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Dude Food

A couple of weeks ago Tamar Adler, former chef and editor of Harper’s Magazine, wrote an article for the New Yorker in which she politely and neatly eviscerates Anthony Bourdain for leaving ‘a crude hickey’ on America’s ‘food culture’. Although he is probably now better known – at least in the US – for his food-and-travel television series, Bourdain rose to fame, or notoriety, for his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000).

It is a deeply entertaining, amusing, and often instructive guide to the strange world of restaurants and professional cooking. It explores the ‘personal and institutional perversity that runs fast through the veins of restaurants’. Bourdain details the astonishingly crude language and behaviour of badly paid, sleep deprived chefs in the hot, tiny restaurant kitchens he worked in and, later, oversaw. But it is also an excellent introduction to the mechanics and the politics of how kitchens function.

Although Bourdain and his crew do some pretty repellent things, all this is balanced by the fact that, as Adler notes, Bourdain does ‘not prescribe that life, or condone it.’ Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to kitchens which don’t run the risk of collapsing into anarchy and violence if the chef for one moment ceases swearing at the staff. He admits:

It is no coincidence that all my kitchens over time come to resemble one another and are reminiscent of the kitchens I grew up in: noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone – an effective kitchen, but a family affair, and a dysfunctional one, at that. I coddle my hooligans when I’m not bullying them. I’m visibly charmed by their extra-curricular excesses and their anti-social tendencies. My love for chaos, conspiracy and the dark side of human nature colours the behaviour of my charges, most of whom are already living near the fringes of acceptable conduct.

He adds:

Not all kitchens are the press-gang-crewed pressure cookers I’m used to. There are islands of reason and calm, where the pace is steady, where quality always takes precedence over the demands of volume, and where it’s not always about dick dick dick.

And that is the issue with Bourdain’s description of the food world: it is overwhelmingly, completely male. The women chefs whom he respects are those who are ‘tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed, trash-talking’ – the ones who go out of their way to fit in to ‘the testosterone-heavy’ world of restaurant kitchens. But, at least in Kitchen Confidential, he acknowledges that there are kitchens where women aren’t expected to put up with being groped, or with their colleagues festooning their stations with pornography. Visiting Scott Bryan’s restaurant Veritas he notices

A tiny young woman working at a corner station, and I made the immediate Neanderthal assumption as I first took in the crew: ‘Extern, maybe from Peter Krump or French Culinary, having a learning experience dishing out veggies.’ I passed right over her as I swept my eyes down the line looking for the heavy hitters. In time I began, peripherally, to become aware of her movements. I looked again, closer this time, and saw that she was plating fish, cooking risotto, emulsifying sauces, taking on three, then four, then five orders at a time – all the whole never changing expression or showing any visible signs of frustration or exasperation (as I would have under similar circumstances).

She was, in other words, ‘generally holding down her end like an ass-kicking, name-taking mercenary of the old school, only cleaner and better.’ It turned out that she’d been trained by Alain Ducasse.

The problem is that Bourdain loses much of this self-reflection in his later books and series. As he became better known ‘he confused what he’d written about once with the world itself.’ Adler explains:

What Anthony Bourdain does is to bathe everything, even if it’s naturally quiet and normal, in brutishness. It is the difference between not pulling punches and indiscriminately punching. Bourdain now travels round the world, with a camera crew trailing, to eat food in other countries. On his stops at noodle shops, he turns his anxious libido on his bowl of food: ‘Take me to that place where everything is beautiful.’ ‘This is fucking driving me out of my mind. I’m fucking quivering with desire here.’ ‘I would jerk a rusty butter knife over my best friend’s throat just for this,’ he says to the camera while waiting for soup. ‘Come to papa,’ he wheedles.

His relationship with – and views on – food have become centred around his masculinity:

He has managed to insert, through performance of the great feat of eating Vietnamese or Tunisian or Parisian food, the neurotic notion that eating is best understood as a competition or conquest – man versus food. Why choose to merely ingest, he asks, when you can vanquish?

