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Posts tagged ‘imperialism’

The Root of the Evil

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching with barely-disguised glee, the evisceration of a recent Newsweek article by Niall Ferguson – pet historian of the American right – in which he provides a deeply flawed analysis of Barack Obama’s past four years in power. As Matthew O’Brien notes, before systematically working through Ferguson’s argument (or, indeed, ‘argument’), ‘He simply gets things wrong, again and again and again.’

I’m no fan of Ferguson’s. This has less to do with our political differences – in relation to him, I’m so left-wing I should be living in a Himalayan hippy commune practising an obscure form of yoga while teaching Capital to peasants – but because of the way he shapes his interpretations of the past to suit a particular neoliberal agenda.

Of course, no historian is capable of writing an absolutely objective history of anything – nor would we want to because it would be dreadfully boring – but Ferguson presents, and defends, his arguments on the grounds that they are absolute truth.

He was called out on this last year by Pankaj Mishra, in a fantastic review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest for the London Review of Books. In Civilisation, Ferguson argues that

civilisation is best measured by the ability to make ‘sustained improvement in the material quality of life’, and in this the West has ‘patently enjoyed a real and sustained edge over the Rest for most of the previous 500 years’. Ferguson names six ‘killer apps’ – property rights, competition, science, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic – as the operating software of Western civilisation that, beginning around 1500, enabled a few small polities at the western end of the Eurasian landmass ‘to dominate the rest of the world’.

Leaving aside the strange question of why an historian writing in the twenty-first century thinks that it’s possible to divorce the ‘West’ (whatever we may mean by that) from the rest of the world – and even why an historian feels like writing a triumphalist history of Europe and North America (I thought we stopped doing that in the sixties?) – this is a history which largely ignores, or plays down, the implications of modern capitalism and globalisation for those people outside of the West.

As in his writing on the creation of European empires, Ferguson has a problem with accounting for the widespread resistance of Africans, Asians, and others to European conquest – and the violence and exploitation which followed colonisation. Mishra writes:

he thinks that two vaguely worded sentences 15 pages apart in a long paean to the superiority of Western civilisation are sufficient reckoning with the extermination of ten million people in the Congo.

Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about a comment which Roger Casement made in a report for the British government about atrocities committed in the Congo Free State during the late nineteenth century. Writing in 1900, he concluded:

The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain….

The Congo Free State came into being at the 1884-1885 Berlin West Africa Conference, where the assembled representatives of European states acknowledged the Belgian king’s right to establish a colony in central Africa. Leopold II’s International Association – a front organisation for his own commercial interests – was allowed to operate in the region.

There were strings attached to the deal – Leopold had to encourage both humanitarianism and free trade, for instance – but with the sharp increase in international demand for rubber in the 1890s, after JB Dunlop’s invention of inflatable rubber tyres, Leopold’s interest in the Congo, which had only ever extended to exploiting the country for its natural resources, narrowed even further. Leopold operated his own monopoly on the rubber trade, leasing some land to other companies on the proviso that they pay him a third of their profits.

The ‘evil’ to which Casement referred was the transformation of the Congolese population into a mass of forced labourers compelled to contribute quotas of rubber to the various businesses operating in the Free State. Those who failed to do so, those who refused to do so, or those who were suspected of not doing so, faced brutal reprisals from the State’s Force Publique, including being killed, often along with their families; having their hands cut off; and seeing their villages and property burned and destroyed.

It’s estimated that ten to thirteen million Congolese died as a result of murder, starvation, exhaustion, and disease between 1885 and 1908, when international condemnation of Leopold’s regime forced the Belgian government to take control of the Free State.

Although other colonial regimes in Africa could be brutal, violent, and unjust, none of them – with the possible exception of Germany in (what is now) Namibia – managed to commit atrocities on the scale that Leopold did in the Congo. As Casement makes the point, ‘the root of the problem’ was that the Congo was run entirely for profit, and that the businesses which operated in the region were not regulated in any way. This was capitalism at its most vicious.

But what does this all have to do with food? Well I was reminded of Casement’s comment when reading about Glencore’s response to the current droughts – chiefly in the US, but also elsewhere – which are partially responsible for global increases in food prices:

The head of Glencore’s food trading business has said the worst drought to hit the US since the 1930s will be ‘good for Glencore’ because it will lead to opportunities to exploit soaring prices.

Chris Mahoney, the trader’s director of agricultural products, who owns about £500m of Glencore shares, said the devastating US drought had created an opportunity for the company to make much more money.

