once-poor, often (Orthodox) Jewish, neighbourhoods, where rent increases have meant that their populations are becoming increasingly homogenous: largely middle-class, mostly white.

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

Sweet Talk

The language of maple syrup production is remarkably similar to that of drug dealing. Buyers try to make contact with dealers – who manufacture the syrup in deep, rural Ontario and Quebec – in search of the purest, most refined version of the product. I imagine the white middle-classes descending on isolated outposts of the countryside, in search of the good shit.

I spent most of May in Canada: mainly in Montreal, but also in Kingston for a wedding, and fleetingly in Toronto. I had a most fantastic and excellent time. (Except for the bit where I threw up every two hours on the trip from Toronto to Montreal. I could not recommend Via Rail’s bathrooms more highly.) Until this visit, my main exposure to Canadian cuisine had been in the form of Kraft dinner and poutine. A few years ago, a friend and I were locked in a basement kitchen and made to cook poutine for fifty homesick Canadians. If needs be, I may claim Canadian citizenship on the grounds of this experience. So with expectations suitably adjusted, I was curious about the food I would encounter.

In Toronto's Kensington Market.

In Toronto’s Kensington Market.

I ate exceptionally well and at such a range of cafes and restaurants, which is not surprising considering how multicultural some parts of Canada are. I was interested in the number of distinctly Canadian dishes I encountered: turtles, Nanaimo bars, and butter tarts. I would have tried a sugar pie in Quebec were I not concerned about early-onset diabetes.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando.

A turtle at Olive & Gourmando in Montreal.

And while staying with my friend Jane’s parents in Kingston, I learned a great deal about maple syrup. (Not least via the medium of her mum Elva’s amazingly delicious maple syrup muffins.) I discovered:

–       It’s possible to freeze maple syrup.

–       Maple syrup is best stored in empty, but unrinsed, rum, whisky, or brandy bottles.

–       The syrup ages as it keeps.

–       Each vintage is unique.

–       A collection of maple trees tapped for resin is called a sugar bush.

Subsequently, my friend Theo mentioned the Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve. This really does exist and is not, as I first suspected, the basis of Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy (neutralising enemies with extreme sweetness). Theo explains:

Cartel logic. The reserve is there to maintain the ‘right’ balance of sales and prices year to year, maintaining predictability for the many, many small producers of maple syrup. They sell off the reserve if there are new markets or a bad frost reducing the supply, and they build up the reserve in years with good production. OPEC does the same thing with petrol.

Maple syrup is so important to the Canadian economy – Quebec alone produces three quarters of the world’s supply – that the reserve is essential for protecting both the nation’s income and individual suppliers’ livelihoods. This is why the 2012 heist, during which thieves made off with around $30 million worth of maple syrup, was such a calamity.

In Mile End, Montreal.

In Mile End, Montreal.

But maple syrup means more than money. One of my favourite accounts of a first visit to the motherland is an essay by Margaret Atwood. In ‘Tour-de-Farce’ she describes how this 1964 trip to Britain and ‘a dauntingly ambitious quest for cultural trophies,’ which was supposed to ‘improve’ both her and her writing, helped her to understand her own Canadian-ness. Or, rather, that the people she encountered abroad could not position her within a cultural context:

For the Europeans, there was a flag-shaped blank where my nationality should have been. What was visible to me was invisible to them; nor could I help them out by falling back on any internationally-famous architectural constructs. About all I had to offer as a referent was a troop of horsey policemen, which hardly seemed enough.

Canadian food historians have begun to do excellent work on how Canadian identities have been constructed around food, cooking, and eating – around Tim Horton’s, immigrant cuisines, vegetarianism – and have thought about the position of maple syrup within this national identity- and mythmaking. (In what other country is it possible to consume a national emblem at breakfast?)

Its origins are in the wilderness, it was produced first by First Nations people and then by settlers, particularly dairy farmers in need of income during long, freezing winters. It was the virtuous substitute for sugar among nineteenth-century abolitionists, and figured prominently in the country’s commitment to an imperial war effort during the Second World War. Maple syrup’s usefulness is that because it’s a product that is linked to Canada’s landscape – it is ‘natural’ and, thus, somehow pure – it is able to by-pass a range of concerns that upset ideas of a Canadian-ness constructed around goodness and sweetness. Like wild salmon, maple syrup can be sold as a kind of pure, depoliticised embodiment of all that is ‘Canadian.’

