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Things that happened in Joburg this week

What happened in Johannesburg – city of prophets and miracles – this week.

A man tried to buy an overpriced rocket launcher in the CBD.

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Sanral, which administers the unpopular e-tolls system on the city’s highways, received envelopes containing white powder. The building was evacuated twice.

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On Sunday two people dressed as cows cycled down Emmarentia Avenue.

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A community newspaper reports that two men have claimed an empty coffin found abandoned in Linden. They say they plan to use it as a TV stand.

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

Ice Cream in Mandela Square

This morning I went to re-register in time for next year’s elections. My voting station is at the Ridge School, an elite primary school for boys perched at the top of the startlingly rich suburb of Westcliff. It is one of the oldest parts of Johannesburg, with its Arts and Crafts mansions and streets lined with old, well-established trees. It is where industrialists, whose fortunes were made on the mines, settled to live in the comfort that a city with cheap land and even cheaper labour could provide.

In some ways, it feels that Westcliff has changed very little since the early twentieth century. There were two black domestic workers, in uniforms and aprons, waiting to check if they were registered to vote. And there was a huddle of affluent white people gathered around the stall operated by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Unsurprisingly, the ANC was nowhere to be seen.

Old is a relative term, though, and particularly for Johannesburg, a city founded only in the mid-1880s. For all that its northern suburbs give the appearance of static, solid, prosperity, it is a city which continues to evolve at a frantic pace: it grows, is torn down and rebuilt, has been run down, and is being gentrified. In fact, the urban forest of Joburg’s affluent areas is a pointed example of the constructedness of this city: planted to provide timber to the city’s mines, the canopy of green and purple which covers old Johannesburg in the summer has created a new ecosystem, replacing the original grassland of the Highveld.

A while ago, some lovely friends took me to dinner and pudding in two parts of the city which also show particularly well how South Africa’s shifting demographics – its growing middle class, in particular – are helping to change the city.

One of the oddest spaces to contemplate this transformation is Mandela Square in Sandton, a suburb in the north of the city which has, since the 1990s and especially after the Johannesburg Stock Exchange moved there in 2000, become an alternative city centre to the old CBD. The middle of Sandton is dominated by shiny corporate headquarters and a collection of high-end shopping malls – one of which is Nelson Mandela Square. Known until 2004 as Sandton Square, the mall was renamed after the installation of a massive, six-metre statue of Nelson Mandela.

The statue – which is slightly out of proportion – is to one side of the piazza at the centre of the mall, and overlooks a fountain. To its left and right are restaurants, some of them branches of popular, but pricier, franchises. We had excellent ice creams at an Italian place, and watched as tourists posed in front of Madiba, and took photographs of the water feature.

Mandela Square – and, indeed, Sandton – is often held up as an example of the crass materialism which has accompanied – and has been produced by – South Africa’s transition to democracy after 1994. Uncomfortably, and ridiculously, it links a depoliticised Mandela – Madiba-as-friendly-giant – to a celebration of post-apartheid consumerism. It is true that Sandton is, to some extent, an unpleasant example of the city-as-anodyne shopping mall. Architecturally, Mandela Square – and Sandton City, and the Sandton Convention Centre, and Michelangelo Towers, and the Da Vinci Hotel – could be just about anywhere, and that, really, is part of the point.

My friends and I began our evening, though, at a wonderful, and in some ways equally incongruous, Thai restaurant in Edenvale, a suburb on the border of Johannesburg and the East Rand. It is one of a collection of towns and settlements established to the east of Joburg as result of mining (for gold and coal) and manufacturing. Recently, though, its low property prices and new malls have drawn the city’s new middle classes. It is, in some ways, the epitome of big city suburbia. And yet, down a not-particularly-lovely street, is a place which serves delicious Thai food.

In some ways, the South African taste for Thai has been driven by the fact that Thailand is one of the few countries to which South Africans may travel without visas, and, even with the current weakness of the Rand, remains relatively inexpensive. Thai restaurants – some of them part of the Wang Thai chain – have popped up in middle-class suburbs, alongside pubs and steak ranches.

Rising above the noise and bustle of Johannesburg – and with a clear view of the Sandton skyscrapers – Westcliff, secure in its incredible wealth, seems to be immune from the change happening around it. But Westcliff is as entangled in Johannesburg’s making as are Sandton and Edenvale: it was shaped and produced by the mineral revolution at the end of the nineteenth century. It was modelled on similar, upper middle-class suburbs in Britain. It is as much a construct as Sandton and Edenvale.