‘In terms of the outlook for the balance of the year, the environment is a good one. High prices, lots of volatility, a lot of dislocation, tightness, a lot of arbitrage opportunities [the purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from price differences in different markets],’ he said on a conference call.

This weekend, it was revealed that Barclays has made more than £500 million from food speculation:

The World Development Movement report estimates that Barclays made as much as £529m from its ‘food speculative activities’ in 2010 and 2011. Barclays made up to £340m from food speculation in 2010, as the prices of agricultural commodities such as corn, wheat and soya were rising. The following year, the bank made a smaller sum – of up to £189m – as prices fell, WDM said.

The revenues that Barclays and other banks make from trading in everything from wheat and corn to coffee and cocoa, are expected to increase this year, with prices once again on the rise. Corn prices have risen by 45 per cent since the start of June, with wheat jumping by 30 per cent.

What bothers me so much about these massive profits is partly the massive profits – the fact that these businesses are actually making money out of a food crisis – but mainly it’s that these monstrously wealthy businessmen are so unwilling to admit that what they’re doing is, even in the most charitable interpretation, morally dubious.

Barclays’s claim that its involvement in food speculation is simply a form of futures trading is disingenuous: futures trading is an entirely legitimate way for farmers to insure themselves against future bad harvests. What Barclays and other banks, as well as pension funds, do is to trade in agricultural commodities in the same way as they do other commodities – like oil or timber.

In 1991, Goldman Sachs came up with an investment product – the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index – which allowed for raw materials, including food, to be traded as easily as other products. When the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission deregulated futures markets eight years later, for the first time since the Great Depression, it became possible to trade in maize, wheat, rice, and other foodstuffs for profit.

The current food crisis has been caused by a range of factors – from the drought, to the excessive use of maize and other crops for biofuel – and exacerbated by climate change and pre-existing conflicts, corruption, inequalities, and problems with distribution. In Europe, unemployment and low wages will add to people’s inability to buy food – hence the rise in demand for food banks in Britain, for example.

Food speculation has not caused the crisis, but it does contribute to it by adding to food price volatility. I’m not – obviously – comparing Glencore or Barclays to Leopold II’s International Association, but the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State provide an excellent example of what happens when capitalism is allowed to run rampant. Let’s not make that mistake with our food supply.

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

Tall Tales

I’m convinced that one of the reasons I became a historian was early exposure to the Indiana Jones films. (For all non-academics, they’re the best and most accurate depiction of academia in any cultural medium ever.)* My favourite remains Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – surely the greatest film ever made – and particularly for the bizarre and appalling feast to which Jones and his sidekicks are subjected at the Pankot Palace. I watched it again last night:


There are, of course, enormous problems with the film: it was banned in India for its depiction of Indians and Hinduism, and it can hardly be credited for providing an accurate portrayal of the subcontinent’s colonial politics during the 1930s. For me, the film’s campness and cartoonishness save it – like Tintin, it is barely on nodding acquaintance with reality.

But it does offer a useful way of understanding the relationship between food and colonialism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Pankot Palace feast is inedibly disgusting: from ‘Snake Surprise’ (a python slit open to reveal writhing, live snakes) and giant scarab beetles, to eyeball soup and monkey brains for pudding.

The scene cuts between our heroine’s increasingly panicked response to the meal and a tense, yet polite conversation between Jones, a British officer, and the juvenile Maharajah’s smoothly suave Prime Minister. Jones raises the question of the implications of the Kali-worshipping Thuggee (yes, really) cult for the local villagers – something which he argues is a greater threat to British rule in that region of India than was the 1857 Rebellion.

It’s all utterly ridiculous, obviously, but the film’s point is that the Palace’s enthusiasm for human sacrifice and the enslavement of children – we later see that the Maharajah’s wealth is mined by thousands of shackled child labourers – is linked in some way to its appalling eating habits.

For nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialists such a view would have made perfect sense. During this period, British imperialism was justified, increasingly, on the grounds that it brought the light of civilisation to the dark and frightening jungles and deserts of Africa and Asia. (The residents of these jungles and deserts – these communities, nations, and empires – begged to differ on this point, but their views were hardly deemed important at the time.) This ‘civilising mission’ empowered imperial agents, from officials to missionaries, to ‘civilise’ colonial subjects.

Importantly, this process extended beyond conversion to Christianity and – for boys, at least – education. The domestic space was a key site for the creation of civilised subjects. In Britain, the home was a marker of respectability: the furnishings, cleanliness, and efficient running of the home by servants were all signs of a family’s good morals. Food and dining helped to establish class status as well.