Further Reading

Atsuko Hashimoto and David J. Telfer, ‘Selling Canadian Culinary Tourism: Branding the Global and the Regional Product,’ Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment, vol. 8, no. 1 (2006), pp. 31-55.

Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp (eds.), Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Carol I. Mason, ‘A Sweet Small Something: Maple Sugaring in the New World,’ in The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, ed. James A. Clifton (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007), pp. 91-106.

Ian Mosby, Food will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front (Vermont: University of British Columbia Press, 2014).

Steve Penfold, The Donut: A Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

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Long Walk

This morning I went to the unveiling of a blue plaque in Fietas, a small, increasingly rundown suburb to the west of the old Johannesburg CBD. It was to commemorate the establishment of the Save Pageview Association, and particularly the work of its founder, Adam Asvat, on whose house the plaque had been placed.

Today, twenty years ago, all South African adults were eligible to vote in the country’s first democratic elections. Also, today sixty-four years ago, the Group Areas Act was passed. This piece of legislation had devastating consequences for Fietas and other, similar suburbs with racially mixed populations.

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We remember the agonising destruction of District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, but the attempt to rub out Fietas, its mosques and churches, its shopping street – Fourteenth Street – made famous by Nat Nakasa, and its history of anti-segregation and anti-apartheid struggle is, possibly, less well known. Although eviction orders were sent to Pageview’s residents from 1964 – the area was rezoned ‘white’ – the bulldozers moved in only a decade later. Shopkeepers were required to move to the purpose-built Oriental Plaza in nearby Fordsburg, and families were to leave for Lenasia, a relatively far-away suburb for Indians.

The Pageview Association resisted the removals at every step. In 1989 – a year before the release of Nelson Mandela, and fours years after the declaration of the first state of emergency – a court case initiated by the Association successfully ended the evictions.

Pageview – or Fietas as it is also known – had no happy ending, though. It was not properly rebuilt after the removals. The suburb is desperately poor and crime-ridden. Its streets need renovating and sweeping. The first poster I saw for the Economic Freedom Fighters – a far-left, nationalist organisation purporting to represent the very poor and marginalised – was in Fietas’s main road.

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But today, as a group of people, some in their nineties and others just learning to walk, a few residents and former residents, a couple of students and journalists, a sprinkling of academics and activists, gathered to celebrate the lives of Adam and Khadija Asvat, I was reminded that when South Africans went to vote on 27 April 1994, it was by no means certain that the outcome would be even remotely peaceful.

I was about to turn twelve years old during those elections, and I spent them shuttling between the television and a science project. (The public holidays played havoc with the curriculum.) My parents voted, and my mother volunteered at the polling station in the Paarl town hall, fielding questions from old ladies (‘do I need to vote for the National Party twice?’). I was old enough to understand the significance of the election, but young enough to be reassured by my parents when they said that everything would be alright.

Although we lived in a smallish town in an agricultural district near Cape Town, we were acutely aware of the violence and radical uncertainty of the period, and not only because both my parents were opposed to the apartheid regime. There were riots in Paarl after Chris Hani’s assassination; the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging arrived to protect my white, girls’ school from whatever they believed we needed protecting from (and were told exactly where they could go and put their rifles by our outraged – Afrikaans-speaking – headmistress); the bomb drills; our neighbour who horded tinned food before the election; the threatening phone calls from the police when my mother’s work for the Black Sash drew too much attention to herself; the radio announcer counting the numbers killed overnight in violence in the Vaal Triangle, in KwaZulu-Natal, and elsewhere, as we ate breakfast before school.

Today’s guest of honour was Judge Johann Kriegler, who headed the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in 1994. He spoke about the chaos of the election: of the difficulties of getting ballot papers and even telephone lines to the very rural parts of the country, and how they had to scramble to include the Inkatha Freedom Party on the ballot papers, after its last-minute decision to participate in the election.

To reduce election fraud and because so many people were scared to vote, the IEC imported invisible ink from the United States to mark the hands of those who had voted. This ink would be visible only to ultraviolet lamps distributed to polling stations. But the lamps didn’t always work, and the ink soon ran out. What to do? Officials were told to continue pretending that the lamps did work, and to use water instead of invisible ink.

And yet things worked out.

