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Posts tagged ‘Huguenot Seminary’

The Politics of the Plate

Last week, Michael Pollan argued in the New York Times that this year’s American presidential election may be the first time that the food movement enters mainstream politics. Pollan suggests that the debate around California’s Proposition 37, which would require all products containing genetically modified food to be labelled, is indicative of wider disenchantment with the American food industry:

What is at stake this time around is not just the fate of genetically modified crops but the public’s confidence in the industrial food chain. That system is being challenged on a great many fronts – indeed, seemingly everywhere but in Washington. Around the country, dozens of proposals to tax and regulate soda have put the beverage industry on the defensive, forcing it to play a very expensive (and thus far successful) game of Whac-A-Mole. The meat industry is getting it from all sides: animal rights advocates seeking to expose its brutality; public-health advocates campaigning against antibiotics in animal feed; environmentalists highlighting factory farming’s contribution to climate change.

This disillusionment with Big Food has produced an attempt at transparency by businesses like Monsanto and Nestle, whose recent advertising campaigns have gone out of their way to paint these organisations as purveyors of honest good food.

Pollan wonders, though, if this public scepticism of the industrialised food chain, coupled with the relatively recent interest in ‘whole’ and ‘real’ food sold at farmers’ markets, in vegetable box schemes, and at independent shops, will translate into anti-Big Food votes. In other words, will – largely – middle-class willingness to support small and local producers translate into a political movement?

But this certainly won’t be the first time that food has become a vehicle for political engagement. In fact, it was through food and drink that women all over the world first entered politics at the end of the nineteenth century.

When I went through the photographs I took on a recent trip to Australia, I realised that I’d taken pictures of coffee palaces in nearly every town and city I had visited – these are a couple of them:

Fremantle, Perth

Melbourne

These coffee palaces were established in Australia – and elsewhere – by the temperance movement which swept the globe during the nineteenth century. Coffee palaces, coffee shops, and other, similar, cafes and meeting places were meant to entice men away from pubs, saloons, and ‘canteens’, as they were called in South Africa.

Temperance was one of several causes – from single, working women to abused and neglected animals and children – associated with middle-class philanthropic organisations during the Victorian period. From the 1870s, though, temperance became increasingly associated with women.

The founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in the US in 1874 was a pivotal moment – not only in the history of opposition to public drinking, but in the development of feminism. Jed Dannenbaum describes its origins:

On Sunday, December 23, 1873, Boston-based itinerant lecturer Dio Lewis visited the community of Hillsboro, Ohio. His topic for the evening was temperance reform. Lewis urged the women of the community to band together and pray in the local saloons in an attempt to close them. The next day, Christmas Eve, a group of Hillsboro women enacted Lewis’s plan. The Women’s Crusade had begun.

In the next four months over 32,000 women in more 300 Ohio communities participated in the Crusade. The movement spread throughout the country to several hundred other communities, and in many the crusades succeeded in closing, at least temporarily, all the local retail liquor outlets. The Women’s Crusade severely disrupted the liquor trade and forced out of business manufacturers and wholesalers as well as retailers. Within the year the Crusade had evolved into the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an organisation that was to help shape American history for many decades to come.

Although predated by local temperance organisations, a branch of the WCTU was established in the Cape Colony in 1889 after the visit of an American woman activist to the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington, a small town in the wheat- and wine-producing south-western Cape. Huguenot was modelled on Mount Holyoke Seminary in Connecticut and was staffed by American teachers, who invited representatives of the WCTU to tour the colony.

As in other parts of the world, the Cape WCTU campaigned against the sale of alcohol, promoted temperance by persuading teetotalers to sign pledges never to drink, and organised clubs and societies for children. The Myrtle Branch – run by the Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Wellington – taught children about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, as the secretary noted of a meeting in 1896:

Mrs Fehr spoke to us, she told us that strong drink leads to anger, debt, despair, destruction, and death and showed us how it leads on from one to the other.

Why, then, the appeal of temperance work to so many middle-class women? All over the world, it was a movement to protect the family – specifically women and children – against the violence and erratic behaviour of alcoholic men. Pubs, saloons, and canteens were seen as places where family budgets were squandered on cheap drink, while wives and children waited at home, anxiously, for the return of drunken, and potentially violent, heads of households.

The Cape’s WCTU – like sister unions in Britain and elsewhere – broadened its activities to campaign to protect women and children from ‘vice’, disease, and abuse. It ran a strong campaign against the re-introduction of the Contagious Diseases Act in the Cape in 1891 on the grounds that it was an ‘indignity to women’. In 1893, allied with organisations like the Citizen’s Law and Order League and the Women’s Purity Society, the WCTU campaigned for the raising of the age of consent for girls from twelve to fourteen years, and also for the better control, or eradication, of brothels and prostitution.

