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Posts tagged ‘Britain’

This Little World

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

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

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

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

Adrian Mole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crème de la Crème…

The first time I visited Scotland I stayed at a former hunting lodge near Montrose. A group of us spent Christmas there, and saw red squirrels, a haggis, and a ruined castle. It was tremendous fun. But on the nine-hour train journey back to London, the conductor decided to close the buffet car because the tea urn was broken.

We had no food for almost half a day’s travel on the grounds that it was impossible to make tea.

When I mentioned this to various friends, their response was to shrug and to comment that, well, did I expect anything better of Scottish attitudes towards food? This seemed only to have been confirmed by the fact that I had spotted a banner in Stonehaven, proudly proclaiming a local pub as the ‘birthplace’ of the deep-fried Mars bar.

The (alleged) home of the deep-fried Mars bar, in Stonehaven.

The (alleged) home of the deep-fried Mars bar, in Stonehaven.

With its reputation for heavy drinking, and enthusiasm for a cuisine that makes a virtue of the deep-fat fryer, Scotland is not usually held up as a paragon of culinary sophistication. But anyone who visits the country realises that it’s possible to eat well – very well – there: that there are interesting independent food shops, farmers’ markets, local producers of smoked fish, venison, biscuits, and other specialities, and plenty of excellent restaurants.

So why, then, this insistence that Scottish cuisine is best exemplified by White Lightening cider (which sold at around 8% alcohol per volume, before being discontinued by its producer for encouraging heavy drinking) and deep-fried fast food?

The idea of Scotland as a land of clans, tartan, country dancing, and highland games was invented during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Hugh Trevor-Roper explains in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s classic The Invention of Tradition (1983), ‘the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture and tradition is a retrospective invention.’* Until the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Scotland was connected, culturally, to Ireland. The construction of the ‘Highland tradition’ was an attempt to create a distinct, unique Scotland. It was adopted in three stages:

First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and the re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by, historic Lowland Scotland: the Eastern Scotland of the Picts, the Saxons and the Normans.

This process was consolidated in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, with the popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s novels about an idealised Scotland, and the Victorian ‘discovery’ of the country. As clothing, music, and language were co-opted in this remaking of Scotland, so was food: shortbread, oats, smoked fish, haggis, and neeps and tatties also became emblematic of this new, imagined nation.

Sometimes Scotland does itself no favours - in Edinburgh, near the Grassmarket.

Sometimes Scotland does itself no favours – in Edinburgh, near the Grassmarket.

These dishes and ingredients not only represented Scotland, but Scottish people themselves. Stereotyped as hardy, brave, and prudent, this was the frugal, healthy fare of a nation accustomed to preparing for hard times. Even the national drink – whiskey – was to be drunk slowly, and in small quantities. Advertisements for Scottish produce in the twentieth century urged mothers to buy Scottish oats so that their children would grow up to be as big and strong as Scotsmen wielding the cabers, stones, and hammers of the highland games.

So when, then, did Scotland’s reputation for bad eating originate? As far as I can see, over the course of the twentieth century, reports on Scotland’s bad eating habits have usually accompanied descriptions of poor, urban working-class life, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the fiction boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, best exemplified by Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), the rural idyll of the highland myth, or the uptight, anxious middle-class hypocrisy described in Muriel Spark’s 1961 novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the desperation and dysfunction of Scotland’s junkies and addicts is held up as alternative way of understanding a nation coming to terms with the social and economic implications of the demise of its industries.

But the poking fun at deep-fried Mars Bars and the country’s heavy drinking is part of another set of attitudes to working-class people: as chavs (or ‘neds‘ as they’re called in Scotland) as people who are feckless, stupid, and self-indulgent. Their enthusiasm for deep-fried pizza, sausages, and chocolate is meant to suggest their lack of self-control and unwillingness to take responsibility for their own choices. These are the ‘scroungers’ of Tory legend.

