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Cows Come Home

Last week, Maharashtra, India’s second-biggest state and home to the country’s commercial capital Mumbai, approved legislation which would ban the sale or possession of beef. The slaughter of cattle – cows, bulls, and calves – is now illegal. The right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power both nationally and in Maharashtra since May last year, argued that the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act saves an animal revered by many Hindus as holy. In their view, this represents a victory for pious Hindus.

As many have pointed out, although some Hindus may be in favour of a ban on the slaughter of a beast which they believe to embody divinity, the consumption and sale of beef in India is a complex and contradictory business. Firstly, the beef trade is controlled by the country’s Muslim minority, and beef is consumed mainly by them and the even smaller Christian portion of the population. Despite the fact that India is supposed to be a secular state, this law is aimed directly as these religious minorities. Vashna Jagarnath writes:

This ban will devastate the beef industry in Maharashtra, an industry that is largely run by the Muslim minority. It is not an isolated act. On the contrary, it is part of a longstanding attempt by the Hindu right, now backed with the power of the state, to make the lives of religious minorities increasingly difficult.

The ban provides the fascist project with two immediate benefits – exerting control over the minorities by sending a clear message about their increasingly precarious position in contemporary India; and dealing an economic blow to Muslims who trade in the bovine industry.

In Gaborone, Botswana.

In Gaborone, Botswana.

Secondly, this is not the first time that there have been efforts to control the slaughter of cattle in India. Several states have made the killing of cows illegal, and there are laws which limit the sale of beef in some areas. Indeed, the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act has taken nineteen years to pass. The Bill was sent to the then-President to sign into law in 1996, but it floundered – only when the BJP was re-elected in 2014 was it able to recommit to making the ban real.

And the ban has caused widespread outrage in India – and not only among Muslims and Christians. This is the third point: some Hindus eat beef too. Not all Hindus stick absolutely (religiously?) to vegetarianism. In 2001, the historian DN Jha faced harassment and attempts to prevent the publication of his – by all accounts fairly dry – monograph, The Myth of the Holy Cow. His not particularly fresh thesis was that Hinduism’s ban on beef is a relatively new phenomenon. Pankaj Mishra explains:

the cow wasn’t sacred to the nomads and pastoralists from Central Asia who settled North India in the second millennium BC and created the high Brahminical culture of what we now know as Hinduism.

These Indians slaughtered cattle for both food and the elaborate sacrificial rituals prescribed by the Vedas, the first and the holiest Indian scriptures. After they settled down and turned to agriculture, they put a slightly higher value upon the cow: it produced milk, ghee, yoghurt and manure and could be used for ploughing and transport as well.

Indian religion and philosophy after the Vedas rejected the ritual killing of animals. This may have also served to protect the cow. But beef eating was still not considered a sin. It is often casually referred to in the earliest Buddhist texts.

The cow became holy first for upper-caste Hindus between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries CE. These were the people who could afford not to spend most of their time producing their food. What changed, though, to identify vegetarianism with Hinduism?

The answer lies in the 19th century, when many newly emergent middle-class Hindus began to see the cow as an important symbol of a glorious tradition defiled by Muslim rule over India. For these Hindus, the cause for banning cow-slaughter became a badge of identity, part of their quest for political power in post-colonial India. Educated Muslims felt excluded from, even scorned by, these Hindu notions of the Indian past; and they developed their own separatist fantasies.

The implications of these nationalist beginnings during the Raj are now playing out in Maharashtra.

My final point is one that I found the most surprising: the effects of the ban on the export of beef. India not only exports water buffalo – the red meat of choice for many Indians – but twenty per cent of the world’s beef comes from India. The Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act has implications, then, for the global food supply. Beef has been a commodity traded on national and international markets since improvements in transport – railways, shipping – and, more importantly, refrigeration, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, the price of beef dropped in the 1870s and 1880s because of the opening up of huge ranches in the west which were connected by rail to packing centres in large cities, most notably (and notoriously, given the revelations in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)) Chicago.

Something similar happened in South Africa, when the politician and wildly successful businessman Sir David de Villiers Graaff, 1st Baronet, pioneered refrigeration, allowing fruit, vegetables, and meat to be transported across the country’s vast interior without spoiling. His Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company – founded on the eve of the South African War (1899-1902), out of which De Villiers Graaff profited nicely – became one of the biggest meat packing businesses in Africa.