It made sense, then, that the WCTU in the Cape established a franchise department in 1895, on the grounds that women’s demands would only be taken more seriously if they could wield power via the ballot box. The collection of Women’s Enfranchisement Leagues established around South Africa between 1902 and 1910 – which were united as the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union in 1911 – owed their origins to the WCTU.

What the campaign against alcohol did was to allow women to enter the male-dominated public sphere. Women and children, they argued, bore the brunt of men’s alcoholism. Theirs was a campaign to maintain the sanctity of family life.

In the United States, a similar movement grew up around concerns about the safety of food processed in factories. A series of scandals drew attention to the ways in which manufacturers added a range of substances – from chalk to arsenic – either to make products go further, or to improve their colour and texture. The women-led campaign for pure food – which culminated in the passing of the Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Act in 1906 under Teddy Roosevelt – was also described as a movement to protect the family.

For all the controversy over the campaign for women’s suffrage around the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it’s worth noting that the food- and drink-based campaigns that gave rise to the franchise movement were often deeply conservative. Writing about the pure food campaigners in the 1880s and 1890s, Lorine Swainston Goodwin explains:

They had formed independent literary clubs, village improvement societies, women’s granges, mother’s circles, and a wide assortment of other groups dedicated to self-improvement and to the well-being of their families and neighbours. The altruistic nature, conservative facade, and vitality of the new organisations appealed to a wide cross-section of discreet women who saw the need to improve and protect their society by employing prudent means, such as circulating petitions, and using personal influence, expose, and court action to achieve effective methods of controlling food, drink, and drugs.

Temperance, too, was often a deeply conservative movement – and this extended to the franchise campaign. The WEAU in South Africa campaigned only for white women’s right to vote; Emmeline Pankhurst was a lifelong Tory; and it’s striking how many British suffragettes went on to be enthusiastic supporters of fascism. Early feminism was not necessarily on the political left.

Pollan’s appeal for the food movement to enter politics is part of a fairly long history of food-based political campaigning. And although it’s clear that he imagines that supporters of the anti-Big Food lobby will vote for Obama (and please do, lovely American readers – and you can donate to his campaign here), there are some lessons to be learned from the temperance and pure food movements of the late nineteenth century: people – women, in particular – became involved in them because they perceived drunkenness and adulterated food to be threats to everyday life. They also meshed with women’s dissatisfaction with being left out of the political process.

Unfortunately, many of the markers of Pollan’s food movement of the early twenty-first century – like farmers’ markets – are perceived as being out-of-reach of the average American. For the food movement to enter politics, it needs to make itself relevant to the lived experiences of ordinary people – and to connect to concerns, like unemployment or welfare, which they feel to be more important. It needs to shed its aura of elitism.

Further Reading

Jack S. Blocker, Jr., ‘Separate Paths: Suffragists and the Women’s Temperance Crusade,’ Signs, vol. 10, no. 3 (Spring, 1985), pp. 460-476.

Jed Dannenbaum, ‘The Origins of Temperance Activism and Militancy among American Women,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter, 1981), pp. 235-252.

SE Duff, ‘onschuldig vermaak’: The Dutch Reformed Church and Children’s Leisure Time in the Cape Colony, 1860-1890,’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 63, no. 4 (2011), pp. 495-513.

SE Duff, ‘Saving the Child to Save the Nation: Poverty, Whiteness, and Childhood in the Cape Colony, c.1870-1895,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 37, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 229-245.

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

Elizabeth van Heyningen, ‘The Social Evil in the Cape Colony 1868-1902: Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 10, no. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 170-197.

Cherryl Walker, ‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement: The Politics of Gender, Race and Class,’ in Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945, ed. Cherryl Walker (Cape Town: David Philip, 1990), pp. 313-345.

Cherryl Walker, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in South Africa (Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 1979).

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

Eat the Rich

Today’s City Press includes a fantastically interesting article about the increased incidence of obesity in post-1994 South Africa. The piece explores the links between the country’s transition to democracy and the fact that 61% of all South Africans – 70% of women over the age of 35, 55% of white men 15 years and older, and a quarter of all teenagers – are obese or overweight.

The reasons for these incredibly high levels of obesity are, as the article acknowledges, complex. In many ways, South Africa conforms to a pattern emerging throughout the developing world. In a report published a few months ago, the World Health Organisation noted that lifestyle-related diseases – like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity – are now among the main causes of death and disease in developing nations. These diseases of affluence are no longer limited to the West.

