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Posts tagged ‘Birkbeck’

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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London Meals

Like many people, I spent this week glued to the news, following the riots in Britain. I have friends who live in the parts of London which witnessed some of the worst violence, and I was stunned how areas of London I know and love – areas which I think of as home – were transformed by the rioting and looting. Even Bloomsbury was not left unscathed: Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street, one of the most beloved bookstores in London, had its windows smashed, rather undermining claims that the looters tended to leave book shops alone. (And such a pity they missed Alain de Botton’s daft School of Life next door.)

So when I read on Twitter that Broadway Market was a potential target for the rioters, my heart sank. When I moved to London to begin my PhD, I remapped the city according to the destinations I most loved: book shops, art galleries (so that was central London, South Kensington, Pimlico, the south bank, Whitechapel, and Dulwich sorted), and places to eat. I did this because I have a comically bad sense of direction. During a holiday in Ireland a few years ago, my friend Carina realised quickly that the best way of discovering the correct direction to walk in, was to go in the opposite way I suggested. If I turned left, it was almost certainly the case that we should have gone right.

Guided partly by the London Farmers’ Markets website, I came to know London through its markets, delis, and kitchen and food shops. I walked all the way to Notting Hill from Bloomsbury once (map-reading has never been a strength) and, disappointed by that farmers’ market, spent the morning at Books for Cooks and discovered possibly the best culinary invention in the history of humanity at a local deli: glass jars containing crème de marrons and vanilla-flavoured yogurt. When Charles Saatchi (re-)opened his gallery in the Duke of York’s Building, it gave me another reason to visit that part of Sloaney London: Partridges also sells those crème de marrons-and-yogurt concoctions (admittedly for £1.50 each, but with all that yogurt they’re practically health food).

At Broadway Market

If I was feeling uninspired on Saturday mornings, I would walk to the inevitable Borough Market through the eerily silent City, and buy coffee from Monmouth and a bacon roll – easy on the mustard, heavy on the brown sauce – and watch the stall holders set up before the tourist hordes arrived.

But my favourite parts of the city were further east. Broadway Market, near London Fields, trades on a stretch of road which has been used by merchants and travellers for around a thousand years. It’s ancient and at the same time, emblematic of the regeneration of Hackney, London’s poorest borough, but also, arguably, its most socially diverse. On Sundays it was a long walk through Clerkenwell, Old Street, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green for breakfast at Columbia Road Flower Market – with coffee bought from what must be the city’s smallest coffee shop – a splurge at the second hand bookshop, and an attempt not to knock over any plants (I once caused, accidentally, an avalanche of Christmas trees).

My other guide was sent to me by my mother: the fantastic London Review of Breakfasts. It’s a website which takes breakfast Very Seriously Indeed. Listing cafes, greasy spoons, and restaurants from all over London, it considers not only what these establishments serve and how they go about doing this, but why. What I like about it most – other than its understanding of the psychologically restorative nature of breakfast – is its anti-snobbery.  Bermondsey’s Cat and Cucumber is given higher – and deserving – praise for its breakfast, than the branch of Whole Foods in Kensington:

It just doesn’t feel organic in the way I understand it. And frankly neither do any of the 26 varieties of killer tomatoes on sale, particularly the insipid orb that is part of my tepid, refectory-style ‘English Breakfast; on the first floor. The rest of this dry, fatty, Americanised assembly – grey-green scrambled eggs, semi-raw sausage, bacon jerky, white toast (‘no brown available’! In the temple of choice!) – requires five separate squirts of ketchup to render it edible. It is pathetic.

More of Broadway Market

No other collection of reviews is this relentlessly entertaining. My favourite remains of the Euphorium Bakery in Islington:

you started to tremble and had to content yourself with an egg mayonnaise sandwich on thick brown bread. It would have been an eggy, creamy delight, I think, if there had been any filling to delight in. But alas, a mere smear across the bread, a hint of a yolk and a whiff of white was all that was present. We wept. I craved a sympathetic glance from the staff. They were oblivious to our pain and announced that “that was how they made their sandwiches”. How they let themselves down. How they let us down. The pastries so perfect. The sandwiches so disappointing. My fan dropped to the floor, you rose from your chair, nearly careering into one of the many mothers with babies as you hastened to exit.

‘Pierre!’ I shouted, ‘Don’t leave me! I will make you an egg sandwich wearing nothing but a silk negligee whilst I recite passages from Voltaire!’

In short, the London Review of Breakfasts sets a standard not only for eating breakfast, but for living.

It’s particularly fitting that this website devoted to breakfast should be based in London. We know that mass urbanisation at the beginning of the nineteenth century caused changes in people’s behaviour. Quite simply, people lived and behaved differently in cities – where most of them were crammed into tenements and slums – than they did in the countryside. This change was caused overwhelmingly by the fact that the nature of work altered during the 1800s. Cities grew as a result of industrialisation. Factory employees, as well as the office workers who staffed the businesses that serviced these new industrial economies, worked longer and more regular hours than ever before.

