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Posts tagged ‘hipsters’

Ironically

I spent much of my time in Ann Arbor in coffee shops, writing. Having conquered my guilt at working in cafes, occupying space which could be filled by more paying customers (truly, a Calvinist education never really leaves you), I embraced America, the land of the free Wifi. One of my favourite places for working was Mighty Good Coffee, a relatively new shop and café on North Main Street—about a three minute walk on the diagonal from Kerrytown—which is bright and airy and friendly, with lovely coffee and a fridge full of yoghurt.

It also sells artisanal toast. Curious, I tried first a slice of ten seed loaf (good), and then returned with friends and ordered sourdough with cherry jam (very good indeed). But what sets artisanal toast apart from ordinary toast? Was it made by elves, as a friend asked acerbically on Facebook? As far as I could see, this was particularly nice bread, toasted in a fairly fancy toaster, served with rather special butter and jam. But for slightly more than $3.

My—and, I think, other people’s—interest in Ann Arbor’s first (possibly?) instance of artisanal toast was piqued by an article published by the Pacific Standard early last year. In it, John Gravois traces the origins of the artisan toast vogue to San Francisco and the Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club and, more specifically, to its owner, Giulietta Carrelli. The café is, as she comments, her way of coping with bouts of recurring mental illness: it provides structure, stability, and a support network, and it serves food which comforts. Gravois explains: ‘She put toast on the menu because it reminded her of home: “I had lived so long with no comfort,” she says.’

What could easily have been a story about hipsters selling the most ordinary of ordinary breakfast foods for outrageous sums of money becomes, then, a quite moving account of a young woman’s strategies for dealing with, at times, debilitating episodes of mania and psychosis. But, as Gravois notes, her decision to include toast on Trouble’s—otherwise eccentric—menu was picked up by other, more typically hipster San Francisco cafes where artisanal toast became another marker—alongside drip coffee, beards, lumberjack shirts—of hipsterdom.

Artisanal toast: ten seed loaf, blueberry jam.

Artisanal toast: ten seed loaf, cherry jam.

At the same time as I tried Mighty Good’s toast, commentators were outraged by the latest artisanal craze: ice. Large, dense, clear cubes of ice for artisanal cocktails—mixed with homemade or small batch bitters, liqueurs, and sodas—which fit better into glasses and melt more slowly. But, as Mother Jones reported, manufacturing, transporting, and storing artisanal ice is hugely energy inefficient. It is done at some cost to the environment.

In these terms, ‘artisanal’ means handmade and small scale—it means paying attention to the production of otherwise mass-produced or mundane items like toast or ice or bread or beer or crisps. There is something innately ridiculous in elevating toasted bread to the status of cult object. The enthusiasm for the artisanal is, to be kind, an attempt to reclaim the ‘authentic’ (whatever that may be) in the face of a wholly industrialised food chain, and, to be less kind, as much of a fashion as brogues, topknots, and foraging.

It’s useful to use artisanal toast—for instance—to explore what we understand by irony. Hipsters are accused routinely—and I used ‘accuse’ deliberately—of dressing, eating, reading, thinking, and of being ironically. In an essay for the New York Times, the philosopher and literary scholar Christy Wampole writes:

Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.

Hipsters’ knowing adoption of the unfashionable, old-fashioned, and the obscure is, she argues, a form of irony: this is an appropriation of a set of markers but no real commitment to what they signify.

I would tend to disagree with Wampole—on this point and her broader argument about living without irony (and her confusion of hipster and millennial)—because I’m not entirely sure that irony is the defining characteristic of hipsterdom. The embrace of the artisanal, hipsters’ enthusiasm for recovering forgotten recipes and fashions, their opposition to the corporate and the mass produced (generally—some brands like Apple seem to be immune to this), and even the strain of literary seriousness which runs through some iterations of hipsterdom, seem to me to denote seriousness, even earnestness. Occasionally, this tips into twee, as Judy Berman observes:

twee is anti-greed and suspicious of an adult world that revolves around avarice. More importantly, twee is aware of humanity’s capacity for violence and evil, but chooses to be optimistic about human nature nonetheless. This could be a progressive stance—one that not only believes we’re capable of improvement but works toward it. In practice, though, twee politics too often prescribe escapism and isolation, allowing the privileged to respond to crises both global and personal by sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling, ‘Na na na, can’t hear you!’

