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Is the Future of Food Medieval?

Public service announcement: if you’re in Cape Town and would like to know more about the Protection of Information Bill and what YOU can do about it, come to Right2Know‘s public meeting on Tuesday, 7 June, at 18:00 at Idasa, 6 Spin Street. Judith February will be joined by Pregs Govender, Zapiro, Pierre de Vos, and others.

This week Oxfam published a report on the state of the world’s food systems. Titled ‘Growing a Better Future,’ the study argues that by 2030 the world will be in a state of permanent food crisis. Staples will cost twice as much in twenty years time, with the price of maize increasing by as much as 180%. The world’s poorest will be the worst affected by the crisis. As demand for food outstrips supply and places pressure on existing food distribution systems, more than a billion people will go hungry every day.

Already, the average growth rate in agricultural yields has halved since 1990, and this is set to decline even further. A combination of factors have converged to produce this crisis. Climate change, increasingly limited natural resources, commodity speculation, the demand for biofuels, population growth, and changing, more meat- and dairy-heavy diets are working to destabilise our food system.

The result of the food crisis is not only hunger, but poverty and increasing political upheaval:

we have entered an age of growing crisis, of shock piled upon shock: vertiginous food price spikes and oil price hikes, devastating weather events, financial meltdowns, and global contagion. Behind each of these, slow-burn crises continue to smoulder: creeping and insidious climate change, growing inequality, chronic hunger and vulnerability, the erosion of our natural resources. The broken food system is at once a driver of this fragility and highly vulnerable to it.

Alongside this report, Oxfam has launched a campaign, ‘Grow’, to publicise its set of solutions to the food crisis. It’s attempting to mobilise opposition to land grabs and commodity speculation, to promote small-scale agriculture, and also to highlight awareness of the links between climate change and food prices.

In his analysis of the report, Mark Lynas makes the point that one of its most interesting features is its pragmaticism. The report notes (rightly):

The romanticisation of ‘the peasant’ and rejection of new technologies and trade have the potential to lock farmers into poverty. International trade and new technologies are not magic bullets, but each has a major contribution to make, one which can be increased massively if governments direct them towards delivering public goods.

It even adds:

Large-scale agriculture also has a role to play in meeting the sustainable production challenge. It is better able to meet the exacting standards that have come to characterize the food supply chains that feed burgeoning cities. Moreover, as economic development takes place, and labour costs rise relative to capital costs, larger, more mechanized modes of production become more viable, in turn providing an exit from agriculture for poor rural people as long as sufficient jobs are created in industry.

Has Oxfam lost its marbles? Of course not. This report is a tacit rejection of the idea that industrialisation is itself the cause of the instability of the food system. It makes the point that while technology may have caused incredible damage to ecosystems and even reduced yields, it has the potential to get us out of this crisis as well. The issue isn’t the technology itself, but, rather, the way in which it is used.

I am concerned that Oxfam will have an uphill battle over this point. So many organisations seem to have swallowed whole the concept that we need to return to the farming, cooking, and eating of the past in order to eat better in the present, and future. The Oxfam report demonstrates that our food crisis is so complex that this simplistic way of thinking about food simply won’t do.

As I wrote last week, the Slow Food Movement has long described itself as offering an alternative way of thinking about food. I think that despite the good that Slow Food has done in the world, its views on food and the past are not only deeply troubling, but actively harmful. Its Manifesto on the Future of Food argues for a wholesale rejection of all forms of technology and a ‘transition to a more decentralized, democratic and cooperative, non-corporate, small-scale organic farming as practiced by traditional farming communities, agroecologists, and indigenous peoples for millennia.’

The Slow Food Manifesto (and Slow Food seems to like nothing more than a manifesto) states:

Our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food.  Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer. … Slow Food guarantees a better future.

It is partly this enthusiasm for the regional, the local, the ‘indigenous’, and the ‘traditional’ which makes me question that Slow Food does guarantee a ‘better future’. To which ‘tradition’ do we return?