This and large-scale tax avoidance were at the root of the wild success of the Vestey brothers’ beef empire in the early twentieth century. By 1922, Vesteys had, as Ian Phimister writes, ‘interests in South America, China and Russia, and extensive land holdings in South Africa; it gradually extended its operations to embrace Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar.’ The business shipped beef – produced cheaply under appalling conditions for both workers and cattle – around the world with ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat’.

A poster in Williamsburgh's Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop.

A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop.

The demand that drove the expansion of ranching and packing in the US, and De Villiers Graaff and the Vestey bothers’ businesses, was a growing middle-class taste for a meat once prohibitively expensive. Beef became – like sugar, chocolate, and tea – an affordable luxury once an industrialised food chain caused prices to fall. A similar process is currently underway in India, as an ever-bigger middle class chooses to add more beef to its diet. Although a small, committedly nationalist middle-class was partly responsible for making Hindu diets vegetarian in the nineteenth century, the opposite is happening now. Part of a global circulation of both commodities and ideas – middle classes in other developing nations are also eating more red meat – to what extent will this large middle class be able to negotiate the demands of right wingers keen to protect the lives of holy cows, and the attractions of a more varied and ‘modern’ diet?

Sources

Ebbe Dommisse, Sir David de Villiers Graaff: First Baronet of De Grendel (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2011).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

I. R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.

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

Eating Like Horses

I spent most of January in the UK, accidentally timing a rather unexpected visit to coincide with the scandal over the presence of horsemeat in some meat products sold in British and Irish supermarkets. For most of my stay I lived near The People’s Supermarket – a co-operative supermarket run on strictly ethical lines – in Lamb’s Conduit Street. Its response to the hysteria that the news seemed to provoke was to write on the sandwich board which stands outside the entrance: ‘Come in! Our meat is completely horse-free.’

Although much of the recent fuss has focussed on the presence of horse meat in some Burger King meals, and in budget burger patties and ready meals at Tesco, Iceland, and a few other supermarkets, as several reports have made the point, Irish and British inspectors also found traces of pork in the same products:

A total of 27 burger products were analysed, with 10 of them containing traces of horse DNA and 23 containing pig DNA.

In addition, 31 beef meal products, including cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne, were analysed, of which 21 tested positive for pig DNA.

I’ve been interested in the fact that the furore which followed the announcement of the discovery has focussed on the fact it was horse – and not pork – found in these meat products. Considering that some religions actually ban the consumption of pork, and that, as Tesco and others have made the point, eating horsemeat poses no threat to human health, this hysteria about horse struck me as misplaced.

I know that a lot has been – and is being – written about the horse meat saga, but I’d like to draw attention to a few trends in this coverage which suggest a few interesting things about our attitudes towards what we deem to be acceptable – socially, morally, ethically – to eat, and how we judge others whose habits differ from ours.

Unsurprisingly, a number of columnists pointed out the hypocrisy of happily eating dead cows, sheep, and pigs, but of being too squeamish to eat horses. Not only was horsemeat available in Britain until the 1930s, but it is eaten in France and other parts of the world. Lisa Markwell wrote in the Independent:

If you eat meat (and my lifelong-vegetarian colleagues are feeling pretty smug right about now), why is horse less palatable than cow or sheep or pig? It’s no good hiding behind ludicrous ideas that horses are in some way cuter or more intelligent. Or that we have a special relationship with them because we ride them. If horses weren’t herbivores, I can imagine a few that would have no problem biting a lump out of their rider.

I agree: there is something fundamentally illogical about agreeing to eat one kind of animal, but being disgusted by the thought of eating another. But our ideas around what is – and what is not – acceptable to eat are socially and culturally determined. They change over time, and differ from place to place. Whereas swan and heron were considered to be delicacies during the medieval period, we now understand these as birds to be conserved and protected. Even in France, people have fairly mixed feelings about eating horse.

In other words, our definition of what is ‘disgusting’ is flexible. It’s for this reason that I’m relatively sympathetic to those who are appalled by the prospect of horsemeat. Despite having learned to ride as a child, I think I could probably bring myself to eat horse or donkey, but I know that I could never try dog, for instance. In the same way, I wouldn’t try to feed rabbit to my bunny-loving friend Isabelle.

The more important issue is that we should be able to trust the businesses that sell us our food. As Felicity Lawrence commented in the Guardian, the presence of horsemeat and pork in beef products is simply one in a long line of food safety scandals:

The scandal exposed by the Guardian in 2002 and 2003, when imported pig and beef proteins were detected in UK retail and catering chicken, started with similar attempts to reassure shoppers that there were no safety issues, that amounts detected were by and large ‘minute’, and a reluctance to admit that a large part of the food chain was probably affected. History repeated itself with the Sudan 1 food crisis, when illegal dye was found in a huge proportion of supermarket ready meals.