Although I agree with Adler’s point that it’s a pity that he feels the need to dress up his opinions on food in a kind of gung-ho machismo because much of what he says is worth listening to, it was time that someone called out Bourdain for his casual sexism. Bourdain seems to insist that good cooking can only be produced by kitchens overseen by obsessive, potentially murderous alpha males caught up in a kind of adolescent, On the Road-like existential struggle with the meaning of existence. Women – unless they behave like men – are to be viewed with suspicion, as is the food which he associates with them:

Few chefs can really and truly bake. Most chefs, like me, harbour deep suspicions of their precise, overly fussy, somehow feminine, presentation-obsessed counterparts in the pastry section. All that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy, delicate stuff. Pastry, where everything must be carefully measured in exact measurements – and made the same way every single time – is diametically opposed to what most chefs live and breathe, the freedom to improvise, to throw a little of this and a little of that any damn place they want.

It’s no coincidence that most pastry chefs are women. Bourdain implies that pastry, like women, is difficult, too sweet, boring, and unimaginative: real chefs are men – wild, creative genuises – who cook ‘Flintsone-sized lengths of veal shank,’ understand the value of bones, and who carry long, sharp knives.

For an industry with a reputation for not dealing adequately with charges of ingrained discrimination against women, Bourdain’s attitudes towards food and cooking certainly don’t help. But it’s worth noting that for all the excitement that surrounded the publication of Kitchen Confidential – when it was hailed as a fresh and unconventional take on America’s restaurant world, which it was, to some extent – Bourdain’s views on the relationship between masculinity and food are neither particularly new, nor limited to himself.

There has long been an association between meat-eating and manliness. Until the late eighteenth century, when eating in moderation and a slim physique were connected, increasingly, with the ideal Enlightenment male, a healthy appetite for wine and meat indicated strength and vitality. In England, a taste for roast beef was, as Roy Porter notes, linked to a patriotism which associated roast meat with English vigour and virility. Even a century later, Victorians argued that men’s strong, machine-like bodies needed meaty fuel in order to function efficiently.

Men, in other words, needed to eat ‘man food’ – spicy, strong-flavoured, and rich in protein. This was taken to a logical – or an illogical, depending on your point of view – extreme by the Italian Futurists and Mussolini-enthusiasts FT Marinetti and Luigi Colombo in their 1930 Manifesto of Futurist Cooking. Of course, the document is completely mad – like just about everything Marinetti did – but it’s a useful window on to the ways in which fascists of the 1930s understood gender. As the Italian state recast women as mothers – and only mothers – of the nation, so men were urged to become its warrior-protectors.

Marinetti and Colombo write:

We also feel that we must stop the Italian male from becoming a solid leaden block of blind and opaque density. … Let us make our Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminium trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood iron steel.

Italians should do this, they argue, by giving up pasta:

A highly intelligent Neapolitan Professor, Signorelli, writes: ‘In contrast to bread and rice, pasta is a food which is swallowed, not masticated. Such starchy food should mainly be digested in the mouth by the saliva but in this case the task of transformation is carried out by the pancreas and the liver. This leads to an interrupted equilibrium in these organs. From such disturbances derive lassitude, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity and neutralism.’

They suggest that rice take the place of pasta. But this is only the first of several ideas for the remaking of food for a faster, more efficient future. Their most significant point was that science should ‘take on the task of providing the body with its necessary calories through equivalent nutrients provided free by the State, in powder or pills, albumoid compounds, synthetic fats and vitamins.’ Not only would this make Italians better-fuelled and more efficient workers, but it would reduce the amount of food they ate.

Those few meals which they would then eat would be, as they write, ‘perfect’. Given the role of Italian women in feeding their families, what Marinetti and Colombo advocate is a kind of man-made food: the dishes they describe for their ‘perfect meals’ – like the Woodcock Mount Rose with Venus sauce – are invented by chefs.

Although their remaining ideas are increasingly ludicrous – ‘The rapid presentation, between courses, under the eyes and nostrils of the guests, of some dishes they will eat and others they will not, to increase their curiosity, surprise and imagination’ and ‘The creation of simultaneous and changing canapés which contain ten, twenty flavours to be tasted in a few seconds’ – their association of ‘perfect’ cooking with men, and homely, everyday cooking with women, was – and is – hardly unusual.