For the new South African middle classes, fast food and branded processed products, like Coke, are markers of sophistication: of having ‘made it’ in this increasingly prosperous society. But, as in the rest of the world, those at the top of the social scale tend not to be overweight:

contrary to popular myth, obesity is not a ‘rich man’s disease’.

Indeed, the most affluent urbanites can get into their SUVs and drive to gym or to Woolies food hall where, for a price, they can load up their trolleys with fresh, top-quality groceries – from free-range chickens to organic lemons.

This means, says [Prof Salome] Kruger, that ‘the highest income earners are thinner’.

For urban dwellers who earn less, fresh food is usually more difficult, and expensive, to buy than processed non-food:

But for your average city dweller – earning money, but not necessarily enough to own a car to get them out to the major supermarket malls – food is where you find it.

Typically, this is in small corner shops selling a limited, and often more expensive, range of fresh foods. Fruit and veg can be hard to find among the toothpaste and toilet paper spaza staples.

‘R15!’ It’s taxi fare from Orlando to the Pick n Pay in Soweto’s Maponya Mall – and it was 25-year-old road worker Lindiwe Xorine’s reply when City Press asked her how far it was to the nearest supermarket.

We call these areas where access to fresh food is limited, ‘food deserts’. It’s entirely possible to buy fruit, vegetables, and free-range meat in South African cities, but high prices and bad transport infrastructure limit people’s ability to purchase these products.

We’re dealing, effectively, with the effects of mass urbanisation since the ending of influx control in the mid-1980s and the 1994 elections.

The migration of South Africans from rural to urban areas has been a key factor in the nation’s radical change of lifestyle habits.

Twenty years ago, restricted by apartheid laws, just 10% of black South Africans lived in urban areas. Today, more than 56% do.

Alison Feeley, a scientist at the Medical Research Council, says this massive shift to a fast-paced urban life has resulted in dietary patterns shifting just as dramatically from ‘traditional foods to fast foods’.

But this isn’t the first time that South Africa, or indeed other countries, has had to cope with the impact of urbanisation on people’s diets. During the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused agricultural workers to abandon farming in their droves, and to move to cities in search of employment, either in factories or in associated industries. In Britain, this caused a drop in the quality of urban diets. Food supplies to cities were inadequate, and the little food that the new proletariat could afford was monotonous, meagre, and lacking in protein and fresh fruit and vegetables.

One of the effects of this inadequate diet was a decrease in average height – one of the best indicators of childhood health and nutrition – among the urban poor in Victorian cities. In fact, British officers fighting the South African War (1899-1902) had to contend with soldiers who were physically incapable of fighting the generally fitter, stronger, and healthier Boer forces, most of whom had been raised on diets rich in animal protein.

This link between industrialisation, urbanisation, and a decline in the quality of city dwellers’ diets is not inevitable. For middle-class Europeans in cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, industrialised transport and food production actually increased the variety of food they could afford. In the United States, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, a burgeoning food industry benefitted poorer urbanites as well. Processed food was cheap and readily available. Impoverished (and hungry) immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy were astonished by the variety and quantity of food they could buy in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.

It’s difficult to identify similar patterns in South Africa. We know that the sudden growth of Kimberley and Johannesburg after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1882) stimulated agriculture in Griqualand West and the South African Republic. Farmers in these regions now supplied southern Africa’s fastest growing cities with food. The expansion of Kimberley and Johannesburg as a result of the mineral revolution was different from that of London or New York because their new populations were overwhelmingly male – on the Witwatersrand, there were roughly ninety men for every woman – and highly mobile. These immigrants from the rest of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the United States had little intention of settling in South Africa. As a result of this, it’s likely that these urban dwellers weren’t as badly effected by poor diets as their compatriots in the industrialised cities of the north Atlantic.

Cape Town’s slums and squatter settlements were, though, populated by a new urban poor who migrated with their families to the city during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Most factory workers were paid barely enough to cover their rent. Mr W. Dieterle, manager of J.H. Sturk & Co., a manufacturer of snuff and cigars, said of the young women he employed:

It would seem incredible how cheaply and sparsely they live. In the mornings they have a piece of bread with coffee, before work. We have no stop for breakfast, but I allow them to stand up when they wish to eat. Very few avail themselves of this privilege. They stay until one o’clock without anything, and then they have a piece of bread spread with lard, and perhaps with the addition of a piece of fish.

This diet – heavy on carbohydrates and cheap stimulants (like coffee), and relatively poor in protein and fresh produce – was typical of the city’s poor. It wasn’t the case that food was unavailable: it was just that urban workers couldn’t afford it.

