Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Cape Colony’

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).

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

First Feasts

I have a long association with Canadian delicacies: I was once locked in a basement with a fellow South African and made to make poutine for a gathering of homesick Canadians. (In due course, I’ll claim Canadian citizenship on the grounds of this experience.) In fact, the only Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever eaten was a Canadian Thanksgiving meal at the Maple Leaf pub in London. Although held on the second Monday of October and seen as more of a harvest festival than a celebration of the founding of a nation, it’s fairly similar to the American Thanksgiving: it features turkey, pumpkin pie, and contact sport, although ice hockey rather than American football.

My Canadian friends were surprised to hear that South Africans don’t have a similar celebration, and given that this country has never lacked for nationalist movements, this does seem a strange omission. Particularly during the 1930s, Afrikaner culture brokers invented an Afrikaner history and tradition – transforming the Great Trek into a defining moment in Afrikaner history, for example. Jan van Riebeeck described the first formal dinner held by Dutch East India Company (DEIC) officials in the Cape in 1652, and it strikes me as odd that this ‘first feast’ was not turned into an annual event, celebrating the arrival of European settlement in South Africa. C. Louis Leipoldt, a key figure in Afrikaner cultural politics during the 1930s, was certainly interested in the history of Cape cookery, publishing on the subject and assembling a vast collection of sources on colonial cuisine. (The collection is now held by the South African Library in Cape Town.) I’ll devote more space to Afrikaner nationalism and South African food and cooking in the future, but I think that this is a good moment to begin thinking about the absence of a South African thanksgiving.

In October 1652, nearly six months after landing in Table Bay, the employees of the DEIC stationed at the Cape held a farewell dinner for a group of visiting Company officials, and Jan van Riebeeck, the Company’s first commander at the Cape was at pains to describe the menu:

Everything on the table was produced at the Cape: the fowls were reared here, new green peas, spinach, chervil, pot-herbs, asparagus (a finger’s thickness) and lettuce as hard as cabbage and weighing at least 1¼ lbs each.

Van Riebeek didn’t go on to explain how these ingredients were prepared, but it’s reasonable to assume that his cook did his best to replicate the cooking of the Netherlands. Considering that these European settlers had eaten – and liked – hippopotamus and had had some contact with the indigenous population, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect them to include some more obviously African ingredients in their feast. However, this feast was more than a meal: its purpose exceeded simply providing a group of DEIC employees with dinner.

Jeffrey Pilcher describes the first – and considerably more elaborate – feast held by the Spanish in Mexico in 1538: ‘the food was strictly European. …tables loaded with salads, hams, roasted kid, marinated partridge, stuffed chickens, quail pies, torta real, and for the servants, a whole roasted oxen stuffed with chicken, quail, and doves.’ The occasion commemorated a peace treaty signed between the kings of Spain and France, and the feast celebrated this union of European power: it was a manifestation of Europe’s wealth and, in the views of the conquistadores, cultural superiority.

Similarly, the inclusion of local ingredients or aspects of Khoikhoi cuisine would have been seen to undermine the authority of European settlement in the Cape. Indeed, Van Riebeeck referred frequently to the apparent Khoikhoi enthusiasm for bread, and suggested that bread could be used in exchange for cattle. As in colonial Mexico where the Spanish attempted to replace maize tortillas with wheat bread, for the Dutch in the Cape, bread represented civilised European values. It was, in their view, inevitable that the Khoikhoi should like it.