A great deal has been written about the irony that while most of the world’s ‘top chefs’ – whatever we may mean by that – are male, the overwhelming majority of people who cook to feed their families are female. I think that this distinction is something of an oversimplification: while it is certainly true that the most Michelin-starry chefs are still male, this is changing, albeit slowly. More importantly, the chefs and cooks who have had the greatest impact on the way we all cook in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have, arguably, been women: Constance Spry, Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith, and Madhur Jaffrey in Britain; Julia Child and Martha Stewart in the US; Nitza Villapol in Cuba; Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer in Australia; and Ina Paarman, Ina de Villiers, and Lynn Bedford Hall in South Africa.

Moreover, there has been a recent and relatively widespread decrease in tolerance for the antics of bullying, super-macho male chefs. Gordon Ramsay’s spectacular fall from grace – the collapse of his business empire, the decline in quality of his restaurants – is a particularly good example of this. Adler’s take-down of Bourdain is part of this trend – and it’s particularly telling that Bourdain devotes his highest praise to Ramsay (‘England’s greatest chef’) in A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), excusing and celebrating Ramsay’s reputation as a bully on the grounds of gender:

He’s doing what everyone told him growing up that only women should do. … You better have balls the size of jack-fruits if you want to cook at a high level, where an acute sense for flavour and design, as much as brutality and vigilance, is a virtue. And be fully prepared to bulldoze any miserable cocksucker who gets in your way.

This kind of macho chest-beating now feels distinctly passe. The male celebrity chefs of the late 2000s and early 2010s are an altogther nicer, kinder group of chaps: from earth-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and home-cooking dad Jamie Oliver, to shambling Valentine Warner and lovely Nigel Slater. We have cerebral, thoughtful Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal.

I’m not absolutely sure what this shift in public taste suggests – and it’s certainly part of a wider, cultural change, which has seen Ryan Gosling and James Franco replace Sylvester Stallone and Steven Segal as male icons. It’s also occurred at the same time as the emergence of a food trend which can only really be described as ‘dude food’ – food made to appeal to men. Craft beer, the wild enthusiasm for bacon, even the recent rediscovery of the burger, are, I think, driven partly by a belief – held by magazine editors, television producers, and some food writers – that food needs to be made ‘manly’ to appeal to men. Tellingly, most of this is pretty meaty food.

What I find so interesting about dude food is that it’s directed at a generation of young men – my contemporaries and younger – for whom cooking is not necessarily seen as being, as Bourdain noted earlier, something that only women do. Unless I have the good fortune only to have dated, and to be friends with, peculiarly enlightened men, it seems to me that Generation Y men don’t seem to feel that cooking and baking undermine their masculinity. After all, not only were all three finalists on the last series of Great British Bake Off men, but two of them were fairly young. So is dude food a kind of ironic embrace of the manly, meaty food associated with being male since, at least, the seventeenth century – much in the same way that contemporary feminists have reclaimed baking and, crucially, the cupcake – or is it something else altogether? Either way, I can’t imagine that Marinetti would be all that pleased.

Sources

Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury 2000).

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

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

National Kitchens

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my parents gave me a copy of the new revised English edition of that Bible of Afrikaans cooking, Cook and Enjoy. It’s testimony to the ubiquity of the book that I find myself referring to it by its Afrikaans title Kook en Geniet, rather than its English name.

Kook en Geniet is the Afrikaans Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Published as a guide to housekeeping and cooking for young brides in 1951 by Ina de Villiers, a Stellenbosch-based home economist, it has never been out of print. There are very few Afrikaans households which do not possess at least one copy of the book – and, like Mrs Beeton, its success lies partly in the fact that it is regularly updated.

De Villiers herself was responsible for testing and re-testing recipes, and for producing new editions of Kook en Geniet. Her long-standing association with the book helped Kook en Geniet to gain its reputation for being a fail-proof authority on Afrikaans cooking. Since her death in 2010, her daughter, Eunice van der Berg, who also happens to be a home economist, has taken over responsibility for it.