The reason for this failure of food regulation is both complex and devastatingly simple. On the one hand, the food chain has become increasingly difficult to regulate. It is now controlled by a handful of big supermarkets and food companies interested in cutting costs during a period of sky-high food prices. It becomes inevitable, then, that the quality of meat and other produce will be compromised:

Because supply chains are so long and processors use subcontractors to supply meat when the volume of orders changes dramatically at short notice, it is all too easy for mislabelled, poorer quality, or downright fraudulent meat to be substituted for what is specified in big abattoirs and processing plants.

And on the other hand, regulators themselves are less efficient:

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was stripped of its role as the body with sole responsibility for food composition and safety in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos‘; shortly after the coalition was elected in 2010.

Since then responsibility for food labelling and composition has been handed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while food safety has remained the responsibility of the FSA.

There are also – justified – concerns about the FSA’s closeness to business, which has been lobbying hard for looser regulation. After all, the previous chief executive of the FSA, Tim Smith, is now Tesco’s technical director.

Unsurprisingly, this combination of unscrupulous, cost-cutting business and dysfunctional and light-touch regulation has allowed food safety to be compromised. When the first attempts to prevent food adulteration were introduced in Britain and in the United States – Teddy Roosevelt’s famous Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) – these were in response to concerns raised by campaigners, most of them middle-class women, about the safety of food produced by the relatively new, industrialised food producers. As we have seen over the past century or so, any loosening of those regulations has resulted in a decline in the quality of food.

And this brings me to my final point. One of the most striking features of the coverage of the horsemeat scandal has been the number of commentators who’ve asked their readers: ‘what else do you expect?’ Giles Coren was particularly withering in his scorn for consumers of cheap food:

What on earth did you think they put in them? Prime cuts of delicious free-range, organic, rare breed, heritage beef, grass-fed, Eton-educated, humanely slaughtered, dry-aged and hand-ground by fairies…?

The food products contaminated with horse and pork were in the ‘value’ ranges of cheap supermarkets. As the BBC reported, these contain considerably less meat than more expensive products:

An eight-pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beefburgers, one of the products cited as potentially containing horse flesh, contains 63% beef, 10% onion and unlisted percentages of wheat flour, water, beef fat, soya protein isolate, salt, onion powder, yeast, sugar, barley malt extract, garlic powder, white pepper extract, celery extract and onion extract.

Asda‘s Smartprice Economy Beefburgers – not among those identified by the Irish testers as containing horse or pig DNA – contain 59% beef along with other ingredients such as rusk, water, stabilisers (diphosphates and triphosphates) and beef fat.

Both products cost just £1 a box, as do similar frozen burgers sold by Iceland. The Oakhurst 100% Beef Quarter Pounders, sold by Aldi and implicated in the scandal, cost £1.39 for a box of eight.

Like Coren, other columnists and food writers argue that ordinary British people have become ‘disconnected’ from the food chain, having little knowledge of how their food travels from farm to supermarket. More interest on behalf of the public, they seem to imply, would in some way prevent these kind of scandals from occurring.

I disagree. Not only does this display an astonishingly naïve understanding of how big food businesses work, but it fails to take into account the fact that the people who tend to be most at risk of consuming adulterated food are those who are poor: those who buy cheap food – the value products – from big supermarkets. There is a vein of snobbery running through much of the argument that consumers of cheap food only have themselves to blame if they end up inadvertently eating horse, or other potentially harmful additives.

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What this debate reveals, I think, is an odd attitude towards food, particularly meat, and class. Over the past century, and particularly since the 1950s, the eating of animal protein has been democratised. Whereas before the 1900, more or less, only the middle and upper classes could afford to eat meat on any regular basis, from around the end of the Second World War, it has become increasingly the norm for all people to be able to buy cheap protein.

But the technologies – the hormone supplements, factory farming, selective breeding, the Green Revolution – which have allowed us all to eat more meat, have also proven to be unsustainable, and particularly in ecological terms. As a recent report published by the World Wildlife Foundation, Prime Cuts: Valuing the Meat we Eat, argues, it’s not simply the case that everyone – all over the world – should eat less meat for the sake of the environment, human health, animal welfare, biodiversity and other reasons, but that we should eat better meat: meat from animals reared sustainably.

If we are committed to the idea that everybody, regardless of wealth, should be able to eat a reasonable amount of meat – and it is true that definitions of sustainable diets do vary – then we should not ask why people are surprised to find that cheap meat is adulterated or contaminated, but, rather, why so many people can’t afford to buy better quality meat.