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

Whose Heritage, Again

Today is Heritage Day and I tried to visit a museum. The museum was closed, so I took photographs of its façade and the surrounding suburb instead. Or, rather, the museum was open, but not to members of the public. Its opening ceremony was limited to members of the community and officials from the Department of Arts and Culture.

At the Fietas Museum.

At the Fietas Museum.

I’ll return at some stage in the future, but I think that this museum in Fietas – a working-class suburb near the Johannesburg CBD – says a great deal about the complicated ways in which South Africans are reflecting on their past.

The Fietas Museum

The front of the Fietas Museum.

I have very mixed feelings about Heritage Day. A lot of the debate about this public holiday on social media and local radio stations circles around – although never really articulates – its most problematic and unresolved feature: ‘heritage’ is a construct. Put simply, heritage is constituted of whatever parts of our past we choose to remember.

Partly because it is so difficult to define what exactly a South African heritage is, there have been various attempts to recast this holiday in ways which make it easier and less controversial to celebrate. The campaign to reinvent Heritage Day as a depoliticised National Braai Day emphasises most South Africans’ shared enthusiasm for barbecue.

In Fietas/Pageview/Vrededorp.

In Fietas/Pageview/Vrededorp.

On the other end of the scale, the recent launch of Freedom Fridays by LeadSA – a fairly socially conservative campaign led by media outlets to encourage South Africans to be better citizens (whatever they may mean by that) – and the Department of Arts and Culture exhorts South Africans to wear something every Friday that symbolises their love for the country.

Both Braai Day and Freedom Day are problematic. Whatever the good intentions of its founders, Braai Day transforms Heritage Day into yet another opportunity for supermarkets to make quite a lot of money (in much the same way that Women’s Day has become another version of Mothers’ Day). And Freedom Friday promotes an unthinking patriotism which ignores South Africa’s far-from-uncomplicated political and social trajectory post-1994. The fact that it was launched six months before a general election can’t be harmful either.

Indeed, both elide South Africa’s deeply conflicted past: for all their enthusiasm for ‘heritage’, there’s very little history in how these two initiatives explore and redefine what it is to be South African.

One of the remaining shops in Fietas.

One of the remaining shops in Fietas.

What discomforts me about Heritage Day is that it attempts to use South Africa’s past in much the same way as did the National Party during apartheid. In fact, Heritage Day is a renamed Shaka Day (instituted to pay homage to Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the most significant leader of the Zulu kingdom) which was co-opted by the apartheid state in an effort to invent a separate, distinct heritage for each of the race groups into which South Africans were divided.

Buying food in Fietas.

Buying food in Fietas.

Over the weekend I visited another apartheid-era attempt to construct a discrete ethnic identity, and partly in the service of segregated city planning: the Oriental Plaza. Based in Fordsburg – a predominantly Indian suburb – the Plaza was created by the state in the mid-1970s as a kind of shopping mall for Indian traders. As the Plaza’s domes, décor, and palm trees suggest, it was designed with a kind of stereotyped Arab bazaar in mind – its architecture owes more to The Thief of Baghdad than to any knowledge of Middle Eastern or south Asian architecture.

Many of the shop owners were there because they had been forced out of various Johannesburg suburbs. One of these was Fietas – consisting of Pageview and Vrededorp – an inner-city area of Johannesburg which had been settled by Indians since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Fourteenth Avenue – where the Fietas Museum is now situated – was the area’s main shopping street, and was dominated by Indian-owned shops. In 1968, Vrededorp was rezoned as ‘white’ under the Group Areas Act, and in 1975, Indian shop owners were given notice that they had to leave – and many of them to the Oriental Plaza.

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The Plaza was an attempt to contain Indian traders within a part of the city designated as ‘Indian’, and in a space which evoked a particular interpretation of their ‘Indian-ness’. My point here is not to criticise the shopkeepers and shoppers who chose – and still choose – to work and shop there. But, rather, to make the point that Johannesburg’s landscape is constituted of various attempts to define people’s heritage for them.

In the Oriental Plaza.

In the Oriental Plaza.

It’s for this reason that I find the Fietas museum so interesting: I hope that it will retrieve the profoundly traumatic history of the destruction of the suburb: of the people forced to move, of the lives and livelihoods destroyed, and of the homes and businesses bulldozed in an effort to make Fietas ‘white’.

