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Posts tagged ‘consumerism’

Not in my trolley

This has not been a particularly edifying week for white South Africans. After an angry blog post about Woolworths’s hiring policies went viral, a surprisingly large group of white people have threatened to boycott the supermarket. Woolies – an upmarket food-and-clothing store similar to Marks and Spencer in the UK – notes in some of its job advertisements that certain positions are available only to black candidates.

Pierre de Vos, Professor of constitutional law, points out that this is ‘neither illegal nor unconstitutional.’ The purpose of the measure is to address the absence of black South Africans in particular categories of jobs. The company has not introduced a moratorium on hiring whites, and whites may still apply for jobs advertised as being aimed specifically at black candidates.

In a magnificent riposte to the white loons threatening never to shop again at Woolworths – in the strange belief that other supermarkets don’t have similar hiring policies (they do) – Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, explained:

Without affirmative action, I would likely be a retrenched clothing factory worker or a low-level banking clerk. That was the expected, the planned outcome for people like me. The system was called apartheid. We needed help to escape our destiny and millions of South Africans still need that help.

It is not reverse racism, but a Constitutional imperative to fix our society. …those of you who spammed the Woolies CEO for applying the law are wrong. You discount, completely, the role of inter-generational privilege in your life.

To make a good future society demands we have make-right policies for the old one. It doesn’t fix itself.

I doubt that the boycott will have any effect on Woolies’ sales this year. The satirical site Hayibo summed up middle-class South Africans’ relationship with the store particularly well:

‘I will never shop at Woolies again, until later this afternoon when I will go and get salmon and malva pudding,’ said one irate shopper.

Indeed.

As this was a lost opportunity to have a constructive discussion about affirmative action and economic empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa – two issues always worth thinking about – this also represents a moment to think about the nature and effects of consumer boycotts.

I was particularly amused by this threatened whites-only boycott because of the impact that international boycotts had on apartheid South Africa. The country’s economy was brought to its knees after the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law in the US, preventing American businesses and banks from exporting and importing some commodities to and from South Africa, and investing in, and extending loans to, the country. Sport and cultural boycotts accompanied these sanctions.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain originated as a boycott campaign against South African produce in 1959. It organised boycotts of Cape Fruit, Outspan oranges, and a range of other products, as well as of businesses like Barclays and Total which operated in South Africa. Even if this campaign – and others around the world – didn’t pose as much as a threat to the apartheid state as the sanctions of the 1980s, what they achieved was to make ordinary people aware of apartheid by appealing to them not to support the South African economy.

There seems to have been an increase in this kind of political consumer boycott since the 1980s, and probably as a result of a heightened awareness of the connection between the exercise of political power and the emergence of global corporations. One of the best – and most successful – examples of these was the Nestle Boycott organised by War on Want and other groups in 1977, to draw attention to the link between the marketing of infant formula and high rates of child mortality in the developing world.

But political consumerism and consumer boycotts have existed long before then. In fact, the abolitionist movement has been described as one of the first examples of concerted consumer activism in support of a political cause. Not only could early opponents to slavery buy abolitionist-themed crockery from Wedgwood, but, particularly during the nineteenth century, abolitionists all over the world refused to buy American sugar or cotton.

Lawrence B. Glickman writes:

consumer activism – the attempt to mobilise consumers for political purposes – has been important to American political culture at least since the Boston Tea Party. Indeed…American national identity was forged in no small part through collective acts of consumption. Central to African American claims for political and economic inclusion have been demands for…‘consumer entitlement,’ ranging from boycotting Jim Crow street cars to taking advantage of the ‘autonomy and anonymity’ of catalogue shopping as a way of avoiding mistreatment by merchants, to boycotting tourism in South Carolina as a way of protesting the Confederate flag that until recently flew over the state house. Similarly…among many women in the Progressive Era ‘consumer consciousness built political consciousness’ as they boycotted unsafe and costly food and campaigned for minimum wages and decent labour standards for those who produced what they bought.

It’s striking how frequently consumer boycotts have been used by those who are politically and socially marginalised, to demand equal treatment and an end to discrimination. They were a key strategy in the American Civil Rights movement, and featured to some extent in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid legislation in the early 1950s, and, later, during the township rebellion in the 1980s.

Some of the earliest consumer boycotts in the United States and Britain were organised by women, and usually in response to sudden increases in the price of staple foods. For instance, in 1902, immigrant Jewish women in New York organised a boycott after the price of Kosher beef increased by half. By withdrawing their support from local butchers – and, admittedly, rioting in lower Manhattan – they managed to reduce prices.

In 1924 and 1933, Jewish women in Toronto – many of them members of communist groups – also organised boycotts of Kosher butchers to protest rising prices of meat. On both occasions, significant numbers of women were mobilised not only to stop shopping for meat, but to picket butchers.

Indeed, there were widespread boycotts organised by women during the Great Depression. These ‘housewives’ protests’ were part of a broader movement in which women sought to mitigate the effects of the Depression by lobbying government, planting community gardens, establishing bartering systems for food and other goods, and even engaging in acts of civil disobedience. In Cleveland, for instance, black mothers protested a power company’s decision to switch off electricity as a result of non-payment of bills, by hanging wet washing over the power lines. The electricity was switched on the next day.

In 1946, the Washington Committee for Consumer Protection was formed by a group of women – including some who had been active in union politics during the 1930s – to organise boycotts of red meat and other products to protest the increase in food prices at the end of the Second World War. (The American government had kept them artificially low during the conflict.) Other committees organised boycotts of milk and dairy products for similar reasons.

Boycotts demonstrate particularly well that buying power – and the exercise or withholding of this power – seems to function as a replacement of real access to political power for those who are socially marginalised.

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that there’s an equivalence between the heroic housewives of 1930s America and the white nitwits who are trying – and probably failing – to organise a boycott of Woolworths. But I do think that the rage which has propelled this boycott suggests that there is a section of South Africa’s white population which feels – with some justification – that its interests are not being represented by mainstream political parties. And this is worth taking seriously.

Further Reading

Monroe Friedman, ‘American Consumer Boycotts in Response to Rising Food Prices: Housewives’ Protests at the Grassroots Level,’ Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 18 (1995), pp. 55-72.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘“Buy for the Sake of the Slave”: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism,’ American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 889-912.

Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture,’ The Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 1 (Jun., 2001), pp. 99-128.

Matthew Hilton, ‘The Female Consumer and the Politics of Consumption in Twentieth-Century Britain,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 103-128.

Stacy Kinlock Sewell, ‘The “Not-Buying Power” of the Black Community: Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964,’ The Journal of African American History, vol. 89, no. 2, African Americans and the Urban Landscape (Spring, 2004), pp. 135-151.

Annelise Orleck, ‘“We Are That Mythical Thing Called the Public”: Militant Housewives during the Great Depression,’ Feminist Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 147-172.

Kathleen C. Schwartzman, ‘Can International Boycotts Transform Political Systems? The Cases of Cuba and South Africa,’ Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 43, no. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 115-146.

Andor Skotnes, ‘“Buy Where You Can Work”: Boycotting for Jobs in African-American Baltimore, 1933-1934,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 27, no. 4 (Summer, 1994), pp. 735-761.

Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe, and Michele Micheletti, ‘Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation,’ International Political Science Review, vol. 26, no. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 245-269.

Lynne Taylor, ‘Food Riots Revisited,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 483-496.

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

A world in your coffee cup

My friend Elizabeth and I have breakfast together every Friday morning. For the past month or so, we’ve managed to eat at a different cafe each week – our only criteria being that they’re in central Cape Town and open early. This week we went to The Power and the Glory, a restaurant and club now irredeemably associated with the city’s burgeoning population of hipsters. But it serves an excellent breakfast. (More evidence that hipsters can serve breakfast well.) And it is – inadvertently – immensely entertaining. As I sat at a window, waiting for Elizabeth to arrive, a hipster customer arrived to buy a take-away coffee.

The scene was almost a parody of hipster-ness: hipster customer was wearing a high-waisted print skirt, brogues, and an elaborate tattoo; hipster waitress behind the serving counter was in a red vintage frock with a tousled pixie hairdo. Both were very pale, and very skinny. (I think we need a term to describe the extreme thinness of hipsters.) Hipster customer removed her hipster shades and asked for a cappuccino.

An awkward silence fell.

Hipster cafes don’t sell cappuccinos. They sell flat whites. Asking for a flat white is as much an indicator of hipster membership as a subscription to The Gentlewoman.

This left hipster waitress in a difficult position. Should she forgo her hipster principles for a moment, ignore the faux pas and order her customer a flat white? Or should she correct her? Was the hipster customer an influential hipster, and not worth insulting? Or was this the time to establish which of the pair was the real hipster?