In fact, visitors to the Cape during this period commented frequently on the abundance and variety of fruit, vegetables, and meat on the tables of the middle classes. White, middle-class girls at the elite Huguenot Seminary in Wellington – a town about 70km from Cape Town – drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt (syrupy grape jam) on their bread for breakfast and supper. A typical lunch consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

It’s also worth noting that the Seminary served its meals during the morning, the middle of the day, and in the evening – something which was relatively new. Industrialisation caused urban workers’ mealtimes to change. Breakfast moved earlier in the day – from the middle of the morning to seven or eight o’clock – lunch (or dinner) shifted to midday from the mid-afternoon, and dinner (or tea) emerged as a substantial meal at the end of the day.

Factory workers in Cape Town ate according to this new pattern as well. The difference was the quality of their diet. A fifteen year-old white, middle-class girl in leafy Claremont who had eaten an ample, varied diet since early childhood was taller and heavier than her black contemporaries in Sturk’s cigar factory. In all likelihood, she would have begun menstruating earlier, and would have recovered from illness and, later, childbirth far more quickly than poorer young women of the same age. She would have lived for longer too.

Urbanisation changes the ways in which we eat: we eat at different times and, crucially, we eat new and different things. By looking at a range of examples from the nineteenth century, we can see that this change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The industrial revolution contributed to the more varied and cheaper diets of the middle classes. Industrialised food production and transport caused the urban poor in the United States to eat better than many of those left behind in rural areas, for example. But it’s also clear that it exacerbates social inequality. In the 1800s, the poor had too little to eat and that which they did have was not particularly nutritious. Children raised on these diets were shorter and more prone to illness than those who ate more varied, plentiful, and protein-rich food. Now, the diets available to the poor in urbanising societies are as bad, even if the diseases they contribute to are caused by eating too much rather than too little.

Most importantly, we have an abundance of food in our growing cities. Just about everyone can afford to eat. The point is that only a minority can afford good, fresh food, and have the time, knowledge, and equipment to prepare it. Food mass produced in factories helped Europe and North America’s cities to feed their urban poor a hundred years ago. I’m not sure if that’s the best solution for the twenty-first century.

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

In whose hands?

I am not by nature a joiner. I became a member of the Green Party in the UK mainly to spite Phil Woolas after he made some more than usually daft comments about non-EU immigrants. That the Green Party did exceptionally well in the last general election and seems, to me, to offer the only credible way out of the global recession were pleasing perks of membership, but otherwise I didn’t appreciate being told to toe the party line on a few issues, sugar pill-based quackery homeopathy being one of them. I suppose that I don’t particularly enjoy being told what to think. This is why I’m in academia which is, as a friend put it, the last refuge of the sociopathic.

It’s partly for this reason that I’m fascinated by groups of people who set out, purposefully, to create alternative communities away from mainstream society: people who base these experiments in new living on complex rules for behaviour and thought. It’s something I would never do, and I am curious as to why others find it so attractive. I wrote my MA thesis about the first boarding school for the daughters of the Cape Colony’s Dutch-Afrikaner middle classes in the nineteenth century. This institution was a secluded, strictly evangelical retreat from colonial society for the pupils who lived there, many of whom complained that they found it difficult to return to the habits and routines of normal family life. Mission stations run by societies like the Moravian Brotherhood were similar. There, at places like Genadendal and Elim, residents were required to adhere to strict rules regarding work, dress, and speech.

The best known of these retreats were Robert Owen’s utopian socialist communities in the United States during the 1820s. The first of these, New Harmony, lasted only a few years. But there have been hundreds of similar examples, most of them unsuccessful. It seems that nearly every generation of reformers has a fringe which believes that the best way to reform society is to leave it, and construct a new way of living on its fringes. There are elements of this in the recent Dark Mountain Project founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. They argue that the best way to prepare for a post-peak oil world and catastrophic climate change is to retreat, and to learn how to live sustainably and self-sufficiently away from society.

One of the most striking features of these experiments is the primacy they give to food. The cultivation of crops and, less frequently, the care of animals (and it’s interesting, although not surprising, how many alternative communities were vegetarian) were central to life in these societies. Not only was this importance due to practical reasons – before the beginning of the twentieth century, at least, it would have been too expensive to buy in adequate food supplies in rural areas – but for symbolic ones: ‘pure’ food produced by hardworking and hardthinking workers was bound to be better than that grown by exploited wage labourers.