In fact, I hope it will begin to answer a question that Teju Cole posed last week at a talk at the Troyeville Hotel. Referring to the ways in which we write about cities, he asked:

Cities are built on people’s bones. How, then, do we tell stories about cities so that those who have died, do not die a double death through forgetting? Below us, on street corners, are people’s dreams.

The problem with any attempt to define a specific South African heritage is that it tends to be a triumphalist retelling of the country’s past. It has, then, the potential to ignore ordinary struggles and ordinary lived realities: the lives of people who just got by under extraordinarily difficult conditions.

We need to tell those stories too.

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

Observations

I’ve been in Johannesburg for nearly a month now. And although I’ve hardly even begun to explore one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s beginning to feel like home. Despite being a comparatively young city – it’s the product of the discovery and mining of the significant deposits of gold beneath the Witwatersrand during the late 1880s – partly because it’s had such a transient population since its founding, and has changed so profoundly over the past century (and continues to change), the city feels composed of layers of work, and experience, and change. In other words, for a newish city, it has a lot of history.

The city itself is often a strange – and rather ugly – mishmash of old and new buildings, businesses, houses, and developments. But I like how older ways of living often exist side-by-side with the new. What I mean is that for all of Joburg’s malls – and there are a lot of malls and they are very, very big – for instance, there are still surprising numbers of small, independent shops which seem, to me, to be very well patronised.

In Braamfontein.

In Braamfontein.

So here are a few food-related observations, made by a new, often ignorant, and probably over-optimistic resident:

1. There are so many lovely cafes and places to eat. I can’t comment about the fine dining scene – I don’t have enough money to eat in those kinds of restaurants – but it’s easy to eat well here, I think.

At the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein.

At the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein.

2. Also, as is the case all over the world, these cafes and restaurants are agents of change and gentrification. I spend a lot of time in Braamfontein – I work near there – and have been struck how much this inner-city suburb has changed since I visited at the end of 2011, when it still felt distinctly dodgy during the day. There is now a hipster café with either flat whites or burgers (obviously) on practically every corner.

Debating the gentrification of Braamfontein.

Debating the gentrification of Braamfontein.

3. I’ve yet to visit Arts on Main in the city centre. Just about every person I’ve asked about it has a different opinion of the development. Broadly, half say it’s a deeply problematic gentrification of a desperately poor area which serves only further to marginalise the residents of inner-city Joburg. The other half argue that it’s bringing the middle classes back to old Joburg, after the long flight northwards to Sandton.

4. The Spur in Braamfontein, a quick stroll from Cosatu House, must be the most politically influential steakhouse in South Africa.

Debating the gentrification of Tyrone Avenue in Parkview, on a public noticeboard.

Debating the gentrification of Tyrone Avenue in Parkview, on a public noticeboard.

5. There are so many markets. So far, I’ve been to the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein (and I’m still trying to understand how that stands in relation to Braamfontein’s gentrification) and the organic market in Bryanston. But there’s also the boeremark in Pretoria, the market at the Pirates Sports Club, and the farmers’ market in Fourways. And others.

6. In this city of malls – and I have yet to visit that ur-mall, Sandton City – it’s more possible for me to shop locally and from independent businesses than it was in Cape Town. There’s a butcher in Parkhurst, and my amazing fruiterer in Tyrone Avenue – one of dozens across the city – sell fresh produce, meat, cheese, milk, flowers, polenta, pasta, tinned tomato, and fish sauce. And the FT Weekend. And soap. I love it with an intensity which borders on the unreasonable.

The fruiterer on Tyrone Avenue.

The fruiterer on Tyrone Avenue.

I have yet to sample the delights of Fordsburg, Rosettenville, and the new and old Chinatowns. There are still the vast, sprawling worlds of Soweto, and the East and West Rand to explore. But as the city changes, I know I’ll enjoy visiting and revisiting areas that feel at once familiar and new.

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

Food Links, 24.10.2012

How healthy is raw milk?

Pesticides, bees, and governments’ unwillingness to introduce regulations.

A debate on the origins of opposition to GM crops.

Global warming has changed the fishing industry in southern Greenland.

Are lower pesticide residues a reason to buy organic?

Arguments in favour of national grain reserves.

Reclaiming our seed culture.