There is no single version of Kook en Geniet. Each edition retains a core of essential recipes, but methods and ingredients change as new products appear. Dishes are added and, less frequently, subtracted as culinary fashions evolve. De Villiers wrote in the preface to the 1992 edition:

As the microwave oven and food processor have become nearly indispensable in many kitchens today, their use is indicated in a number of recipes. However, experienced cooks will be able to use these timesavers for almost any recipe – it is left to their discretion.

My edition contains recipes for moussaka and lasagne. But it’s not for these that I use Kook en Geniet: it’s for staples of Afrikaans cuisine, like buttermilk rusks, Hertzoggies, quince chutney, vinegar pudding, and prickly pear jam. It’s a supremely practical recipe book. Helping out at the pancake stall which seems to accompany every major event – from agricultural shows to local government elections – in small town life? There’s a recipe to make enough batter for a hundred pancakes. Need to make bobotie for fifty at the church fete? Serving sosaties to eighty people at a barbeque? Kook en Geniet will come to the rescue with sensible, authoritative advice.

For anthropologists and historians interested in food, the value of Kook en Geniet lies in the fact that it changed as tastes evolved. It does not present readers with a static, inflexible view of ‘Afrikaner cuisine’. It acknowledges – tacitly – that cooking alters over time.

It’s not, though, the only source on what I’ve called Afrikaans or Afrikaner cuisine – more frequently referred to as boerekos, which translates literally as ‘farmers’ food’, but signifies considerably more than that. Boerekos is the homely, comfort cooking associated particularly with rural Afrikaans living. A wildly popular new series on the Afrikaans cable channel Kyknet, titled simply Boerekos, interviews a collection of Afrikaans women cooking their favourite, old-fashioned boerekos, from mosbolletjies to pie.

Programmes like this one, as well as other books on boerekos, seek to frame it as an unchanging cuisine: as a form of cooking which has remained reassuringly the same during a century of tumultuous change. For Afrikaner nationalists before and during apartheid, food was a useful way of forging a new, unified and distinct Afrikaner identity. As they codified and regularised Afrikaans, so they sought to create a unique Afrikaner cuisine.

C. Louis Leipoldt, culture broker, poet, journalist, doctor, Buddhist, and eugenicist, filled several journals with recipes he collected from friends, acquaintances, and people whom he came across while working during the 1920s and 1930s. (These are now held by the National Library in Cape Town.) He wrote about these recipes and rural cooking for Die Huisgenoot, a popular magazine with a distinct enthusiasm for nationalism, between 1942 and 1947. In 1933, at the height of the Afrikaner nationalist revival, he published Kos vie die Kenner (Food for the Expert), a collection of a more than a thousand recipes. Polfyntjies vir die Proe, Three Hundred Years of Cape Wine, and Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery appeared posthumously.

One of the ironies of boerekos is that so much of it is derived from the cooking of the slaves who were transported to the Cape from southeast Asia during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The sambals, atchars, and chutneys of Afrikaner cooking are a particularly obvious debt to the food traditions imported to South Africa from present-day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although Leipoldt, an unusually thoughtful nationalist, acknowledge that many of the recipes he found were cooked and invented by ‘Malay’ women – a term which he used to describe the largely Muslim and Afrikaans-speaking descendants of slaves who lived in the Cape –their presence gradually disappeared in other, later boerekos recipe books.

There is no neat boundary between Afrikaner cuisine and what most South Africans dub ‘Cape Malay’ cooking: there are recipes for bredie (mutton stew), bobotie, and sosaties (kebabs) in both boerekos and Malay recipe books. But in order to use food to construct distinct, discrete national or group identities, the differences between these two cuisines had to be emphasised over their similarities.

Nationalisms have long co-opted food and cooking to construct national identities. Leipoldt’s recipe books are the first in an extensive literature which seeks – both overtly and inadvertently – to construct an Afrikaner cuisine. It’s telling that the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging (Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation), once strongly allied to the National Party but now a society which works towards the promotion of Afrikaans as a language, bestowed Ina de Villiers with its Afrikoon prize in 2010 for furthering the cause of Afrikaans.

But minority groups use food and recipes in similar ways – to construct, maintain, and assert identities, often in the face of discrimination and social and political marginalisation. Cass Abrahams as well as other Cape-based women have created a rich literature on ‘Cape Malay’ cooking, often basing their writing on recipes collected from, and donated by, local women. These are as much social histories as they are cookery books.