If being a hipster was predicated only on irony—on not taking any of this seriously—then it would be difficult to establish cafes, shops, literary journals, and other enterprises dedicated to the small scale, the cool, and the exclusive. In fact, what much of the writing on hipsterdom misses is that it is precisely this: exclusive. It is a subculture of the (upper) middle classes. For all the fact that young hipsters have colonised historically poor parts of cities, being a hipster is expensive. Organic vegetable boxes, iPhones, copies of n+1, and fixed gear bicycles aren’t cheap.

Much of hipsters’ political and social cluelessness stems from their position of privilege. And here it’s worth thinking more about hipsters’ politics. For all that I think most hipsters would label themselves progressives, there is a strangely libertarian strand within, particularly, hipster attitudes towards food. This connection between some kinds of right wing politics and a return to the land is by no means unusual or new. Most recently, the locavore movement—in its suspicion of big business and agriculture which bleeds into a suspicion of big government—has been taken up by libertarians in some red states in the US. But I think for some hipsters, learning the skills of rural living—learning self-sufficiency—has been produced by the profound economic and social uncertainty of the past decade or so. It is no coincidence that hipsterdom emerged at around the same time as the 2008 crash. Dana Goodyear describes a feast she attends in Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture:

Jonathan, a strawberry-blonde roaster at an artisanal coffee shop in Orange County, espoused a more complex view. Late in history, with America’s institutions crumbling around them, he and his friends felt mistrustful, even paranoid. They had retreated into Home Ec, believing that if the worst were to happen, at least they’d know how to pickle their own vegetables. ‘Our generation feels lost,’ he said. ‘We’re wanting to be self-sufficient.’

The parallels between hipsters and their parents’ generation—the Baby Boomers—are particularly evident here. Hippies’ enthusiasm for homesteading and green living, their rediscovery of lost crafts and skills was partly a reaction against the growth of the corporate, but it also signalled a profound lack of faith in mainstream society, something only amplified by the environmental and economic crises of the 1970s.

My point is that if we understand hipster earnestness as both a product of privilege as well as crisis, it helps to rethink the position of irony within hipsterdom. It becomes, then, a means of establishing a line between those who understand the irony, and those who don’t. Irony is a boundary marker, but it does not constitute what it means to be a hipster. Secondly, it also helps to illuminate the politics of hipsterdom. However seriously meant, a reclaiming of old fashioned forms of cooking and preserving, an interest in old recipes, and a commitment to organic and free range food does not necessarily signal progressive politics. If anything, these are interests and pursuits of the leisured and the moneyed. To what extent are hipsters a manifestation of inequality?

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

Breaking Bread

In Montreal, I ate bagels instead of poutine. I had planned on visiting Mile End – the suburb described as the city’s coolest quarter – because my friend Susan lives there, I wanted to go to Drawn and Quarterly, and I continue to add to my (as yet unwritten) international taxonomy of hipsters. If Mile End is supposed to be the hipster capital of Canada, then I needed to see it.

It was described to me as the Montreal equivalent of Williamsburg: a formerly poor and fairly run-down, largely immigrant suburb, popular with artists, slowly being encroached upon by students, young middle-class families in search of beautiful but affordable homes near the city centre, and hipsters. It also has a substantial population of Orthodox Jews.

My friend Carina and I took the bus from Westmount – where we were staying with our friend, the bride-to-be – and walked up St-Laurent, all the way up the Plateau. It was early on Saturday morning, so we arrived in Mile End in search of breakfast. Having heard about the wars between two rival bagel bakeries in the area, we bought breakfast at Fairmount Bagel. It was, incidentally, the place recommended to us as the superior bakery.

Fairmount Bagel.

Fairmount Bagel.

And the bagels were delicious. I now know that the traditional Montreal bagels are white (with sesame seeds) or black (with poppy seeds), but our cinnamon and raisin bagels, fresh from the oven, were some of the best I’ve ever had. I was also starving and frozen by the time, so that may also have influenced my verdict. In contrast, the bagel I tried a few hours later – for the purposes of science, you understand – from the rival St-Viateur bakery, seemed not as good. St-Viateur is also the subject of Donald Bell’s comic novel Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory (1973).

These Mile End institutions are testimony to the many groups of immigrants who settled in Canada, particularly during the early twentieth century. Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe settled in Montreal partly because it offered jobs and security. The city’s Jewish population grew from around 7,000 in 1900, to nearly 64,000 in 1941, with many of them settling in Mile End and surrounds. The Orthodox Jewish community began to grow there during the 1980s.