In a predominantly agrarian society, work is determined by the weather and is seasonal – hours tend to be longer in summer than in winter, for example. In the factories and offices of Victorian Britain, the clock – and then laws governing how long people were allowed to work – ruled the working day, something Dickens satirised in Hard Times. Work began promptly at around seven or eight o’clock, and continued without stopping until the evening. Gas lamps and, later, electricity, meant that work could go on regardless of when the sun rose or set. Work was decoupled from nature.

The tiny coffee shop at the Columbia Road Flower Market

One of the first aspects of people’s lives to change as a result of these new working patterns was how they ate. In Britain, up until the early nineteenth century, most people ate a substantial breakfast at around ten or eleven o’clock (what we’d now refer to as brunch), and then dinner, the main meal of the day, in the mid-afternoon. In the evening, before they went to bed, they’d have tea with biscuits or a light snack. Supper was a late, savoury meal eaten by the wealthy, and usually after an evening’s entertainment.

With the coming of industrialisation, mealtimes changed and particularly according to the kind of work people performed. For the urban middle classes, dinner moved later into the day, partly as an indicator of the fact that they were wealthy enough to afford candles, gas, or electricity to light the meal. Luncheon and afternoon tea, served with cake and sandwiches, emerged to fill the long gap between breakfast and dinner. Further down the social scale, tea, served at the end of the working day, frequently replaced dinner. This tea – referred to as ‘high tea’ or ‘meat tea’ – included protein, usually potted meat or smoked fish, to assuage the hunger pangs of tired labourers.

The strange British snobbery around the names of mealtimes emerges from this period: it’s upper- and middle-class to refer to breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or supper), and lower-middle- and working-class to say breakfast, dinner, and tea. Breakfast, though, changed in the same way for workers of all kinds: it was eaten earlier in the

day, but remained fairly substantial.

Flowers at the Columbia Road Flower Market

Our eating habits are still evolving – and they’ll continue doing so, particularly as urbanisation continues. It’s estimated that seventy per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and we know that this will have massive implications for how we live: from the way in which we plan our cities, to how we eat. It’s not simply a case that our food systems will have to accommodate the fact that food will have to travel further – or will need to be grown in cities – to feed us all, but our working patterns will change too. What and how we eat cannot be disentangled from where we live.

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

Whose Slow Food?

While I was a PhD student in London I stayed at a really magnificent residence for postgraduate students in Bloomsbury. Our closest supermarket was a Waitrose which distributed leaflets to the local student population every September (the beginning of the academic year in the UK). Their most successful campaign stated simply, ‘Make your Mum happy. Shop at Waitrose.’ I did as I was told, and shopped at Waitrose. And Mum was indeed very happy.

In Britain, admitting that you shop at Waitrose is similar to calling yourself a Guardian reader: it denotes not only class status (Waitrose is very bourgeois), but also a set of values. Waitrose is like Woolworths in South Africa or, to a lesser extent, Trader Joe’s in the United States. It’s a business which has a commitment to stocking ethically-sourced, free range, and organic products and groceries – hence its association with the lefty, greeny, and affluent middle classes.

It does seem to be hypocritical to admit to shopping at Waitrose – or the even more expensive Marks & Spencer, which attracts a slightly different demographic – while vilifying those who depend on budget chains like Tesco in the UK or Shoprite in South Africa. After all, they’re all supermarkets, and it’s clear that supermarkets are responsible for over a million tonnes of wasted food per year in Britain alone; engage in environmentally harmful practices; exploit their employees; stifle small and local producers; destroy communities; and encourage poor eating habits.

But not all supermarkets are the same. Tim Lang, the food policy expert who invented the term ‘food miles’, suggests that one of the best ways of eating responsibly is to shop at supermarkets which preselect their products on ethical lines. So instead of buying free-range beef directly from the farmer (something which very few of us can do, in practical or financial terms), we should – if we can – shop at supermarkets which encourage this kind of farming. And we should place pressure on bigger chains to stock free range eggs and meat.

I love supermarkets. They’re one of the first places I visit when I go to new cities. When I stayed with a friend in Zürich last year I enjoyed the Swiss supermarkets (the yogurt!) almost as much as the Kunsthaus (the Giacometti statues!). Supermarkets tell us things about how a population thinks about its relationship with food.

It’s partly for this reason that I am concerned about the motives of the Slow Food Movement. Founded in Italy in 1986, and as a global organisation three years later, the Slow Food Movement is now a wealthy, international network of ‘convivia’ – or local branches – which encourage a ‘slow’ attitude towards food. Its members are encouraged to cook and to eat slowly, and also to think more carefully about how their food is produced and sold.

With its emphasis on localism and sustainability, Slow Food has, I think, done a great deal of good. It’s one of the forces behind the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets, and I’m particularly impressed by its publicising of the working conditions of farm workers, many of whom are migrants who are exploited ruthlessly by their employers.

The world is certainly a better place for the existence of Slow Food, but I am concerned by two aspects of its manifesto: its enthusiasm for regional food, which I’ll discuss next week, and its argument that we all cooked and ate better in the past. As an interview with the Movement’s founder and chair, Carlo Petrini, notes:

Slow Food launched courses to put consumers in touch with the producers of the food and wine they enjoyed, recreating the umbilical cord that was cut when supermarkets invaded the market place.