The barrista, a beefy non-hipster who’d been watching this with some amusement, stepped in. ‘I think you mean a flat white,’ he said.

‘I do!’ said hipster customer.

And all was resolved.

Even if this hilarious moment of hipster awkwardness was so much of its time and place – it was at once typically Capetonian and typical of a particular sub-culture – the fact that it happened over a coffee, gives it almost a timeless quality.

Coffee is unusual in that it has managed to remain fashionable since its arrival in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Flat whites are only the most recent manifestation of cool coffee. They seem to have originated in Auckland in the late 80s, and differ from cappuccinos or lattes – the more familiar, Italianate forms of hot coffee-and-milk – in that the milk is heated until it’s thick and warm, rather than only frothy.

Flat whites arrived in London four or five years ago, with the opening of a series of small coffee shops in the cooler parts of east and central London by Kiwi expats. Chains like Costa and Starbucks have since added flat whites to their menus, but – as hipsters know – a flat white is defined as much as the cafe and person who makes it, as it is by its ratio of coffee to milk.

And that is the issue. Coffee is coffee, but we’ve come to associate particular meanings with the ways in which we prepare it: between someone who buys their coffee from Origin or Truth in Cape Town and another who only drinks instant, chicory-flavoured Ricoffy with UHT milk. (Which is, incidentally, my idea of culinary hell.) Both are forms of coffee, but they are socially and culturally miles apart. Studying shifting patterns in coffee fashion is fascinating in itself, but they become more interesting when we think of them within the complex networks of trade and finance which allow us to buy coffee at restaurants and in supermarkets.

The coffee craze in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed to a boom in the coffee trade. Coffee had been available since early 1600s, having been imported to Europe from Turkey via Venice. Mixed with milk and sugar, it became popular with the new European middle classes. It was associated with exotic sophistication – and also became a marker of intellectual adventurousness. It’s difficult to underestimate the extent to which drinking coffee and the culture and politics of the Enlightenment were entangled, as Anne EC McCants writes:

The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; new table etiquette and table wares; new arrangements of domestic and public space; the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….

One of the best depictions of the appeal of the new, middle-class coffee culture is JS Bach’s Coffee Cantata (1732-1735), in which a ‘disobedient’ and ‘obstinate’ young woman’s addiction to coffee so annoys her father that he threatens not to allow her to marry, unless she gives up coffee. In the end she agrees, but – without her father knowing – resolves to include her clause in her marriage contract which stipulates that she must have a steady supply of coffee.

The first coffee house opened in Britain in 1650, and within a decade there were around 3,000 of them in London. These were places where men could meet to talk in relative freedom. In 1675, Charles II tried to close them in fear that coffee house patrons were plotting to overthrow him. (Given his father’s sticky end, a paranoia about the middle classes was always inevitable.) Monarchical and official suspicion of coffee houses never really ended, though. These were places where the free exchange of information allowed for the dissemination of the Enlightenment ideas that transformed the eighteenth-century world.

But trade was also changing this world. When the Dutch managed to get hold of coffee plants from Arab traders in 1690, they established plantations in Java, where they already cultivated a range of spices. The French began to grow coffee in the West Indies at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and over the course of the next hundred years or so, coffee was planted in West Africa and parts of Latin America.

The plantation system – in many ways the origins of modern capitalism – was dependent on slave labour. Europe’s taste for coffee was satisfied by slavery. But even after the abolition of slavery in the early and middle of the nineteenth century, European demand for coffee shaped the economies of countries very far away.

The domestication of coffee consumption in the nineteenth century – when women began to drink coffee, and more of it was served at home – caused demand to spike. Improvements in transport meant that coffee could be shipped over longer distances far quicker and in greater quantities than ever before. During the 1820s and 1830s, coffee cultivation became a way of linking the economies of newly-independent nations in Latin America, to global trade. Coffee production in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador increased exponentially, and governments introduced measures to facilitate the industry: new transport infrastructure, tax breaks for landowners, low or no export duties, and legislation to lower the cost of labour.

Plentiful land and cheap labour were secured by progressively disenfranchising Indian populations, whose right to own property and to work where they pleased was eroded by pro-plantation legislation. Uprisings against governments and landowners were stamped out – usually with the help of the military. The argument for increased coffee production just seemed so compelling. By the end of the nineteenth century, ninety per cent of the world’s coffee came from South America.

Brazil was the largest single Latin American supplier of coffee, and from 1906 onwards was the controller of the international coffee trade. The Brazilian government bought up beans, stockpiled them, and then released them into the market, thereby regulating the coffee price. European and North American countries encouraged African countries to begin cultivating coffee on a grander scale too.

African producers tended to grow Robusta coffee varieties, which are generally hardier, but less tasty, than the Arabica coffee produced in Latin America. This meant that when demand for instant coffee grew in the 1950s, coffee production in postcolonial African states, whose governments subsidised coffee farmers and facilitated the free movement of labour, flourished. The entry of African coffee growers into the world market meant that the price began to plummet – and the Kennedy administration in the US realised that this was an ideal opportunity for some Cold War quiet diplomacy.

The 1962 International Coffee Agreement was meant to stabilise Latin American economies and to immunise them against potential Soviet-backed revolutions by introducing production quotas for every major coffee producing nation. Even if the ICA did include African producers, it favoured the US and Brazil, effectively giving them veto rights on any policy decisions.

The collapse of the Agreement in the late eighties – partly as a result of the increased production of non-signatories, like Vietnam – caused a major decline in the price of coffee. For consumers and cafe owners, this was distinctly good thing: good coffee was cheaper than ever before. Coffee shops in the US, in particular, fuelled a demand for good, ‘real’, coffee.

But for Rwanda, the collapse of the international coffee price and the end of regulation had disastrous implications. In 1986 and 1987, Rwanda’s annual coffee sales more than halved. The government was bankrupted and increasingly dependent aid from international institutions including the World Bank, which demanded the privatisation of state enterprises, cuts in government spending, and trade liberalisation. (Hmmm – sound familiar?) The government could no longer fund social services and schools and hospitals closed. This exacerbated existing political tensions, and created a large unemployed population, many of whom became volunteers for the paramilitary groups which carried out the genocide in 1994.

It’s supremely ironic that Rwanda has turned – again – to coffee to pull itself out of the disaster of the nineties. This time, though, coffee is being produced in ways which are meant to be more sustainable – both ecologically and economically. There, though, problems with this. Isaac A. Kamola writes:

However, widely lauded ‘fair-trade’ coffee is not without its own contradictions. First, fair-trade coffee is an equally volatile market, with much of the additional price paid to growers dependent upon goodwill consumption. Such consumption patterns are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, changes in cultural and ethical patterns, education campaigns, and individual commitment. Furthermore, fair-trade coffee also faces an oversupply problem, with more fair-trade coffee being produced than there are consumers of it.

In Mexico, for instance, the current instability in the global food prices – caused partly by food speculation – is placing incredible pressure on small farmers who cultivate coffee: the fluctuating coffee price has shrunk their incomes at a time when maize has never been so expensive. And even prosperity brings problems. Kenyan coffee is of particularly good quality, and the increase in the coffee price has benefitted local farmers. It has also brought an increase in crime, as gangs steal coffee berries and smuggle them out of the country.

Demand abroad fuels coffee production in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. No other commodity demonstrates the connectedness of global patterns of consumption and production than coffee. As Kamola makes the point, we need to make this system fairer, but the fair-trade model still ensures that African farmers are dependent on demand abroad:

This does not mean that fair trade should be discouraged. It should be underscored, however, that reforms in First World consumption patterns are not alone sufficient to ensure the protection of people from the violent whims of neoliberal markets.

As much as coffee is associated with sophistication in the West – as much as it helped to facilitate the Enlightenment – it has also been the cause of incredible deprivation and suffering elsewhere. Invented in New Zealand, popularised in the UK, and made from Rwandan beans certified by the Fairtrade Foundation based in London, a flat white in Cape Town tells a global story.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Anne E.C. McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: the diffusion of tea and coffee drinking in the eighteenth century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, no. 1 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Isaac A. Kamola, ‘Coffee and Genocide,’ Transition, no. 99 (2008), pp. 54-72.

Dale Pendell, ‘Goatherds, Smugglers, and Revolutionaries: A History of Coffee,’ Whole Earth, (June 2002), pp.7-9.

Craig S. Revels, ‘Coffee in Nicaragua: Introduction and Expansion in the Nineteenth Century,’ Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, vol. 26 (2000), pp. 17-28.