I’ve recently finished reading This Life is in Your Hands, Melissa Coleman’s gripping memoir of her early childhood on the homestead established by her father, Eliot Coleman, a man believed by many to be the father of the modern organic movement in the United States. In 1968, Eliot and is wife Sue packed their belongings into a VW van and travelled to rural Maine – five hours from Boston, and three from Portland – to a plot of land on which they intended to build a homestead and grow enough vegetables and fruit for their own consumption. They had been inspired by the experiences of an older generation of ‘homesteaders’, Helen and Scott Nearing. Indeed, the idea of modern homesteading – living entirely self-sufficiently – was popularised by the Nearings’ book Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World (1954) in which they described a lifestyle in which was independent from the economy; healthy; and completely ethical. It was a life sustained by work done by their own hands.

The Colemans bought their land from the Nearings, and, using Living the Good Life as their Bible, set about living in accordance to the rules established by the Nearings. Eliot built their wooden cabin himself; they lived without electricity and running water; they cultivated most of their food themselves; and they bought as little as possible from the local shopkeepers. However idyllic this life may have appeared, it was precarious and dependent on backbreaking labour:

That my parents had chosen this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn’t matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water was muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town – not to mention that Jeep’s registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on.

They soon realised that complete self-sufficiency was impossible. The Nearings, for all their status as homesteading gurus, bought in a range of luxuries, and the Colemans had to purchase oats and other grains, yeast, seeds, bacteria for making yogurt, and vitamin B supplements for their diet. And the absolute seclusion they enjoyed during their first year or two of homesteading – when Melissa was born – came to an abrupt end as a result of an article in the Washington Post by a sympathetic journalist, and Eliot’s ambitions to spread the gospel about organic gardening. He was already selling the surplus from their garden, and believed that organic methods offered an alternative to the new farming orthodoxy espoused by Nixon’s Secretary for Agriculture, Earl Butz, who advised farmers to plant maize ‘from fence row to fence row’.

Eliot’s increasing renown, his ever longer absences to study and lecture, as well as the numbers of enthusiastic students who came to work on the garden in the summer – often in the nude – put strain on the Colemans’ marriage. And it’s here that one of the main problems of these alternative communities becomes especially apparent. For all their desire not to replicate the power structures of mainstream society, they invariably do. Women continue to undertake the burden of domestic labour. Eliot Coleman worked unbelievably hard – to the extent that he developed hyperthyroidism as a result of stress and exhaustion – but, as a contemporary article on homesteading makes the point, he did the ‘fun’ bit: the growing. When he finished his work in the garden at night, he could rest. Sue, though, was responsible for keeping house and doing laundry without soap, detergent, or appliances. She ground their own flour, made yogurt, sewed and mended their clothes, and bottled, canned, and preserved food to see them through the winter. She had three daughters under the age of seven to care for. Oh, and she ran their vegetable stall too. Her work – invisible and largely unappreciated – was unremitting.

Michelle Nijhuis suggests that one of the reasons why women find homesteading so difficult is because of the absence of labour saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners: without them, otherwise easy chores become difficult, time consuming, and very, very boring. But I’m not so sure about this argument. (Although who am I to disagree? I wouldn’t touch homesteading with a bargepole and she’s a paid-up member of the movement.)

Much of This Life is in Your Hands reminds me of John Matteson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning double biography of Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, Eden’s Outcasts (2007). Louisa May is now best remembered as the author of Little Women (1868), but during the mid-nineteenth century her father, Bronson, was a well-known and controversial educationalist and philosopher with strong links to the Transcendentalists. He also experimented with living away from society and, like the Colemans, his and his family’s time at Fruitlands, a commune in Massachusetts, ended in disaster. Established in 1843, Fruitlands lasted slightly more than a year, and Bronson was largely responsible for this: he and his small group acolytes planted the fields too late, ran out of money, and constructed a set of rules which actively hindered work on the farm. All animal products and labour were banned, and the members spent as much time raising funds and discussing whether or not they should drink coffee, as they did actually working the land.

Indeed, most of the work was done by Abba Alcott, Bronson’s long-suffering wife. She cared for their four young daughters, cooked, sewed, cleaned, chopped wood, and washed laundry. This was not an unusual lot for a women in nineteenth-century America, but it was made worse by their poverty, and wilful refusal to use ‘luxuries’ – warm clothes, hot water, a greater range of foodstuffs – which would have made the work any easier or, at least, more interesting. And, of course, the point of the commune was that it was meant to be wholly egalitarian. In the end, Abba did the same work – in possibly worse conditions – as women living in nearby Concord.