I wish the police would stop shooting protesting civilians; that the Department of Education would send adequate supplies of textbooks to schools; that so many officials – from police in my local traffic department to the President – were not implicated in corruption; that there was no need for people to take to the streets to protest lack of service delivery; that there were no attempts to stifle freedom of expression; that the incidence of gender-based violence was not so high.

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But as we gathered in the Fietas Museum after the speeches and the unveiling, drinking tea and eating samoosas and koeksisters and chilli bites, I felt that for all this – for all that we have so much still to do, for all that we never really defined what we mean by ‘transformation‘ – we’ll be alright. It’ll work out. Somehow.

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This Little World

Like so many children on the former fringes of empire, much of my imaginative life was spent abroad: the England of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, I Capture the Castle, and, later, Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, and Woolf. I discovered Australia through My Brilliant Career, Canada in Margaret Atwood’s novels, and America in Little Women.

During a period when nearly every one of Austen’s novels was being made and re-made for film and television, I think I spent most of the mid-nineties somewhere in 1811. But at the same time as reading the nineteenth century, I was consumed with enthusiasm for Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books: a series set in Thatcher and then Blair’s Britain, which chart not only Adrian’s agonisingly hilarious development from the age of 13¾ to middle age, but the politics, preoccupations, and often, injustices of the period.

In some ways, Jane Eyre – mad wife in the attic and all – was, initially, easier to understand than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾: I had never heard of The Archers, the dole, the Co-Op, The Morning Star, or Melvyn Bragg. Sue Townsend died this week, and I’ve been reminded over and over again how much my knowledge of ordinary life – in council estates, in unfashionable parts of the midlands – in 1980s and 1990s Britain comes from Adrian’s secret diaries. She made ‘the little world’ of Adrian’s England – and he is supremely parochial – open up to a reader very far away.

Townsend had an eye for telling detail: the object or event that somehow managed to sum up a particular moment in time. Often, she did this through food. At the beginning of the Mole series, we come across Adrian learning to cook. As his mother embraces feminism – his first diary is written in the early 1980s – the family relies increasingly on boil-in-the-bag instant meals, then a relatively new convenience food. Bert Baxter, the communist-sympathising, irascible pensioner for whom Adrian cares periodically, will only eat Vesta curries, the first commercially available Indian food in Britain.

Adrian Mole

As the books move closer to the present, so food plays an ever more important role – mirroring, to some extent, middle-class Britain’s embrace of foodie-ism. In The Cappuccino Years – in which Adrian drinks at least three cappuccinos, that drink so emblematic of Blair’s Cool Britannia, per day – he works as a chef at the coolest restaurant in London: Hoi Polloi. The point of the restaurant is that it serves up the cheap instant food slowly being rejected as Britain rediscovers (or reinvents) its culinary heritage: he makes lumpy Bird’s Eye custard, heats up Fray Bentos pies, and serves instant coffee. Despite the fact that the food is – by Adrian’s admission – appalling and vastly overpriced, it is the place to be seen, particularly by New Labour politicians.

After its closure, Adrian becomes an early celebrity chef on a show called Offally Good! It also receives terrible ratings, and it’s only because his mother steps in at the last minute that he’s able to write a book – which sells next to nothing – based on the series.

Despite the fact that the Mole books are so deeply embedded in their social and political contexts, they are, I think, unlikely to date, and partly because they are informed by Townsend’s politics: her outrage at Thatcher’s attempts to roll back the welfare state; her disgust at the cynicism and duplicity of Labour under Blair and Brown. She is particularly good at depicting the slow slide into financial trouble, and then poverty: when bureaucratic bungling prevents Adrian’s mother – on her own and with two children to support – from collecting her welfare payment, the family reduces how much it eats.

Although this section of The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole is very funny – the situation is only resolved after his mother calls a local radio station and a stand-off ensues at the social security office – it was based on Townsend’s own experiences of poverty in Britain in the early 1980s: of having to cook her children a soup made of an Oxo cube and tinned peas when her welfare money was delayed.

She wasn’t the only writer of books for children and young people who describes hunger and poverty: I Capture the Castle notes, carefully, how the Mortmain family’s diet shrinks to bread, margarine, and the occasional egg during their worst period of hardship. The March sisters gladly give up their Christmas feast so that a poor immigrant family may eat. Jane Eyre’s depiction of pupils’ slow starvation in a sadistically run school is one of the most shocking passages in nineteenth-century fiction.