The world faces a steep decline in fish stocks.

Colin Tudge on small farms.

Using mushrooms to build cities.

How diseases are spread via the food chain.

Pigs are in crisis.

American fast food chains that don’t support the Republicans.

How long do you need to work before you can afford to buy a beer?

Crispin Odey, banker, plans on building a neo-Classical chicken coop.

Why fish need exercise.

The US election and the snack onslaught.

Crisis in the Greek food and olive oil industries.

Nathaniel Bacon’s ‘Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit‘.

What is okonomiyaki? (Thanks, Mum!)

On misophonia. (I have this. It’s hell.)

The world’s fastest one-litre engine vehicle runs on cheese.

Ladies who drink.

The extraordinary invention of tabs on cans.

Vagina cupcakes.

Food typography.

Pumpkin pancakes.

Three burning questions about salt.

A new blog on pickling and preserving.

Cheese smuggling in Canada.

Christina McDermott on favourite food blogs.

A brief history of drinking and reading.

Delicious dishes with revolting names.

Berger & Wyse’s food-themed cartoons.

What’s the best shot for photographing food?

On dashi.

Bologna’s new ice cream museum. (Thanks, Catherine!)

Sam Woollaston cooks along to Nigellissima.

Cows respond to the Tim Noakes diet.

A recipe for pudding in verse, from Jane Austen’s family.

How to keep spices fresh.

Fashionable cafes in Paris.

How to eat breakfast cereal.

A recipe for challah.

Vogue plans to open a cafe in Dubai.

A reading of the ingredients in Kraft Dinner. (Thanks, Kelsey!)

Food Links, 22.08.2012

Raj Patel on the banking industry’s long history of profiting from drought.

Glencore admits that the US drought is good for business.

What are the health implications of farmers’ use of vaccines on their animals?

The end of the low-fat fad.

Cars, supermarkets, and feeding the city.

The world’s hottest chilli seems to be offering some Indian farmers a route out of poverty.

How the brain creates flavour.

Still lifes of Olympic athletes’ diets.

Vegetables in exchange for recycling?

Tunisian bakers in France.

What will we be eating in twenty years? (Thanks, Inna!)

The Herat Ice Cream Company.

Photographs of the first coffee shop in Khayelitsha.

Eating Nigerian cuisine in London.

Learning how to eat in South Korea.

A review of Jenny Rosenstrach’s Dinner: A Love Story.

Feuding in the Greek yogurt industry.

Recipes from famous writers.

A guide to Afghan food.

London’s best food trucks.

The rise of the food paparazzi.

David Simon on food, eating, and his father.

The world’s best edible coffee cup: made out of cookie.

McDonald’s in India.

The Middle Class Handbook on prosecco.

Easily portable soy sauce.

On running a bakery in Portland, Oregan.

You can never have too many blackberries.

The New York Times on where to eat in…Brixton.

A blog for waiters, waitresses, and those who do the serving in restaurants.

Ice cream truck turf wars in New York.

How to make your own mustard.

Gather – a new journal of food writing.

How to make chocolate fondue.

The rise of the doughnut.

How waiters make punters part with their money.

These are courtesy of my Mum:

The World Carrot Museum.

Odd things to do with watermelons.

Lunch hour in New York City.

So who invented bubble tea?

Japan bans raw beef liver in restaurants.

Good Neighbours

At the beginning of this year Michael Olivier asked me to contribute an article to his online magazine Crush!.  It could be on whichever topic I fancied, and because I had recently spent rather a lot of time at food markets both abroad and in South Africa, and had been thinking a great deal about the relationship between these markets and the communities in which they were held, I decided to write about Woodstock.

The point that I wanted to make in the piece is that there is considerably more to Woodstock than the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill: that this multiracial inner-city suburb has a long and complicated history, and that its transformation into the embodiment of Capetonian hipster cool is not only a relatively recent phenomenon, but has profound implications for the community who lives there.

Woodstock – originally called Papendorp after the farmer on whose land it was founded – has never been a wealthy suburb. Situated in the teeth of the Cape Doctor – the southeasterly wind which blasts the city during summer – its population has tended to be poor and working class. With its low rents and easy proximity to the city’s industrial and business districts, it drew many of the thousands of immigrants who arrived in Cape Town from southern Africa and the rest of the world during South Africa’s industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century.

