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We could be anywhere

I’ve spent the past fortnight in New York – mainly for a conference at Columbia – and on my last morning had breakfast at a restaurant which could only have been in New York, and, more specifically, in Morningside Heights. The Hungarian Pastry Shop is a shabby, comfortable, and much adored cafe among local residents and Columbia’s students and academics. It serves a range of unbelievably good cakes and pastries, the menu for which is an ancient and faded handwritten banner above the counter. Mothers with small children munch apple strudel alongside workmen in overalls, lecturers with textbooks, and small old ladies with thick foreign accents.

The Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, New York

Founded by immigrants, this could only be called The Hungarian Pastry Shop outside of Hungary. Over the years, it’s been tweaked to satisfy the demands of now elderly mittel-European customers, a group of whom was sitting in the sunshine when I arrived, as well as the undergraduates who spend long hours reading over its big mugs of strong coffee. The Shop has a menu in German and table service, as well as an exterior decorated with murals, a graffiti-covered loo, and posters advertising digs, extra tuition, and auditions for student productions.

Breakfast at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

Over a cherry danish, orange juice, and iced coffee, I considered a comment made by my friend Ester a few weeks ago when we had lunch at a new cafe which has recently opened in Cape Town. Skinny Legs and All (yes, as in the novel by Tom Robbins) in Loop Street serves ‘real food, unadulterated, and unadorned’. We had homemade lemonade, soup, and excellent coffee.

As we were admiring the cafe’s interior, Ester noted perceptively that we could have been anywhere – that we could have found this restaurant and eaten similar food, underpinned by the same values and ideas about cooking, in any other city with a demand for sophisticated good food, be it Melbourne, San Francisco, or London. I think that this is a point worth exploring.

The menu at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

In New York I had coffee and lunch in cafes which I could have described in precisely the same terms. At Bubby’s in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, Tablespoon in the Flatiron District, and the City Bakery off Fifth Avenue I could have been anywhere. Of course, all of these restaurants say a great deal about New York, its gentrification and the role of food and restaurants in this process. The City Bakery was founded in 1990, at a time when the slow regeneration of Manhattan was nearing completion and when enthusiasm for artisan bread (best exemplified by the craze for sourdough in San Francisco) was beginning to peak. Bubby’s and Tablespoon – both of which emphasise the extent to which they source seasonal ingredients locally – ride on the City Bakery’s success. In a similar way, Skinny Legs and All is an indicator of the success of Cape Town’s central city improvement district, and also of the very, very slow emergence of a food-focussed South African green movement.

For all their localism, these restaurants are very similar: they serve similar food, they’re influenced by the same collection of chefs and food writers, their attitude towards cooking is based on an understanding of the value of seasonality, and they are influenced by global fashions in decor. Even the cafe I went to in achingly cool Williamsburg – populated by hipsters who conformed pleasingly to type with oversized sunglasses, topknots (for the girls), v-necked t-shirts (for the boys), and MacBooks – could as easily operate in Cape Town’s Woodstock, or in the trendier parts of east London.

Tablespoon in the Flatiron District

To note this similarity isn’t a criticism – it’s simply to point out that these cafes are local manifestations of a global phenomenon. But not all aspects of globalised eating are seen in such positive terms. Since the 1980s at least, there has been a heightened concern that globalisation is causing diets to become homogenised: that the international popularity of fast food chains, supremely McDonald’s, signals the end of discrete, local food cultures.

The apparent ubiquity of the golden arches seemed to indicate a kind of culinary ‘end of history’: as liberal democracy appeared to triumph with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did the eating habits of the West. The opening of a branch of McDonald’s in Red Square in Moscow in 1990 was the final nail in communism’s coffin. I remember clearly going to eat at one of the first McDonald’s to open in South Africa after the end of the international business boycott. Eating there was as much an affirmation of South Africa’s re-entry into the world as was the country’s participation in the 1992 summer Olympics.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that McDonald’s no longer means these things – which isn’t to suggest that it’s not doing well. A recent article in the Economist predicts that McDonald’s and other budget chains, like Aldi, are set to profit out of a world in recession. However much revelations about the chain’s profoundly unhealthy products and poor environmental and labour practices have dented its apparent invincibility, it is still believed to be part of a broader shift in an international Westernisation of diet. This was confirmed, apparently, by Oxfam’s recent report on the global food crisis, Growing a Better Future, which claims that pasta is the world’s favourite food.