In a review of Rian E. Jones’s new book Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender (2013), John Harris comments that the early 1990s saw a shift in British culture where working-class life became characterised – increasingly – in a set of deeply pejorative stereotypes:

The watershed in her story is the moment embodied by so-called Britpop, and lad culture, both of which encouraged a kind of class tourism, whereby many a young bourgeois could fake an interest in such totems of supposed proletarian authenticity as football, dog racing and greasy spoon cafés, all of which defined the tenor of British pop circa 1994-5… As Jones sees it, the way was thus opened for a horror show that arrived just under a decade later, when two former private schoolboys came up with the cheap and nasty cast of the hugely successful sketch show Little Britain, not least Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard, every right-wing trope about working-class women brought to life. Jones juxtaposes her with the infamous 1992 speech by the-then Tory minister Peter Lilley, who took aim at a ‘little list’ of ‘benefit offenders’ including ‘young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list’.

Her point is that cultural expression can carry much political weight: as it turned out, the Little Britain worldview dovetailed conveniently with the programme of the current government.

Scotland’s transformation into the land of the deep-fried Mars Bar was part of this process: it was another manifestation of the ‘demonisation’ (not a term I particularly like) of the working class.

At the Edinburgh Farmers' Market.

At the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market.

The current Scottish food revival, including even the enthusiasm for the strictly locavore ‘Fife diet,’ is also part of a process of re-imagining Scotland: one that privileges its landscape, and which positions it as a ‘green’ nation with a healthy respect for its environment, as well as its (invented) food traditions. But – and this is what, I think, prevents this outbreak of Scottish foodie-ism from being irredeemably middle-classScotland has introduced a National Food and Drink Policy, which aims to promote the sustainable production of food in the country, while ensuring that diets improve. (It’s even managed to introduce a minimum pricing law for alcohol.) It’s no use producing wonderful food, if most people can’t afford to eat it. The government in England should take note.

*This is also the Hugh Trevor-Roper who dismissed African history on the grounds that it described ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.’ So there’s that too.

Sources

Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,’ in The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 15-41.

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

Food Links, 27.02.2013

India’s rice yields are up – why? And some reservations about the report.

Andrew Rugasira‘s Good African coffee company in Uganda, and the politics of aid.

Who owns the organic industry?

Goat, donkey, and water buffalo meat have been found in South African meat products.

Jay Rayner on the thuggish power of British supermarkets.

Most people who think they’re gluten intolerant, aren’t.

Is the ready meal part of Britain’s culinary heritage?

The Food Standards Authority has not authority.

A horsemeat burger comes second in a blind taste test.

Create – a restaurant praised for being an example of David Cameron’s ‘big society’ – closes down.

The gluten-free fad.

The Lunch Lady of Ho Chi Minh City.

Below the covers of recipe books.

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s war on bad coffee.

Grandmothers from around the world share their favourite recipes.

Beans from the sixteenth century have been found in the Vatican.

The world’s earliest written recipe?

Jim Crace digests Paul Hollywood’s Bread.

The opening of a branch of Krispy Kreme causes havoc in Edinburgh.

Some coffee contains more caffeine than energy drinks.

Eating in Istanbul.

This is the end times: the Jimmy Choo cup holder.

The surprising usefulness of emu oil.

Dumplings from around the world.

Chocolate and wine…in one bottle. Urgh.

Food additives are not all bad.

Why you shouldn’t store ammunition in an oven.

Ice cream-shaped pom poms.

Breakfast recipes from the Smitten Kitchen.

The Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv.

Why do Americans eat pancakes for breakfast?

Ben and Jerry’s has a graveyard for discontinued flavours.

A 1938 advertisement for Ovaltine.

Hitler’s food taster give an interview.

Shortbread teabags.