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

A Hungry World

One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the United States, about how the western media covers Africa. Laura Seay writes in an excellent article for Foreign Policy:

Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

Similarly, Jina Moore makes the point in the Boston Review that believing that journalists should only report incidents of violence or suffering, instead of other aspects of life on the continent, is

a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.

These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.

Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.

However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.

It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):

Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination.  Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest.  The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’

There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.

If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.

Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.

In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.

This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.

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

Food Links, 25.01.2012

Niger faces famine. Again.

The role of Glencore in the international food chain.

Badaude designs a sausage menu.

Awesome lunchboxes.

How to make orange beer.

A history of daft diets.

How smart are smart fridges?

Climate change and beer.

How to sell a burger.

The science of taste.

Baghdad Eggs.

Claufoutis by Virginia Woolf; Chaucer’s onion tart; and a recipe for lamb with dill sauce by Raymond Chandler: famous authors of literary fiction re-imagined as food writers.

Paula Deen’s most egregrious recipes.

The amazing history of the bendy straw.

Opening a bottle of wine…with a shoe.

Glass and sugar.

Cutlery as jewellery.

Cleaning up the Mexican dairy industry.

Cocktails exploding in slow motion.

Sex, death, and kefir.

The British government’s food buying standards are worse than McDonald’s.

In praise of my favourite fruit: quinces.

An interview with Heston Blumenthal.

A new hangover cure?

Big food opposes measures to encourage American children to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Decoding famous recipes.

Nerdalicious – a food blog for nerds.

We could be anywhere

I’ve spent the past fortnight in New York – mainly for a conference at Columbia – and on my last morning had breakfast at a restaurant which could only have been in New York, and, more specifically, in Morningside Heights. The Hungarian Pastry Shop is a shabby, comfortable, and much adored cafe among local residents and Columbia’s students and academics. It serves a range of unbelievably good cakes and pastries, the menu for which is an ancient and faded handwritten banner above the counter. Mothers with small children munch apple strudel alongside workmen in overalls, lecturers with textbooks, and small old ladies with thick foreign accents.

The Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, New York

Founded by immigrants, this could only be called The Hungarian Pastry Shop outside of Hungary. Over the years, it’s been tweaked to satisfy the demands of now elderly mittel-European customers, a group of whom was sitting in the sunshine when I arrived, as well as the undergraduates who spend long hours reading over its big mugs of strong coffee. The Shop has a menu in German and table service, as well as an exterior decorated with murals, a graffiti-covered loo, and posters advertising digs, extra tuition, and auditions for student productions.

Breakfast at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

Over a cherry danish, orange juice, and iced coffee, I considered a comment made by my friend Ester a few weeks ago when we had lunch at a new cafe which has recently opened in Cape Town. Skinny Legs and All (yes, as in the novel by Tom Robbins) in Loop Street serves ‘real food, unadulterated, and unadorned’. We had homemade lemonade, soup, and excellent coffee.

As we were admiring the cafe’s interior, Ester noted perceptively that we could have been anywhere – that we could have found this restaurant and eaten similar food, underpinned by the same values and ideas about cooking, in any other city with a demand for sophisticated good food, be it Melbourne, San Francisco, or London. I think that this is a point worth exploring.

The menu at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

In New York I had coffee and lunch in cafes which I could have described in precisely the same terms. At Bubby’s in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, Tablespoon in the Flatiron District, and the City Bakery off Fifth Avenue I could have been anywhere. Of course, all of these restaurants say a great deal about New York, its gentrification and the role of food and restaurants in this process. The City Bakery was founded in 1990, at a time when the slow regeneration of Manhattan was nearing completion and when enthusiasm for artisan bread (best exemplified by the craze for sourdough in San Francisco) was beginning to peak. Bubby’s and Tablespoon – both of which emphasise the extent to which they source seasonal ingredients locally – ride on the City Bakery’s success. In a similar way, Skinny Legs and All is an indicator of the success of Cape Town’s central city improvement district, and also of the very, very slow emergence of a food-focussed South African green movement.

For all their localism, these restaurants are very similar: they serve similar food, they’re influenced by the same collection of chefs and food writers, their attitude towards cooking is based on an understanding of the value of seasonality, and they are influenced by global fashions in decor. Even the cafe I went to in achingly cool Williamsburg – populated by hipsters who conformed pleasingly to type with oversized sunglasses, topknots (for the girls), v-necked t-shirts (for the boys), and MacBooks – could as easily operate in Cape Town’s Woodstock, or in the trendier parts of east London.