In contrast, American Thanksgiving features a combination of European and North American ingredients, with an emphasis on the latter. The feast is supposed to commemorate a dinner in 1621 held by the Pilgrims to thank a group of Native Americans who gave them pumpkins and turkeys to ward off starvation over the course of a harsh winter. This almost certainly never occurred: Thanksgiving was an invention of the nineteenth century. Annual thanksgiving, harvest, and homecoming feasts had been a feature of life in the northeastern parts of the United States since the seventeenth century. These local celebrations became the national Thanksgiving largely as a result of the campaigning efforts of the novelist and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who had described a thanksgiving feast featuring Pilgrims and Native Americans in her novel Northwood (1827). From 1846 onwards, she used her wildly popular women’s magazines to popularise the idea of Thanksgiving as a ‘Great American Festival’. Realising its capacity to draw Americans together in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 'The First Thanksgiving, 1621' (1919)

Thanksgiving’s enduring popularity is partly due to the fact that it celebrates a rather nebulous ‘Americanness’: it can be a festival celebrating American power, family values, multiculturalism, and egalitarianism. Its evolving menu is reflective of this: alongside turkey and pumpkin pie are dishes which originate from the American south, like pecan pie and sweet potatoes with marshmallows (yes, really), and green bean casserole, which is the product of the dominance of processed food in American cooking. It can be all things to most people – it’s also been declared a day of national mourning by some Native American groups.

I think that Afrikaner nationalism’s failure to create a similar thanksgiving festival stems from a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that this was an exclusive nationalism which celebrated the triumph of Afrikaners over South Africa’s indigenous populations. A feast which included elements of African – or even Indian or Malay – cuisine would undermine this. Also, Afrikaner nationalism featured a strong streak of cultural insecurity, and tended to look to Europe for a guide to all things ‘civilised’. Nationalist cookery books provided recipes for vetkoek, boerewors, biltong and other delicacies, but within the context of a cuisine which grounded itself in European food traditions.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. I, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1952).

Other sources:

Matthew Dennis, Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Godfrey Hodgson, A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).

Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature, and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class, and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987), pp. 95-123.

C. Louis Leipoldt, Leipoldt’s Food and Wine, eds. T.S. Emslie and P.L. Murray (Cape Town: Stonewall Books, 2003).

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

Elizabeth Pleck, ‘The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 4 (Summer, 1999), pp. 773-789.

Andrew F. Smith, ‘The First Thanksgiving,’ Gastronomica, vol. 3, no. 4 (Autumn 2003), pp. 79-85.

Anne Blue Wills, ‘Pilgrims and Progress: How Magazines Made Thanksgiving,’ Church History, vol. 72, no. 1 (March 2003), pp. 138-158.

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

The Columbian Exchange in Africa

Two years ago, I attended a conference organised by the British Academy on the current vogue for global history. It ended with a discussion on the pitfalls of the field and one of the panellists – a distinguished historian of African history – made the important point that much of which goes under the name of ‘global history’ is simply European or North American history spiced up with a few references to India or China. Africa, and to a lesser extent, South America and Australia tend not to get much of a look in. During the discussion, an economic historian managed to earn himself the hatred of every Africanist in the room by remarking that Africa is indeed deeply important to global history. How else, he asked, would historians write prehistory?

This is such a daft remark that I really don’t want to devote any space to disproving it, but, unfortunately, it does provide at least some explanation for the neglect of Africa in global history: most European and North American historians tend to know very little about African history, and, if they do, it’s only through the prisms of the Atlantic slave trade and imperial conquest. Food history – which is usually seen as an offshoot of global history – is as guilty in this regard.

One of the reasons for the absence of Africa in food history – other than the fact that only a very small handful of African historians write about food – is that Africa is not seen as having been part of that founding moment of food history, the Columbian Exchange. Although not directly implicated in it, Africa did certainly experience the effects of the exchange. I think that taking a closer look at the place of food in African colonial encounter – and food, as I argued here, played a similar role in Africa as it did in South America – sheds some light on the nature of the Columbian Exchange.

Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company’s first commander of its outpost in the Cape, noted carefully the seeds which he brought with him from Europe and planted in the Cape: radishes, peas, chickpeas, cabbages, lettuce, beans, watercress, wheat, melons, barley, carrots, chervil, parsley, beetroot, spinach, cauliflower, turnips, fennel, cucumbers, quince, and pumpkins. He hoped to import more fruit trees, and contemplated the chances of introducing rice. Despite planting the crops in the middle of winter and forgetting to fence them in – meaning that baboons and other animals feasted on the seedlings – the employees of the DEIC managed to supplement the bread, rice, and salted meat which they had brought with them to the Cape with fresh produce. They even had enough of a surplus to provide some passing ships with vegetables.