The City Bakery, off Fifth Avenue

But is this anything new? And it is possible for all of us, truly, to eat the same diet? As I wrote a few weeks ago, the survey on which Oxfam bases its report on favourite foods seems to be pretty dubious to me. It’s also worth noting that the success of global brands depends on their ability to ‘localise’ their products. McDonald’s has diversified its menu to appeal to local tastes, with a greater number of vegetarian options in Indian branches, smaller portions in Japan, rice products in Singapore and Taiwan, kebabs in Isreal, and pita bread in Greece. In other words, the success of McDonald’s lies not in the imposition of a foreign brand, but in its ability to make its products at once familiar and enticingly exotic.

Restaurants on the upper end of the scale use precisely the same strategy. Writing about the opening of a branch of Les Halles in Tokyo, Anthony Bourdain describes how he adapted his French bistro cuisine to suit Japanese tastes:

I…scale[d] down the portions and [prettied] up the presentations. …I rearranged plates to resemble smaller versions of what we were doing in New York: going more vertical, applying some new garnishes, and then observing customer reactions. I looked for and found ways to get more colour contrast on the plates, moved the salads off to separate receptacles, stuck sprigs of herb here than there.

At Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre in Dubai, the head chef had to become accustomed to cooking halal meat, which is drained of much of its blood and can’t be aged. Jay Rayner writes:

Then there was local taste. Some ingredients simply didn’t sell. If he brought in pigeon, he told me, they would lie in the fridge for a week, neglected by the customers, until, in desperation, he would turn them into a terrine. ‘And then I would eat the terrine.’ He also found himself serving a lot of meat well done.

On a domestic scale, the middle classes have eaten strikingly similar things all over the world since at least the nineteenth century. The movement of people within the British Empire caused the same dishes and menus to be served up on at last four different continents. When Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss arrived at the Cape from Connecticut in 1873 to establish an elite girls’ school, they were pleased – and relieved – to find that their middle-class Dutch-Afrikaner hosts ate the same meals, and in the same way, as they had done in the United States. Bliss wrote to her mother:

thus far I have seen quite as well regulated families & as much attention paid to ‘propriety’ as in America. … Wherever I have taken a meal there has been a servant in the room to wait on table or one has come at the tap of the bell, & all done so quietly & orderly.

The circulation of recipe books and advice on cookery in newspapers and in private correspondence around the Empire demonstrates the extent to which these diets remained fairly similar. They were, as today, inflected by local tastes and produce. In the Cape, the American teachers commented on the colonial habit of eating ‘yellow rice’ (rice cooked with turmeric and raisins and flavoured with cinnamon and bay) with every meal – something introduced by slaves from southeast Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The City Bakery, New York

In other words, the diets of the wealthy have tended to be fairly globalised since international travel was made easier, and more common, from around the beginning of the nineteenth century. With the invention of the jet engine in the mid-twentieth century and, latterly, the internet, these trends have moved around the world more quickly and we’re also considerably more aware of them. It’s the poor – those whose diets we have an unfortunate tendency to romanticise – who have historically tended to eat a fairly limited range of things.

The difference now is that there are far more middle class people wanting to eat similar diets. Oxfam also notes that the newly-affluent Indian and Chinese middle classes consume more meat and dairy products than ever before. Exactly the same trend occurred in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, but this was a shift on a far smaller scale and in a world where food systems were not as globalised as they are today.

How to find the City Bakery

I think that it’s misleading to suggest that diets are becoming progressively more Western. Rather, particular ingredients – meat and dairy above all – are increasingly popular in societies which, traditionally, have tended to eat more fish, vegetables, and other starches. Our planet simply can’t sustain meat- and dairy-heavy diets. Refocusing our attention to responding to the demand for these foodstuffs would be considerably more effective than simply bemoaning the Westernisation and homogenisation of global diets. This is an argument which not only draws an impossible distinction between ‘bad’ global and ‘good’ local diets, but also ignores a long history of global culinary exchange which has been mitigated by local tastes and preferences.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury, [2000] 2001).

Sarah Emily Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner (London: Headline Review, 2008).

James L. Watson (ed.), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’ Theory and Society 24 (1995), pp. 201-243.

Claude Fischer, ‘The “McDonaldisation” of Culture,’ 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. 530-547.

Brian Harrison, ‘The Kitchen Revolution,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 139-149.

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.