Tablespoon in the Flatiron District

To note this similarity isn’t a criticism – it’s simply to point out that these cafes are local manifestations of a global phenomenon. But not all aspects of globalised eating are seen in such positive terms. Since the 1980s at least, there has been a heightened concern that globalisation is causing diets to become homogenised: that the international popularity of fast food chains, supremely McDonald’s, signals the end of discrete, local food cultures.

The apparent ubiquity of the golden arches seemed to indicate a kind of culinary ‘end of history’: as liberal democracy appeared to triumph with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did the eating habits of the West. The opening of a branch of McDonald’s in Red Square in Moscow in 1990 was the final nail in communism’s coffin. I remember clearly going to eat at one of the first McDonald’s to open in South Africa after the end of the international business boycott. Eating there was as much an affirmation of South Africa’s re-entry into the world as was the country’s participation in the 1992 summer Olympics.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that McDonald’s no longer means these things – which isn’t to suggest that it’s not doing well. A recent article in the Economist predicts that McDonald’s and other budget chains, like Aldi, are set to profit out of a world in recession. However much revelations about the chain’s profoundly unhealthy products and poor environmental and labour practices have dented its apparent invincibility, it is still believed to be part of a broader shift in an international Westernisation of diet. This was confirmed, apparently, by Oxfam’s recent report on the global food crisis, Growing a Better Future, which claims that pasta is the world’s favourite food.

The City Bakery, off Fifth Avenue

But is this anything new? And it is possible for all of us, truly, to eat the same diet? As I wrote a few weeks ago, the survey on which Oxfam bases its report on favourite foods seems to be pretty dubious to me. It’s also worth noting that the success of global brands depends on their ability to ‘localise’ their products. McDonald’s has diversified its menu to appeal to local tastes, with a greater number of vegetarian options in Indian branches, smaller portions in Japan, rice products in Singapore and Taiwan, kebabs in Isreal, and pita bread in Greece. In other words, the success of McDonald’s lies not in the imposition of a foreign brand, but in its ability to make its products at once familiar and enticingly exotic.

Restaurants on the upper end of the scale use precisely the same strategy. Writing about the opening of a branch of Les Halles in Tokyo, Anthony Bourdain describes how he adapted his French bistro cuisine to suit Japanese tastes:

I…scale[d] down the portions and [prettied] up the presentations. …I rearranged plates to resemble smaller versions of what we were doing in New York: going more vertical, applying some new garnishes, and then observing customer reactions. I looked for and found ways to get more colour contrast on the plates, moved the salads off to separate receptacles, stuck sprigs of herb here than there.

At Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre in Dubai, the head chef had to become accustomed to cooking halal meat, which is drained of much of its blood and can’t be aged. Jay Rayner writes:

Then there was local taste. Some ingredients simply didn’t sell. If he brought in pigeon, he told me, they would lie in the fridge for a week, neglected by the customers, until, in desperation, he would turn them into a terrine. ‘And then I would eat the terrine.’ He also found himself serving a lot of meat well done.

On a domestic scale, the middle classes have eaten strikingly similar things all over the world since at least the nineteenth century. The movement of people within the British Empire caused the same dishes and menus to be served up on at last four different continents. When Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss arrived at the Cape from Connecticut in 1873 to establish an elite girls’ school, they were pleased – and relieved – to find that their middle-class Dutch-Afrikaner hosts ate the same meals, and in the same way, as they had done in the United States. Bliss wrote to her mother:

thus far I have seen quite as well regulated families & as much attention paid to ‘propriety’ as in America. … Wherever I have taken a meal there has been a servant in the room to wait on table or one has come at the tap of the bell, & all done so quietly & orderly.

The circulation of recipe books and advice on cookery in newspapers and in private correspondence around the Empire demonstrates the extent to which these diets remained fairly similar. They were, as today, inflected by local tastes and produce. In the Cape, the American teachers commented on the colonial habit of eating ‘yellow rice’ (rice cooked with turmeric and raisins and flavoured with cinnamon and bay) with every meal – something introduced by slaves from southeast Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The City Bakery, New York

In other words, the diets of the wealthy have tended to be fairly globalised since international travel was made easier, and more common, from around the beginning of the nineteenth century. With the invention of the jet engine in the mid-twentieth century and, latterly, the internet, these trends have moved around the world more quickly and we’re also considerably more aware of them. It’s the poor – those whose diets we have an unfortunate tendency to romanticise – who have historically tended to eat a fairly limited range of things.

