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Posts tagged ‘immigration’

Modern Times

A month or so ago, the food writer Todd Kliman was criticised for publishing an article in the Washingtonian titled ‘Can Ethiopian Cuisine become Modern?’ Although much of the response to the headline was, I agree, entirely justified – this is a silly, insulting question which invokes a stereotype about Africans being forever stuck in pre-modernity – Kliman’s article presents a considerably more nuanced argument. He is interested in why the Ethiopian food which he eats enthusiastically in Washington DC – a city famous for its Ethiopian restaurants – has changed relatively little in the past few decades. He writes:

But even though the cuisine’s profile has risen, the food itself hasn’t exactly evolved. Ethiopian restaurants have become markedly more fashionable over the last 20 years – gone are the days of sitting around woven-grass tables in dark, sometimes dank dens – but the cooking is hardly different from what you would have found four decades ago. A meal then is a meal now.

Put another way, Kliman investigates why Ethiopian food – particularly as it is prepared in the US – has not been made cosmopolitan. He acknowledges that what we now define as Ethiopian cuisine has only been so since the 1970s, when refugees fleeing the civil war opened restaurants selling cheap, delicious, and exotic-yet-familiar food to curious eaters in the West:

The educated elite who came to America in the ’70s might not look like culinary pioneers … but in selecting the roughly two dozen dishes they would introduce to American diners, they in effect codified the meaning of Ethiopian food in the West. (Most of these dishes come from the Gondar region … so just as Sicilian and Neapolitan red sauce and pizza came to mean Italian food to most Americans, Gondarean dishes have come to mean Ethiopian.)

These restaurants included special, vegetarian feast dishes on ordinary menus. They prepared puddings, added raw vegetables to salads, and cooked with boneless meat. Ethiopian cooking needed to be made palatable to foreign audiences. A good comparison to Ethiopian food in the US is Indian food in Britain. There, after the Second World War, largely Bengali cooks remade some of the dishes of the region to British tastes: not as hot, richer, and with a greater proportion of gravy to meat. The difference between these two cuisines, though, is that while it’s still possible to find old-fashioned curry houses across Britain, the numbers of restaurants specialising in regional cuisines and in remaking Indian cooking traditions have also proliferated. Kliman suggests that one reason for Ethiopians’ hesitancy to embrace change – both in the US and, interestingly, in Ethiopia – has to do with the country’s fraught politics. One diner in Addis Ababa explained:

He talked about the coup, the war, the decades of suppression and fear. Just as Ethiopians are enormously proud that their country has been called the birthplace of civilization, he explained, they’re proud of the fact that they’re eating the same food as their nomadic, tribal ancestors. (And, not least, eating that food in the exact same way: with their hands.) Continuity can be equated with conservatism, yes. But in a country with a long history of political uncertainty and upheaval, it also signals stability and comfort.

Ethiopian cuisine has long been shaped by nationalism. During the late nineteenth century, at a time when a national identity and the idea of an Ethiopian state were being forged, the Ethiopian court pioneered a kind of cooking which it described as the national cuisine. This was a selective vision of what the majority of Ethiopians ate, but, nonetheless, became the basis of the cooking in cafes and restaurants that began to open in the early 1900s. In the past three decades or so, this national cuisine has been adopted as somehow encapsulating Ethiopia’s national identity – despite the fact that it bears little resemblance to what nomads would have eaten even in the recent past.

Ethiopian tea and coffee at Arts on Main, Johannesburg.

Arts on Main, Johannesburg.

But even if Kliman isn’t really interested in Ethiopian food becoming ‘modern,’ this question about diet and modernity is an important one. The appeal of Ethiopian restaurants to leftwing Americans in the 1970s (ironically in Washington DC, one of the key cities of the Enlightenment) was precisely because it seemed to speak to their anxieties about modernity in an era of oil crises, rising anxiety about ecological disaster, and the slow emergence of finance capital. This was – they believed – food from a simpler, gentler, pre-modern time.

But American progressives have not always been so enthusiastic about immigrant cooking. In his wonderful book Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (1988), Harvey Levenstein devotes a chapter to the New England Kitchen (NEK), a project established in Boston in 1890 by Edward Atkinson, Wilbur Atwater, and Ellen Richards. Concerned about the growing potential for strikes and other forms of collective action in American industry, Atkinson, a prosperous Boston businessman, was interested in ways of improving the living conditions of his employees without raising their wages. Nutrition seemed to offer one way of solving this conundrum – an impression confirmed by the hugely influential scientist of nutrition, Wilbur Atwater. Ellen Richards, a chemist and the first woman graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that ways needed to be found to apply scientific research and principles to the improvement – the modernising – of American households.