Towards the end of her memoir, Melissa Coleman describes her mother’s mental breakdown after the drowning of Melissa’s little sister, Heidi. But she makes it clear that this was the trigger for something which had long been developing:

Just that morning the gardens were bustling as usual with apprentices and customers and vegetables needing to be picked. It was a humid-hot day, a Saturday near the end of July. Baby Clara was strapped to Mama’s back in Heidi’s old sling, sleeping mouth-open as Mama cooked lunch, skin glowing and tan from summer. Skates was coming to visit, and Mama needed time to clean the house, to hide from her mother-in-law the chaos her life had become: Bess and Papa having breakfast together that morning, mud tracked in from the gardens, piles of laundry to be washed by hand, Heidi and I running around the small kitchen pulling each other’s hair and screaming.

In a recent post for Grist, Tom Laskawy makes the point that the longer hours worked by Americans – and I think that this is true elsewhere as well – have been sustained by the greater availability of cheap food – food which is not necessarily nutritionally sound, nor ethically produced.         On the other hand, appliances and a greater variety of food available at affordable prices in supermarkets have facilitated women’s greater entry to the workplace in greater numbers. We know, nonetheless, that this is part of a food system which is entirely unsustainable.

So what do we do? I certainly don’t want a retreat into homesteading. I suggest that we take another look at the ways in which we work: both at home and outside it. There is a significant body of work which suggests that a reduction in the numbers of hours we work would not only be good for our and the planet’s wellbeing, but also for the economy. If we had more time to cook and to grow our own food – although within reason – we would have the beginnings of a more stable food system. Importantly, most of the labour performed in the home is still by women and, clearly, men need to share more of it. The burden of ensuring a shift to more sustainable lifestyles cannot be women’s responsibility alone.

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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.

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Is Baking Feminist?

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

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

A yarn-bombed lamp in Hay-on-Wye

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

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

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

I agree.

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

The yarn-bombed National Gallery in Cape Town

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

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

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

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

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

She’s not the first to do this. Kathe Newman has argued that ‘cupcake shops can provide a more accurate and timely guide to the frontiers of urban gentrification than traditional demographic and real estate data sets.’ This is certainly true for Cape Town. The very traumatic gentrification of parts of the Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter – where families were forced to move out of houses which they had rented for generations – was signalled by the arrival of upscale bakeries. In Woodstock, where  gentrification seems to be proceeding at a slower pace and without the fracturing of existing communities, bakeries and cafes have begun to appear along the main road and near the Neighbourgoods Market, that ultimate expression of Capetonian cool.

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

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

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

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

More yarn bombing at the National Gallery in Cape Town

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

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

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When Abundance is Too Much

I was in London last week and bought myself a copy of Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2007), a fantastic account of how America’s powerful food industry shapes the ways in which Americans eat and think about food. She argues that the food industry uses a range of strategies systematically to confuse the public into thinking that the processed offerings produced by Heinz, Unilever, and Kellogg are healthy, sensible things to eat. Of course, every food company does this – from the smallest, most down-homey organic business to the biggest, nastiest multinational – but in the US, the food lobby, which works along the same lines as the tobacco and gun lobbies in Washington DC, influences food policy to such an extent that the state has become complicit in encouraging Americans to eat fatty, sugary foods.

Serendipitously, I also came across this infographic which shows what proportion of their incomes people all over the world spend on food per year. It reveals a very strong correlation between development and food prices: populations of wealthier countries spend a smaller percentage of their wages on food than do those in poorer nations. In Western Europe, for example, the Irish spend the least (7.2%) and the Portuguese the most (15.8%) on food. This rises to 20.3% in Poland – slightly more than South Africa at 19.8%. The populations of middle-income countries – like South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey – tend to spend between twenty and thirty per cent of their budgets on food. Indonesians (43%), Algerians (43.8%), and Belarusians (43.2%) spend the most – although the map doesn’t include information for most of Africa. And the population which spends the least on food? Americans, at 6.9% of their incomes.

America has such low food prices because of the strength of its food industry. Controlling every aspect of the food chain – from the farms that produce meat and plants for consumption, to the provision of transport and packaging – the size and efficiency of food companies have driven down food prices, resulting in an overabundance of cheap food. In what Harvey Levenstein has dubbed the ‘paradox of plenty’, this variety and cheapness of food has led to less, not more, healthy patterns of consumption: Americans now eat more meat and dairy products than ever before – food which is labour- and resource-intensive to produce and which, until recently, was expensive to buy.

The association of meat and dairy with prosperity has led to concerns about China and India’s increasing consumption of these foods in the context of rising food prices globally. (Myself, I think that rocketing food prices have more to do with the oil price, climate change, and the deregulation of commodity derivatives markets than with greater meat consumption in the East. I wonder to what extent this is part of a ‘blame China’ trend?) But all over the world, experts agree that one way of improving food security is for us to eat less meat and fewer dairy products. As Michael Pollan put it in his food mantra: ‘Eat. Mostly plants. Not too much. Not too little.’