The difference now is that there are far more middle class people wanting to eat similar diets. Oxfam also notes that the newly-affluent Indian and Chinese middle classes consume more meat and dairy products than ever before. Exactly the same trend occurred in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, but this was a shift on a far smaller scale and in a world where food systems were not as globalised as they are today.

How to find the City Bakery

I think that it’s misleading to suggest that diets are becoming progressively more Western. Rather, particular ingredients – meat and dairy above all – are increasingly popular in societies which, traditionally, have tended to eat more fish, vegetables, and other starches. Our planet simply can’t sustain meat- and dairy-heavy diets. Refocusing our attention to responding to the demand for these foodstuffs would be considerably more effective than simply bemoaning the Westernisation and homogenisation of global diets. This is an argument which not only draws an impossible distinction between ‘bad’ global and ‘good’ local diets, but also ignores a long history of global culinary exchange which has been mitigated by local tastes and preferences.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury, [2000] 2001).

Sarah Emily Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner (London: Headline Review, 2008).

James L. Watson (ed.), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’ Theory and Society 24 (1995), pp. 201-243.

Claude Fischer, ‘The “McDonaldisation” of Culture,’ 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. 530-547.

Brian Harrison, ‘The Kitchen Revolution,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 139-149.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ 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. 516-529.

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Food Links, 08.06.2011

Hayibo covers the recent tension over vegetable exports in Europe.

Foreign Policy‘s theme for its May/June edition is food, and it’s fascinating. Lester Brown writes about the new geopolitics of food, and this amazing article shows how food explains the world.

Why are food prices at the mercy of bankers?

The Guardian has an excellent guide to the global food crisis.

Should the US government subsidise the growing of sweeteners?

The French government has banned the riot police from drinking alchohol with their meals. Daft.

On the origins of measuring the calorie content of food.

This fascinating infographic from the World Resources Institute charts global greenhouse gas emissions – agriculture is responsible for 13.8% of them, and loads of nitrous oxide and methane.

Penguin has just released its Great Food series: a collection of twenty short books each dedicated to the writing of great food writers.

‘The fact that half of the most costly food pathogens are found in meat suggests that food safety laws at the USDA need an overhaul’. Nice.

Can you feed a family of four on £50 a week? I would have thought so.

When Abundance is Too Much

I was in London last week and bought myself a copy of Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2007), a fantastic account of how America’s powerful food industry shapes the ways in which Americans eat and think about food. She argues that the food industry uses a range of strategies systematically to confuse the public into thinking that the processed offerings produced by Heinz, Unilever, and Kellogg are healthy, sensible things to eat. Of course, every food company does this – from the smallest, most down-homey organic business to the biggest, nastiest multinational – but in the US, the food lobby, which works along the same lines as the tobacco and gun lobbies in Washington DC, influences food policy to such an extent that the state has become complicit in encouraging Americans to eat fatty, sugary foods.

Serendipitously, I also came across this infographic which shows what proportion of their incomes people all over the world spend on food per year. It reveals a very strong correlation between development and food prices: populations of wealthier countries spend a smaller percentage of their wages on food than do those in poorer nations. In Western Europe, for example, the Irish spend the least (7.2%) and the Portuguese the most (15.8%) on food. This rises to 20.3% in Poland – slightly more than South Africa at 19.8%. The populations of middle-income countries – like South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey – tend to spend between twenty and thirty per cent of their budgets on food. Indonesians (43%), Algerians (43.8%), and Belarusians (43.2%) spend the most – although the map doesn’t include information for most of Africa. And the population which spends the least on food? Americans, at 6.9% of their incomes.

America has such low food prices because of the strength of its food industry. Controlling every aspect of the food chain – from the farms that produce meat and plants for consumption, to the provision of transport and packaging – the size and efficiency of food companies have driven down food prices, resulting in an overabundance of cheap food. In what Harvey Levenstein has dubbed the ‘paradox of plenty’, this variety and cheapness of food has led to less, not more, healthy patterns of consumption: Americans now eat more meat and dairy products than ever before – food which is labour- and resource-intensive to produce and which, until recently, was expensive to buy.

The association of meat and dairy with prosperity has led to concerns about China and India’s increasing consumption of these foods in the context of rising food prices globally. (Myself, I think that rocketing food prices have more to do with the oil price, climate change, and the deregulation of commodity derivatives markets than with greater meat consumption in the East. I wonder to what extent this is part of a ‘blame China’ trend?) But all over the world, experts agree that one way of improving food security is for us to eat less meat and fewer dairy products. As Michael Pollan put it in his food mantra: ‘Eat. Mostly plants. Not too much. Not too little.’