The result of this collaboration was the NEK, which was intended both as a research institute and as a school where working people could learn to prepare simple, nutritious meals. Initially, it appeared to be a raging success, attracting funding from Andrew Carnegie, and with branches soon opening in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. But the NEK model failed quickly, and largely because it could not attract adequate numbers of the urban poor to attend classes. This was due in part to the fact that the diet recommended by the NEK was distinctly dull, heavy in refined carbohydrates, and sparingly flavoured. (This was in a time before the discovery of vitamins, so NEK staff were dismissive of the usefulness of fruit and vegetables.)

The ethnically varied working poor – constituted mainly of Italians, French Canadians, the Irish, and Jews from eastern and central Europe – apparently served by the NEK were not interested in this bland, heavy ‘American’ cooking. Moreover, as Levenstein makes the point, the cuisines brought by these immigrants was far more than simply sustenance: they were the basis for new identities in a foreign land, they created social cohesion, and they were closely intertwined with women’s own positions within both families and communities. Although the NEK project failed in some ways, its work was picked up in the early twentieth century by nutritionists who campaigned for the ‘Americanisation’ of immigrant diets, arguing that the strong flavourings of foreign diets served only to overwork digestive systems and encourage drinking. Meals had to be eaten on plates, rather from bowls, and with knives and forks. Spaghetti was not deemed an appropriate dinner. This was modern eating for modern Americans.

This process was not particular to the US. Missionaries in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa taught converts on mission stations to eat with knives and forks, instead of communally, with hands. Home economics classes, the homecraft and Jeanes movements, and other interventions were intended to teach African women how to run modern, civilised homes shortly before and after independence.

But this suspicion of immigrant food and eating as being somehow both anti-modern and unpatriotic is worth considering. American nutritionists in the early decades of the twentieth century were also suspicious of how immigrant women bought their food, choosing to go to small delis owned by other immigrants, instead of larger grocery stores. South Africa is experiencing yet another wave of xenophobic violence again – attacks on foreigners, most of them from the rest of the continent, as well as China and south Asia, never really cease, but we’re witnessing a moment of particularly heightened violence – and targets are often small spaza shops in informal settlements. Locals accuse foreigners of buying stock in bulk, thus undercutting South African businesspeople. One of the implications of the closure of these businesses is hunger: they sell food at much lower prices than the big supermarkets, which also tend to be taxi- and bus-rides away.

Apartheid’s project of race classification insisted that the race categories into which the population was divided were culturally defined: Indian people in Durban ate curry, ‘Malay’ people in Cape Town cooked bredie. Apartheid ideologues went out of their way to erase centuries of entangled histories. A refusal to engage with others – a refusal to understand our reliance on others – simply continues that project.

Sources

Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

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

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

James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, OH.: Ohio University Press, 2009).

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.

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

Chop Suey in Barberton

A few weeks ago I was accepted on a writing retreat held periodically at Pullen Farm, a facility owned by Wits University about five hours’ drive northeast of Johannesburg. One afternoon we made the short journey to Barberton, a small town whose chief attraction is that there was a short-lived gold rush there more than a century ago.

Like other countries with vast, sparsely populated interiors – I think of Australia and the US – South Africa does weird towns very well. I’d visited Barberton once before, on an epic family road trip in the late-1990s, and we’ve all since remembered it as epitomising rural South African strangeness.  In some ways we’d been primed to look out for the odd, having seen a newspaper headline which screamed ‘Vampire Mermaid Strikes Again!’ in nearby White River. (It’s the ‘again’ which I find so intriguing.)

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what made Barberton so strange: the quiet, deserted town centre in the middle of the day; the old-fashioned shops selling unusual combinations of things (kitchen utensils with shoes, for instance); or the unfriendly townspeople.  It has some magnificent, deserted, Victorian buildings, which sit side-by-side with Art Deco and 1970s brutalist municipal offices.

Now, Barberton has a new shopping centre which seems to be pulling people away from the rather dilapidated main road. But there is still a general dealer there that buys everything ‘from teaspoons to your mother-in-law.’ I found a copy of Die Volkome Huwelik (The Complete Marriage), the Dutch Reformed Church-endorsed sex manual of the 1970s, for R5 at a junk shop also selling mannequins, a till, and a couple of washing machines.

A Barberton junk shop.

A Barberton junk shop.