Other sources:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Merid W. Aregay, ‘The Early History of Ethiopia’s Coffee Trade and the Rise of Shawa,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 29, no. 1, Special Issue in Honour of Roland Oliver (1988), pp. 19-25.

Roy Love, ‘Coffee Crunch,’ Review of African Political Economy, vol. 26, no. 82, North Africa in Africa (Dec.,1999), pp. 503-508.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Stefano Ponte, ‘Behind the Coffee Crisis,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 46/47 (Nov. 24-30, 2001), pp. 4410-4417.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

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

Free Markets

A couple of months ago I spent a weekend in Johannesburg to celebrate my friend Kate’s thirtieth birthday. Knowing me well, she suggested that we have lunch at the newish Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, a neighbourhood which has been included in Joburg’s inner city improvement district scheme. Alongside 70 Juta, a small row of shops (one, inevitably, devoted to lomography), galleries, and cafes, the Neighbourgoods Market is part of a wider effort to attract people – and particularly those with disposable income – back into the city’s centre.

The decline of the Joburg CBD since mid-90s has been well documented: the flight of businesses to suburbs like Sandton and developments such as Melrose Arch means that the old city centre has changed beyond recognition. Buildings are derelict and crumbling, and crime is a significant problem. To my shame, I don’t know Joburg terribly well, even though I enjoy visiting it enormously. What struck me was not that the city centre has ‘died’, but, rather, that it is vibrantly alive, albeit – with the abundance of cheap Chinese shops, fast food joints, and street stalls – not in ways we would usually define a bustling, ‘healthy’ CBD.

The entrance to Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

The point is that something needs to be done to bring businesses back to central Johannesburg, crime and grime must to be brought under control, and the city’s amazing mid-century architecture should be restored. The Neighbourgoods Market is in the parking lot of the most incredible brutalist skyscraper, the façade of which was designed by Eduardo Villa. Open on Saturday mornings, it brings people in to an area which would be otherwise deserted – and dangerous – on weekends. I really, really enjoyed it: the food was great and, as is usually the case in Joburg, both punters and stall holders were fantastically friendly.

Inside Braamfontein's Neighbourgoods Market

In fact, I liked it rather more than the original Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town. Established for similar reasons as the Joburg incarnation, the Market in Cape Town is located in a newish redevelopment of an old biscuit mill in the traditionally working- and lower middle-class suburb of Woodstock – although this area is now achingly cool, having been dubbed ‘Cape Town’s Manhattan’ by the New York Times. The more gentrified sections of Woodstock are now awash with vintage stores, bicycle shops, and Michelle Obama-attracting organic lunch cafes. Particularly on the main road, it’s all beginning to look like a set for a Wes Anderson movie.

At the Woodstock Neighbourgoods Market

There’s been a fair amount of debate about the gentrification of Woodstock, and much as I find the Neighbourgoods Market unpleasantly overcrowded and many of the people it attracts deeply annoying, I am less unsettled by its effects on the suburb than the wholesale transformation of the Bo-Kaap, near the centre of Cape Town, where a very poor group of people – many of them descendants of slaves – have slowly been evicted from their picturesque, brightly-painted cottages by landlords keen to attract yuppies in their massive Chelsea tractors.

The view from the Williamsburg Flea

The debates we’re having in Cape Town about gentrification are by no means particular to South Africa. In New York last year, my friend Geoff commented that he found the new-found coolness of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg – a working-class suburb once dominated by Orthodox Jews – baffling. I went to the Williamsburg Flea, a market selling food, craft, and an assortment of handmade and vintage clothes and furniture. My friends and I enjoyed it enormously – as much as we did exploring Bedford Avenue – but I could understand the original inhabitants’ unhappiness at how much this hipster invasion has changed the neighbourhood.

At the Williamsburg Flea

The point about the Neighbourgoods Market and the Williamsburg Flea is that they both attract people who are either new to those suburbs, or who don’t live there at all: they’re not aimed at the existing communities. (They’re too expensive, to begin with.) At a hipster night market in Dalston in December – it sold food, not hipsters because that would be illegal – I stood for a half an hour in a queue, risking hypothermia to buy supper at a food market in a covered parking lot near the Dalston Kingsland overground station.

At the Long Table night market in Dalston

Dalston has followed on from Islington, Shoreditch, and Stoke Newington as being the favoured spot for not-particularly-wealthy lefties looking for somewhere cheap and central to stay. It’s in Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, and not overwhelmingly picturesque, but it’s now overrun with hipsters and Guardian-reading lefties (I count myself as one of these, obviously, I mean obviously). I didn’t see any members of Dalston’s original community at the night market – which included a stall run by Moro.

More of the Dalston night market

As I’ve noted before, this link between food and gentrification is nothing new. Kathe Newman has argued that ‘cupcake shops can provide a more accurate and timely guide to the frontiers of urban gentrification than traditional demographic and real estate data sets.’ Danya al-Saleh demonstrates this particularly well in her map of the slow encroachment of cupcake bakeries in San Francisco’s gang territories (click here for a bigger version):

As one commentator explains:

In the 1990s, it might have been the proliferation of Starbucks coffee houses that indicated gentrifying neighbourhoods, and in the 1980s, perhaps gourmet yoghurt shops moving into an area, etc. I don’t know about other cities, but in NYC where I live, right now it would be the new doggie day care centres that are springing up in many places that appear to designate a change to a more affluent, up-and-coming hipster-ish nabe.

Markets, cafes, and restaurants increase footfall in cities. I had breakfast at the newly-opened Clarke’s in the Cape Town CBD yesterday morning (it was fantastic – go), and was struck by how busy the area was: aside from the tourist traps around Greenmarket Square (not a green market) and Long Street, the CBD used to be deserted over weekends. Now, though, Capetonians are flocking to Jason’s, Skinny Legs & All and other places. The city feels safe, and alive again. The Cape Town Partnership, which has driven much of this renewal, has recognised the power of coffee shops in attracting pedestrians into the city.

At the furthest extreme, there is the urban farming which is seeking to transform Detroit, a city brought to the edge of collapse by bad urban planning and, more recently, the 2008 recession. But Detroit is a deeply unusual case. What’s happening in Braamfontein, Woodstock, Williamsburg, Dalston, and elsewhere is part of a trend which began in the 1990s: the connection between the, then, new-found enthusiasm for whole, ‘real’ food  brought into city markets by farmers and small producers, and the regeneration and gentrification of poor or decayed urban districts. Visiting the Union Square farmers’ market now, it’s difficult to imagine that Union Square used to be extremely dangerous.

At the Union Square farmers' market

These are markets for the middle classes, and it’s easy to criticise them for not doing more to integrate wealthy newcomers and less well-off original inhabitants – which is why, I think, the Joburg Neighbourgoods Market is a potentially less awkward experience than the Woodstock version. There aren’t very many people actually living in Braamfontein.

But I’m interested in the continuing success of these markets – and they’ve proliferated – in a time of economic downturn. They’re sustained by gentrification, but why their continuing success during times of financial insecurity? Will they continue to flourish as the tide of gentrification begins to recede? Are they sustainable?

As sales of organic vegetables in supermarkets have plummeted during the recession, there are more food and farmers’ markets than ever before. Last week’s coverage of Tesco’s extraordinarily bad performance over Christmas in the UK referred to the fact that part of the business’s problem is that it hasn’t responded adequately to changing patterns in consumer culture. As one article noted, people are relying increasingly on the internet for basic food shopping because it’s convenient and also allows them to compare deals and prices more efficiently. Shoppers are savvier in the recession.

But they still buy treats and luxuries – hence the success of Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, and John Lewis. Waitrose has been particularly clever in opening convenience stores in city centres: they’re certainly pricier than the ubiquitous Tesco Metro, but shoppers seem to be willing to fork out cash to shop in bright, clean, and, yes, convenient shops. The Tesco model of establishing enormous, town centre-decimating, and car-reliant hypermarkets on the edge of urban developments no longer appears to be successful. Tesco CEO Philip Clarke

was not sure Tesco needed any more of the sprawling out-of-town Extra stores it has spent so long battling planners to build – and that were vital in its conquest of Britain’s retail sector in the 1990s. He didn’t want to go as far as to label its more than 200 out-of-town hypermarkets as ‘white elephants’ but said they were now a ‘less potent force’ as electricals and clothing sales shifted online.

I think we can account partly for farmers’ markets’ continued success in similar ways. Even if very few people can afford to do a weekly shop at them, many will buy small luxuries to perk up meals in a time of financial insecurity: nice chunks of unusual cheese, proper bread, and handmade sausages. I wonder, though, if this change in shopping patterns indicates a fundamental shift in the functioning of consumerism – and in attitudes towards food.