For missionaries attempting to civilise colonial subjects, living in the right way was as important as thinking in the right way. Converts were encouraged to wear Western dress, live in square – not round – houses, and adopt British eating habits. Not only were they to eat three meals a day, but these were to be modelled, as far as possible, on what the middle class would have eaten in Britain, using British ingredients and British recipes.

In her study of missionaries working in the Belgian Congo, Nancy Rose Hunt argues that the progress of the Congolese living on the mission station was measured in terms of their willingness to swop local dishes for steak and kidney pudding, rissoles, and fruit cake. She notes the ‘evolutionary theme[s]’ evoked by the missionaries to emphasise the progress of their protégés, from ‘darkness to lightness, savagery to civilisation, heathens to Christians, monkey stew to roast beef.’ Roast beef is on the same side as Christianity and civilisation, assuming, thus, a moral value.

This discourse around civilisation, domesticity, and eating exercised an enormous effect on the lives of colonised peoples. Such was its strength that settlers in India and Britain’s African colonies insisted upon eating versions of familiar dishes – despite the differences in climate and available ingredients. EM Forster wrote in A Passage to India (1924):

the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale, the peas might rattle less or more, the sardines and the vermouth be imported by a different firm, but the tradition remained: the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand it.

The new, educated middle classes in Africa ate British-style food to signify their civilised, sophisticated status. In Nervous Conditions (1988), Tsitsi Dangarembga uses food to illustrate the differences between Tambudzai – the slightly educated young daughter of a large, poor family in rural Zimbabwe – and the middle-class, British-educated aunt and uncle with whom she lives to go to school. Her aunt offers her a spoon and a mound of sadza when she has difficulty eating a ‘western’ meal using a knife and fork. Tambudzai is amazed by the cake, biscuits, and jam she is offered at teatime – all luxuries at her parents’ homestead. Accustomed to drinking from an enamel mug, she misjudges the heat of her tea in the china teacup and burns her mouth. Food plays a vital role in her transition from ‘peasant’ to ‘a clean, well-groomed, genteel self.’

This was, then, a powerful discourse. However strange and illogical this narrative about food, civilisation, and identity may seem to us, similar narratives continue to be constructed by many Westerners to understand Africa, and their relationship with a continent whose complexity and diversity they can’t – or won’t – seem to understand.

In the current narratives about the continent, Africans are depicted either as innocent, perpetually suffering victims or as vicious, murdering monsters. The success – if that is to be measured by the number of times a video is watched on YouTube – of the extraordinarily misguided Kony 2012 campaign demonstrates the extent to which people consider these narratives to be true.

This annoys me, both as an African and as someone who believes strongly that in the age of Google, ignorance of a whole continent is totally unacceptable and inexcusable. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this stereotyping has an impact on American and, to some extent, European policy towards the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

It’s for this reason that she is so critical of the reporting done by Nicholas Kristof on Africa. Kristof, a popular New York Times journalist, has the power to shape American attitudes towards the continent. But he tells a story which persistently denies the agency of Africans:

This model does not question the causes of poverty, either general or specific, for the people it is meant to help. It does not pay attention to what people are doing for themselves or ask what they need. It is founded on a story that treats people as if they were just part of a natural landscape washed ashore by forces that aid agencies do not participate in or have any control over. It offers solutions, often expensive and technological, and therefore measurable, that inevitably cannot be sustained or make any genuine long term change in the lives of poor people around the world.

There is very little difference between Kristof’s view of Africa and that of nineteenth-century missionaries: the continent – populated by suffering and poweless, but essentially angelic, women and children – is the white man’s burden.

So what are the implications of such simple, and incorrect, narratives about Africa? Alex de Waal suggests that the attention that Kony 2012 drew to Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army may well detract from more nuanced and better targeted policy making around Africa. In an analysis of how three discourses have impacted on foreign intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Séverine Autesserre writes:

The dominant narratives have oriented international programmes on the ground toward three main goals – regulating trade of minerals, providing care to victims of sexual violence, and helping the state extend its authority – at the expense of all the other necessary measures, such as resolving land conflict, promoting inter-community reconciliation, jump-starting economic development, ensuring that state authorities respect human rights, and fighting corruption.

She adds:

Even worse, because of these exclusive focuses, the international efforts have exacerbated the problems that they aimed to combat: the attempts to control the exploitation of resources have enabled armed groups to strengthen their control over mines; the disproportionate attention to sexual violence has raised the status of sexual abuse to an effective bargaining tool for combatants; and the state reconstruction programmes have boosted the capacity of an authoritarian regime to oppress its population.