Barberton seems to be trying harder to make something of its brief moment of international significance in the 1880s, with a collection of museums relating to the gold rush. We had lunch at the Phoenix Hotel, established in 1886 to provide accommodation to visiting mine magnates and better-off prospectors hoping to find their fortunes in the newly discovered gold deposits near the town. With the opening up of richer gold seams on the Witwatersrand, these wealthy investors packed up and moved to Johannesburg.

It is now a Chinese restaurant and sushi bar. The menu – which is extensive, and split between the staples of mid-market South African dining and some ‘Chinese’ dishes and sushi – provides diners with a handy guide to using chopsticks. There are lanterns and banners with shiny lettering draped around the restaurant, which was mainly empty.

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I had vegetables and stir-fired noodles, and others had Szechuan beef, prawns with rice, spring rolls, and sushi. I’ve certainly eaten more interesting Chinese food elsewhere, but this certainly counts as one of the most unexpected Chinese meals I’ve ever had.

In some ways, though, the presence of a Chinese restaurant – and one run by a Chinese family – in Barberton should not be at all surprising. In the light of China’s growing investment in Africa, recent immigrants from China have settled across the country, mostly opening small businesses. Along with the inevitable Pep Stores, Sasko bread truck, and branch of Absa bank, the Chinese shop is becoming a feature of rural towns and villages.

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Johannesburg now has two Chinatowns. There has been a small Chinese-South African population, based mainly in the country’s larger cities, since at least the nineteenth century. Between 1904 and 1907, around 63,000 Chinese indentured labourers were brought to the Witwatersrand to work on the mines, but the vast majority of these men returned home afterwards.  Under apartheid, there was an influx of people from Taiwan after it was recognised by the National Party over mainland China.

In 2008 the Chinese Association of South Africa succeeded in compelling the government to reclassify Chinese South Africans as ‘black’ so that they, too, can benefit from post-apartheid black economic empowerment and affirmative action policies. This was in recognition of the fact that Chinese people also were discriminated against on the grounds of their race before 1994.

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There are around 200,000 Chinese people living in South Africa at the moment. The increase in this small population – since the early 2000s, around 24,000 Chinese have settled in South Africa (and I’m not absolutely certain of that figure) – has given rise to warnings of a ‘yellow peril’. Chinese people have been victims of xenophobic attacks, and last year the investigative magazine Noseweek published a disgraceful article alleging that, among other things, Chinese shopkeepers deliberately drive South African businesses into the ground.

This suspicion of recent Chinese immigrants would be interesting were it not quite so old. Similar allegations were levelled against the Chinese in early twentieth-century California and New York, for instance, and particularly on the grounds that Chinese refused, apparently, to integrate socially and culturally.

Ironically, though, the food served so successfully by Chinese cooks to Californian gold diggers or New York construction workers was a kind of hybrid of Chinese – and given the heavily regionalised nature of China’s cooking, there isn’t really a single ‘Chinese’ cuisine – and American cooking. Chop suey and other dishes were invented to use ingredients Chinese chefs could find in the US, as well as to appeal to American tastes.

Having become increasingly accustomed to the more sophisticated Chinese food now fairly easily available outside of China, the menu at the Phoenix Hotel, along with the dragons and fans of the décor, felt strangely retro. It listed the amalgam, ‘Western-Chinese’ dishes – including chop suey – which can be found just about wherever Chinese cooks have set up shop.

Sitting in this small, depressed mining town – there is still a gold mine and a prison, but unemployment is very high – despite the incongruity of eating Chinese food in the Phoenix Hotel, I was struck by the continuities of this situation. The family running the restaurant are part of yet another wave of immigrants – following on from the prospectors and diggers of the late nineteenth century – drawn to a country which seems to offer them a better chance, and certainly more political freedom, than does their homeland. And they continue to serve a cuisine which attempts to be both exotically enticing and comfortably familiar to their customers.

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

Aussie Rules?

A month ago I had the pleasing experience of packing for Perth. In South African slang, ‘packing for Perth’ means immigrating to Australia. In the decade that followed the transition to democracy, around 800,000 mainly white South Africans left – some for New Zealand, Britain, and the United States, but the bulk went to Australia.

Australia’s appeal to these South Africans was based on its political and economic stability, its relatively low crime rate, and also on its familiarity. Its landscape and cities feel similar to some parts of South Africa, and white, middle-class South Africans seemed have little difficulty assimilating into life in white, middle-class Australia.