St-Viateur Bagel

St-Viateur Bagel

Until this visit, I didn’t know that Montreal bagels are distinct from other varieties: they are smaller, flatter, with bigger holes, and are baked in wood-fired ovens. They have a complex, sweeter flavour, and a drier, more chewy texture. In fact, there is now a restaurant in New York which sells Montreal bagels.

Alas, the slightly inferior bagel from the St-Viateur bakery. (I ate the one from Fairmount Bagel too quickly to photograph.)

Alas, the slightly inferior bagel from the St-Viateur bakery. (I ate the one from Fairmount Bagel too quickly to photograph.)

In her excellent We are what we eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Modern Americans, Donna R. Gabaccia explores the evolution and changing of immigrant cuisines in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States. She traces the history of the bagel there: how it shifted from being made almost exclusively by Jewish delis for Jewish customers in the 1890s, to being a ubiquitous snack food available throughout the country by the 1970s and 1980s. She writes:

The bagel was not a central culinary icon for Jewish immigrants; even before Polish and Russian Jews left their ethnic enclaves or ghettoes, their memories exalted gefilte fish or chicken soup prepared by their mothers, but not the humble, hard rolls purchased from the immigrant baker. As eaters, Jewish immigrants were initially far more concerned with the purity of their kosher meat, their challah, and their matzos, and with the satisfactions of their Sabbath and holiday meals, than with their morning hard roll.

However, bagels found an enthusiastic audience among other immigrant communities, particularly in New York, where the bagel came gradually to symbolise the city. Eating cream cheese and smoked salmon on these bagels transformed them from being a part of a Jewish baking tradition, to signifying its multicultural heritage.

I wonder to what extent the same is true for Montreal? And it feels likely that this city in a country with an official policy of multiculturalism – although in a province which has a far more conflicted attitude towards this policy – would embrace this immigrant food as one symbol of what it means to be from Montreal. (In much the same way that a café near to these bakeries sells a souvlaki version of poutine.)

Multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism?

I think, though, that these bagels are also taking on a new meaning. Gabaccia notes that the mass production of bagels from the 1970s made them more widely available, but also turned them into an altogether softer, sweeter, and easier bread to snack on. Bagels made in factories by Kraft – and not hand-rolled in small bakeries – lacked the texture, crust, and savouriness of the product first made in the northeast.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has recently been a renewed enthusiasm for Jewish deli foods. Julia Moskin writes in the New York Times:

Artisanal gefilte fish. Slow-fermented bagels. Organic chopped liver. Sustainable schmaltz.

These aren’t punch lines to a fresh crop of Jewish jokes. They are real foods that recently arrived on New York City’s food scene. And they are proof of a sudden and strong movement among young cooks, mostly Jewish-Americans, to embrace and redeem the foods of their forebears. That’s why, at this moment in 21st-century New York, the cutting edge of cuisine is the beet-heavy, cabbage-friendly, herring-loving diet of 19th-century Jews in Eastern Europe.

Much of the recent enthusiasm around the rediscovery of the hand-made and the artisanal (whatever we may mean by that) has been driven by hipsters (whatever we may mean by them). In a series of posts about the anthropology of hipsters – and the hipsterdom of anthropologists – Alex Posecznick notes that one of the defining features of ‘the hipster population’ is a rejection of ‘mainstream, capitalist and individualist norms in favour of tactile crafts, free-trade coffee and styles that physically mark that rejection.’

For the hipsters of Mile End, the Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries exemplify this refusal of the mass-produced, and the adoption of the local, the ethical, and the somehow ‘real.’ But, as Posecznick acknowledges, this never-ending search for cool in the form of the authentic can also been seen as representing no real break from other forms of capitalist consumption:

They have turned consumption itself into an art, where the fine distinction of this hat over that invests cultural capital, and where although it is used and battered, it can be sold for four times the value of a new hat.

My point is that the bagel’s meanings have changed once again: those produced in small quantities in small bakeries now suggest gritty, cool urban living, as well as a return to old-fashioned, wholesome ways of making food. The irony, though, is that this shift of meaning has occurred within the context of the gentrification of once-poor, often (Orthodox) Jewish, neighbourhoods, where rent increases have meant that their populations are becoming increasingly homogenous: largely middle-class, mostly white.