It’s particularly interesting that Slow Food originated in Italy. This is a country with a heavily invented notion of its own food traditions, and a suitably bad memory of what Italians really did eat in the recent past.

Up until the end of the First World War, Italian diets were very poor – which, given Italy’s climate, terrain, and precarious political situation throughout the nineteenth century, isn’t terribly surprising. Most main meals consisted either of bread or polenta with onions, oil, and whatever cheap fish and vegetables were available. The components of what we now believe to be the age-old Italian or Mediterranean diet – pasta, tomatoes, wine, dairy products, and other fresh produce – were eaten only during festivals. Carol Helstosky writes in Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy:

Although few people starved or fell seriously ill from malnutrition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the majority of the Italian population did not consume a nutritionally adequate diet because of economic and political constraints on their behaviour as consumers and eaters. Subsistence farming and local markets characterized Italian agriculture while a weak national economy limited consumer options, even for urban workers and members of the middle class. … Italian consumers remained trapped in a post-subsistence economy for multiple reasons, unable to make the transition to a more varied and nutritious diet.

The change came in 1919. During the Great War, state control over food distribution systems meant that the diets of ordinary Italians actually improved. (Something similar happened in Britain during the Second World War.) Diets were increasingly more homogenous, and wheat flour began to replace maize and other carbohydrates.

In addition to this, Italian immigrants in the United States began to shape a new kind of national cuisine. Even relatively poor, newly-arrived Italians could afford a greater variety of food in America than they could at home. They were able to buy the tomatoes, pasta, and olive oil which they couldn’t afford in Italy. Helstosky adds:

as Italians began to leave the peninsula for greater economic opportunities in the Americas and elsewhere, they sought to recreate familiar dishes. This led to a growing body of consumers for Italian products (dried pasta, canned tomatoes, and olive oil), which in turn greatly aided the development of certain food industries within Italy. Only after substantial numbers of Italians abroad began consuming these foods did domestic production furnish more products for Italians at home. Ironically, it was because of the ‘imagined communities’ outside Italy that the food industry inside Italy produced the goods that became the foundations of Italian cuisine.

In America, this invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

In a sense, ‘Italian cuisine’ was created in a dialogue between poor, badly nourished Italians in Italy and their wealthier, better-fed cousins in the United States. During the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, Italians began to eat the same food as Italian immigrants, supplementing their diets to a greater extent with meat and dairy products. They also began to link this invented notion of Italian food with being Italian.

The Italian cuisine promoted by the Slow Food Movement was created in the United States and in Italy during the second half of the twentieth century. The ‘traditional’ food to which Slow Food harks back is not the chestnut flour and woody vegetables of inadequate nineteenth-century peasant diets, but, rather, the invented ‘traditional’ Italian food of artisanal olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red peppers, prosciutto, and ricotta.

This is only one example of how a rose-tinted, faulty understanding of history hides the fact that peasant diets – both in the past and those in the present – are produced by backbreaking labour and are usually nutritionally inadequate. We are taller, healthier, and live longer today because our diets are more varied and contain more protein than those of our ancestors.  To suggest to peasants that their diets are somehow better than those in the West is patronising and ignorant.

But the technologies of the twentieth century which revolutionised our food systems are not sustainable. The Green Revolution’s enthusiasm for pesticides and large-scale irrigation, the neglect of small farmers, industrial agriculture, and the increasing concentration of the world’s food supply in the hands of a small collection of supermarkets, agricultural businesses, and food companies, have helped to land us in the situation we’re in now. Clearly, things need to change. Tim Lang writes:

An entire 20th-century approach to food modernity is under threat. Consumer expectations, not least that we can eat whatever we like whenever we like, are at stake. The 20th century squandered scientific possibilities. It created the fiction that ever more food can be produced by tapping oil, throwing fertiliser at seeds, spraying endless water and treating the soil as blotting paper, a neutral medium. We now know how fragile that mix is, and how fragile the Earth’s crust and biology are too.