Shortly after beginning university, my best friend’s family moved to Tasmania; and we knew of others who settled in Perth, where the majority of South Africans seeking permanent residence were directed. At the time, I was mystified about this enthusiasm for a country about which I knew relatively little. Neighbours and Home and Away having passed me by, when I thought of Australia I imagined the worlds of Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career – and also of The Castle and Strictly Ballroom. It was a rather confusing picture.

Then more recently, I became aware of Australia as a country with an enthusiasm for good food: in television series like My Restaurant Rules and MasterChef, and in the recipes books and magazines of people like Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander, Bill Granger, and Donna Hay. Particularly on MasterChef, Australian cooks and chefs speak often – and approvingly – of something called ‘modern Australian cooking’. I went to Australia in the hope of identifying this new cuisine. But I returned none the wiser.

I ate extremely well in Australia. I am very lucky to have friends who not only let me stay with them, but who are also amazingly good cooks. The meals I had at cafes and restaurants were excellent, and even the conference food was the best I have ever eaten. (There were spring rolls for lunch and lamingtons for tea. Enough said.)

Yet in all this, I struggled to find something that was uniquely, and particularly ‘modern Australian’ about the food I ate. I did go out of my way to consume those delicacies and dishes which either originated there or have come to be associated with the country: lamingtons and Anzac biscuits (a revelation), friands (I ate my weight’s worth in them), burgers with beetroot (up to a point), and litres and litres of flat whites, especially in Melbourne. Fruit bread is a fantastic invention. I tried Vegemite in London and decided that once was enough. And, alas, I forgot to eat a pavlova, but given the amount I did manage to consume, it was probably just as well.

A flat white in Fremantle.

I also ate an incredible omelette at a Vietnamese restaurant in Marrickville in Sydney, and a pleasingly thin-crusted pizza at an Italian joint in Melbourne’s Yarraville. Australian food is also immigrant food: it’s comprised of the cuisines of the Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Chinese, and others who settled in the country over the past century or so.

But ‘modern Australian’? I’m not sure that I ate that – possibly it’s only to be found in high-end restaurants, none of which I could afford. One culinary tradition which I did not see – at restaurants or in the cookery sections of bookshops – was Aboriginal cooking. Although Colin Bannerman identifies a small resurgence of interest in ‘bush tucker’, it’s telling that this cuisine is not included in mainstream Australian recipe books or cookery programmes. It isn’t modern Australian.

I don’t want to draw the obvious – glib – conclusion that this is suggestive of how Aboriginals have been ostracised from Australian society. Aboriginals are socially and economically marginalised, and suffer disproportionately from appallingly high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, and other social problems, but I don’t think that Australian cooks and chefs ignore their cuisine out of a desire to exclude them further (unless I’m being stunningly naïve).

I think that this unwillingness to explore Aboriginal cooking stems from ignorance and a wariness of the complicated politics of engaging with a different society’s culinary traditions. More importantly, it’s also the product of how a twenty-first century Australianness is being constructed in relation to food and cooking. It’s for this reason that I’m interested in this idea of modern Australian cuisine.

Australian cooking queen Maggie Beer is fulsome in her praise of Australia. In her recipe books, which tend to focus on her farm in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, she argues that fresh Australian produce is key to the success of not only her recipes, but also her restaurant and food business. Her understanding of an Australian culinary tradition does not include Aboriginal cuisine, but is, rather, rooted in an appreciation for the country’s landscape and agriculture.

Organic potatoes in Melbourne’s Victoria Market.

Although she may use ingredients which are unique to Australia – like yabbies – or which grow there in abundance – such as quinces – her cooking is overwhelmingly European in nature: it draws its inspiration from the culinary traditions of France and Italy. Adrian Peace sums up this rethinking of an Australian food heritage particularly well in an article about the Slow Food Movement’s popularity in the Barossa Valley:

Both ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ became intrinsic to Barossa Slow’s discourse: ‘The Barossa is the heart of Australian wine and home to the country’s oldest and richest food traditions. The combination of this rich European heritage and the fresh vitality of Australia is embodied in its lifestyle and landscape.’ Aboriginal settlement and indigenous food were thus instantly erased in favour of a historical perspective in which nothing of cultural consequence preceded the arrival of Europeans and their imported foodstuffs. With this historical baseline in place, an avalanche of terms and phrases could be unleashed to drive home the idea of a historically encompassing regional culture in which food had played a prominent part. ‘Oldest food traditions,’ ‘rich in food traditions,’ ‘the heritage of food,’ ‘rich European heritage,’ and (of particular note) ‘the preservation of culinary authenticity’ were some of the phrases that entered into circulation.