Closing the Stable Door

About a month ago, the ever-amazing Bill Nighy argued in an interview with the UK’s Sunday Independent that hunger – whatever we may mean by that – could be eradicated by forcing big multinationals to pay their taxes. Nighy, who is a spokesman for the anti-hunger If Campaign, has a point. As a Guardian investigation demonstrates, these global businesses and their subsidiaries go out of their way not to pay their taxes – something which hits developing nations particularly hard:

The Zambian sugar-producing subsidiary of Associated British Foods, a FTSE100 company, contributed virtually no corporation tax to the state’s exchequer between 2007 and 2012, and none at all for two of those years.

The firm, Zambia Sugar, has recently posted record pre-tax profits and its huge plantation is increasing its capacity to produce more sugar for markets in Europe and Africa. Yet it paid less than 0.5% of its $123m pre-tax profits in corporation tax between 2007 and 2012.

The company benefits from generous capital allowance and tax-relief schemes in Zambia, but the investigation also found that it funnels around a third of its pre-tax profits to sister companies in tax havens, including Ireland, Mauritius and the Netherlands. Tax treaties between Zambia and some of those countries mean the state’s revenue authorities are unable to charge their normal tax on money leaving their shores.

If businesses like Associated British Food paid their taxes in countries like Zambia, then, the logic goes, these governments would have enough money to ensure that everyone would have access to enough food.

But tax evasion has implications for everyone’s food supply, and not only those who live in low- to middle-income countries. As the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe shows, the presence of horsemeat in ready meals and fast food products was partly the work of a network of businesses which managed to evade both (admittedly shambolic) regulators and tax by operating through scrutiny-free offshore companies.

Romanian horsemeat entered the European food chain when meat from two abattoirs was sold to Draap Trading Limited, which sold the meat to European food companies, like the meat processor Spanghero – whose licence was suspended earlier this month after being accused of knowingly mislabelling horsemeat as beef in some of its products.

Draap Trading Limited operates in the Netherlands, but is registered in tax-flexible Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is a firm based in the British Virgin Islands, another tax haven. Not only does this arrangement allow Draap to avoid paying tax, but it becomes almost impossible to identify Draap’s shareholder. Investigators suggest that the shareholder may be linked to a collection of Russia-linked offshore companies which have, in the past, been involved in high-profile transactions in Russian industry. Importantly, there are allegations that these businesses are connected to gang activity.

Exciting as these revelations may be, this is certainly not the first time that food adulteration has been linked to organised crime. In Italy, write Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna:

The Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ’Ndrangheta have long sought to gain a foothold in the fruit and vegetable market, which is one of the most profitable markets in southern Italy. Police investigations over the past two years indicate that mafia families are beginning to have a presence in every stage of the agricultural market – from production to transport. The illegal activities are numerous and market distortion is fundamentally based on the monopoly to transport and distribution in the south, but the phenomenon is widespread across Italy.

The clans have been entering every stage of production – from cultivating products to transporting goods to local markets. It is a business that involves approximately 150 different crimes every day, according to SOS Impresa (an association of Italian business owners created to combat organised crime) and an estimated one third of farmers are affected by this.

Crimes include ‘theft of machinery and tools; extortion; the theft of livestock and cattle; unregulated butchery practices; fraudulent claims for EU funds; and the exploitation of labour.’ These have appalling consequences for the environment, employment practices, and, indeed, food safety – particularly because the clans not only ignore regulations around hygiene and animal welfare, but are also involved in the illegal butchering and trafficking of potentially contaminated meat.

In the US, the Mafia and pizzerias have a long and complicated relationship. Between 1985 and 1987, the Pizza Connection Trial revealed that mobsters had used a collection of pizza parlours as fronts for the sale and collection of heroin and cocaine. Throughout the twentieth century, though, the mob controlled supplies of ingredients to pizzerias. For instance,

Al Capone – who owned a string of dairy farms near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin – forced New York pizzerias to use his rubbery mob cheese, so different from the real mozzarella produced … in New York City since the first immigrants from Naples arrived in Brooklyn around 1900.

