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Posts tagged ‘Carol Helstosky’

No More Cakes or Biscuits

This year marks the centenary of the end of the South African War (1899-1902), a conflict which, it’s not too much to claim, produced modern South Africa, geographically, politically, economically, and, to some extent, socially. There is, unsurprisingly, a vast scholarship on the war, ranging from, for example, more recent sallies into the multiple ways in which it’s been commemorated, and medical histories of the concentration camps established for Boer and African refugees, to more old-fashioned accounts of its battles and sieges.

There are a few – interesting – lacunae in this research, and one of these is around food. For various reasons I’ve recently been doing some work around children in the war, and I’ve been struck how so many of the sources I’ve read are preoccupied with food. This isn’t really surprising. As Lizzie Collingham demonstrates in her recent book, The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food, it’s during war that the ways in which food is processed, distributed, sold, and valued become particularly significant to states. Food can be made a weapon of war.

Ironically, diets often improve during times of war, and this is particularly true of people who, in peacetime, can’t afford to feed themselves well. Italy during the First World War is an excellent example of this. Italian diets declined in the late nineteenth century because of exponential population growth and poor systems of distribution. The majority of Italians ate what was, essentially, a nutritionally inadequate pre-industrial diet based on cereals and legumes, supplemented occasionally with vegetables, and, even more rarely, with meat and dairy products.

What changed in 1914 was that the Italian state took control over the distribution of food. Carol Helstosky explains:

Wartime ministers were reluctant to take action, but their policies made a dramatic impact on food habits. Italy was ill prepared for war and survived on allied loans and wheat shipments. This situation benefitted consumers, who enjoyed cheap, subsidised bread and could afford to purchase foods like meat, milk, or fresh produce. Wheat bread and pasta became the foundation of diet for many Italians, replacing corn, chestnuts, and rice. … At the war’s end, public debate about the bread subsidy indicated that state intervention brought Italy to a political crossroads: should the government continue to foot the bill for a higher standard of food consumption? Would consumers be forced to choose between the necessity of bread and the luxury of meat as bread prices adjusted to the market?

Something similar occurred in Britain during the Second World War, where the strict system of rationing controlled by Lord Woolton’s Ministry of Food ensured not only that there was enough food to go around, but that most people ate fairly well. All adults received regular – if small – rations of butter, meat, sugar, and eggs. Everyone was encouraged to eat fruit, vegetables, and fish. For poor families who had subsisted on cheap white bread and sweet tea before the war, this represented a considerably healthier and more varied diet.

A combination of increased exercise and this standardised, if limited diet, relatively low in saturated fat and sugar meant that the health of the British population actually improved in the 1940s. This is not, though, to romanticise the effects of conflict on people’s diets. Millions of people died of starvation during the Second World War, as Timothy Snyder explains in his review of A Taste for War:

The Germans and the Japanese lost the war and returned to home territory and home islands. The Germans had hoped to supply themselves for eternity with grain from the rich black soil of Ukraine; but in fact they got very little. This is because, as Collingham demonstrates, war itself tends to disrupt labour, harvests and markets. Even if the intention of the Germans had not been to cause starvation, invasions tend to do so. Some two million people starved to death in French Indochina. At least 10 million starved in China, whose army was living from the land on its own territory. About three million starved in Bengal in British India.

This latter description of disrupted and destroyed food supplies seems to apply more accurately to the South African War. In fact, understanding how and why people were able to access food during the conflict helps us to create a more nuanced understanding of power within South African society during this period. There was enough food to go around – the tragedy was that it didn’t get to those people who needed it.

Indeed, the images most usually associated with the conflict are photographs of emaciated Boer children in concentration camps. These are both testimony to the war’s heavy toll on civilian lives – around 28,000 Boers died in the camps, 22,000 of them under the age of sixteen – as well as an indictment of British mismanagement of the concentration camps. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the even worse organised and provisioned camps for Africans, where both adults and children were used as free labour.

People went hungry in the camps because the British army hugely underestimated the logistics of supplying around 110,000 Boer inhabitants with food and water. The first camps were established early in 1901, in response to the Boer decision to switch to guerrilla warfare after the British annexation of the Transvaal in October 1900. Boer commandoes relied on the network of homesteads across South Africa’s rural interior for support, and it was these households – run overwhelmingly by Boer women – that the British targeted in their scorched earth tactics to end the guerrilla war.

Homesteads were burned or dynamited, crops and livestock were either commandeered or destroyed, and Boer women and children and their African servants were sent to camps. Rations were meagre. Emily Hobhouse, the British humanitarian who campaigned to bring the appalling mismanagement of the Boer – but not the African – camps to the attention of British politicians, wrote to her brother in March 1901:

Couldn’t you and your household try living for – say – a month on the rations given here in the camps? I want to find out whether it is the small amount of food the children suffer from so much, or its [sic] monotony or the other abnormal conditions under which they live. …

Coarse meal: 1lb a head daily

Meat (with bone): ½lb a head daily

Coffee: 1oz a head daily

Sugar: 2oz a head daily

Salt: ½oz a head daily

You must promise faithfully to abjure every other meat and drink – only adding for the children one-twelfth part of a tin of condensed milk a day.