Similarly, one of my favourite South African recipe books, Indian Delights, was compiled by a community organisation, the Women’s Culture Group in Durban. First published in 1961, the book has been revised several times. My mother’s copy – which I covet – is the 1982 ‘Enlarged Super Edition.’ As the editor, Zuleikha Mayat, writes in the introduction, the recipes were

mostly passed on to me by persons ranging from ordinary housewives to the super cooks who abound in our community. This is why Indian Delights remains – as it has always been – a representation of the collective culinary knowledge of our Community.

The book is as much an assertion of a distinct form of South African Indian cooking as it is a record of how a group of women cooked for their families in Natal during the second half of the twentieth century. But it is also an attempt to preserve a culinary tradition at risk of being forgotten as family life changed:

Twenty years ago when Indian Delights was first published, I had stated that the cookery book as such was something foreign to Indian women; that each dish was taught down the generations till daughters became as proficient as their mothers; but that the need of a reliable cookery book was beginning to be felt since daughters were spending more time with studies and acquiring careers.

As a result of this ‘a good reliable cookery book has become essential’.

It’s partly because of this extensive collection of recipe books – from Indian Delights to Kook en Geniet – that it’s particularly obvious that there is no, single homogenous South African cuisine. One of the best collections of South African recipes, African Salad demonstrates this particularly well: it’s a series of photographs and short interviews with of a more-or-less random selection of South Africans on their favourite meals. The recipes are as varied as the interviewees.

I’ve been struck while watching the South African version of the MasterChef franchise by the absence of references to the African cuisines of South Africa. During one episode in which the contestants were required to barbeque, one (black) Twitter user commented jokingly that the black contestants would struggle because they would prefer over- rather than underdone meat.

So far the dominant cuisine (the meta-cuisine?) of the show has been broadly western. It is this which is most closely associated with ‘fine dining’ (hateful phrase). Indeed, I was annoyed when a black contestant was criticised for cooking a steak too well: a liking for pink, lightly cooked meat is both a relatively recent phenomenon and culturally specific. Why should someone be penalised if she has cooked meat according to the dictates of another cuisine?

A couple of contestants have cooked African dishes and I’ve watched those with the most curiosity: as a white South African raised in the Western Cape, I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of Afrikaans and Malay cooking, but African cuisine still eludes me. I know of certain dishes and have seen sheep heads and walkie talkies (chicken heads and feet) being sold, but this is as far as my knowledge goes.

I know that there probably isn’t a single ‘African cuisine’ or African culinary tradition in South Africa – that it must differ between regions and has changed over time. There are, to my knowledge, no substantial recipe books dedicated to this country’s African cuisines – although do please feel free to enlighten me if there are.

With the current wave of enthusiasm for local producers, it’s striking that the various markets which have sprung up around South Africa have tended to model themselves on a foreign – mainly European – model. They are Borough Markets in miniature. These new ingredients – these cheeses, sausages, and free-range duck and chicken – are sold to be used in cassoulet, poule au pot, and arrosto di maiale al latte. We use local products for overseas cuisines.

I’m not some mad nationalist loon who advocates that we only eat local cuisines, but as South African society changes during the early twenty-first century – as urbanisation increases and as our middle class expands – we are, as in the case of any rapidly evolving society, in danger of losing a lot of culinary knowledge. This is a pity: not only do food and cooking provide useful ways of understanding how societies function, but it also strikes me as deeply strange that the white, middle-class customers of the Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town know more about the cooking of northern Italy than they do of the Eastern Cape. Or Langa, which is right next door.

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

Food Links, 21.09.2011

Cooking may be 1.9 million years old.

On the north/south divide on ensuring food security.

The remarkable rise of Greek yogurt sales in the United States.

On ‘flexitarianism‘ and an apparent global decline in meat sales.

Glamour Magazine promotes healthy eating by teaming up with…Krispy Kreme to sell…Glamour-flavoured doughnuts during London Fashion Week. Words fail.