At the Braamfontein Neighbourgoods Market

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

Psychofood

This week, two people forwarded me the same article. And in a pleasing coincidence, it happens to relate to something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently. The piece is by the New York Times food writer Frank Bruni and is titled ‘Dinner and Derangement’. It’s a review of Romera, a restaurant which has recently opened in New York and serves food based on the principle of ‘neurogastronomy’. Its chef patron is Miguel Sánchez Romera, a former neurologist who seeks to cook food which ‘embodies a holistic approach to food by means of a thoughtful study of the organoleptic properties of each ingredient’. So what does this mean? Bruni explains:

My server explained that each dish’s palette and aroma, as well as its flavour, were supposed to prompt a ‘sense memory.; He said that the tuna tartare with coconut, jasmine and orange blossom had brought him ‘straight back to Cape Cod when I was 8 years old and I tasted my first virgin piña colada.’

All of that from the tiny, six-bite portion? I must be a sense-memory slacker. I was brought back only to other, more voluminous tuna tartares, which I suddenly and sorely missed.

That tuna dish is called Cloris, after a Greek goddess of flowers. A subsequent dish of 12 kinds of grains encircling a black olive jam is called Omnium, a Latin term for the whole of something.

Euterpes is the name for the foie gras with white chocolate, referring to a muse of lyric poetry.

Each dish is accompanied by a kind of crib note which guides the diner

through the Romera phantasmagoria. The cards, with a butterfly illustration on one side and text on the other, delve verbosely into etymology, ecology, horticulture, philosophy. ‘The objective of any pre-appetizer,’ says one, is to ‘prepare the guest for the degustation that will follow.’ Another: ‘By looking at nature with eyes of solidarity we will see that it is always expressing something to us.’

This is, indeed, deranged dining. Other than their unbearable pretentiousness and incredible expense – $245 per person, not including drinks or tip – this restaurant and its conceit are indicative of a wider psychosis, as Bruni describes it, around food:

While blazers are optional at Romera, straitjackets would be a fine idea.

It’s the craziest example I’ve encountered of the way our culture’s food madness tips into food psychosis, at least among those with keen appetites and the means to indulge them.

But it’s hardly the only illustration. Surf the cable channels and clock the time before you spy a spatula, a strainer, someone chewing, someone oohing or Gordon Ramsay. I bet it’s less than 11 seconds.

Diners at the latest hot bistro or trattoria snap loving pictures of everything they eat, seeming to forget that it’s dinner, not ‘America’s Next Top Chicken Breast.’ In New York, even the meatballs have paparazzi.

Steaks come with discourses on breed, feed and dry versus wet aging; coffee with soliloquies about growing regions, grinding methods and the optimal pour-over technique; beer with overwrought tasting notes.

I’ve written before about the origins of the term ‘foodie’: it was coined by Ann Barr and Paul Levy in The Official Foodie Handbook (1984), at a time when food was co-opted into the construction of yuppie identities. As cars and clothes were markers of middle-class status, so now was owning the right kind of balsamic vinegar. There have always been people who have had a more than normal interest in food – gastronomes, gourmands, epicures – but foodie-ism is a form of snobbery.

There has been a shift in the nature of foodie-ism since the mid-1990s. In a now notorious, yet absolutely spot-on, article about foodies for The Atlantic, BR Myers explains:

Even if gourmets’ rejection of factory farms and fast food is largely motivated by their traditional elitism, it has left them, for the first time in the history of their community, feeling more moral, spiritual even, than the man on the street. Food writing reflects the change. Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing. References to cooks as ‘gods,’ to restaurants as ‘temples,’ to biting into ‘heaven,’ etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face.

Foodie-ism has become snobbery dressed up as ethical behaviour. Deciding to roast organic, purple-sprouting broccoli with locally-pressed rapeseed oil not only demonstrates that the foodie is entirely up to speed with recent food trends, but that she is a Good Person: she has made the ethical choice. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t eat well, and that we shouldn’t be concerned about where our food comes from, who produces it, and who sells it – far from it: my point is that foodie-ism is inherently exclusive.

So far, so obvious. Foodie-ism is another form of the disorder described by Bruni as food psychosis. Two things struck me about Bruni’s article: the first was that for all the fawning and obsessing, food psychosis is not so much about food as those who eat it. (And Bruni emphasises how bad the food at Romera is.) Secondly, and connected to this point, food psychosis or foodie-ism emerged at the same time as a gradual rise in global food prices and a startling increase in rates of obesity, first in the West and then gradually throughout the developed and the developing world.

Obesity disproportionately effects those who are poor – those who rely on cheap, calorie-rich foods because they can’t afford better quality food, lack the knowledge or time to cook healthily, or don’t have access to shops which sell fresh food (we say that these people live in ‘food deserts’). There is even some research, quoted by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level (2009), to suggest that children born to mothers who were stressed and anxious during pregnancy and who had stressful childhoods – for whatever reason – have a greater likelihood of putting on weight and becoming obese.

The Spirit Level’s central argument is that the root cause of most social problems is inequality: countries which are more unequal tend to have more obese people, higher crime rates, a greater number of teenage pregnancies, lower educational attainments, and an increased incidence of mental illness. It seems trite to say so, but it’s true that more equal societies tend to be happier societies.

So what does this have to do with foodie-ism, you ask? Well consider: foodie-ism has existed since the early 1980s, and the obesity ‘epidemic’ (as it’s often called, even though, technically, it can’t really be an epidemic) dates from around then too. Food prices began rising in the late 70s. All of this happened as the commodity derivatives markets were deregulated, allowing food to be traded freely – and for speculation on food to drive up food prices.

As these graphs from the New York Times demonstrate, the world has become progressively more unequal since the 1980s:

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that our ideas about food as a consumer product have changed since the shift in our global economic system in the late 70s – which was partly responsible for fuelling increasing social inequality around the world. As middle-class foodies worship food, the trading of food as simply another resource – like timber and oil – has contributed to a gradual increase in food prices so that those on the bottom of the social scale – and, indeed, now too the middle classes – eat cheaper, calorific, and more highly-processed foods.

My point is that we can’t disentangle changes in the way in which we see food as a consumer product from a major shift in the economic system. Also, and equally importantly, however much foodies may disdain supermarkets and other markers of consumer culture, foodie-ism is a form of consumerism too.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, [2009] 2010).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

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.

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

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

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

Buying Power

In between lecturing, glowering at undergraduates, marking, marking some more, doing research, and marking, I help out with the Right2Know Campaign. Launched about a year ago, Right2Know represents a coalition of individuals, civil society organisations, and community groups who are concerned about the Protection of State Information Bill.

We believe that the Secrecy Bill – as R2K prefers to call it – will undermine all South Africans’ right to access government information, something which is guaranteed by Section 32 of our Bill of Rights. The Secrecy Bill will allow government officials in any ‘organ of state’ – an unpleasant image – or, in other words, any department, parastatal, agency, or institution which is associated with the state, to classify information deemed to be sensitive and potentially threatening to national security. In effect, this means that the Natal Shark Board, the Algoa Bus Company, and even the Johannesburg Zoo would be able to classify information.

Also, the Bill doesn’t include a public interest clause, and the penalties which it seeks to introduce for the leaking of classified information are ludicrously high. Whistle blowers face up to twenty-five years imprisonment. I don’t object to legislation which controls access to potentially dangerous information – like the plans for Koeberg or Pollsmoor – but Right2Know is deeply concerned that this Bill will make secrecy, rather than openness, the default position within government. This Bill will have a chilling effect on the media, but it’ll also impact on ordinary people’s ability to hold the state to account.

The campaign has had a significant impact on this piece of legislation. The Bill as it stands now isn’t nearly as draconian as its earliest incarnation last year, and the ANC has now withdrawn the Bill from Parliament altogether. (We do worry, though, about the process of ‘public consultation’ which the ANC is about to begin.)

But I think that our greatest achievement has been mobilising popular opinion against a law the implications of which are not immediately obvious. We’ve managed to get people to march against the Bill, and to pack public information sessions and community meetings. I think that this is partly because the campaign has been fairly successful in causing the ruling party to change its mind. Right2Know has shown how the gathering of ordinary people in large numbers around a particular cause can make a difference.

Although the Occupy movement shows that when people feel strongly enough about an issue, they’ll take part in protests even if they know that the chances of success are pretty slim, it’s still difficult to counter criticism that there’s no point to being politically engaged because effecting change is really difficult. I think that it’s partly for this reason that so many campaigning organisations turn to consumer activism as a way of encouraging people to take action on particular issues: it’s easier to shift buying habits in the name of a cause and it requires less commitment than other forms of protest. Also, it’s proven to be relatively successful. Consumer activism hits companies where it hurts: their profits. Last year’s Greenpeace campaign to persuade Nestle not to use rainforest products caused the food giant to announce that it would not engage in ecologically harmful practises in Indonesia.