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

Malawian Cornish Pasties

This week, Oxfam released a report on the world’s favourite food. Based on a survey of 16,000 people in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Tanzania, the UK and the USA, it tabulates the top three meals in each of these countries. In South Africa, pasta, pizza, and steak are favourites, while it’s chicken, pizza, and Chinese (whatever that may be) in Guatemala. Pasta rules supreme as the world’s favourite food.

Although fun, I think that the conclusions drawn by the survey, which is part of Oxfam’s Grow campaign, are pretty dubious. I don’t think that the likes and dislikes of sixteen thousand people – of a global population of six billion – count for terribly much. I am very surprised that Oxfam reports that most South Africans list pasta as their favourite food. Pasta isn’t included in the Medical Research Council’s list of the most widely foods consumed in South Africa – the top five of which are maize meal, white sugar, tea, bread, and milk. It seems to me that the people included in this survey were mainly middle-class urban dwellers – precisely the people who would list pizza, pasta, and steak as their favourite food.

But the purpose of the survey, flawed as it may be, is to demonstrate

the spread of Western diets across the world.  Although national dishes are still popular – such as paella in Spain, schnitzel in Germany and biryani in India – pizza and pasta are now the favourite foods of many, with more than half of the countries (nine out of 17) listing one or both in their top three foods.

I doubt that, as Oxfam suggests, all ‘people’s diets are actually changing, with many not eating the same foods as they did just two years ago.’ Diets change slowly over time. It’s more accurate to suggest that food preferences are changing. It’s only the affluent who can afford to change what they eat. As in Western Europe after 1945, the Chinese and Indian middle classes are eating more animal protein than ever before. In South Africa, pasta remains prohibitively expensive for most people – who still base their diets around maize meal.

It’s worth considering how the meanings of particular food stuffs change over time and space. Particular dishes may mean one thing in the region in which they originate and something quite different in the countries to which they are taken by immigrants, fashion, or supermarkets and restaurants. We tend to assume that this ‘globalisation’ of food or taste is a relatively recent and pernicious phenomenon. But it’s far more complicated than that.

In response to last week’s post on cupcakes, feminism, and gentrification, our woman in Bangladesh comments:

I am also thinking about the term ‘gentrification’ in Dhaka‘s context. We have cakeshops here but they didn’t pop up as precursors to gentrification. They tended to set up shop near urban dwellings (lots of birthday cakes to be sold?) and later on they became common near office areas, since cakeshops in Dhaka these days also sell fried chicken and chicken patties (pronounced chicken petis) that office people love to eat, along with pastries (pronounced pess tree). Given that, what does gentrification connote in Dhaka and what are the precursors to it?

Shahpar had noted previously:

I was with Bangladeshi friends while chasing cupcakes. We noted how different cupcakes were in NYC than in Dhaka. Here they are made with the cheapest quality ingredients and sold in roadside shops. No frosting. Just a chunk of cake in marigold yellow, sitting in a greasy pleated paper skirt. We used to get them in our school canteens and kids in Bengali medium schools like the one I went to probably still eat cupcakes. It’s the food to go with roadside tea and is a quick snack for the blue collar workers. Rickshaw wallahs and bus ticket sellers and garment factory workers all eat it. Nothing girly about it.

In Dhaka, cupcakes and cake shops mean very different things than they do in Cape Town. Can you imagine a more heavenly combination than cake and fried chicken?

A cupcake in Dhaka

Cupcakes, cake, and pastries are the, now entirely assimilated, products of the long British presence in Bengal. As I wrote a few weeks ago, colonialism gave rise to imperial cuisines – the fusion of foreign and domesticated cooking – all over the world. It also caused a range of British or European foodstuffs to take on new meanings once exported to the colonies.

Set in Rhodesia in the 1960s, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions (1988) is a bildungsroman which focuses on Tambudzai, a little girl sent from her parents’ impoverished homestead to be educated by her middle-class, town-dwelling aunt and uncle. Upon her arrival at her new home, she has afternoon tea with her aunt, Maiguru:

There was food too, lots of it. Lots of biscuits and cakes and jam sandwiches. Maiguru was offering me the food, but it was difficult to decide what to take because everything looked so appetising. We did not often have cake at home. In fact, I remembered having cake only at Christmas time or at Easter. At those times Babamukuru [her father] brought a great Zambezi slab home with home and cut it up in front of our eager eyes, all the children waiting for him to distribute it. This he did one piece each at a time so that for days on end, long after the confectionery had lost its freshness, we would be enraptured. We would spend many blissful moments picking off and nibbling, first the white coconut and then the pink icing and last the delicious golden cake itself…. Biscuits were as much of a treat as cake, especially when they were dainty, dessert biscuits with cream in the middle or chocolate on top.