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

Food Links, 08.05.2013

More Britons than ever before are dependent on food banks.

The $1 McDonald’s meal has failed to lift sales.

Bananas and oil in Ecuador.

How safe is American meat?

Tesco pulls out of the US.

A history of United Farm Workers.

A fat-fuelled power station.

Cheddar cheese is to be used as security for a pension fund.

David Chan, who has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants.

Rogue sugar shacks in Quebec had best be on their guard.

The Ghanaian food revolution.

Cook it Raw.

Cooked is only half-cooked, at best.’

Where to have afternoon tea in Cape Town.

Has the cupcake boom gone bust?

The 1961 Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook.

Lessons from a month of being vegan.

The new wave of London street food.

The day coffee stopped working.

A scratch-and-sniff food magazine.

Romain Jimenez, toasted cheese seller.

Tea and flies with Kermit the Frog.

Pantone for chocolate lovers.

A 15,000 year-old pot for making fish soup.

How do you pronounce ‘scone‘?

A beer drinker’s guide to Bratislava.

Almond pudding.

Rediscovering Russian food and produce.

A cafe built out of recycled cardboard.

Literary beers.

The man who invented the thermos flask.

Book cakes.

Elaborate latte art.

A brief history of sausage rolls.

Hipster Meals.

New York Times‘s correspondents describe their favourite watering holes.

The cake that looks like a Mondrian painting.

Eighteenth-century sugar cakes.

Avocado buttercream.

How to make a sweet souffle.

Skeleton sushi.

Twenty strange things to eat.

A Russian TV chef has apologised for comparing chopping herbs to the slaughter of Ukrainian villagers. As you do.

Food Links, 20.03.2013

Barclays halts its involvement in food speculation.

The implications of the EU’s fish discards ban.

Big Macs and Europe’s economic recovery.

Jay Rayner on the horsemeat scandal and foodie machismo.

Sugary soft drinks may kill 184,000 people a year.

The meanings of ‘fresh‘ in food marketing.

A 1962 St Patrick’s day menu.

Elizabeth de Stadler on the tainted meat scandal in South Africa.

Simple tips for reducing food waste.

Pope Francis, foodie?

A kitchen utensil infographic.

A brief history of Pad Thai.

Gwyneth Paltrow on avocadoes.

Eating in Puerto Rico.

Polish poppy cheesecake.

The restaurant that levies fines for leftovers.

Pictures on ‘ethnic’ menus.

Lies told by waiters.

Trypophobia.

Can vinegar go off?

Buttered coffee.

The McCamembert burger.

Mark Bittman on baking bread.

Eating in Timbuktu during the eighteenth century.

Are you a ‘supertaster‘?

Pressure cooked eggs.

Pictures of hipsters taking pictures of food.

What is soy lecithin?

An ice cream seller in Constantinople, 1898.

Egg-inspired design.

Food Links, 02.01.2013

Public service announcement: Yesterday, thousands of Capetonians lost their homes in a devastating fire which swept Khayelitsha and Du Noon. Equal Education is collecting non-perishable food, clothing, blankets, and, particularly, baby food and clothing for the victims. Donations can be dropped off at The Bookery (20 Roeland Street).

What food activists should focus on in 2013.

Trish Deseine’s wish list for the new year.

Growing food in the desert.

The strange ingredients of 2012.

Why can’t India feed its people?

Food infographics from 2012.

The declining sales of organic produce.

The legacy of a mission orchard in Tucson, Arizona.

Can soup make Detroit a better city?

On Chicago‘s urban farm district.

The Pig Genome Project and bacon.

Tim Hayward on the vogue for the local.

Why ‘natural‘ snack foods aren’t all that ‘natural’.

How precise do recipes need to be?

Super cheap caviar.

Why does Britain love instant coffee so much?

Fifteen of Africa‘s favourite dishes.

An interview with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen.

Why preserves are back in fashion.

Coffee as a remedy against the plague.

A sensory wheel for rooibos tea.

Cadbury’s non-melting chocolate.

A silk scarf that looks incredibly like bacon.

Hemingway’s favourite cocktails.

Anatomical pastries.

The New York Times reviews Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork.

Poets‘ favourite recipes.

The pop-up restaurants of Buenos Aires.

Why Coke cost a nickel for seventy years.

Did the Dogme manifesto *really* change Danish cooking?

Martha Stewart, beloved of hipsters.

How food is made to look good on television.

How best to juice a lime.