Consumer activism around food has existed for as long as the idea of the consumer – rather than the customer. I’ve written before about the link between the rise of the American food industry and its increasing use of advertising to promote branded products during the late nineteenth century, and the construction of ‘consumers’. Customers bought oats from the grocer’s bin because they ate porridge for breakfast. Consumers chose Quaker Oats from a range of other brands because they identified with the values associated with that particular product.

One of the effects of the industrialisation of food production – indeed, of the food chain – was a heightened incidence of food adulteration. We know that for centuries shopkeepers and grocers added bulk to make their products to make them go further: adding ground up chalk to flour, water to milk or vinegar, sand to sugar, and dried leaves to tea. The difference was that as more food was produced in factories and it became more difficult to monitor this production, the adulteration of food occurred on a mass scale. In both Britain and the United States, concern about the purity of food grew over the course of the nineteenth century, and with very good reason.

In 1820, Frederick Accum, a German chemist living in London, published A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons in which he detailed the extent to which British food producers used harmful – and even potentially deadly – substances to increase the volume and weight of their products, and also improve their appearance. Lead, copper, and mercury salts were used to make adulterated tea and coffee darker, bread whiter, and sweets and jellies more colourful. Thirty years later – and after Accum had fled back to Germany after the furore caused by his book – another group of British scientists found that adulteration was the norm, rather than the exception, in food manufacturing.

One of these, Arthur Hill Hassall, worked as the chief analyst for the gloriously-titled Analytical Sanitary Commission, and he went to work methodically analysing the composition of a range of medicines and manufactured food products. Between 1851 and 1854, Hassall identified alum in bread, and iron, lead and mercury compounds in cayenne pepper, copper salts in bottled fruit and pickles, and Venetian red in sauces, potted meats, and fish. He published his findings in The Lancet, and the public outcry that resulted from his work was partly behind the passing of the first Food Adulteration Act in 1860.

In Britain, efforts to curb the adulteration of food were driven largely by scientists and politicians. Consumer outrage was important in that it encouraged food producers to comply with new regulations around additives, but this was not a consumer-driven campaign. It was, though, in the United States, where the pure food movement was the first manifestation of consumer activism on a national scale. The size, influence, and political clout of the American food industry needed a concerted challenge in order to change.

Americans had been aware of a drop in the quality of manufactured food since the middle of the nineteenth century – and understood that this was connected to the fact that food was being processed in factories. As one popular rhyme put it:

Mary had a little lamb, / And when she saw it sicken, / She shipped it off to Packingtown, / And now it’s labelled chicken.

The first people to mobilise against food adulteration were middle-class women in the 1870s. Well-off and well-educated white American women were involved in a range of philanthropic and reform movements during the final decades of the nineteenth century – a period known as the Progressive Era in American historiography. The global temperance movement – which campaigned for the tighter regulation of alcohol sales – was run almost entirely by middle-class ladies who justified their engagement with politics on the grounds that this was an issue relevant mainly to women – and particularly poor women. Similarly, American women agitated for the regulation of the food industry because supplying households with food was the concern of diligent wives and mothers. Even if many women involved with the temperance and other movements eventually became active in women’s franchise organisations, these campaigns were politically and, to some extent, socially, conservative. They were also locally driven, and emerged out of existing social clubs, improvement societies, and charities.

As in Britain, studies carried out by health boards and medical societies found that the contamination of processed food was rife: flour contained ground rice, plaster of paris, grits, and sand; bread contained copper sulphate and ashes; butter contained copper; cheese contained mercury salts; and lard contained caustic lime, and alum. Cayenne pepper was adulterated with red lead and iron oxide; mustard with lead chromate and lime sulphate; and vinegar with sulphuric, hydrochloric, and pyroligneous acids, and burnt sugar. Nice.

These campaigns were grounded in a belief that the food producers had become so powerful that the American government needed to step in to protect consumers from them. Even if several states did enact food purity legislation, it became clear that the food industry needed to be regulated on a national industry, and a campaign led by the Ladies’ Home Journal and Colliers’ and supported by home economists and others argued for the introduction of a federal law, similar to that in the UK.

Surprisingly, food companies were in favour of this legislation. Not only would it simplify the increasingly complex and contradictory rules operating in different states, but they lobbied the American government to write a law which suited their business interests. In fact, Heinz and other organisations actually benefitted from the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906: they advertised their products – which Heinz sold in clear glass bottles to demonstrate their purity – as being the safer, healthier, and purer alternative to the unbranded products sold by small, local grocers. Heinz, regulated by the American government, was the wholesome choice.

I don’t want to detract from the achievement of the pure food campaigners, but, ironically, their efforts to curb the excesses of the American food industry actually had the effect of strengthening these big processors. So I think that this example of consumer activism is instructive. It’s certainly true that as consumers our ability to withhold or redirect our buying power can cause change, and we should exploit this. But this only works in times of plenty. We’ve seen how sales of organic produce have dropped globally during the recession. Eating ethically is an expensive business.

More importantly, though, consumer activism doesn’t cause us to question the fact that we act – and are seen by our governments – primarily as consumers, rather than citizens. Secondly, it doesn’t interrogate why buying things is believed to be so important: it doesn’t consider consumerism itself. There is mounting evidence to indicate that rampant consumerism does not make for happy societies, and that we need to buy and waste less for the good of our planet.

I was struck recently by a comment made by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor wear range Patagonia, in an interview with The Ecologist: ‘There is no doubt that we’re not going to save the world by buying organic food and clothes – it will be by buying less.’ Consumer activism can only go so far in causing change. We need to question consumerism itself.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1999).

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

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Nancy F. Koehn, ‘Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food,’ The Business History Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 349-393.

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

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

From Customers to Consumers

I love this video – it’s an overview of a century of fashion, music, and dance in London’s East End:

It’s not an art installation. It’s not part of a community project. It’s an ad. For a shopping mall. And this isn’t any mall – it’s Europe’s biggest, and one of the key developments in the Olympic site in Stratford. In fact, it seems that most of the spectators attending next year’s Summer Olympics will enter the games through Westfield Stratford City: its casino, 300 shops, 50 restaurants, three hotels, and 17 cinema screens.

I’m not a massive fan of shopping malls, and said as much when I posted this video on Facebook. And then my friend Jean-François, who’s an architect, made the point that the development will create a massive 10,000 jobs, and has funded literacy classes for the astonishingly high number of applicants who seemed to be illiterate. In an area as deprived as Stratford, surely this shopping centre could only be a Good Thing?

There has been a great deal of criticism of the way in which Stratford has been transformed by the Olympic site. I don’t want to romanticise life in a very poor borough of London, and I’m not sure that commentators like Iain Sinclair – who has been vociferous in his opposition to the 2012 Olympic bid – offer much in the way of ideas for providing jobs, decent housing, and education for the area. But I feel uncomfortable about the way that a temple to consumerism seems to be offered up as the only possible way of raising living standards in Stratford. As Suzanne Moore – not, admittedly, my favourite columnistwrote in yesterday’s Guardian:

Next week a new Westfield opens. It’s not in west London, it’s in the east, in Stratford. It will cash in on the Olympics. Is this what this deprived area really needs? Another giant, weatherless mall that has exactly the same shops as everywhere else? Maybe this deliberately disorientating social space will be a place of connection and hope. Maybe it will offer the local youth something other than an expensive bowling alley, a multiplex and some minimum-wage jobs.

But is this just a case of lefty, middle-class squeamishness? When I buy a Margot Molyneux blouse from Mungo & Jemima, or even a dress from an upmarket chain like White Stuff or online store like Toast, it’s not any ‘better’ than purchasing a t-shirt from Mr Price. Both decisions support people who designed and made the garment. When I buy from small, local grocers and food shops, it’s partly because of a belief that this is good for our food system, but it also says something about me – about how I choose to constitute my identity in relation to a particular way of thinking about being an ‘ethical’ shopper. However critical I may be of consumerism, I am, inevitably, bound up in it.

I am interested in the shift from defining people who buy things from shops as ‘customers’ to being described as ‘consumers’. There’s a growing collection of historians interested in tracing and analysing this transition. One of the reasons why I’m so interested in it is because of the pivotal role played by the food industry in creating consumers.

Given the dire state of the average American diet, it probably comes as no surprise to learn that the United States was the first country to witness the rise of a food industry reliant on consumers who had begun to buy an increasing number of good produced in factories by big food companies towards the end of nineteenth century. Consumerism is inextricably linked to the industrialisation of food production.