The difference, I think, with Townsend is that, despite some of her characters being able to pull themselves out of poverty, all the Mole books hint at the precariousness of prosperity: while we know that Cassandra Mortmain will never really starve, that all will be well when Mr March returns, and that Jane will eventually leave the school, Townsend’s politics never really allow her to make her readers feel that comfortable about her characters’ prospects.

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Peas in a Pod

For various reasons I once attended a talk by Tim Noakes, the sport scientist-turned-diet guru. I use the world ‘guru’ deliberately. Although many of his arguments are thought-provoking and, to some extent, compelling – essentially, he suggests that we should switch to a low-carbohydrate, protein-based, high fat diet – much of what he said was undermined by the manner of his delivery.

He presents his findings in the manner of a big tent evangelist. In a room packed to capacity by the middle classes anxious to discover the elixir of thinness, Noakes spoke for almost two hours, painting himself as a champion of natural eating, maligned by Big Food companies hell bent on making us eat more sugar and carbohydrates. If the back row had leapt to its feet, shouting ‘hallelujah!’ I would not have been surprised.

As I sat there, my mind wandered to a contemplation of diets eaten and advocated by other evangelicals. The leadership of the nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony were all evangelicals, who, during the American Civil War, refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the struggles of that country’s slaves. In doing so, they were part of an international boycott, supported by Christian churches all over the world.

These Christian evangelicals believed that their faith should manifest itself in every aspect of their day-to-day lives. In other words, piety was not to be kept for Sundays. Not drinking and refusing to gamble, avoiding debt, and becoming involved in good works were all manifestations of leading good Christian lives. Partly because many of the new middle classes produced by industrialisation were members of these churches, up until around the middle of the century evangelicals managed to exert a profound influence over public life in Britain, and parts of Europe, North America, Australia, and South Africa.

Although as far as I can see, none of South Africa’s evangelicals were particularly interested in shaping their or their congregants’ diets, it was certainly not unusual for evangelicals and Christians who were members of smaller, splinter groups to embrace restricted diets as manifestations of their piety. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some Christian sects practiced forms of vegetarianism for a variety of reasons: because a diet containing fewer animal products was ‘purer’ than those that did; or because killing animals was sacrilegious. Roger Crab, a seventeenth-century vegetarian believed that meat eating was a consequence of the Fall, as Alan Rudrum explains:

By the age of twenty he was restricting himself to a diet of vegetables and water, ‘avoiding butter, cheese, eggs and milk’, that is, he was what we now call a vegan. As time passed he became more austere, dropping carrots and potatoes as luxuries, though in old age (he lived to be 59) he allowed himself parsnips. Crab’s vegetarianism seems partly to have been dictated by a self-administered vow of poverty; living on dock-leaves and grass, he claimed to live on three farthings a week. But he argued that ‘Eating of Flesh is an absolute Enemy to pure Nature’.

William Cowherd founded the vegetarian Bible Christians near Manchester in 1809. Ian Miller notes:

the Bible Christians … had hoped to create a new form of Christian church with its unique rituals and dietary regulations. For the adherents to this group, meat eating was conceived of as the most vivid symbol of man’s fall from grace, as well as being a source of social evil. William Cowherd (1763-1816) ran the Bible Christian chapel at King Street, Salford, attracting a large following of working-class people, who were encouraged not least by offers of hot vegetable soup, medical help, and a free burial ground.

Crab and Cowherd may appear to be fairly extreme examples, but their influence was felt far beyond their immediate communities. The Vegetarian Society was established in Ramsgate in 1847. Its founders were a motley collection of socialists and other progressives, many of them heavily influenced by the thought and pedagogy pioneered by Bronson Alcott (father of the more famous Louisa May), as well as by representatives of the Salford Bible Christians. One of these, James Simpson, was elected the Society’s first president.

As Ian Miller argues, in its early years, the Vegetarian Society used markedly religious language to promote and explain vegetarianism to an otherwise sceptical audience. One contributor to the Vegetarian Messenger wrote that

abstinence from meat appeared to supply man with important pre-conditions for the perception, understanding, application, and obeying of the teachings of Christ while removing some of the difficulties which lay in the way of the carnal man’s submission to his rule and governance. Vegetarianism alone, it seemed, could not bring about a more spiritual outlook by itself but could at least act as a starting point given that the individual was situated within the right conditions.