Cape Town’s first factories – which manufactured jam, matchsticks, artificial feathers and flowers, sweets, and cigars – were established in Woodstock, and employed a large proportion of the people who lived in the suburb’s growing slums. In the 1880s and 1890s, a collection of ministers, city councillors, and philanthropic organisation launched a campaign to clean up the appalling conditions in which people lived in Woodstock – with many calling it Cape Town’s ‘East End’.

Given the racial politics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa, much of the concern about Woodstock stemmed from the fact that it was racially mixed. As a result of the Group Areas Act (1950), one of the keystones of apartheid legislation, black and coloured (or racially mixed) people were forced to move out of the parts of Woodstock which were declared ‘white’. Those people who, according to the Population Registration Act (1950), were not white, were required to move to areas classified ‘black’ or ‘coloured’.

My mother grew up in Fairview Avenue, which was part of an area zoned as white. During the early 1960s, several families in her street left for other parts of Cape Town, or immigrated to other countries, because they were deemed officially to be black or coloured. But other parts of Woodstock were allowed to remain racially mixed. It’s worth understanding the social make-up of Woodstock geographically: above the Main Road – where Fairview Avenue is located – it is lower-middle- to middle-class with a largely white population which includes many Portuguese and Jewish families.

Below Main Road and above the railway, Woodstock becomes poorer and more racially mixed. And it is lower Woodstock which has experienced the brunt of the recent gentrification of the suburb. The revitalising of the businesses along Sir Lowry Road – developments like the Palms Centre and Buchanan Square, and the cluster of cafes, restaurants, and shops which have emerged between these two business hubs – have drawn relatively little criticism, as far as I can see (although do please let me know if it has).

Most criticism has been levelled at the Biscuit Mill development in Albert Road in lower Woodstock. The consortium responsible for the development, Indigo Properties, has recently come under fire for its revamp of the Woodstock Industrial Centre, which provided cheap rents and space for the small collective of artists who work in the suburb. On the one hand, the restoration of buildings – and Woodstock has some lovely, albeit crumbling, Victorian and Edwardian architecture – and the attraction of business to an otherwise poor area could be seen as a Good Thing. In Sir Lowry Road, for instance, the increase of pedestrian traffic between the Kitchen, the Deli, and the various agencies and offices along the road has made the area feel decidedly safer.

But on the other, it is questionable whether the Biscuit Mill and, now, the Industrial Centre developments benefit the community who lives in lower Woodstock.

On a ferociously hot Saturday towards the end of January, I parked as near to the Neighbourgoods Market at the Biscuit Mill – as near as I could, given its phenomenal popularity on weekends – and then made my way down Albert Road. Cars of eager market-goers zip down Albert Road on Saturdays, making only for the Biscuit Mill and the shops and restaurants which have opened around it. They ignore the large section of lower Woodstock which they pass through to get to the end of Albert Road.

My aim was to talk to the owners of the cafes and corner shops who actually sell to the people who live in lower Woodstock. I asked several what they thought about the Neighbourgoods Market and the response was similar: a shrug, followed by a comment that the people who go to the Market don’t really seem to be all that interested in the rest of the suburb. One or two laughed when I asked if they had benefitted from the opening of the development.

Just as I was nearing Gympie Street – infamous for its association with the gangs which have long blighted life in lower Woodstock – a man standing outside Saleem’s Café beckoned to me. He was Rashied, the brother-in-law of the owner of the café, and seated comfortably indoors on upturned plastic crates, we had a chat about the development on the area. Rashied was deeply critical of the Neighbourgoods Market and the Biscuit Mill, making the point that they had done little to regenerate an extremely poor suburb. What profits they do make – and there is good reason to believe that the development is lucrative – benefit the shopkeepers, stall owners, and, of course, Indigo Properties.

Rashied is involved with I Art Woodstock, a project launched by Ricky Lee Gordon of A Word of Art last year. I Art Woodstock brings artists from around the world to paint murals in lower Woodstock. The project involves the suburb’s children, and it aims partly to encourage more people to visit the area, to look at the murals – and they are truly magnificent. Rashied invited me to take a look at the murals with him: he was due to check up on two artists, one from Sao Paulo, the other from New York, who were at work on a new mural, and he wanted to distribute yogurts to the area’s children.