The first people to benefit from the Industrial Revolution were the middle classes. In Britain, Europe, America and elsewhere, the newly-wealthy bourgeoisie could afford to buy more food, and employed more servants to prepare it. They had leisure in which to enjoy the eating of this food – and it became a way of marking newly-acquired middle-class status.

Until 1850 in Europe, and 1830 in the US, the diets of the urban poor actually deteriorated. The average height of working-class people living in the rapidly expanding cities of the industrialised world actually declined – one of the most potent indicators of the levels of deprivation experienced by this new proletariat. This was the first generation of workers to be disconnected from food production: these were people who no longer grew their own food, and were dependent on inadequate and expensive food systems to supply towns and cities. Poor diets were centred around starches and cheap, poor-quality food.

But from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, food became progressively cheaper, more plentiful, and varied – and this happened earlier and more quickly in the United States. So what caused this drop in price and greater availibility in cities? A revolution in transport made it easier to take produce from farms to urban depots by rail, and shipping brought exotic fruit and vegetables from the rest of the world to Europe and the United States. When Europe’s grain harvest failed during the 1870s, the continent was fed with wheat imported by steam ship from Canada. Farmers now began to cultivate land which had previously been believed to be inaccessible – and to grow market-oriented produce. The rise of the iceberg lettuce – which could cope with being transported over vast distances with little bruising – is directly attributable to this.

The agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century made farming more productive. New systems of crop rotation, the use of higher-yielding plant hybrids and improved implements, and the enclosure movement in Britain meant that fewer farmers were producing more food than ever before. And this produce was processed far more quickly, and cheaply. With innovations in the preservation of food through refrigeration, bottling, and canning, food could be transported over greater distances, but also, and crucially, manufactured in larger quantities and then kept before distribution on a mass scale.

Food companies began to control nearly every aspect of the newly industrialised food chain: businesses like Heinz formed alliances with farmers and transportation companies which supplied their factories with meat, fruit, and vegetables. Increasingly, they also began to advertise their products. The rise of these ‘food processors’, as they’re often called, caused a fundamental change in the way in which people ate. Most Americans began to eat similar diets based around processed food produced in factories.

Americans weren’t, of course, compelled to eat processed food. They did so for a number of reasons. Factory-baked bread, tinned vegetables, and processed meat were cheap, easy to prepare, and, importantly, believed to be free from contamination and disease. But with most people’s basic nutritional and calorific needs now met, food processors began to use advertising and brands to a far greater extent to encourage customers – dubbed ‘consumers’ – to buy more and that which they didn’t need. Susan Strasser explains:

Formerly customers, purchasing the objects of daily life in face to-face relationships with community-based craftspeople and store keepers, Americans became consumers during the Progressive Era. They bought factory-produced goods as participants in a complex network of distribution – a national market that promoted individuals’ relationships with big, centrally organised, national-level companies. They got their information about products, not from the people who made or sold them, but from advertisements created by specialists in persuasion. These accelerating processes, though by no means universal, had taken firm hold of the American way of life.

Food processors needed to persuade consumers to buy their products, and in greater quantities:

People who had never bought cornflakes were taught to need them; those once content with oats scooped from the grocer’s bin were told why they should prefer Quaker Oats in a box. Advertising, when it was successful, created demand…. Advertising celebrated the new, but many people were content with the old. The most effective marketing campaigns encouraged new needs and desires…by linking the rapid appearance of new products with the rapid changes that were occurring in all areas of social and cultural life.

We have always attached a variety of meanings to food, but within a consumer society, the decisions we make about what to buy and eat are shaped to a large extent by the desires and needs manufactured by a massive advertising industry.

The industrialisation of food production has, as I noted last week, allowed more people to eat better than ever before. But this has come at a cost: we know that many food companies engage in ecologically unsustainable practices, mistreat their employees, hurt animals, and occasionally produce actively harmful food. Moreover, it was part of a process which transformed people from customers into consumers – into individuals whose happiness is linked to what and how much they buy. This does not make us happy – nor is it environmentally or economically sound. Justin Lewis writes:

the promise of advertising is entirely empty. We now have a voluminous body of work showing that past a certain point, there is no connection between the volume of consumer goods a society accumulates and the well-being of its people.

The research shows that a walk in the park, social interaction or volunteering – which cost nothing – will do more for our well-being than any amount of ‘retail therapy’.  Advertising, in that sense, pushes us towards maximising our income rather than our free time.  It pushes us away from activities that give pleasure and meaning to our lives towards an arena that cannot – what Sut Jhally calls ‘the dead world of things’.

As customers were made consumers, so it is possible for us to change once again. How we are to achieve this, though, is difficult to imagine.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Nancy F. Koehn, ‘Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food,’ The Business History Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 349-393.

Rebecca L. Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusadors, 1879-1914 (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

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

Food Futures

One of the funniest articles I’ve read recently was Robert Webb’s account of his experience writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. He describes – for gleeful readers of the New Statesman – his battles with the commentators on the newspaper’s online edition. The internet’s equivalent to the ‘green Biro brigade’ of usually right-wing newspaper letter-writers, these ‘Ghouls’ as, Webb calls them, used the Telegraph’s comment function to heap scorn and ridicule on Webb.

These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their ‘comments’ were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.

The problem was not that they disagreed with Webb, but that their comments were aimed solely at reminding him what a ‘worthless bastard’ he was.

I hadn’t realised that these internet trolls had moved beyond the places I’d usually expect to find them – news sites, mainly – and on to food sites as well. In a post which seems to have gone viral this week, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten Free Girl explains the extent to which she’s been subjected to internet bullying:

Every day, there is some nasty, vituperative comment on a post, something I skim quickly then delete. It could be comments about my husband (‘He’s obviously retarded. Look in his eyes. There’s something wrong.’) about our life on Vashon (‘Oh that’s right, everything is perfect on  your fucking ISLAND.’), about our food (‘That looks like dog vomit. Why does anyone pay you to do this?’), and mostly about me (my weight? my writing? my hair? my mere presence in the world? take your pick).

I want to make this clear: criticism and debate are absolutely vital – even on food blogs. I have no truck with writers who believe that any form of critical thinking is ‘mean’ or ‘negative’. But I have no time whatsoever for bullies. I had a small brush with one (or two?) this week after publishing a post critical of the Toffie Food Festival’s Menu magazine. A few commentators using dodgy Hotmail accounts and a suspiciously identical IP address sent comments which were fairly personal and meant only to tell me and the world that my ideas are stupid.

But a decade in academia has helped me to grow rhino hide for skin and it takes more than a few bullies to stop me. So troll who lives at IP 41.133.175.4, you know who you are. As do I.

Troll at IP 41.133.175.4 did, though, ask a good question, and one which is worth answering. He (or indeed she) responded to my point that the authors of Menu have a profoundly problematic conception of food as a consumer product – like jewellery or clothing – which can be used and thrown away at whim, by asking: ‘where do you live where you don’t have to buy food’?

Yes, dear troll at IP 41.133.175.4, you’re quite right: food is a product or commodity which has to be bought (unless, of course, you grow or rear it yourself). But there’s an important difference between food and bed linen, perfume, cutlery, or clothes, for example. Only one of those products is absolutely essential to human life – only one has a significant impact on people’s incomes and the ways in which they live. Only one can cause ordinary people to protest when prices become too high.

Food is, then, is bought by consumers and treated as a consumer product even though it’s significantly different from other products. Our understanding of food as a consumer product is a relatively recent phenomenon: it’s only a century or two old, and linked strongly to the industrial revolution and mass production, as well as the development of a very powerful advertising industry.

Why should we care about this? Given that the mass production of food allowed greater numbers of people to eat better and more cheaply than ever before, surely these processes could only be considered a Good Thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the industrialisation of food production as long as it is environmentally sustainable, humane to animals, respects workers’ rights, and produces safe and uncontaminated food – which, as the industry functions at the moment, is not always the case.

Moreover, as I wrote last week, this conception of food as a consumer product means that we understand food differently. Food moves from being something we associate primarily with nourishment to being a commodity which has the same meaning for consumers as other, less essential goods. This means, for example, that they are more willing to throw away large quantities of food. As the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation reported a few months ago, the average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year – and wealthy countries are responsible for half of the total amount of food wasted every year.

There are many other implications for seeing food as a consumer product – not least the foodie worship of food since the early eighties – and I’ll consider these more carefully in the next few weeks. For the moment, I’d like to take a quick look at food speculation.

Of the many causes of the current global food crisis, food speculation is the most contested and seems to be the most complicated to understand. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter as well as Oxfam and other organisations have argued recently, the deregulation of commodities markets in the West during the mid-nineties have had catastrophic implications for food prices.