Miller adds:

the early writings of the vegetarian movement regularly emphasised a vegetarian world that had existed prior to the Fall that was to be restored following the end of the present age of spiritual and social progress…

This was a vegetarian propaganda which would have been palatable, so to speak, to non-vegetarian evangelicals who shared a similar world-view. However, other, more mainstream, Christian groups have long been sympathetic to vegetarianism, and particularly the Quakers and the Seventh Day Adventists. The latter’s commitment to lifelong, healthy eating has, in fact, influenced the ways in which many of us eat: the Adventist-owned Australian and New Zealand food company Sanitarium produces muesli, granola, and, most famously, Weet-Bix.

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John Harvey Kellogg was an Adventist too. Other than breakfast cereals, the Kellogg company also popularised graham crackers – biscuits invented in the 1830s by the deeply pious Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham from Connecticut, who believed that the passions and emotions could best be mastered by eating plain, bland food.

Noakes’s preaching uses, probably unwittingly, the same techniques employed by evangelicals since the end of the eighteenth century. I think, though, that are other similarities between his enthusiasm for a high-fat diet and the Christians involved in the early Vegetarian Society. They all believe that changing eating habits will be better for the whole world – that the transformation of the individual will lead to the remaking of society more generally. After all, the subtitle of Noakes’s new book is ‘Changing the World One Meal at a Time.’

Sources

Ian Miller, ‘Evangelicalism and the Early Vegetarian Movement in Britain, c.1847-1860,’ Journal of Religious History, vol. 35, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 199-210.

Alan Rudrum, ‘Ethical Vegetarianism in Seventeenth-Century Britain: Its Roots in Sixteenth-Century Theological Debate,’ The Seventeenth Century, vol. 18, no. 1 (2003), pp. 76-92.

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995).

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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 http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/counterculture/liberation/blackpanther/blackpanther.html)

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.

Sources

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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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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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.

IMG-20140227-00105

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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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.

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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?

Sources

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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Secrets

I spent part of this week at a workshop on theorising secrecy and transparency. Based on a variety of readings – on a range of subjects, from drone warfare to the world’s first biometric money, and from women Free Masons in Italy to Wikileaks – we discussed how secrecy and transparency can only exist in relation to one another; how we need secrets in order to function socially; how transparency tends to pertain only to information and not knowledge; and what do we mean by discretion, and privacy?

And so, perhaps inevitably, my thoughts turned to food. We are all fairly familiar with the idea of the secret recipe. KFC markets its chicken as being flavoured with eleven secret herbs and spices. The contents of Worcestershire Sauce and Coca-Cola are closely guarded secrets. Such is the intensity of people’s curiosity around these products, there is now a cottage industry dedicated to discovering just what goes into Seven-Up or Dr Pepper.

One of my favourite episodes of This American Life attempts to recreate what is, apparently, the original, true recipe for Coke. The formula for the syrup on which Coca-Cola is based – called Merchandise 7x – is a very carefully guarded secret. However, the producers of the show managed to track down what seems to have been one of the first recipes for Coca-Cola, in a 1979 edition of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

Asa Candler, who founded the company in 1892, did not invent Coke. That person was a chemist, John Pemberton, who, in 1882, created Coca-Cola to sell alongside other drinks and patent medicines. Famously, its name derives from the fact that it contained extract of coca leaf. (Coca-Cola removed cocaine from its recipe in 1903.) After his death, the recipe circulated among other chemists – and it is this formula which was printed in 1979.

It is this formula which Ira Glass asks two people from Jones Soda in Seattle to recreate, but with not particularly encouraging results. They describe it as tasting like Froot Loops, or medicine, or aspirin. After refining the recipe and their ingredients (which include lemon and coriander oil, vanilla, lime juice, and lots of sugar) they arrive at something which approximates Coke so closely that they – and others – find it virtually indistinguishable from the ‘real’ product.

What is so interesting about this investigation is that it suggests that there were once several recipes for Coke circulating around Atlanta and, secondly, that the recipe itself has changed over time. In fact, one of the best indicators of this is the popularity of Mexican Coke. Many claim that it tastes considerably better than the American variety, and this is probably due to the fact that Coca-Cola made in the US now contains corn syrup – which is cheaper – rather than the original cane sugar.