Younger, city-based food writers like Donna Hay and Bill Granger place as much emphasis on buying local Australian produce, even if their recipes draw inspiration from more recent immigrant cuisines, primarily those of southeast Asia – Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Chinatowns – and the southern Mediterranean.

All of these writers claim that their cooking, which is drawn from the cuisines of the immigrants who’ve settled in Australia, is ‘authentically’ Australian partly because they use local produce and advocate seasonal eating.

Australian garlic at Victoria Market.

Ironically, if this is modern Australian cooking, then it is very similar to the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century, during a period in which Australia was formulating a new, united identity after federation in 1901. The Anzac biscuit – a delicious combination of oats, golden syrup, butter, and desiccated coconut – can be seen as symbolic of this early Australian identity. Baked by the wives, sisters, and mothers of the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the first world war, the biscuits became closely associated with the disaster at Gallipoli in 1915, when 8,141 Australian troops were killed in what was, in retrospect, a pointless battle. Sian Supski explains:

The biscuits have come to represent the courage of the soldiers at Gallipoli and to signify the importance of the role women played on the homefront. However, within this narrative is also a sleight of hand: Anzac biscuits link Australians to a time past, to a time that is regarded as ‘the birth of our nation’. In this sense, Anzac biscuits link Australians powerfully and instantly to a time and place that is regarded as the heart of Australian national identity. In the words of Graham Seal, ‘Anzac resonates of those things that most Australians have continued to hold dear about their communal sense of self.’

Anzac biscuits are a kind of culinary symbol of Australia – a foodstuff connected to the forging of the Australian nation. But for all their Australianness, they are also strongly suggestive of Australia’s immigrant roots and global connections: there is some evidence to suggest that they were based on Scottish recipes, and they were sent to soldiers fighting what was, in many ways, an imperial conflict.

Australian cooking during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries emphasized the country’s position within the Empire: the country cooking described in early recipe books was British cuisine adapted, to some extent, for Australian circumstances. Publications like Mina Rawson’s Queensland Cookery and Poultry Book (1878) did acknowledge the quality of local produce, and even included recipes for jams made from indigenous berries. Although, like elites all over the world, the Australian upper middle-classes aspired to eat a rarefied French cuisine, everyone else cooked an approximation of what they ate at ‘home’ (or ‘Home’). The Sunday roast remained the highlight of the week’s eating; heavy puddings featured even in summer; and teatime was a significant moment in the day.

At the same time, Australia’s economy was becoming increasingly dependent on the export of food: innovations in refrigeration meant that fresh produce could be shipped around the world. Australia sent meat, fruit, and vegetables to Britain. The posters of the Empire Marketing Board – which was established in 1926 to promote trade within the British Empire – portrayed Australia as a land of abundance. The British children sent to Australia between the second world war and 1967 were told that they were going to a land of ‘oranges and sunshine’.

So this earlier Australian culinary tradition also mingled Australian produce with a foreign – this time British – culinary tradition in the name of producing something ‘authentically’ Australian.

In Sydney’s Chinatown.

For all its attempts to associate a modern Australianness with a cosmopolitan and sophisticated liking for, and knowledge of, the cooking of southeast Asia and other regions, modern Australian cooking is very similar to that of the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century – of an Australia anxious to assert its position within the Empire and to prove its status as a ‘civilised’ nation through ‘civilised’ eating.

Both of these traditions ground themselves in an appreciation for an empty landscape: one that is devoid of human – particularly Aboriginal – life, but that is bursting with good quality fresh produce, most of which was, ironically, introduced from abroad.

Further Reading

I am very grateful to Alex Robinson who recommends two particularly good histories of food and cooking in Australia:

Barbara Santich, Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage (Adelaide: Wakefield Press 2012).

Michael Symons, One Continuous Picnic: A Gastronomic History of Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007).

Sources cited here:

Colin Bannerman, ‘Indigenous Food and Cookery Books: Redefining Aboriginal Cuisine,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 19-36.

Adrian Peace, ‘Barossa Slow: The Representation and Rhetoric of Slow Food’s Regional Cooking,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 51-59.

Barbara Santich, ‘The High and the Low: Australian Cuisine in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 37-49.

Sian Supski, ‘Anzac Biscuits – A Culinary Memorial,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 51-59.

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

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It even adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

Kolleen M. Guy, ‘Rituals of Pleasure in the Land of Treasures: Wine Consumption and the Making of French Identity in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 34-47.

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

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, ‘Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others,’ in Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 99-113.

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

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