The future of food is not in the past. Even the Slow Food Movement celebrates a peasant diet which was invented partly in twentieth-century North America. I believe very strongly that we can learn from history to improve our eating and attitudes towards food today, but an unthinking return to ‘tradition’ is both impossible and undesirable.

Update: for more on the general dodginess of Slow Food, see Luca Simonetti’s excellent analysis of the moment’s political and ideological leanings.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Robert Bailey, Growing a Better Future: Food Justice in a Resource-Constrained World (Oxfam, 2011).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic & Oil: Food and Politics in Italy (Oxford and New York: Berg, [2004] 2006).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Jerry Mander (ed.), Manifesto on the Future of Food (The International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, 2006).

Other sources:

Julia Csergo, ‘The Emergence of Regional Cuisines,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 500-515.

John Dickie, Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007).

Donna R. Gabaccia, ‘As American as Budweiser and Pickles? Nation Building in American Food Industries,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 175-193.

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘The Tortilla Discourse: Nutrition and Nation Building,’ in iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), pp. 77-97.

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

Ladyfood

Like all fashions, food fads are by their nature transient. The Atkins diet enjoyed a mercifully brief vogue during the early 2000s; and in 1997 Britain’s supply of cranberries was totally depleted when Delia Smith cooked with them in that year’s Christmas special for her television series. (Something similar happened when Nigella Lawson professed a weakness for frozen peas. Truly, the British are mad.)

Inevitably, after a surge in popularity, these diets or ingredients are either dropped or supplanted by new fashions, or incorporated into our diets to such an extent that we wonder why we were ever so mad about them in the first place (I think of sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika….). It’s not often, though, that people declare themselves ‘sick’ of a particular product – or ask that there be a ‘backlash’ against it. But this has happened, and also fairly recently.

In the past fortnight or so I’ve read a range of articles calling for an end to…cupcakes. Yes, this most mini member of the cake family seems to be facing a kind of culinary doom. But why? What could be so appalling about a dab of Victoria sponge topped with either royal icing, or a blob of butter cream? They were the first cakes my sister and I baked on our own, and I made some last week for an indoor birthday picnic.

Valentine Warner writes in this month’s Delicious:

My assistant brought a pretty blue tin into work the other day and sweetly said, ‘This is for you.’ I prized open the lid and had to disguise my flaring nostrils. Cupcake alert! Feeling the need to be polite, I reached in gingerly, wondering why I feel so unkind towards this fancy spongy hell-spawn.

In the recent tenth anniversary edition of Observer Food Monthly, an article lists the top ten food trends of the past decade. Among its five worst are supermarket vegetable boxes (a genuinely daft idea, I agree) and cupcakes. Why? Because ‘these twee treats have had their day.’ Are cupcakes really as bad as genetically modified food – another of the Observer’s five worst food trends since 2001?

I think that it’s worth thinking about the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby. Food, as I have noted before, represents considerably more than simply nourishment. We attach a range of assumptions, prejudices, and meanings to food. These change over time and vary according to context, but remain a potent influence over how – and what – we eat. Importantly, they also shape our identities: food contributes to the construction of national, social, racial, and gendered identities. Cupcakes aren’t simply cupcakes. They are more than sponge cake and icing.

Cupcakes were not always fashionable. Warner writes:

Cupcakes aren’t exactly new. Most of us ate a paddling pool full of them between the ages of five and 10. They were party cakes whose function was twofold: half to be eaten and half to be smeared over the car on the way home.

I know exactly what he means. When I was a little girl in Paarl in the late 1980s and early 90s, cupcakes – or fairy cakes as we tended to call them – were birthday party food. They were dyed pink and lilac to go with our fairy dresses and decorated liberally with hundreds and thousands, glace cherries, silver balls, and whatever else we found in the baking cupboard. Woeker en Woel, Paarl’s biggest tuisnywerheid (a cooperative selling food, needlework, and other things made by women at home) used to sell them in batches of twelve in beer boxes. They were iced in green and pink and I remember them as being enormous – about the same size as flat, brown mushrooms. By no stretch of the imagination could these be considered elegant.