In terms of the Columbian Exchange, the choice of plants which Van Riebeeck and his crew brought to the Cape are interesting. They were almost identical to those which Columbus took to the Americas during his second voyage in 1494: wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, lettuce, grapevines, and sugar cane. These crops flourished selectively, though. Olives and grapevines took root only in Chile and Peru, for example. In Mexico, wine and wheat didn’t prove to be popular, but Mexica women added European salad ingredients to the small gardens they cultivated to supplement their families’ diets and to sell at market.

With around seventy years separating Columbus and Van Riebeeck’s voyages, the similarity of their crops is striking. With the sole exception of beans and pumpkins, Van Riebeeck took exclusively the crops of the Old World to the Cape. For the modern reader, the absence of potatoes and maize are particularly inexplicable. Corn and potatoes are nutritious, good sources of energy, and grow relatively well in adverse conditions. Both crops demonstrate, though, the extent to which the uptake of new foodstuffs during and after the Columbian Exchange was an uneven one.

Jeffrey Pilcher notes that ‘Although a global process, the Columbian Exchange was nevertheless negotiated at the local level.’ By this he means that the popularity of the foods taken to and from South America was determined by a range of factors, from the ecological to the cultural. Squash and beans – which were similar to more familiar foodstuffs – were quickly incorporated into European diets. In contrast, potatoes and maize were first fed to animals. Potatoes, in particular, came to be associated with famine. Potatoes were only cultivated in Britain on a large scale from the late eighteenth century onwards as a result of bad grain harvests and population growth. Economists and agriculturalists urged the government to order farmers to plant potatoes alongside wheat to ensure a food supply when the harvest failed. Thomas Malthus railed against this, arguing that potatoes fuelled unsustainable population growth which would, in the end, result in more famine. (England proved him wrong. Ireland didn’t.)

In France, the connection between potatoes and famine was broken shortly before the French Revolution. One of the vegetable’s greatest proponents, the scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (yes, as in pommes and potage parmentier), presented a bouquet of potato flowers to Louis XVI, who then placed one of the purple blooms on Marie Antoinette’s wig. This was a signal that potatoes were now high fashion. The leaves and flowers of the potato plant are actually highly poisonous, so who knows how French history would have turned out had Louis or Marie Antoinette, neither of them the sharpest knife in the picnic basket, decided to nibble one of Parmentier’s plants…. The various revolutionary governments maintained this enthusiasm for potatoes, which isn’t surprising considering that France, along with the rest of Europe, experienced a series of food shortages and famines during the late 1700s. The Committee of Public Safety had the flowerbeds of the Tuileries gardens ploughed and planted with potatoes in 1794.

Maize was cultivated more quickly in Europe. It was grown in Spain and Portugal by 1524, and in the form of polenta soon became part of the southern European peasant diet. It was this association with peasants that prevented maize from spreading more widely. But the crop proved to be incredibly popular outside of Europe: it was taken up rapidly throughout the Middle East, arriving in Lebanon and Syria in the 1520s where it helped spur population growth. From here it moved to northern India and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan by the seventeenth century. Seen as a cheap foodstuff ideal for feeding slaves, maize was introduced to West Africa by Portuguese traders in the 1500s and spread rapidly throughout the continent. This was not the only New World product to find favour in Africa: peanuts, chillies, and sweet potatoes were also assimilated into local cuisines.

As far as I can see, maize seems to have arrived in what is now South Africa during the eighteenth century, and given European food trends, it seems likely that potatoes were first planted then in the Cape as well. The African experience of the Exchange demonstrates the extent to which it was dependent not only on ecology and patterns of human migration, but also on cultural assumptions about race and class.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Other sources:

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

James Walvin, ‘Feeding the People: The Potato,’ in Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, revised ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Arturo Warman, Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance, trans. Nancy L. Westrate (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

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