Much of the debate around what we should eat seems to imply a return to healthier, more sustainable eating patterns. While it’s certainly true that populations in the West consume more calories now than they did even thirty or forty years ago, and that eating less meat would be better both for us and the planet, I’m not entirely sure if looking to the past is always helpful. After all, my mongrel collection of ancestors scattered around seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and southern Africa were physically smaller than I am and lived shorter lives partly because their diets were less varied, less plentiful, and, importantly, less protein-filled than mine.

I think we could, though, take a closer look at the menus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If we need to cut down on our consumption of meat and dairy, it’s surprising to read that the teachers and pupils at the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington ate ‘mutton every day’ (as I noted a fortnight ago). The American headmistresses longed for the steak they had grown up eating in New England, but agreed that beef was far too expensive in South Africa. Instead, they ate mutton, the meat of choice in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony: ‘We have roast mutton, mutton chops, mutton cutlets, mutton broth, mutton soup, and mutton frigadelle [sic], that is mutton chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked.’

Although meat-heavy, this was a menu organised around using leftovers: the Seminary bought whole sheep carcasses from the butcher and the school’s cook broke them down herself. She would serve roast mutton on Sunday, and then use up that which wasn’t eaten by transforming it into soup, broth, and rissoles. If needs be, she could supplement their diet with smaller cuts – like cutlets. This was a typical middle-class Victorian practice. Writing about Victorian recipe books, Judith Flanders notes:

Most weekly menu plans listed entirely new dinners only three days a week; the other four were made up of reheated food from previous days. … Mrs Beeton gave numerous recipes for recooking food, usually meat: her Scotch collops were reheated veal in a white sauce; her Indian Fowl was reheated chicken covered with a curry sauce; Monday’s Pudding was made with the remains of Sunday’s plum pudding; not to mention the recipes she gave for endless types of patty, potted meat and minced meat, all of which used cooked meat as their base.

This was both an economical way of ensuring that some meat – usually the sole form of protein – was served during each main meal, as well as relatively healthy: it reduced the amount of meat eaten by each person. Recipe books from the mid-twentieth century have a similar attitude towards menu-planning, providing recipes for ‘made-over meat dishes’.

In a time of plenty when we don’t need to transform last night’s leftovers into tonight’s supper, the idea of ‘made-over’ food may seem a little quaint. But I think that these Victorian menus can help us to rethink how we eat meat. I don’t suggest that we adopt the pattern of roast on Sunday and then reheated meat for the rest of the week (I think this would become pretty boring), but, rather, that we change our thinking about the place of meat in our meals. If we see it as only one component alongside starch and greens, then we’ll eat less of it and more of that which is really good for us. Also, it’s a sensible way of ensuring that even those who can’t afford to buy expensive cuts can include some meat in their cooking. I don’t agree that an entirely meat-free diet will save the planet. If we eat as we should farm – with most land given over to the cultivation of plants and only a small portion devoted to animals – then we’ll adopt a menu that’s as healthy for the planet as it is for us.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

S.E. 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).

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

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.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Other sources:

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

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

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

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

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Mutton Every Day

In 1873, two American teachers, Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss, set out on a steamer from New York for the long journey to Cape Town. They had been hired as the joint founders and headmistresses of the Huguenot Seminary, a new girls’ school in Wellington. They settled in to the Boland Dutch-Afrikaans community – whose daughters were sent to Huguenot – easily, but found the diet trying. Writing to her family in Connecticut, Ferguson complained:

We live on mutton here. We have had beef here once since school commenced, but every other day mutton. We have roast mutton, mutton chops, mutton cutlets, mutton broth, mutton soup, and mutton frigadelle [sic], that is mutton chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked. You see we manage to get some variety…Still with so much fruit we do not mind the meat so much.

She and Bliss were amazed by the quality and variety of the Cape’s fruit, but Ferguson still longed for the steak and oysters of New England eating.

The most striking feature of this menu for contemporary readers is the predominance of meat, and particularly mutton. I’ll return to mutton and meat-eating (and the Seminary) in the future, but for now would like to consider, firstly, the significance of mutton in Cape cuisine, and, secondly, the Seminary pupils’ diet in the context of broader views on gender and food during the nineteenth century.

This was a diet closely linked to local produce. The Khoikhoi had kept fat-tailed sheep and traded these with European settlers since the seventeenth century. When the British took control of the Cape in 1806, there were about 1.5 million fat-tailed, non-woolled sheep in the colony. Merino sheep were introduced in the 1830s: there were 5 million sheep in 1855, 10 million in 1875, and 12 million in 1891.

