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Posts tagged ‘austerity’

Readymade

Every summer my mother and I make preserves. We have two staples – Christmas chutney and red pepper relish – which, occasionally, we’ve augmented with piccalilli, boerenjongens (currants in brandy), and pickled pears. When we started this more than a decade ago, chutney- and jam-making was seen as the sort of thing that grandmothers did, and this despite the long tradition of preserving and pickling in South Africa’s fruit growing regions.

More recently, though, preserving has become fashionable. Recipes for chutneys abound on hipster blogs and cooler recipe sites; Punk Domestics has an enormous following; and even Girls features a maker of ‘artisanal mustard’ (Charlie’s profoundly irritating girlfriend, Audrey). This, though, is part of a wider trend: a rediscovery of domesticity, particularly – although not exclusively – among young women in their 20s and 30s. The existence of a café specialising in crafts – Drink, Shop, Do – in London’s Kings Cross, points to the numbers of people who are part of this trend.

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Their enthusiasm for cooking-from-scratch, sewing, knitting, gardening, and other domestic activities is the product of a range of factors (many of them explored in Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity (2013)). These include the evolution of feminism to reclaim work once dismissed as feminine and, thus, unimportant; a shift in values as Generation Y attempts to carve out new, meaningful forms of employment; and the 2008 financial crash. Austerity has played out culturally: in a new interest in mending and making-do.

Most obviously, a willingness to make ketchup and bread and mayonnaise is part of a backlash against Big Food: as revelations around, among other things, food contamination, the exploitation of workers, and cruelty to animals continue to emerge, there has been a gradual turning-away from processed food. This, though, is nothing new (there was a similar whole food movement in the 1970s), nor particularly prevalent beyond the affluent middle classes.

Unsurprisingly, this backlash against the readymade has been accompanied by a fascination for the post-war cooking which relied heavily on processed food. The Internet abounds with lists of appalling recipes containing instant jelly, fizzy soft drinks, and canned meat. Nigella Lawson devoted a section to ‘trashy’ food in Nigella Bites, explaining that she defines ‘trashy’ as any food relying on at least one readymade ingredient: Maryland cookies in her chocolate and lime cheesecake, for instance.

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There is some justification for this ridicule – so many of these dishes range from the bizarre to the mildly pornographic. Adding lime jelly to tinned tuna, or turning Vienna sausages into fondue, suggests that some home economists employed by food companies in the 1950s and 1960s really did have cloth palates.

But it’s worth taking enthusiasm for the readymade seriously. In his excellent – and deeply funny – blog Caker Cooking, Brian Francis cooks his way through the community, school, and church recipe books constituted of the kind of everyday dishes made by, largely, middle-class families. (And although his blog is Canadian, I’ve encountered similar pamphlets and recipes in South Africa and Australia.) This is his definition of caker cooking (and he is being satirical, so his third point is not meant to offend):

1. A ‘magic’ ingredient. We cakers love to think we’ve discovered some sort of short cut. Usually, this short cut requires a can opener.
2. Ease. The recipe has to have as few steps and as few ingredients as possible.
3. Frugality. There’s nothing more wasteful than spending good money on food.

Indeed, it is for these reasons that processed food held such appeal to women – many of them entering the workplace in greater numbers – from the middle of the twentieth century to the present: that this food is quick and easy to prepare, and it’s cheap. It’s difficult to imagine, now, the amount of labour that used to go into the preparation of food. And, as the food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe has noted over and over again, tinned food is considerably cheaper than fresh.

Calvin Trillin is one of the few food writers who recognises that the only way of describing honestly about how people eat is to acknowledge that processed food is integral to the way most of us cook. (Try cooking through a winter without tinned tomatoes.) That cream of mushroom soup is a vital ingredient in so many distinctive regional dishes; that Texas barbeque is served with cheap, white processed bread and that’s ok.

My point is that however wonderful it is that there has been a rediscovery and re-embrace of old-fashioned forms of cookery – and as one who makes her own granola, bakes her own bread, and who has dried her own tomatoes, I am part of this too – this movement is small, and one limited to those who have the time and resources to spend hours making pickles or fruit leather. Instead of arguing for a wholesale rejection of all forms of processed food, what we should focus on is ensuring that it is better: that it is healthier, properly labelled, and produced in humane, fair conditions.

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

Political

Last week I wrote a post outlining the threat to the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) in Cape Town, asking why the city’s food bloggers and foodies – its chefs, restaurateurs, and writers – seemed to have such little interest in the proposed development of a piece of land which grows half of Cape Town’s fresh produce.

The response has been fantastic: Food24 picked up the post, and some magnificent people got in touch with ideas. (I’ll tell you more about them in due course.) More importantly, and not related to my post, the campaign to save the PHA has stepped up. Other than signing the Avaaz petition, do please watch and share this excellent short documentary about the PHA:

Anyone keen to help out with the Save the PHA Campaign should email Nazeer Sonday, nasonday@gmail.com, or Rob Small, rob@farmgardentrust.org.