The state does not exist in lower Woodstock. There are houses owned by gangs where drugs are sold and taken. There are people who live in shacks, with no hope of ever moving into houses with electricity and plumbing. It is unlikely that most of the children playing in the streets are attending school. These streets are dirty and unkempt. When incidences of domestic violence occur, the chances of police being called – or, if they are called, of arriving – are very slim.

As a recent, powerful editorial in the Mail and Guardian argued, South Africa’s policy makers and politicians must recognise the link between the appalling conditions in which people live, and the very high rates of violent crime which characterise so many poor communities:

we are building settlements that reproduce sexual violence, crime and xenophobia: shoddily constructed, disconnected from economic opportunity, home to failing schools that sit cheek by jowl with shebeens on shit-soaked streets.

It is certainly true that there are people in lower Woodstock who are employed, who send their children to school, and who manage to save a little towards their retirement. Their children will go on to tertiary education and to employment. They will move out of lower Woodstock and join South Africa’s growing middle class. But these constitute only one, small group of people within a much larger population, most of whom live in desperate poverty.

And within ten minutes’ walk of lower Woodstock – with its murals, yes, but also with its population of shack dwellers who do not have access to flushing toilets – is the incredible wealth and luxury of the Neighbourgoods Market, and the thousands of wealthy Capetonians who drive past lower Woodstock every Saturday morning to buy ice cream and artisanal, free-range bacon.

I don’t object to gentrification per se. Salon has reported recently on the so-called ‘Whole Foods effect’, where the opening of a new branch of Whole Foods – the US-based chain of organic supermarkets – is an indicator, and also cause, of the revitalisation of suburbs which have become crime-ridden, grimy, and run-down. The business is about to open a Whole Foods store in Midtown Detroit – signalling to many that the city’s long decline is now in reverse.

As Will Doig writes:

the Whole Foods Effect isn’t caused by the store itself, it’s caused by the events it sets into motion. And one thing Whole Foods does is stay open later than a lot of the other shops around it, laying the groundwork for expanding the length of that neighbourhood’s day.

The Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein – the sister of the market in Woodstock – is doing precisely this in Joburg. Situated in the parking lot of a skyscraper, that Neighbourgoods Market attracts footfall to an inner-city suburb which would usually be deserted – and dangerous – over the weekend. Similarly, the Hope Street Market in Cape Town brings life into an otherwise quiet corner of the CBD on Saturdays.

What angers me about the Biscuit Mill and the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock is that they exist within a community which desperately needs investment: which needs housing, plumbing, and, above all, jobs. Of course, it is primarily the function of the state to provide basic services, policing, and social welfare – but where there is so much wealth, there is a moral imperative to improve the lives of so many who have so little.

The Neighbourgoods Market’s success has grown partly as a result of an increased interest in the provenance and production of good, ‘whole’, food among Cape Town’s middle classes. This is excellent. But how do these customers – who desire to live and eat ethically – drive past such incredible poverty every Saturday, without thinking twice about the people who live there?

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

Food Links, 18.01.2012

Why pupils at a Los Angeles rejected new, healthy school dinners.

Three utopian feasts at the School of Life.

America: the land of the free and the hungry.

Food trends that fizzled out. (I’m particularly sorry about Mupcakes.)

Bizarre: a Russian ad for Burger King.

The history of the Chinese take-away container.

A taxonomy of bread in New York.

The guerilla grafters.

Hmmm…. I’m not all that sure about this, but it’s interesting: the difference between ‘Western’ and ‘Asian’ food flavours.

Slow Food USA appears to have gone into meltdown. (Unsurprisingly: it’s based on an entirely misguided set of principles.)

Occupy the food system.

The making of Italian American cuisine. (Thanks, Mum!)

On the mallow plant.

Are supper clubs the future of the restaurant?

The shady world of sugar substitutes.

Paintings made out of spices and salt.

Kitchens from the 1950s.

January is be kind to food servers month.

The ten best non-burger fast food dishes.

The Philosophy of Food Project.

Tips for freezing stock.

In search of the endangered Melipona beecheii bee.

Introducing LUPEC, Ladies United for Preservation of Endangered Cocktails.

The most dangerous tea in the world.

This is really, really good: testing the belief that McDonald’s burgers don’t rot.

A toaster made from cinderblock.

London Meals

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

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

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

At Broadway Market

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

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

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

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

More of Broadway Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tiny coffee shop at the Columbia Road Flower Market

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

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

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

day, but remained fairly substantial.

Flowers at the Columbia Road Flower Market

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

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