Let me explain: farmers have long traded in food futures to secure their incomes. Farmers protect themselves against bad harvests by selling their produce in advance to traders. They use the profits they make in bad years – when they have less to sell – to protect themselves against future losses. This works well for traders, who do particularly nicely in good years. Writing about the United States, Frederick Kaufman explains how well this tightly regulated system worked:

The result: Over the course of the 20th century, the real price of wheat decreased (despite a hiccup or two, particularly during the 1970s inflationary spiral), spurring the development of American agribusiness. After World War II, the United States was routinely producing a grain surplus, which became an essential element of its Cold War political, economic, and humanitarian strategies – not to mention the fact that American grain fed millions of hungry people across the world.

But things changed at the end of the twentieth century. Partly because of intensive lobbying from hedge funds and banks, like Barclays, governments in the West deregulated commodity derivatives markets. Banks and investors became interested in trading on the commodities market – once the preserve of specialists like Glencore – when bankers at Goldman Sachs (yes, they really do their best to be the embodiment of venality) devised new investment products which included speculation in food futures. Investors which hadn’t before been involved in the commodities markets, like pension funds, were, then, willing to play the futures markets.

As a result of this, food – grain, cocoa, fruit, rice, and meat – can be traded in exactly the same way as other commodities, like gold, timber, and coal. Brett Scott writes:

The controversy can be broken down into two separate issues. Firstly, are financial players in commodity derivatives markets causing derivatives prices to disassociate from what the price ‘should be’ if it were reflecting the fundamental balance of supply and demand in the underlying commodity? Secondly, does such a disassociation in futures prices get transmitted into the real price of food people end up paying?

The answer from the UN and a range of other charities is a definite, ringing ‘yes’. Irresponsible banks are driving up the price of food, they argue. John Vidal cites two well-known examples of food speculation causing price spikes:

Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.

But what role does speculation play in causing food prices to rise more generally? This is more difficult to pin down, as Scott implies. De Schutter argues, convincingly in my mind, that even if speculation was not responsible on its own for causing the spike in food prices in 2008, it was a major contributing – and new – factor. I think it’s worth quoting him at length:

a number of signs indicate that a significant portion of the price spike was due to the emergence of a speculative bubble. Prices for a number of commodities fluctuated too wildly within such limited time-frames for such price behaviour to have been a result of movements in supply and demand: wheat prices, for instance, rose by 46% between January 10 and February 26, 2008, fell back almost completely by May 19, increased again by 21% until early June, and began falling again from August. The 2008 food price crisis was unique in that it was possibly the first price crisis that occurred in an economic environment characterized by massive amounts of novel forms of speculation in commodity derivative markets.

The particular area of concern is speculation in derivatives based on food commodities. A study conducted by Lehman Brothers just before its bankruptcy revealed that the volume of index fund speculation increased by 1,900% between 2003 and March 2008. Morgan Stanley estimated that the number of outstanding contracts in maize futures increased from 500,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million in 2008. …the changes in food prices reflected not so much movements in the supply and/or demand of food, but were driven to a significant extent by speculation that greatly exceeded the liquidity needs of commodity markets to execute the trades of commodity users, such as food processors and agricultural commodity importers.

Food speculation is a manifestation on a very grand scale of a shift in thinking of the value and significance of food: here, food is simply another commodity to be bought and traded, often very lucratively. We know the futures are useful and important to farmers, but the unregulated speculation of food means that food prices are no longer linked to what people can afford to pay. When the UN and other organisations call for a greater regulation of commodities markets – to a return, to some extent, to the derivatives trading of the twentieth century – they are also pointing to the fact that food cannot be understood in the same terms as other commodities and consumer goods.

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

It Sticks in the Throat

Disclaimer: this post concerns the organisers of next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference. At the beginning of July, I noticed that they were beginning work on a food magazine and contacted them about writing for it. We had a brief, yet friendly, correspondence which ended when I realised that I wouldn’t be able to afford the R1500 (about £150) ticket for the Festival. (I see that they’re now selling day tickets to the exhibition and market for R50 each, which is excellent.) So please believe me when I say that this post isn’t a case of sour grapes. Also, it contains some swearing.

This week’s post was supposed to be about food, eating, and ideas around ‘authenticity’ – inspired by an article from Prospect about the end of postmodernism – but I find myself suddenly enraged and can’t think about anything else. This month’s Woolworth’s Taste magazine comes with a free copy of Menu: a publication which accompanies next weekend’s Toffie Food Festival and Conference in central Cape Town.

Menu lists Cape Town’s 167 best dishes, and includes short essays on a range of subjects: interviews with local restaurateurs, aspects of southern African cuisine, and the inevitable peon to Elizabeth David. It begins relatively uncontroversially with the usual range of comments of shopping malls having killed our ‘food culture’ and the need to encourage an interest in local cuisines. I’m annoyed by the ignorant, rose-tinted view of the past which informs this kind of thinking, but there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about a desire to improve the way people eat. No, my problem is with this:

This issue of Menu magazine compiles some of the best food experiences in the city. The visuals show food dropped on floors at home and in the street, because the best pizza always lands on the floor.

Yes, I know: ‘the best pizza always lands on the floor.’

I’ll wait while you compose yourself.

And so each of the photographs in the magazine depicts food – blobs of ice cream, crisps, bread, salad, and barbequed chicken – dropped on the ground in Cape Town.

A magazine dedicated to promoting the best restaurants in Cape Town, to disseminating information about food in South Africa, and, presumably, to encouraging its readers to eat better – a magazine produced in the midst of a global food crisis where people are starving to death and overthrowing their governments because of a lack of food – includes photographs of wasted food.

This magazine draws attention to the fact that it wasted food in order to create pretty pictures. Seriously?

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MINDS? How was this ever supposed to be a good idea?

Aside from the pretentiousness of the writing and the silliness of the concept, it’s absolutely appalling to promote an awareness of eating good food by throwing it away. I do realise (and hope) that relatively small amounts of food were wasted during the photo shoots, but this isn’t really the point. The magazine seems to suggest that there’s something poetic – or, rather, given its overriding aesthetic, hip – to waste food.

Did you know that we waste a third of our food supply? According to a report published in May by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of the world’s food – food produced for human consumption and which is perfectly good to eat – is wasted or lost. In poor nations, this waste is usually the result of poor infrastructure, where inadequate storage, processing, or packaging facilities fail to keep food fresh and uncontaminated. But in wealthy countries, food waste – and industrialised and developing nations waste roughly the same amount of food (about 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively) – is produced by ordinary people.

The average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year, most of it fruit and vegetables. In sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and southeast Asia – the least developed parts of the world, in others words – this amounts to an average of only 6-11kg of food. People who are poor tend to buy less food and will ensure that they throw away as little of it as possible.

And the proportion of food wasted by Westerners has only increased over the past few decades. Tristram Stuart writes in Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009):

A survey in Britain during the 1930s found that household food waste comprised only 2-3 per cent of the calorific value of food that entered the home. In 1976 waste was apparently only 4-6 per cent, and similar studies in America during the 1960s and 70s found wastage levels of about 7 per cent.

We are now at a stage where rich countries waste 222 million tonnes of food per year – which is only slightly less than the annual food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).

At a time when demand for food is only increasing, it’s ludicrous that so much food goes to waste. As the FAO’s report notes, one of the most effective ways of reducing

tensions between the necessary increase in consumption [of food] and the challenging increase in production, is to also promote food loss reduction which alone has a considerable potential to increase the efficiency of the whole food chain. In a world with limited natural resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer), and where cost-effective solutions are to be found to produce enough safe and nutritious food for all, reducing food losses should not be a forgotten priority.

So what are the implications of throwing away so much food? It means that the limited amount of land available for agriculture is being exploited needlessly. It means that the greenhouse gasses emitted during the production, processing, and transportation of food are done so in vain.

We know that hunger and starvation are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but, rather, by people’s inability to access it. Drought – increasingly the product of climate change – and food speculation all cause the price of food to increase. Wasting food also contributes to this. As a recent study suggests, there is a strong link between this year’s increased incidence in political violence in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa and high food prices.

The FAO makes a number of suggestions of how we can reduce waste, and one of them is encouraging Westerners and members of the middle classes in developing nations not to waste food.

These are people who can afford to throw food away. And these are the people who read Menu magazine. The problem with including a celebration of dropped and wasted food is that it indicates a profoundly problematic attitude towards food. Stuart explains:

Throughout the developed world, food is treated as a disposable commodity, disconnected from the social and environmental impact of its production. Most people would not willingly consign tracts of Amazon rainforest to destruction – and yet that is happening every day.