Much of the debate around what we should eat seems to imply a return to healthier, more sustainable eating patterns. While it’s certainly true that populations in the West consume more calories now than they did even thirty or forty years ago, and that eating less meat would be better both for us and the planet, I’m not entirely sure if looking to the past is always helpful. After all, my mongrel collection of ancestors scattered around seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and southern Africa were physically smaller than I am and lived shorter lives partly because their diets were less varied, less plentiful, and, importantly, less protein-filled than mine.

I think we could, though, take a closer look at the menus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If we need to cut down on our consumption of meat and dairy, it’s surprising to read that the teachers and pupils at the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington ate ‘mutton every day’ (as I noted a fortnight ago). The American headmistresses longed for the steak they had grown up eating in New England, but agreed that beef was far too expensive in South Africa. Instead, they ate mutton, the meat of choice in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony: ‘We have roast mutton, mutton chops, mutton cutlets, mutton broth, mutton soup, and mutton frigadelle [sic], that is mutton chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked.’

Although meat-heavy, this was a menu organised around using leftovers: the Seminary bought whole sheep carcasses from the butcher and the school’s cook broke them down herself. She would serve roast mutton on Sunday, and then use up that which wasn’t eaten by transforming it into soup, broth, and rissoles. If needs be, she could supplement their diet with smaller cuts – like cutlets. This was a typical middle-class Victorian practice. Writing about Victorian recipe books, Judith Flanders notes:

Most weekly menu plans listed entirely new dinners only three days a week; the other four were made up of reheated food from previous days. … Mrs Beeton gave numerous recipes for recooking food, usually meat: her Scotch collops were reheated veal in a white sauce; her Indian Fowl was reheated chicken covered with a curry sauce; Monday’s Pudding was made with the remains of Sunday’s plum pudding; not to mention the recipes she gave for endless types of patty, potted meat and minced meat, all of which used cooked meat as their base.

This was both an economical way of ensuring that some meat – usually the sole form of protein – was served during each main meal, as well as relatively healthy: it reduced the amount of meat eaten by each person. Recipe books from the mid-twentieth century have a similar attitude towards menu-planning, providing recipes for ‘made-over meat dishes’.

In a time of plenty when we don’t need to transform last night’s leftovers into tonight’s supper, the idea of ‘made-over’ food may seem a little quaint. But I think that these Victorian menus can help us to rethink how we eat meat. I don’t suggest that we adopt the pattern of roast on Sunday and then reheated meat for the rest of the week (I think this would become pretty boring), but, rather, that we change our thinking about the place of meat in our meals. If we see it as only one component alongside starch and greens, then we’ll eat less of it and more of that which is really good for us. Also, it’s a sensible way of ensuring that even those who can’t afford to buy expensive cuts can include some meat in their cooking. I don’t agree that an entirely meat-free diet will save the planet. If we eat as we should farm – with most land given over to the cultivation of plants and only a small portion devoted to animals – then we’ll adopt a menu that’s as healthy for the planet as it is for us.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

S.E. Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

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

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ 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. 516-529.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

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

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

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

Mutton Every Day

In 1873, two American teachers, Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss, set out on a steamer from New York for the long journey to Cape Town. They had been hired as the joint founders and headmistresses of the Huguenot Seminary, a new girls’ school in Wellington. They settled in to the Boland Dutch-Afrikaans community – whose daughters were sent to Huguenot – easily, but found the diet trying. Writing to her family in Connecticut, Ferguson complained:

We live on mutton here. We have had beef here once since school commenced, but every other day mutton. We have roast mutton, mutton chops, mutton cutlets, mutton broth, mutton soup, and mutton frigadelle [sic], that is mutton chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked. You see we manage to get some variety…Still with so much fruit we do not mind the meat so much.

She and Bliss were amazed by the quality and variety of the Cape’s fruit, but Ferguson still longed for the steak and oysters of New England eating.

The most striking feature of this menu for contemporary readers is the predominance of meat, and particularly mutton. I’ll return to mutton and meat-eating (and the Seminary) in the future, but for now would like to consider, firstly, the significance of mutton in Cape cuisine, and, secondly, the Seminary pupils’ diet in the context of broader views on gender and food during the nineteenth century.

This was a diet closely linked to local produce. The Khoikhoi had kept fat-tailed sheep and traded these with European settlers since the seventeenth century. When the British took control of the Cape in 1806, there were about 1.5 million fat-tailed, non-woolled sheep in the colony. Merino sheep were introduced in the 1830s: there were 5 million sheep in 1855, 10 million in 1875, and 12 million in 1891.