It is unsurprising that manufactures of processed food would want to advertise their products on the grounds that they’re based on fixed, never-changing ‘secret’ recipes. This adds to the ‘specialness’ of the sauce, drink, or seasoning and, most obviously, suggests that these cannot be made at home. In fact, this is probably true: foodstuffs made in factories contain ingredients, and are put through processes, unavailable to the domestic kitchen. Also, unlike home cooking, manufactures are able to claim – despite evidence to the contrary – that these products will – apparently – always be absolutely uniform. One bottle of Worcestershire Sauce is supposed to be exactly the same as the next.

Current campaigns to force food companies accurately to label their products are partly a manifestation of suspicion of the contents of Big Food’s secret processes and recipes. This insistence on transparency is not particularly new, though. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Heinz – one of the first, and now one of the biggest – food companies in the world distinguished itself from its competitors by selling its sauces and condiments in clear glass bottles.

As concerns about food contamination grew in both the US and elsewhere, Heinz argued that its clear bottles proved to shoppers the purity of their products. Unlike their competitors, they didn’t add lead, chalk, arsenic or any other contaminants to their merchandise. Partly as a result of this, Heinz could ally itself closely to the pure food movement in the US – linked to temperance organisations – as the best example of what an ethical food producer should look like. This made exceptionally good business sense. HJ Heinz was able to exert some influence over the committee responsible for writing the landmark Food, Drink, and Drugs Act of 1906. Although this legislation was designed to end food contamination, it worked to create a uniform, nation-wide set of regulations over the production and marketing of processed food.

Heinz Ketchup Bottles 1880 to 1910

Transparency – literally in the case of Heinz – actually enabled food companies to grow their markets across the United States. But although technology and industrialisation change the ways in which we understand and define transparency and secrecy, these have existed in the food world long before the nineteenth century. Chefs and cooks guarded their recipes in the same ways as other artisans and tradespeople protected knowledge about their skills.

I’ve been reading Bill Buford’s fascinating account of a journey through restaurant kitchens and butchers in New York and Tuscany. One of the themes running through Heat is secrecy: in an age where it’s ever-easier to share information, and where chefs are compelled to produce recipe books at regular intervals, how to keep iconic dishes – the food which defines restaurants – secret?

But secrecy is most important for three chefs in Italy and, significantly, all of them women. Intent on learning how to make pasta ‘properly’ (like an Italian, in other words), Buford gets in touch with the best pasta cooks he knows. Firstly, he calls Miriam Leonardi who runs Trattoria la Buca near Parma, and asks to spend some time in her kitchen, learning from her:

She panicked. ‘What are you talking about? A month? I never let anyone into my kitchen – ever.’ (She made a funny sound. Was she having trouble breathing?) ‘I don’t know what to say. Are you crazy?’ She was very angry.

Next he tries Valeria Piccini, whose response is similar. This time, though, Buford realises why: ‘was it because she didn’t want to share her pasta secrets?’ He finally manages to secure a place in a small restaurant run by Betta Valdiserri in Poretta. It was here that Mario Batali learned Italian cuisine, and Buford, having spent a year in Batali’s restaurant Babbo, is accepted because of his connection with Batali.

Miriam is, though, as loath to share her secrets, and particularly for tortellini. While she does eventually divulge her recipe, she does so over a period of time, so that Buford needs to make a series of return visits to learn each step in the process of making tortellini:

It was, I concluded, a test of my promise that I wouldn’t reveal the recipe to Mario: if enough time had elapsed and she got no reports of her tortellini on the Babbo menu, she could assume the coast was clear.

For all three of these women who have managed to be successful in an industry which is male dominated and frequently sexist, and within a profoundly patriarchal society, keeping secrets becomes a way of claiming power. Their recipes are what define them, as Buford explains:

For Betta, pasta was crucial to how she thought about herself. ‘Mario,’ she said, is now a great success, and I am not. Mario is now rich, and I am not. But he was never very good at making pasta. He was never as good as me. I am very, very good.’

So although secrecy (and the pretense of transparency) is useful for big food companies, it is also a strategy useful for women negotiating a place within a world often designed to thwart their ambitions.

Sources

Bill Buford, Heat (New York: Vintage Books, [2006] 2007).

Gabriella M. Petrick, ‘“Purity as Life”: HJ Heinz, Religious Sentiment, and the Beginning of the Industrial Diet,’ History and Technology, vol. 27, no. 1 (2011), pp. 37-64.

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