The rise of eating competitions.

Unusual cooking techniques.

These links are courtesy of my mum:

Treacle‘ from animals?

The International Banana Club Museum.

Medieval stoves.

Why do Japanese politicians wave fish?

A love story in fifteen cookies.

The world’s biggest wholesale fish market – in Tokyo – is to be redesigned.

Food Links, 28.11.2012

Did farmers in the past know more than we do about agriculture?

Barclays gets criticised for its role in food speculation.

How Big Sugar influenced US food policy.

Maize: a sign of Brazil‘s growing clout.

How can Africa’s food supply be made more reliable?

The food desert in Hawaii.

Why energy drinks are not obliged to list caffeine levels.

This year’s honey harvest in Britain has been reduced by the wet summer.

Bee keeping in Vietnam is under threat.

Singapore now has a commercial vertical farm.

Should we take fish oil supplements?

Some tick bites may cause an allergy to meat.

Tim Hayward on deconstructed food.

A tonic tasting.

Why American eggs could not be sold in British supermarkets.

The Onion on the gluten-free fad.

The ultimate guilt-free diet.

Can you fry mayonnaise?

Milk and western civilisation.

How food has taken the place of high culture. (Thanks, Jane!)

Fortnum and Mason launches…Privilege Spread.

Why do the French like chocolate bears?

Daniele Delpeuch, chef to Francois Mitterrand.

Britain’s craft beer revolution.

The best independent cafes in Montreal.

Leninade.

An espresso-milk sandwich.

A 112ft long chocolate train.

Raymond Blanc‘s favourite restaurants.

How to make piccalilli.

Sakir Gökçebag’s geometric compositions of fruit.

Bicycle-powered coffee.

The most useful kitchen gadgets.

Food GIFs.

A visit to Amsterdam.

Sicilian sweets.

A copy of the Canadian government’s guide to canning, from the Second World War.

How to make fake blood.

Make your own peanut butter.

A chef goes off at a food blogger.

Why the hipster enthusiasm for coleslaw?

The physics of coffee rings.

Guerilla grafting.

How to eat, according to women’s magazines.

Sue Quinn on Nigella Lawson.

These are courtesy of my Mum:

Is nutrition getting enough attention from development organisations?

The story of Britain through its cooking.

The Taste of Love.

Laser-etched sushi.

A botanist, a butcher, and a body.

Amazing manga plates.

Brave New Food

The TV series which I most want to watch at the moment is Portlandia. Set in Portland, Oregon, it satirises and celebrates the city which originated the ur-hipster. It includes a scene in a restaurant – which I’ve watched only on youtube, alas – in which a couple questions their waitress about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. Assured that it’s free range, local, and organic – partly because their waitress provides them with its papers and name – they leave the restaurant to have a look at it:

This is hilarious because it so closely mimics reality: the menus which list the provenance of all the produce used in the restaurant; the farmers’ market stalls with photographs of happy animals pre-slaughter; the recipes which insist upon free-range, organic ingredients.

I laugh, but I’m as implicated in this hyper-sensitivity about where my food comes from, and how it was treated before it arrived on my plate. I don’t want to eat animals that suffered so that I can continue being an omnivore. I eat relatively little meat and am prepared to pay for free-range chicken, pork, and beef. (I’m not terribly fussed about it being ‘organic’ – whatever we may mean by that.)

It is a scandal how animals are treated in factory farms, and increasing demand for red meat is environmentally unsustainable. So how should we eat meat, without causing harm? If vegetarianism is as implicated in the meat economy – veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, for example – and veganism seems far too difficult, then one way out of this impasse is to consider synthetic alternatives.

I’ve been amused by the overwhelming response to reports about the apparent viability of lab-grown meat. ‘Eeew’ and ‘yuk’ seem to sum up how people feel about it. But lab-grown meat is only the most recent panacea to the world’s crisis produced by scientists – and our views on it say a great deal about our changing feelings about the relationship between food and technology.

The meat in question is being grown by Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University. He’s being funded by an anonymous donor who’s concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle farming. Using stem cells from cows, Post’s team have grown sheets of muscle between pieces of Velcro, which are shocked with an electric current to develop their texture and density:

Post said he could theoretically increase the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100m. ‘That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by 1m,’ he said.

Meat grown in the laboratory could have several advantages, because its manufacture is controlled at each step. The tissue could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

He believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. ‘I’d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,’ he said.