Even if the authors of Menu mean well, their magazine seems to forget that food is not another consumer product like designer clothes or jewellery to be artfully arranged and photographed.

If they really do want to change they ways in which we eat, it’s not enough just to encourage people to eat local cuisines and buy their meat from independent butchers. Not only do we need to throw away less of our food, but we must understand the ecological, social, and even political implications of what we choose to eat – and throw away. The decision to waste food in the name of cool sticks in the throat.

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

Affordable Luxury

I had a powerful sense of déjà vu yesterday as I read this weekend’s Financial Times. As the news section described the world economy’s recent nose-dive and entry into Phase Five of the early twenty-first century’s Great Depression, the FT’s monthly magazine How to spend it blithely informed its readers that ‘Homes are constantly borrowing bright ideas from luxury hotels.’ And went on to recommend the installation of architect-designed pool houses – which tend to go for around £3,000 per square metre.

Have you read How to spend it? If ever there was a cultural artefact which encapsulated the excess and arrogance of the boom time before the near-collapse of the British and American financial systems in 2008, then this is it. It’s a magazine aimed at the super-rich – at the sort of people who have so much money that they need advice on how they should spend it. I read it – or, at least, I read as much of it as I can before I’m engulfed with rage – because it offers an insight into a bizarre, yet incredibly powerful, world to which I will never have access. (And, frankly, life’s far too short to spend months in search of the perfect example of summer cashmere.)

Printed on glossy, A3-sized sheets of paper, it describes trends in the art market and fashion world; which yacht is de rigeur this season; where best to order bespoke jewellery; and whether or not it’s worth hiring a private chef. How to spend it is a celebration not of money – that would be vulgar – but, rather, of luxury.

In this week’s edition, Terence Conran comments in an article about his perfect weekend (which features his routine in his Georgian manor, designing furniture, and resting by his specially-altered river), that ‘luxury usually means simplicity, or easy living, rather than things that cost a lot of money.’ That Conran’s description of luxury as costing nothing is in a magazine which devotes itself to the top-end, exclusive, and incredibly expensive, is a pleasing irony. But it did make me think about how we define luxury, and particularly as regards food.

In his landmark study Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), the anthropologist Sidney Mintz traces how in Britain, sugar shifted from being a luxury available only to the very wealthy, to being an affordable commodity for most people by the early nineteenth century. Yet despite this –  despite the fact that sugar was cheap and consumed in large quantities by the British population, and particularly by the poor – it was still seen as a treat. It became an affordable or everyday luxury.

It was the increasing popularity and cheapness of sugar – and it gradually replaced honey as the world’s sweetener of choice – which caused the democratisation of a range of other products, and chiefly chocolate, tea, and coffee. Chocolate, once associated with ritual and celebration in pre-Columbian Mexico, was introduced as a beverage to Spain in 1527, but only took off In Europe once sugar was added to it. It became popular among the aristocracy, partly because it tasted delicious but also as a result of its supposed medicinal qualities. It became widely available at the end of the eighteenth century when imports increased and the production of solid chocolate was industrialised.

Similarly, coffee arrived in Europe via Turkey – cafes were opened in Constantinople from 1554, and the first coffee house in Paris was established in 1672 – and more efficient production, bigger imports, and the relatively new idea of sweetening coffee with sugar meant that it was popular throughout the continent by the 1700s. Tea was introduced to Britain by Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s Portuguese wife, but it was only when someone discovered that stirring sugar into it made it less bitter, that it gained a bigger audience among the middle and upper classes. It was heavily promoted by the financially shaky East India Company, and also by the British government in the mid-eighteenth century as an alternative to alcohol. A drop in the tea price in 1784 caused the spike in British tea drinking: between 1801 and 1810, 12,000 tons of tea was drunk annually in Britain. By 1890, that soared to almost 90,000 tons.

All of these affordable luxuries – tea, sugar, coffee, and chocolate – were popularised because innovations in technology and higher yields abroad made it possible for prices to fall at home. What revolutionised the cultivation the crops was the fact that they could be grown successfully all over the world – tea was taken from south-east Asia to east Africa, coffee from Ethiopia to south-east Asia and Brazil, and chocolate from central America to west Africa and south-east Asia – and in vast plantations.

It’s little wonder that colonialism is so closely associated with the production of all of these commodities, and particularly with sugar. Not only were imperial powers, most notably the Dutch, Portuguese, and British, responsible for globalising the cultivation of these crops, but they put slaves to work on tea, coffee, and sugar plantations. The plantation system of farming – in which a single crop is farmed over a vast area – is labour intensive, and European colonisers worked their slaves, literally, to death.

In this way, slave labour allowed for the democratisation of chocolate, sugar, tea, and coffee. This is particularly ironic in the case of coffee. Coffee houses were connected to the rise of modernity in Europe. Anne E.C. McCants explains:

The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; … new arrangements of domestic and public space; [and] the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….

Not only is there a connection between coffee drinking and the Enlightenment and democracy in Europe, but also between coffee, sugar, tea, and chocolate – and capitalism and consumerism. Joyce Appleby writes:

American slave-worked plantations and mechanical wizardry for pumping water, smelting metals, and powering textile factories…may seem unconnected. Certainly we have been loath to link slavery to the contributions of a free enterprise system, but they must be recognised as twin responses to the capitalist genie that had escaped the lamp of tradition during the seventeenth century. Both represented radical departures from previous practices.

Both factories and plantations took a significant capital investment to set up; both produced healthy profits which were reinvested; both relied on plentiful, cheap labour; and both introduced new work routines. Appleby describes sugar as ‘one of capitalism’s first great bonanzas’, arguing that ‘its successes also revealed the power of the profit motive to override any cultural inhibitions to gross exploitation.’

As sugar shaped the capitalist system of the eighteenth century, so it did consumerism. Demand for particular items had driven trade for hundreds of years, but it was only during the eighteenth century that widespread demand from all classes of people, and particularly in Britain where wages tended to be higher, began to fuel capitalist economies:

[A] large body of domestic consumers fuelled England’s commercial expansion and a richly elaborated material culture dependent upon the market. … New attachments to objects, a raging delight in novelties, and the pleasures of urban sociability bespoke a deep engagement with the material world that made spending seem more beneficial to the economy than did parsimony.

As Appleby implies, consumerism links a desire for things with the construction of identities. Sugar, coffee, chocolate, and tea were the first foodstuffs to be transformed into consumer goods. By no means essential to our diets, demand for them was driven by factors other than hunger: people bought them in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because, even though they were cheap, they represented luxury and comfort.

Food has always signified more than simply nutrition, but it’s been implicated in the rise of a consumerist society since the eighteenth century. This means that not only do consumers attach a range of new meanings to the food that we buy – we purchase food not only because we need to eat, but because of how we construct our identities as consumers of goods – but consumer demand drives the production of food. It’s for this reason that efforts to reform eating habits – either to combat lifestyle-related diseases or, indeed, to produce a more sustainable food system – have to deal with the fact that we approach food as consumers operating within a global food system.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Other sources:

K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

E.M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).

Alain Huertz de Lemps, ‘Colonial Beverages and the Consumption of Sugar,’ 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. 383-393.

Kenneth K. Kiple and Virginia Himmelsteib King, Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet, Disease, and Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Sweet, Salt, and the Language of Love,’ MLN, vol. 106, no. 4, French Issue: Cultural Representations of Food (Sep., 1991), pp. 852-860.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 48, no. 2 (April 2009), pp. 283-307.

Marijke van der Veen, ‘When Is Food a Luxury?’ World Archaeology, vol. 34, no. 3, Luxury Foods (Feb., 2003), pp. 405-427.

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

Food Links, 13.07.2011

This is possibly the best blog ever (other than this one, obviously): a guide to historic bars.

Ella McSweeney reports on proposed legislation in Ireland to ban the sale of raw – or unpasteurised – milk.

Ferran and Albert Adrià have opened tapas and cocktail bars in Barcelona: ‘We’ll do the impossible right away. For the miracles we need a little more time.’

This is a fantastic interview with food historian Steven Kaplan on food history.

Some lovely-looking American pie recipes.

Consider the bagel. Or the beigel.

How long can humans survive without food and water?

The Observer Food Monthly takes a look at a decade of eating in Britain – and at the top ten trends in food.

Madhur Jaffrey talks about her career.

The New York Times unpacks the marketing behind ‘functional foods’.

Wow, Georgia O’Keeffe had a taste for utterly revolting cooking.

Exploding watermelons demonstrate particularly well why it’s a generally a good idea to regulate properly what farmers may and may not use to fertilise their crops.