Petrini adds:

‘The idea of the modern has been superseded; the challenge today is to return to the small scale, the handmade, to local distribution – because today what we call ‘modern’ is out of date. The crisis we have been facing in the past year is not merely a financial crisis but also a crisis of systems and values. To overcome it we need to change our behaviour.’

Slow Food was founded at a time when McDonalds and the first big supermarkets opened their doors in Italy. It disapproves of supermarkets on the grounds, as Petrini suggested, that they facilitate a ‘fast’ way of living which relies on the consumption of processed food and does not allow for the enjoyment of cooking and eating. Slow Food asks for a return to ‘traditional’ eating patterns which celebrate ‘ancient’ knowledge about food. For all its efforts to think about the future of food, Slow Food seems to build its model of an ideal system on a set of ideas about ‘traditional’ cooking and eating.

As an historian, I am always suspicious of any movement or organisation which demands a return to or rekindling of tradition. Petrini and Slow Food are pretty vague as to which ‘tradition’ – which ‘past’ – they’d like to return. And considering that Slow Food is a global movement, they seem to imply that all countries and regions have a similar, glorious food past which they should revitalise.

I’d like to know how they would propose to do this in South Africa. Even the most cursory overview of life in late nineteenth-century Cape Town suggests that a return to the past isn’t necessarily a great idea. All white, upper middle-class households employed cooks who, although supervised by their mistresses, were responsible for providing families’ meals. These families ate well: meat every day, even if it was reheated meat, with a variety of vegetables, both cooked and raw, starch of some kind, and usually a pudding with tea or coffee. This was an international diet. Visitors to Cape Town and surrounding towns commented that they ate as well – or even better, given the quality of local produce – in these affluent homes as they did at home in Britain or the United States.

Depending on the generosity of the household, servants may have eaten the same as their masters and mistresses, but, more likely, ate scraps from the table. So most of the food in these families was prepared and cooked by employees, many of whom did not share the same good diet.

Middle- and lower-middle-class households would have employed a maid-of-all-work who would have done some cooking, assisted by her mistress. The reason why a cook was such a desirable addition to the household – and cooks were the most expensive servants to employ – was the sheer backbreaking nature of nineteenth-century cooking. Meat was bought in bulk, with the cook or mistress having to cut down a whole or half-carcass of beef, lamb, or pork herself. All baking had to be done on one day per week – leaving little time for the equally laborious weekly laundry – and the lack of refrigeration meant that dairy products had to be used quickly. A spoiled batch of bread on Monday meant no bread for the rest of the week. Want to make a jelly? Well, you’d have to buy calves’ feet, crack them open, and boil them down to create a jelly which could be added to milk or a fruit puree.

‘Malay’ households padded out diets with rice and fish. The bredies and breyanis which we associate with Cape Malay cooking today were reserved for special occasions. Eggs and dairy products were expensive, even for wealthier households. For the poor in Cape Town’s slums, most meals consisted of a starchy staple – maize porridge, rice, or, possibly, bread – along with fish or whatever else could affordably garnish an otherwise unappetising, and not particularly nutritious, meal. And poor households would have had only one main meal.

These are only some of the diets eaten in South Africa during this period, but I’ve used them to demonstrate how difficult it is to define what we mean by a food tradition. Which one of these Capetonian diets should we return? To the one eaten by white, upper-middle class families? If so, should we ask one member of our households to devote her- or himself to the laborious preparation of these meals? This tiny proportion of colonial society ate precisely the kind of diet promoted by the Slow Food Movement – completely locally-sourced and homemade – but it required one person working all day to execute it in its entirety.

Women, in particular, need to take a closer look at Slow Food. We’re the ones who tend – still – to cook for our families, and much of Slow Food’s criticism of contemporary eating rests on a belief that something in the way in which families ate went profoundly wrong during the 1960s and 1970s. The mass entry of women into employment during these decades did mean that eating patterns changed, but I refuse to return to a time when my role would be limited to keeping house. And I can’t, and won’t, employ someone else to do my cooking for me. It’s interesting that Slow Food emerged from Italy, a country with a distinctly bad track record on women’s rights.

It’s for this reason that I think that Slow Food’s opposition to supermarkets is misguided. Of course, and as I’ve noted above, supermarkets do an enormous amount of harm, but they do allow us to feed ourselves affordably and conveniently. To reject them entirely, when so many people rely on them, is not the way to create a sustainable food system. But, possibly more importantly, I disagree with Slow Food’s belief that we need to return to the past to improve the future. We can certainly learn from the past, but this reification of ‘tradition’ can only be dangerous. Who decides which ‘tradition’ we should turn to? And who’ll cook it?

Further Reading

Texts cited 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).

SE Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and Dutch Reformed Evangelicalism in the Cape Colony, 1860-1895’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 2010).

Tim Lang, David Barling, and Martin Caraher, Food Policy: Integrating Health, Environment and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Other sources:

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

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.

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).

Carol Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy (London: Berg, 2004).

Tim Lang and Michael Heasman, Food Wars: The Battle for Mouths, Minds, and Markets (London: Earthscan, 2004).

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.

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

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