Cattle stocks were lower and beef and cows’ milk more expensive as a result. The meat of choice in the Cape remained mutton: during the 1860 economic depression and drought people complained that ‘mutton was dear’. Travellers to the colony in the nineteenth century commented on the frequency with which they were served mutton at rural homesteads. Several commented on the toughness and fattiness of the meat, suggesting a link between the lack of sophistication of their meal and that of their hosts.

Beef was considerably more costly than mutton, and the pupils preferred the latter anyway. Dairy produce from cows was also prohibitively expensive: as in other households, the Seminary made its own vet (or sheep fat) by boiling the fat from sheep tails with a little salt, allowing the mixture to cool, and then shaping it into large cubes. The American teachers disliked vet and in 1874 bought a cow to supply milk – and by 1898, besides for a vegetable garden, a ‘large family of pigs’ and ‘200 fowls’, possessed ‘six or eight’ cows.

Eating mutton every day was not, then, unusual in the colony. The Seminary was a boarding school, and Ferguson and Bliss deliberately replicated the menus which their pupils would have had at home: at breakfast and supper, the girls drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and, instead of butter, smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt on their bread; a typical lunch – the main meal of the day – consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

Their decision to fit into local eating customs rather than impose American habits was done partly to mitigate the effects of their pupils’ homesickness, but also because they believed this diet to be healthy. Both teachers noted how infrequently their pupils fell ill and their general strength and good health. I think most nutritionists – although concerned about the quantity of red meat and fat – would probably agree with Ferguson and Bliss. But – viewed in the context of international thinking on health and eating – this diet was deeply unusual for the period.

In Britain, most middle-class children and young women were fed a diet rich in bland carbohydrates, and very little else. Breakfast consisted mainly of porridge or bread and butter, and potatoes were served at all other meals. The novelist Compton Mackenzie remembered:

Nor did the diet my old nurse believed to be good for children encourage biliousness, bread and heavily watered milk alternating with porridge and heavily watered milk. Eggs were rigorously forbidden, and the top of one’s father’s or mother’s boiled egg in which we were indulged when we were with them exceeded in luxurious tastiness any caviar or pate de foie gras of the future. No jam was allowed except raspberry and currant, and that was spread so thinly that it seemed merely to add sweetish seeds to the bread.

While serving carbohydrates was cheaper than cooking protein and vegetables, this menu was also the product of Victorian thinking about fruit, vegetables and meat: vegetables were unwholesome unless well cooked, and fruit was ‘rather dangerous’ and only to be eaten occasionally, and particularly to relieve constipation. Meat also ‘disrupted’ delicate feminine digestive systems.

This was a view of food still strongly influenced by the ancient humoral system, which conceptualised the body as consisting of four ‘humours’ (blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile) which needed to be kept in balance, and partly by diet. Some foods were believed to have particular influence over the humours: meat, spices, and highly-flavoured food for example, were supposed to ‘inflame’ the blood. The Victorians felt that easily ‘upset’ female bodies – and particularly young female bodies – should not be disturbed by too much meat and rich, flavourful food.

Of course, not all doctors and cooks advocated this, and not every Victorian family followed this advice. The Seminary’s pupils ate precisely the kind of food which some Victorian doctors deplored: it was meat- and fruit-heavy and characterised by spicy, tasty dishes. Huguenot’s menu – which met with the approval of the pupils’ parents – seems to indicate either that this thinking about food, gender, and health was limited to Britain, or that it was simply one diet promoted among many.

I think that this very brief analysis of Huguenot’s weekly menus demonstrates two things: firstly, the extent to which nineteenth-century diets were linked closely to local produce, and, secondly, that dietary fads were as much of a feature then as they are now.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

S.E. Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

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

William Beinart, ‘Counting Sheep,’ in The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 9-17.

Other sources:

William Beinart and JoAnn McGregor (eds.), Social History and African Environments (Oxford: James Currey, 2003).

Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).

S.E. Duff, ‘“Every Hope of a South African New Woman?”: From New Women to College Girls at the Huguenot Seminary and College, 1895-1910,’ in Girlhood: A Global History, eds. Jennifer Helgren and Colleen Vasconcellos (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

S.E. Duff, ‘From New Women to College Girls at the Huguenot Seminary and College, 1895-1910,’ Historia, vol. 51, no. 1, May 2006, pp. 1-27.

S.E. Duff, ‘“Oh! for a blessing on Africa and America”: The Mount Holyoke System and the Huguenot Seminary, 1874-1885,’ New Contree, vol. 50, November 2005.

Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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