Fast food chains attempt ‘gourmet‘ options on their menus. And in a blind taste test, Pizza Express trumps Domino’s top-end offerings. Hurrah! (I LOVE Pizza Express.)

Lyons teashops and the invention of the world’s first business computer.

Food adventures at the Indiana State Fair. There’s deep-fried kool-aid. Yup.

Eating insects to save the planet. (Thanks Milli!)

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall waxes lyrical on the joys of eating less meat.

A diet book for little girls. Really?

Tee hee: Another Damned Food Blog.

Human Rights Watch reports dismal condition on South Africa’s wine farms – which, if you’ve ever visited one, shouldn’t be hugely surprising news.

You need to know more about Doom Cakes: see here and here. (Thanks, Dudley.)

Mycitycuisine.org collects recipes for and guides to local cuisines all over the world.

Happy animals make tastier meat.

Food Links, 06.07.2011

Gordon Conway considers the global food crisis.

The Guardian lists the ten best literary picnics.

Although hugely successful, organic farming faces a range of challenges in India – despite the growing  evidence that organic farming can feed the world.

On Thomas Jefferson, food, and slavery.

How can cruelty to animals in American factory farms be prevented?

Border conflicts – between Isreal and Palestine, Mexico and the United States – are made worse by competition over water and food insecurity.

Behold Coralie Bickford-Smith’s beautiful covers for Penguin’s Great Food series.

One third of the world’s food is wasted.

‘Sponge cakes for all!’ Is baking a feminist act?

Why do Americans insist upon not using scales to measure ingredients when cooking?

Is Baking Feminist?

Life in post-1994 South Africa can be very strange. Yesterday morning my friend Ester and I went to the National Gallery’s retrospective on…Tretchikoff. Yes, apartheid South Africa’s favourite producer of kitsch, bad, and, occasionally, bizarre artwork has earned himself a serious exhibition and re-evaluation. As far as I can see, his sole redeeming feature was his consistency: Vladimir Tretchikoff was never mediocre, but always uniformly, consistently, bad.

But on our way into the Gallery, we came across Cape Town’s first experiment in yarn bombing. This is a form of graffiti or street art where knitting and other needlework is used to decorate public spaces. Statues get scarves; railings are covered in woolly tubes; and trees are festooned with crafty baubles.

A yarn-bombed lamp in Hay-on-Wye

Yarn bombing is now a global phenomenon, and it’s part of a broader craft movement which seeks to celebrate, promote, and often re-learn hobbies like knitting, crotchet, and tatting. Stitch and Bitch societies – founded originally in the United States – can be found now in nearly every major city, and knitting is particularly hip. Much of this is given a feminist spin. It’s an attempt to reclaim activities once derided as unimportant because they were performed largely by women. Some craftivists make the – legitimate – point that suffragettes used embroidery, tapestry, and quilting to create banners and to raise funds for their cause.

Baking has undergone a similar transformation. At the Hay Festival a fortnight ago, Nigella Lawson argued:

Baking is the less applauded of the cooking arts, whereas restaurants are a male province to be celebrated. There’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female.

I agree.

She added that How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000), the recipe book which kick started both her career and the British enthusiasm for cupcakes, is an ‘important feminist tract’. Now if this is the case – and I write this as one whose copy is scuffed, stained, and torn from extensive use – then I am a three-toed sloth. But her point that baking is seen as a particularly feminine, and, as a result of this, frivolous, pursuit is worth considering.  In fact, professional cake-baking seems to be dominated by women: most pastry chefs are female. Restaurant cooking and bread baking are largely a male preserve, and are seen as more serious, complex, and creative activities.

The yarn-bombed National Gallery in Cape Town

But feminists are not the first women to celebrate baking and home cooking as part of the construction of particular femininities. However much money suffragettes may have raised with their needlework, even larger numbers of women organised tea parties and sold cakes, cookies, and delicately embroidered goods at fetes and bazaars to support missionary work and other more conservative causes. In 1881, the Huguenot Seminary, an elite girls’ school near Cape Town in the Cape Colony, organised a bazaar selling cake and embroidery and raised enough to fund a year’s rent and living expenses for a woman missionary working on a Dutch Reformed mission station in the Transvaal.