As the story goes, the only places permitted to use good mozzarella made locally were the old-fashioned pizza parlours like Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, and John’s, which could continue doing so only if they promised to never serve slices. … Apparently, neighbourhood pizzerias that served slices and refused to use Capone’s cheese would be firebombed.

As the connection between organised crime and food is nothing new, so is the link between food and tax evasion. Nicholas Shaxson begins his excellent Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (2011) with an account of the incredible wealth and power of the Vestey brothers. These two men controlled the meat industry during the early twentieth century. Ian Phimister explains:

Prior to 1914, Vesteys had 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 company also owned ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat which they use largely for their own trade. Major expansion occurred, however, primarily after the war when in 1922 they absorbed the British and Argentine Meat Company. Vesteys had previously owned over 3,000 butcher shops in England, and the take-over added between 800 and 900 shops to that total. Overall, it was thought that the ‘deal gave Vesteys control over one-quarter of the Argentine export trade.’ On the other side of the world, Vesteys leased 20 million acres in northern Australia where they ran 300,000 cattle. Generally speaking, these were low-grade animals, but their low cost of production gave Vesteys a competitive selling edge, especially during the Great Depression when beef prices collapsed. There were no rail charges because cattle were ‘walked’ to the freezing works, and labour costs were the envy of even South Rhodesia: ‘they employ about 200 aborigines who do not seem to have advanced as far as our natives – at any rate they are only starting to ask for money wages.’

Essentially, Vesteys owned every link in the food chain: from the land on which cattle were farmed, to abattoirs and newly-invented cold storage warehouses, to refrigerated ships and the butchers who sold the meat to shoppers in Britain. But they didn’t limit themselves to beef: they shipped eggs, chicken, ducks, pork, and dairy products from China and Russia, as well as mutton from Australia and New Zealand.

What the example of Vesteys demonstrates – above all – is that big food multinationals have existed since the early twentieth century and have used the same tactics for more than a hundred years. Monsanto and Cargill have the same monopolistic instincts and low regard for labour rights and animal welfare as Vesteys. Moreover, our food supply has been globalised for as long – if not longer – and the myth that once upon a time all butchers were independent and totally ethical is, well, just that – a myth.

But Vesteys also illustrates how food companies dodge taxes. William and Edmund Vestey went out of their way never to pay tax if they could help it. When the British government began to tax British companies on profits earned abroad, to raise funds for the war effort in 1914, the Vestey brothers first lobbied against the measure, and then upped sticks to Chicago and then Buenos Aires, to take advantage of America and Argentina’s less onerous systems of taxation.

They used a range of strategies now commonplace among multinationals to channel their profits away from countries with high tax rates – the countries, in other words, where they did business. Also, in 1921 the Vesteys established a trust based in Paris which the British authorities could not tax (they didn’t even discover it until 1929). Giving evidence to a Royal Commission established to investigate how to tax multinational businesses, William Vestey summed up his attitude towards taxation:

If I kill a beast in the Argentine and sell the product of that beast in Spain, this country can get no tax on that business. You may do what you like, but you cannot have it.

In 1934, Argentinian authorities which had long been uneasy about the brothers’ cutthroat business practices came across a cache of secret documents hidden under a pile of guano on their ship, the Norman Star. The investigation launched after finding this deeply incriminating evidence was blocked and manipulated at every turn by the Vesteys – who were particularly concerned by British authorities’ interest in it. In the end, the man in charge of the committee and with the greatest knowledge of the Vesteys’ tax evasion systems, Senator de la Torre, shot himself in 1939, leaving a suicide note ‘which expressed his disappointment at the general behaviour of mankind.’

The British government never succeeded in making Vesteys pay its full tax bill. In 1980 it was revealed that two years previously, the Vesteys’ Dewhurst chain of butchers had paid only £10 tax on a profit of more than £2.3 million. As one official commented: ‘Trying to come to grips with the Vesteys over tax is like trying to squeeze a rice pudding.’