With a few exceptions, though, the majority of people who have expressed dismay at the development of the PHA and who have offered to do something about it, have not been involved in Cape Town’s food world. In fact, again with a few exceptions, it seems to me that the city’s foodies remain unmoved about the issue – which is quite an achievement given the amount of coverage the development of the PHA has received.

As I wrote last time, considering that these are people with an unusually intense interest in food and where it comes from, I would have thought that they’d be lining up to condemn the development of land which produces their vegetables. Moreover, some of them have such enormous readerships and access to the media, that their ability to communicate with large numbers of people would allow them to be exceptionally helpful to the campaign.

If a blogger with a fairly small readership (and I love each and every one of you) sitting in Joburg can help to get two projects off the ground in Cape Town, imagine what someone with a massive audience and the odd TV appearance could achieve?

In this post, though, I’m interested in why the city’s bloggers – and there are lots of them, and they wield some power – have displayed such little concern for the PHA. One of the excuses that readers of my post offered for not wanting to become involved in the campaign is that it’s toopolitical.’ This is an interesting comment, and worth unpacking.

I think that by ‘political’ respondents meant that they did not want to be associated with a campaign that confronts Patricia de Lille, the Mayor of Cape Town, and the members of the Mayoral Committee who took the decision to develop the PHA.* It’s more likely that bloggers would mobilise to raise funds and awareness around poor children or abused animals. My point is not that we shouldn’t support the SPCA or Nazareth House – far from it, and please do because they do vital work – but, rather, that these causes are more easily depoliticised.

The irony is that all food writing is political: it’s all implicated in the ways in which power works in society. There are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. Some of the most evocative reporting on the effects of Europe’s austerity regimes has focussed on the rise of food insecurity: from the organisations which have emerged to feed people in Greece, to the increasing numbers of food banks in the UK.

As a recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s excellent Food Programme reported, austerity eating has been reflected in a shift in food blogging too. Jack Monroe has documented, eloquently, her struggle to feed herself and her young son on almost no money at all:

Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one weetabix and says ‘more mummy, bread and jam please mummy’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawn shop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.

Part of the appeal of Monroe’s blog is that she is able to connect her delicious, nutritious, and incredibly cheap recipes with, as she says to Sheila Dillon, ‘a political spike’: an awareness of the connection between what she eats and the social, political, and economic context in which she and her audience operate.

What Monroe, as well as the brilliant Skint Foodie and North/South Food, is doing is not anything new: there have been other attempts to describe budget cooking (I think of Catherine Whitehorn’s altogether frothier Cooking in a Bedsitter (1961)), and the best food writing and reporting connects what people eat with the circumstances in which they buy, cook, and consume food.  What these bloggers are achieving – articulately, effectively – is to demonstrate how the UK government’s attempts to dismantle the welfare state are causing an increasingly large number of people to go hungry in the eighth richest nation in the world.

Vegetables ready for packing at Harvest of Hope in Philippi.

Vegetables ready for packing at Harvest of Hope in Philippi.

I would not be surprised to see other, similar blogs being established over the coming few years. And I’m interested in answering why South African food blogging has not demonstrated a similar awareness of the country’s vast inequalities. A cursory reading of most South African food blogs would not reveal that they are written in a country where one fifth of children have stunted growth and one in ten children suffer from severe malnutrition.

I don’t want to suggest that every blog must be a worthy condemnation of the gap between South Africa’s very poor and very, very rich – continue to eat your cupcakes with impunity, please – but I’ve often been struck by just how incredibly unaware so many bloggers are of their privilege: that their ability to buy their food from upmarket supermarkets and cute urban markets is a very rare thing indeed in South Africa.

In some ways, this lack of awareness among Capetonian bloggers is particularly obvious because of the city’s affluence and its ‘whiteness’: because, unlike other South African cities, its middle-class suburbs, expensive food shops, farmers’ markets, and top-end restaurants remain overwhelmingly white.

I’m not really sure how to end this post. I think that some bloggers’ unwillingness to engage with the politics of cooking, eating, and growing food are probably the product of a range of anxieties around race, class, and an uncertainty about where to fit into post-1994 South Africa. But this is pretty obvious.

All comments welcome.

*I’d point out that one of the chief joys of democracy is that you can criticise the DA and still vote for it.

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

Brain Food

Recently I’ve been mildly obsessed with Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them (2011). It’s a collection of essays about Russian literature and her experiences as a PhD student at Stanford. In the first chapter, ‘Babel in California,’ Batuman describes a conference at Stanford, dedicated to the analysis of the work of Isaak Babel. Like so many academic conferences, it is simultaneously enlightening and farcical.

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