Baking has been used by different women at different times to mean many things. What is so interesting about the recent rediscovery of baking (and knitting too, for that matter) is that it’s been embraced enthusiastically by young, educated, middle-class women. I think that this is the product of a variety of factors: the impact of a resurgent green movement and the global economic recession have encouraged a rediscovery of craft and cooking both to save money and to reduce our impact on the environment; young fashion designers and cooks’ interest in knitting and baking have made these fashionable pursuits and rendered ‘make-do-and-mend’ cool; the impact of television series like Mad Men have prompted a (hopefully ironic) re-embrace of domesticity; and this is also a reaction to the feminism of the 1970s which rejected traditionally feminine pursuits because of their connection to women’s subordination.

And here is a crucial point: middle-class women now have no need to bake or to knit. These are leisure activities, to be done in the evenings and over weekends. We forget that until relatively recently in the West, most women baked and sewed not out of choice, but because they had to: because shop-bought cakes and clothes were expensive. One of my maternal great-grandmothers was a seamstress because that was deemed to be an appropriate trade for a white, lower middle-class adolescent in pre-War Cape Town. But my very bourgeois paternal grandmother employed a cook, nanny, and maidservant to do her domestic work for her – as indeed her mother had done too.

I don’t know what my great grandmother would have made of yarn bombing, nor of the slow gentrification of the Cape Town suburb in which she lived for most of her life. Woodstock, recently dubbed ‘Cape Town’s Manhattan’ by the New York Times, is being gradually transformed into a hip, middle-class enclave. And baking is an aspect of this transformation.

This map drawn by UC Berkeley student Danya Al-Saleh plots the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District through bakeries. (See here for a bigger version.)

She’s not the first to do this. 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.’ This is certainly true for Cape Town. The very traumatic gentrification of parts of the Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter – where families were forced to move out of houses which they had rented for generations – was signalled by the arrival of upscale bakeries. In Woodstock, where  gentrification seems to be proceeding at a slower pace and without the fracturing of existing communities, bakeries and cafes have begun to appear along the main road and near the Neighbourgoods Market, that ultimate expression of Capetonian cool.

In the city’s eastern precinct – the district which stretches from Parliament at the top of Roeland Street and all the way to the Cape Archives – people have been lured out of their cars and onto pavements first by Charly’s Bakery, and then by Mugged on Roeland Street (ho ho), and the coffee- and cupcake-selling Book Lounge. When I first started working at the Archives in 2005 for my MA thesis, the furthest I would go for lunch was to dash across the parking lot to a slightly dodgy sandwich shop. I returned in 2008 while researching my PhD, and could choose between at least five different places to eat – and felt safe to walk to all them.

As one commentator notes, it’s because cupcakes and cake shops are fashionable at the moment that we can use them as an indicator of gentrification:

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.

The point remains that cupcakes have been embraced with enthusiasm by middle-class women and have been implicated in the creation of contemporary middle class femininities. Activities once performed by women out of necessity have been transformed into hobbies – and because of middle-class buying power, cake shops and cupcake bakeries are now involved in the gentrification of poor, often crime-ridden neighbourhoods.

More yarn bombing at the National Gallery in Cape Town

I am not suggesting, to paraphrase Cyril Connolly on George Orwell, that I can’t eat a cupcake without commenting on the appalling working conditions in the icing sugar industry. I understand how fraught and disruptive processes of gentrification can be, but I really enjoy being able to walk down main road Woodstock to buy coffee and cake at The Kitchen. And I think that it’s fantastic that so many cake shops and cafes are run by women, and I’m so pleased that the craft movement is reviving and remembering skills which were at risk of being forgotten.

But I do think we need some perspective. Our enthusiasm for cupcakes and cakes is helping to fuel gentrification of poor neighbourhoods – and we need to think carefully about the implications of this. As my friend Shahpar pointed out a few weeks ago, cupcakes are snack food for Dhaka’s busy street vendors. In other words, cakes and baking mean different things all over the world. Cakes, cupcakes, and baking can only be associated with feminism for white, affluent middle-class women. Baking a tray of cupcakes may be a subversive, feminist act for me, but it’s a well nigh impossible one for a woman living in Gugulethu.

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