A poster in Williamsburgh's Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop

The only way to prevent tax evasion and organised crime is through better policing and enforcement of the law. But when food is involved, it is absolutely crucial for efficient regulatory bodies to be put in place. The publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1906, which exposed the appalling conditions under which people worked and cattle were slaughtered in Chicago’s meat packing industry, so appalled readers that momentum behind legislation to enforce standards of animal welfare and hygiene and prevent food adulteration, gathered. The same year, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drugs Act into law. Even though sustained lobbying from big food had weakened America’s regulatory bodies – and has allowed for an increase in instances of contaminated food being recalled – American food is considerably safer now than it was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Without regulation, disasters like the recent milk scandal in China, can occur. Indeed, in 2011 a study published in the Chinese Journal of Food Hygiene estimated that more than 94 million people in China become sick – and 8,500 die – each year from food poisoning. Other than the discovery of melamine in milk and infant formula, there have also been scandals around ‘meat containing the banned steroid clenbuterol, rice contaminated with cadmium, noodles flavored with ink and paraffin, mushrooms treated with fluorescent bleach and cooking oil recycled from street gutters.’

Rotten peaches pickled in outdoor pools surrounded by garbage are spiked with sodium metabisulfite to keep the fruit looking fresh and with bleaching agents and additives harmful to the human liver and kidneys. The peaches are packed in uncleaned bags that previously held animal feed and then shipped off to big-brands stores.

These discoveries – of deadly infant formula, endemic tax evasion among big food companies, food cartels, forged hygiene certificates, forced labour, and deliberately mislabeled meat – are made only at the end of a series of criminal acts. Trying to fix food systems at the point at which food scandals are discovered – by blaming shoppers for buying cheap meat or for supporting multinational companies – avoids tackling the major, systemic problems which allow for businesses not to pay tax, or for criminals to take over the food chain. It’s like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Sources

Jennifer Ning Chang, ‘Vertical Integration, Business Diversification, and Firm Architecture: The Case of the China Egg Produce Company in Shanghai, 1923-1950,’ Enterprise and Society, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 2005), pp. 419-451.

Arlene Finger Kantor, ‘Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906: “I Aimed at the Public’s Heart and by Accident I Hit It in the Stomach,”’ AJPH, vol. 66, no. 12 (December 1976), pp. 1202-1205.

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.

Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna, ‘Trade Secrets: Italian Mafia Expands its Illicit Business,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2012, pp. 44-47.

Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (London: Vintage, [2011] 2012).

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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.

An Unexpected Journey / Where to Eat (1)

Resisting gentrification in Lamb's Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, London.

Resisting gentrification in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, London.

London's smallest cafe. Great Ormond Street.

London’s smallest cafe. Great Ormond Street.

Cagney's, Bloomsbury, London.

Cagney’s, Bloomsbury, London.

Covent Garden, London.

Covent Garden, London.

Covent Garden, London.

Covent Garden, London.

The divinity of Persian cuisine, Covent Garden, London.

The divinity of Persian cuisine, Covent Garden, London.

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An emporium of sweeties, Covent Garden, London.

Hipster cafes spread westward.

Hipster cafes spread westward.

Outside Notes.

Outside Notes.

Near the British Museum.

Near the British Museum.

Food Links, 02.01.2013

Public service announcement: Yesterday, thousands of Capetonians lost their homes in a devastating fire which swept Khayelitsha and Du Noon. Equal Education is collecting non-perishable food, clothing, blankets, and, particularly, baby food and clothing for the victims. Donations can be dropped off at The Bookery (20 Roeland Street).

What food activists should focus on in 2013.

Trish Deseine’s wish list for the new year.

Growing food in the desert.

The strange ingredients of 2012.

Why can’t India feed its people?

Food infographics from 2012.