Cattle stocks were lower and beef and cows’ milk more expensive as a result. The meat of choice in the Cape remained mutton: during the 1860 economic depression and drought people complained that ‘mutton was dear’. Travellers to the colony in the nineteenth century commented on the frequency with which they were served mutton at rural homesteads. Several commented on the toughness and fattiness of the meat, suggesting a link between the lack of sophistication of their meal and that of their hosts.

Beef was considerably more costly than mutton, and the pupils preferred the latter anyway. Dairy produce from cows was also prohibitively expensive: as in other households, the Seminary made its own vet (or sheep fat) by boiling the fat from sheep tails with a little salt, allowing the mixture to cool, and then shaping it into large cubes. The American teachers disliked vet and in 1874 bought a cow to supply milk – and by 1898, besides for a vegetable garden, a ‘large family of pigs’ and ‘200 fowls’, possessed ‘six or eight’ cows.

Eating mutton every day was not, then, unusual in the colony. The Seminary was a boarding school, and Ferguson and Bliss deliberately replicated the menus which their pupils would have had at home: at breakfast and supper, the girls drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and, instead of butter, smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt on their bread; a typical lunch – the main meal of the day – consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

Their decision to fit into local eating customs rather than impose American habits was done partly to mitigate the effects of their pupils’ homesickness, but also because they believed this diet to be healthy. Both teachers noted how infrequently their pupils fell ill and their general strength and good health. I think most nutritionists – although concerned about the quantity of red meat and fat – would probably agree with Ferguson and Bliss. But – viewed in the context of international thinking on health and eating – this diet was deeply unusual for the period.

In Britain, most middle-class children and young women were fed a diet rich in bland carbohydrates, and very little else. Breakfast consisted mainly of porridge or bread and butter, and potatoes were served at all other meals. The novelist Compton Mackenzie remembered:

Nor did the diet my old nurse believed to be good for children encourage biliousness, bread and heavily watered milk alternating with porridge and heavily watered milk. Eggs were rigorously forbidden, and the top of one’s father’s or mother’s boiled egg in which we were indulged when we were with them exceeded in luxurious tastiness any caviar or pate de foie gras of the future. No jam was allowed except raspberry and currant, and that was spread so thinly that it seemed merely to add sweetish seeds to the bread.

While serving carbohydrates was cheaper than cooking protein and vegetables, this menu was also the product of Victorian thinking about fruit, vegetables and meat: vegetables were unwholesome unless well cooked, and fruit was ‘rather dangerous’ and only to be eaten occasionally, and particularly to relieve constipation. Meat also ‘disrupted’ delicate feminine digestive systems.

This was a view of food still strongly influenced by the ancient humoral system, which conceptualised the body as consisting of four ‘humours’ (blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile) which needed to be kept in balance, and partly by diet. Some foods were believed to have particular influence over the humours: meat, spices, and highly-flavoured food for example, were supposed to ‘inflame’ the blood. The Victorians felt that easily ‘upset’ female bodies – and particularly young female bodies – should not be disturbed by too much meat and rich, flavourful food.

Of course, not all doctors and cooks advocated this, and not every Victorian family followed this advice. The Seminary’s pupils ate precisely the kind of food which some Victorian doctors deplored: it was meat- and fruit-heavy and characterised by spicy, tasty dishes. Huguenot’s menu – which met with the approval of the pupils’ parents – seems to indicate either that this thinking about food, gender, and health was limited to Britain, or that it was simply one diet promoted among many.

I think that this very brief analysis of Huguenot’s weekly menus demonstrates two things: firstly, the extent to which nineteenth-century diets were linked closely to local produce, and, secondly, that dietary fads were as much of a feature then as they are now.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

S.E. 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).

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

William Beinart, ‘Counting Sheep,’ in The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 9-17.

Other sources:

William Beinart and JoAnn McGregor (eds.), Social History and African Environments (Oxford: James Currey, 2003).

Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).

S.E. Duff, ‘“Every Hope of a South African New Woman?”: From New Women to College Girls at the Huguenot Seminary and College, 1895-1910,’ in Girlhood: A Global History, eds. Jennifer Helgren and Colleen Vasconcellos (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

S.E. Duff, ‘From New Women to College Girls at the Huguenot Seminary and College, 1895-1910,’ Historia, vol. 51, no. 1, May 2006, pp. 1-27.

S.E. Duff, ‘“Oh! for a blessing on Africa and America”: The Mount Holyoke System and the Huguenot Seminary, 1874-1885,’ New Contree, vol. 50, November 2005.

Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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