Leonard Hobhouse did not do as his sister suggested, but her speculation that this inadequate diet, alongside the chaos and poor sanitation of the camps, left children particularly vulnerable to the epidemics of measles and typhoid which swept the camps, was correct.

Because of Hobhouse’s campaigning, rations did improve in the camps for Boers. Race, clearly, determined which interned people had access to food: Africans received even smaller rations than did Boers, and these did not increase after the international outcry about the concentration camps – summed up, famously, in Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s ‘methods of barbarism’ speech in June 1901.

Even within the Boer camps, though, there were divisions between those women who were able to buy provisions from the British army, and those who had arrived without money or possessions – and a large proportion of the Boer families in the camps were very poor.

In Johannesburg, this link between class and access to food was particularly evident. Isabella Lipp, the wife of the manager of the African Banking Corporation, kept a diary between the outbreak of war in October 1899, and the capture of Johannesburg by the British in June the following year. Although she complained occasionally of certain foodstuffs – butter, eggs, meat – not being available, throughout this early phase of the war, she and her husband were well fed. But this was not the case for the impoverished Boer women living in the city:

Thirty women, wives, etc. of the police (Zarps) now at the front ran ‘Amok’ as the newspaper heads it, poor things they and their children were starving so they made a desperate raid on some small provisions stores and in spite of the resistence [sic] of special police and constables, effected an entrance and helped themselves to food and who could blame them, certainly not their paternal Government who had neglected giving them their absent breadwinners wages which were due at the end of October.

The situation was considerably more desperate in the towns – Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley – to which the Boers laid siege during the first six months of the war. As food stocks ran low, Africans were either forced out or encouraged to leave – putting them at the mercy of Boer soldiers – to reduce the numbers of people dependent on rations.

In Kimberley, Lillian Hutton, the wife of a local minister, kept a diary over the course of the siege. The slow reduction of the food available to the inhabitants of the town – and rationing was introduced in December 1899 – signalled the ever more desperate state of Kimberley, as fresh supplies were halted by the Boers. While she noted with amusement in November that Colonel Robert Kekewich – under whose command Kimberley fell – had ordered that ‘No more cakes or biscuits to be made’, she became increasingly critical of the British army as the siege progressed.

As beef and mutton ran out, horses and donkeys were slaughtered for meat. Milk became scarce. She wrote in January 1900:

Mr Alec Hall’s cow, that was giving good milk, has been commandeered by the military to be killed, in spite of the fact that children and sick folk are dying in nos. for want of milk. … Mr Wilkinson had a splendid milk cow, which had just calved, when it was commandeered. These things are a scandal to the military rule of the town. The officers are living on the best of everything in the midst of widespread sickness and want and starvation.

White babies wanted fresh milk, but it’s unlikely that black babies received any adequate nutrition at all. Africans in Kimberley were allotted only mealie meal. Of the 1,500 people who died during the siege – which was ended in February 1900 – nearly all of them were African.

So although in Kimberley, the other siege towns, Johannesburg, the concentration camps, and in all the parts of South Africa under military command, everyone experienced the effects of either government or army control of the food supply, access to food was still mediated by race and class.

The study of food in the South African War also sheds light on contemporary concerns about food. Firstly, as diaries and letters written during the conflict demonstrate, most middle-class and, indeed, poor inhabitants of South African towns and cities at the turn of the century were reliant on shops to buy their food. The idea that ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ may be) once (whenever that was) grew all our own food is disproved fairly neatly by desperate Kimberley housewives unable to find eggs, milk, or fresh vegetables at the grocer. In fact, Lillian Hutton commented on the novelty of people in Kimberley giving over their flower gardens to vegetables.

Secondly, there has been a vogue recently for holding up Britain’s experience of rationing as a potential solution for both the country’s obesity epidemic, as well as the current, global food crisis. While I agree that eating less meat and dairy, using up leftovers, and other wartime strategies are excellent means of encouraging healthy eating and reducing food waste, we need to be careful of fetishizing austerity.

And, thirdly: we must acknowledge the significance of distribution systems to ensuring that all people receive an adequate supply of food. When shops in rural areas are badly provisioned; when social grants are not paid timeously; when officials steal food intended for the very poor, people go hungry.

Sources

Elizabeth Ann Cripps, ‘Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886-1906’ (MA thesis, Unisa, 2012).

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

Emily Hobhouse: Boer War Letters, ed. Rykie van Reenen (Cape Town and Pretoria: Human & Rousseau, 1984).

Bill Nasson, The Boer War: The Struggle for South Africa (Stroud: The History Press, [2010] 2011).

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

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It even adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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