The declining sales of organic produce.

The legacy of a mission orchard in Tucson, Arizona.

Can soup make Detroit a better city?

On Chicago‘s urban farm district.

The Pig Genome Project and bacon.

Tim Hayward on the vogue for the local.

Why ‘natural‘ snack foods aren’t all that ‘natural’.

How precise do recipes need to be?

Super cheap caviar.

Why does Britain love instant coffee so much?

Fifteen of Africa‘s favourite dishes.

An interview with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen.

Why preserves are back in fashion.

Coffee as a remedy against the plague.

A sensory wheel for rooibos tea.

Cadbury’s non-melting chocolate.

A silk scarf that looks incredibly like bacon.

Hemingway’s favourite cocktails.

Anatomical pastries.

The New York Times reviews Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork.

Poets‘ favourite recipes.

The pop-up restaurants of Buenos Aires.

Why Coke cost a nickel for seventy years.

Did the Dogme manifesto *really* change Danish cooking?

Martha Stewart, beloved of hipsters.

How food is made to look good on television.

How best to juice a lime.

The rise of eating competitions.

Unusual cooking techniques.

These links are courtesy of my mum:

Treacle‘ from animals?

The International Banana Club Museum.

Medieval stoves.

Why do Japanese politicians wave fish?

A love story in fifteen cookies.

The world’s biggest wholesale fish market – in Tokyo – is to be redesigned.

Food Links, 28.11.2012

Did farmers in the past know more than we do about agriculture?

Barclays gets criticised for its role in food speculation.

How Big Sugar influenced US food policy.

Maize: a sign of Brazil‘s growing clout.

How can Africa’s food supply be made more reliable?

The food desert in Hawaii.

Why energy drinks are not obliged to list caffeine levels.

This year’s honey harvest in Britain has been reduced by the wet summer.

Bee keeping in Vietnam is under threat.

Singapore now has a commercial vertical farm.

Should we take fish oil supplements?

Some tick bites may cause an allergy to meat.

Tim Hayward on deconstructed food.

A tonic tasting.

Why American eggs could not be sold in British supermarkets.

The Onion on the gluten-free fad.

The ultimate guilt-free diet.

Can you fry mayonnaise?

Milk and western civilisation.

How food has taken the place of high culture. (Thanks, Jane!)

Fortnum and Mason launches…Privilege Spread.

Why do the French like chocolate bears?

Daniele Delpeuch, chef to Francois Mitterrand.

Britain’s craft beer revolution.

The best independent cafes in Montreal.

Leninade.

An espresso-milk sandwich.

A 112ft long chocolate train.

Raymond Blanc‘s favourite restaurants.

How to make piccalilli.

Sakir Gökçebag’s geometric compositions of fruit.

Bicycle-powered coffee.

The most useful kitchen gadgets.

Food GIFs.

A visit to Amsterdam.

Sicilian sweets.

A copy of the Canadian government’s guide to canning, from the Second World War.

How to make fake blood.

Make your own peanut butter.

A chef goes off at a food blogger.

Why the hipster enthusiasm for coleslaw?

The physics of coffee rings.

Guerilla grafting.

How to eat, according to women’s magazines.

Sue Quinn on Nigella Lawson.

These are courtesy of my Mum:

Is nutrition getting enough attention from development organisations?

The story of Britain through its cooking.

The Taste of Love.

Laser-etched sushi.

A botanist, a butcher, and a body.

Amazing manga plates.

Food Links, 14.11.2012

The political implications of food shortages.

Cargill’s profits are up 300%.

It’s time to rethink our food system.

Can only organic farming feed the world?

Can Britain farm itself?

Global wheat and maize stocks are set to fall next year.

War rations.

Rising food prices are changing shopping habits.

How not to feed the world.

Mark Bittman’s dream food label.

On healthy school meals: rejected by pupils, and far too good. (Thanks Lindie and Lize-Marie!)