For Tambudzai, cheap cake and biscuits were part of annual celebrations. But for her wealthier, well educated aunt who had lived abroad, afternoon tea is indicative of her sophisticated, middle-class status. It’s also a marker of her assimilation of ‘western’ (or ‘civilised’) values and patterns of living.

One of the most striking features of the diets of British officials and expats living in southern Africa and southeast Asia during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries was their rigid adherence to the menus and diets of ‘Home’. In publications like the Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Guide, readers were urged not to go native. Eating roast beef, porridge, custard, and dumplings was a way of demonstrating civilised, European status. Local cooks were taught how to cook British staples. In White Mischief James Fox describes the eating habits of Kenya’s aristocratic expats during the 1930s:

The astonishing African talent for cooking European food, in particular hot English puddings, provided undreamed-of comfort. For their part, the Africans were astonished at the number of meals required by Europeans every day, and the quantity of food consumed. Europeans seemed always to be eating.

These attitudes towards food persisted even as – or possibly because – imperial rule came to an end in Africa in the 1960s. My father was a little boy in Olifantsfontein – then a mining village between Johannesburg and Pretoria – during this period. His mother, whose interest in food, cooking, and eating was minimal, employed a Malawian cook to take care of the kitchen.  The strange set of cultural and racist prejudices of the time decreed that Malawians were particularly good cooks. Luckily for my grandmother, Frank Nyama conformed to stereotype. (In a pleasing coincidence, ‘nyama’ means meat in Swahili.)

For my father and his friends in the village, Nyama achieved minor celebrity status on the grounds that his brother had been eaten by a crocodile. (A pointless way to go, as Dad notes.) He cooked the ‘British’ food demanded by my grandparents. In fact, the Cornish pasties that we make at home are from his recipe. Yes, Cornish pasties – from Cornwall – made from a recipe written by a Malawian chef. And they’re fantastic – they’re as good as the (excellent) pasty I ate in Cornwall. Nyama cooked local dishes for himself, sharing them occasionally with Dad and his brothers. For my grandparents, Cornish pasties and other ‘European’ food was the cooking of civilisation, of ‘whiteness’, and of cultural superiority. To eat Nyama’s regional faire would have been, in their view, to admit a kind of racial defeat.

The point is that food has been globalised for as long as human beings have travelled around the world. It has been used to bolster and construct colonial, local, and foreign identities, and as a result of this, the meanings which we attach to particular dishes and food stuffs have changed over time. There is nothing inherently wrong with the globalisation of food. Food is adapted to suit local tastes and to fit into existing attitudes towards cooking and eating.

The change in contemporary diets and food preferences identified by Oxfam is not, then, anything new. I think it’s worth remembering this as we rethink the ways in which we grow and consume food: that there’s no mythical and ‘authentic’ regional food past for us to return to, and that there’s very little point in stopping people from borrowing cuisines and tastes from other countries.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: The Women’s Press, [1988] 2001).

James Fox, White Mischief (London: Vintage: [1982] 1988).

The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide, seventh ed. (Nairobi: Church of Scotland Women’s Guild, no date).

Other sources:

Janet M. Bujra, ‘Men at Work in the Tanzanian Home: How Did They Ever Learn?’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Timothy Burke, ‘“Fork Up and Smile”: Marketing, Colonial Knowledge and the Female Subject in Zimbabwe,’ in Gendered Colonialisms in African History, eds. Nancy Rose Hunt, Tessie P Liu, and Jean Quataert (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

Helen Callaway, Gender, Culture and Empire: European Women in the Colonial Nigeria (London: Macmillan, 1987).

Jean and John L. Comaroff, ‘Home-Made Hegemony: Modernity, Domesticity, and Colonialism in South Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

LeRay Denzer, ‘Domestic Science Training in Colonial Yorubaland, Nigeria,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Elizabeth Schmidt, ‘Race, Sex, and Domestic Labour: The Question of African Female Servants in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1939,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Karen Tranberg Hansen, ‘White Women in a Changing World: Employment, Voluntary Work, and Sex in Post-World War II Northern Rhodesia,’ in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, eds. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

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

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It even adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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