The rise of the cupcake began during the late 90s, and many pin this to the opening of the Magnolia Bakery in New York City in 1996. The Bakery sells individual, beautifully-decorated cupcakes alongside its more usual selection of cakes and pastries. Of course, other bakeries may well have been doing this for decades, but what makes Magnolia different is that it is in Manhattan, and that it is fashionable. The ascendancy of the cupcake was confirmed in 1998 when a couple of episodes of the then wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City depicted Carrie and her friends scoffing cupcakes in the Bakery.

Adre Meyer's Cupcakes at the Hope Street Market in Cape Town

Since then, macaroons, pies, and whoopie pies have been dubbed the ‘new cupcake’, but to little effect. Even with the apparent current backlash, cupcakes appear still to sustain a baking industry: there are legions of recipe books (even Martha Stewart deigned to write one), blogs, websites, market stalls, bakeries, and cafes dedicated solely to cupcakes. This is also a global fashion which spread quickly from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the rest of the world.

In Britain, the cupcake was popularised by Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000). Unlike other food writers, she acknowledges that their appeal is based on a nostalgia for childhood. She notes: ‘At about the same time I started getting into top cupcake and fairy-cake mode, ostensibly for children, I noticed that the people who really seemed to get excited by them were the children’s parents. I think it’s not till you hit 30 that nostalgia is even a remotely comforting option.’

In contrast, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay writes, in all seriousness, that her favourite cupcake decoration is ‘summer berries whose freshness cuts the sugary icing. Perched atop each cupcake like a Philip Treacy hat, they’re as exuberant as Carrie’s wardrobe and they taste fabulous.’ This is food – almost literally – as fashion. Valentine Warner adds:

I think it’s the re-branding of this childish treat that gets me so cross. Or perhaps it’s not the cupcakes that annoy me but, rather, their west London devotees climbing into huge urban four-wheel-drives holding wee shiny boxes crammed with mouse-sized cakelets.

Cupcakes are associated with women. They’re girly. They’re ladyfood. And this isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, some contemporary feminists argue – rightly – that the labelling of cooking, baking, knitting, needlework, and other ‘feminine’ pursuits as being silly, frivolous, or demeaning is sexist. They point out that all over the world, suffragettes embroidered banners and other protest material, and held tea parties and cake sales to raise funds for the campaign for women’s right to vote.

I’m not, of course, accusing Valentine Warner of misogyny – although I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women – and I think his point that cupcakes are simply glorified children’s food is important. Cupcakes are marketed to women on the grounds that these little treats are dainty, pink, and pretty – like women (or, rather, girls, or ladies). They are safe for slim, demure ladies to eat: they contain fewer calories than a wedge of cake, and they’re easy to pick at with a (mini) cake fork. When Warner describes the cupcakes as ‘mouse-sized’, he could as easily be referring to the women who buy them.

Like cupcakes, this gendering of food isn’t anything new. As I noted a few weeks ago, some Victorian doctors advised that women, children, and invalids be fed carbohydrate-heavy, bland food to ensure that their delicate systems remained calm: too much red meat, fruit, or spice would upset them and cause them to behave inappropriately.

What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity. Why are cupcakes marketed so successfully to well-off, educated middle-class women? (And cupcakes are often exorbitantly expensive so it’s only well-off women who can afford them.) In a nasty irony, when Sex and the City depicts Carrie eating cupcakes it isn’t to emphasise her healthy attitude towards food (that we should eat everything in moderation), but, rather, to indicate that even when she does eat cake, it’s small, childlike, and entirely unthreatening (as she is).

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess (London: Chatto and Windus, [2000] 2003).

Valentine Warner, ‘Valentine’s Notebook,’ Delicious, May 2011, p. 49.

Other sources:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘Scientists, Pseudoscientists, and Faddists’ and ‘Too Rich and Too Thin?’, in Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 86-97, 194-211.

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, ‘“How Mama Started to Get Large”: Eating Disorders, Foetal Rights, and Black Female Appetite,’ in Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 183-210.

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