Sustainable food in hospitals.

There’s a shortage of yams in Lagos.

Literature and carbohydrates.

The most astonishing interview with Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated.

The long history of chicken soup.

Favourite meals of famous writers.

AA Gill is magnificent on the Michelin guide. (Thanks, Jane-Anne!)

Five steps to teetotalitariansim.

A cultural history of the whisk.

How good are Heston Blumenthal’s ready meals?

Flying frozen chicken.

What to eat on the frozen tundra.

Sylvia Plath’s recipe for tomato soup cake.

How to cope with the bacon shortage.

Where to find truffles in England.

On tipping.

Bizarre new flavours for Pringles.

Japanese chewing gum wrappers.

The legend of the potato king.

Jean-Christophe Novelli goes after Nigella Lawson.

It’s time for the spaghetti harvest.

These are courtesy of my Mum:

Outrage about the exclusion of pizzerias in Naples from Italy’s most influential food guide.

General Tso’s chicken by Fuchsia Dunlop.

Fed Up

This is a short – and late – post because I’ve around 275,532 first-year test scripts to mark. In between correcting essays on the South African War, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Scramble for Africa – yes, wild times this weekend – I’ve been thinking about the recent emergence of a small, yet fierce, anti-foodie movement.

Perhaps ‘movement’ is too strong a word. But it seems to me that there is an increasing unwillingness to tolerate the preciousness and snobbery of foodie-ism. In an extract from his new book on the subject, Steven Poole launches a vicious attack on the ‘food madness’ which has gripped the middle classes:

It is not in our day considered a sign of serious emotional derangement to announce publicly that ‘chocolate mousse remains the thing I feel most strongly about’, or to boast that dining with celebrities on the last night of Ferran Adria’s restaurant El Bulli, in Spain, ‘made me cry’. It is, rather, the mark of a Yahoo not to be able and ready at any social gathering to converse in excruciating detail and at interminable length about food. Food is not only a safe ‘passion’ (in the tellingly etiolated modern sense of ‘passion’ that just means liking something a lot); it has become an obligatory one. The unexamined meal, as a pair of pioneer modern ‘foodies’ wrote in the 1980s, is not worth eating.

Similarly, Hephzibah Anderson makes the point that for all its pretensions of ethical eating, foodie-ism has done very little to change the ways in which most people eat:

If foodism really is about to fizzle, it’s hard to imagine what its legacy will be. Foodists are slavish in their devotion to authenticity, but flipping through bygone cookbooks rarely leaves a person licking their lips. Most of it is revolting. A decade hence, aren’t Heston Blumenthal’s spruce-spritzed mince pies likely to seem just as off-putting? In truth, some molecular gastronomical creations (gorgonzola cheese volleyball, anyone?) don’t sound all that far removed from foodstuffs you’ll find at the nether-end of the dining scale (I’m thinking Turkey Twizzlers and Tater Tots). Naturally, devotees insist that ideas flow in the opposite direction: high-foodism is to the average plate as the Milan catwalk is to the high street. But while it’s true nouvelle cuisine, for instance, brought us the Roux Brothers – ‘the Beatles of gastronomy,’ as Blumenthal labelled them – couldn’t a case be made for Delia Smith having had far more impact on what we actually cook?

Foodie-ism was the product of prosperity: it emerged first during the boom years of the 1980s, and then appeared again – with distinctly moral and ethical overtones – in the early 2000s. It makes sense, then, that the demise of foodie-ism, if that is what is happening, should occur in massive economic crisis. When the poor and unemployed in Greece, Spain, and Britain go hungry, and when people riot in Mexico and Iran because of high food prices, hyperventilating over authentic tapas seems in very poor taste indeed.

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Sad news: the brilliant, fearless, and wonderful Eric Hobsbawm died today. His writing made me want to become an historian. I am immensely proud to have been awarded my doctorate from his department.

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