Post hopes to produce a burger by October.

When I read the earliest reports about Post’s work, I thought immediately of a scene in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where the protagonist visits a lab which grows chicken breasts out of stem cells. This is a dystopian novel which plays on our suspicion of food grown in laboratories. It seems strange, now, for us to consider synthetic, artificial, man-made food to be superior to all that is ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. But this is a relatively new way of thinking about food.

During the 1950s, a decade when science seemed to offer the possibility of a cleaner, healthier, and better organised world, there was a brief, but intense enthusiasm for Chlorella pyrenoidosa, a high-protein algae which grew rapidly and abundantly and was fed by sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The post-war baby boom gave rise to anxieties in the 1950s that the world would be unable to feed its growing population. Of course, we now know that innovations in agriculture during this period – including the wholesale mechanisation of farming, the increased use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, and breeding high-yielding livestock – and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s produced the crops and farming methods which, at enormous environmental cost, still feed seven billion of us. But at the time, politicians worried that hungry nations would create a politically unstable world.

Algae looked like a sensible solution to the problem. Easy and cheap to grow, and apparently highly nutritious, this seemed to be the Brave New World of food production. Warren Belasco writes:

The alluring news came from pilot projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park and by Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge. Initial results suggested that chlorella algae was an astounding photosynthetic superstar. When grown in optimal conditions – sunny, warm, shallow ponds fed by simple carbon dioxide – chlorella converted upwards of 20 per cent of solar energy…into a plant containing 50 per cent protein when dried. Unlike most plants, chlorella’s protein was ‘complete’, for it had the ten amino acids then considered essential, and it was also packed with calories, fat, and vitamins.

In today’s terms, chlorella was a superfood. Scientists fell over themselves in excitement: Scientific American and Science reported on it in glowing terms; the Rockefeller Foundation funded research into it; and some calculated that a plantation the size of Rhode Island was would be able to supply half the world’s daily protein requirements.

In the context of a mid-century enthusiasm for all that was efficient, systematic, and man-made, algae’s appeal was immediate: it was entirely usable and produced little or no waste; its farming was not dependent on variable weather and rainfall; it was clean and could be transformed into something that was optimally nutritious.

So why didn’t I have a chlorella burrito for supper?

Unfortunately, chlorella didn’t live up to the hype. Not only did the production of grains and soybeans increase exponentially during the 1950s, meaning that farmers were loath to switch to a new and untested crop, but further research revealed that chlorella production would be more complicated and expensive than initially envisaged. Growing chlorella in the quantities needed to be financially viable required expensive equipment, and it proved to be susceptible to changes in temperature. Harvesting and drying it was even more of headache.

On top of this, chlorella tasted terrible. There were some hopes that the American food industry might be able to transform bitter green chlorella into an enticing foodstuff – in much the same way they used additives and preservatives to manufacture the range of processed foods which bedecked the groaning supermarket shelves of 1950s America. Edible chlorella was not a world away from primula cheese.

Those who were less impressed by the food industry suggested that chlorella could be used to fortify bread and pasta – or even transformed into animal feed. But research demonstrated that heating chlorella destroyed most of its nutrients. Even one of its supporters called it ‘a nasty little green vegetable.’ By the 1960s, it was obvious that at $1,000 a ton, and inedible, chlorella was not going to be the food of the future.

All was not lost for chlorella, though. It proved to be surprisingly popular in Japan, where it is still sold as a nutritional supplement. The West’s enthusiasm for algae also hasn’t dimmed:

The discovery in the 1960s of the blue-green algae spirulina in the Saharan Lake Chad and in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco gave another boost to the health food uses of algae. Spirulina has a high-nutrient profile similar to chlorella’s but without…production problems….

Ironically, the food that was supposed to feed the world is now the preserve of the wealthy, health-conscious middle classes – those who suffer most from the diseases of affluence – who can afford to buy small jars of powdered algae.

I hope that Post’s project manages to create a viable product which can be used to supplement people’s diets. I’m not particularly revolted by the idea of lab-grown meat, and if means that it reduces the numbers of factory farms, then that can only be a good thing.

What concerns me more are the potential motives of the businesses which would produce lab-grown meat. If it is taken up by the global food industry – which has patchy records on environmental sustainability and social responsibility – will we be able to trust them to provide us with meat which is healthy for us, and ethically produced?

Source

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

Creative Commons License 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).

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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.