This has profound implications for dealing with famine and food shortages in parts of Africa as well. Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini point out that NGOs, think tanks, and policy makers need to think through the implications of the recent spike in the price of food for food security. Making the point that while high food prices increase the likelihood of poor people going hungry, they also benefit poor farmers, Swinnen and Squicciarini demonstrate that as recently as 2005, Oxfam and the Food and Agriculture Organisation were blaming low food prices for hunger. They write: ‘it can be hard to find a relation between underlying analytical work and the policy messages sent by communications departments.’

The problem with an approach which argues that only one factor – like food prices – causes hunger is that it can actually worsen the situation. For instance, consistently advocating an end to import tariffs and export subsidies in rich countries – ostensibly to benefit farmers in poor countries – could actually cause the price of food to increase.

The recent announcement that one billion people are hungry is equally problematic. Not only have these statistics been queried, but they ignore the fact that ‘[n]ew studies suggest that the number of hungry may have declined, possibly by many millions, despite the food price increase.’ This simple narrative about hunger and povety – which slots into pre-existing notions about the helpless African poor – actually undermines further investigation into the complex causes of hunger.

So why the disconnect between policy and research? Swinnen and Squicciarini suggest that in order to raise funds and to influence governments, NGOs tend to use – rather than challenge – the narratives offered by the media on poverty, Africa, and food security.

This is why stories and narratives are so dangerous. As Swinnen and Squicciarini conclude:

If the objective is to assist those who are hurt by price changes, this is no excuse for simplistic messages.

*Not really.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Séverine Autesserre, ‘Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences,’ African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 442 (January 2012), pp. 1-21.

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

EM Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin, [1924] 1989).

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.)

Kathryn Mathers, ‘Mr Kristof, I presume? Saving Africa in the Footsteps of Nicholas Kristof,’ Transition, no. 107 (2012), pp. 15-31.

Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini, ‘Mixed Messages on Prices and Food Security,’ Science, vol. 335 (27 January 2012), pp. 405-406.

Other sources:

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

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

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The Empire Bites Back

Well, HELLO there! Dear readers, I have missed you dreadfully. I return to normal service as the madness of the past few weeks simmers down. Also, I have a re-enamelled bath, which is useful.

This veeeery long post is a paper I presented a few weeks ago at the ‘Breaking the Boundaries‘ seminar series organised by the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. I’m hoping that this will form the basis of a new research project, so all comments, criticism, and feedback (ho ho) are particularly welcome. It’s very draft-y, so please excuse the wonkiness of the writing and the inevitable inaccuracies and omissions. If you’d like a properly referenced version with all the academic bells and whistles – although I have listed the sources I’ve cited, below – please let me know (sarahemilyduff [at] gmail [dot] com) and I’ll email you a copy.

Introduction

In the preface to her eponymous recipe book, Alice B. Toklas noted:

Though born in America, I have lived so long in France that both countries seem to be mine, and knowing, loving both, I took to pondering on the differences in eating habits and general attitude to food and the kitchen in the United States and here. I fell to considering how every nation…has its idiosyncrasies in food and drink conditioned by climate, soil and temperament. And I thought about wars and conquests and how invading or occupying troops carry their habits with them and so in time perhaps the national kitchen or table.

Toklas’s point that national cuisines are produced as much by local circumstances as they are by war and conquest – by global forces, in other words – is worth considering. The study of food, and particularly of food in history, requires us to think beyond boundaries and borders: ingredients travel around the world, and, at least since the seventeenth century, we have become accustomed to eating things – plants and animals – alien to our natural environments; regional patterns of cookery are shaped by migration and occupation by foreign forces; local customs, techniques, and flavours are exported around the world. The way we produce, distribute, prepare, and consume food is determined by a range of factors, many of which operate on a global scale. The study of food also exceeds disciplinary boundaries: it opens a window on to the linkages between political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. By its nature, this study is universal: all people eat and experience hunger. Food history has an immediacy which links the personal with the historical.

Despite the growing popularity of the field of food history, little has been written about the place of food within the British Empire, one of the most important global networks of trade, administration, and communication in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. The purpose of this paper is twofold: firstly, to provide an introduction to the origins, development, and nature of the field of food history, and, secondly, to suggest ways in which food can be inserted into histories of British Imperialism. I conclude with the outline of a project which I hope to pursue in the future.

We are what we eat: food histories

‘The history of food’, writes Raymond Grew, ‘can be thought of as beginning with biology and the hard realities of climate, soil, property, and labour; but it continues through social structure, economic exchange, and technology to embrace culture and include a history of collective and individual preferences.’ In other words, food history seems to offer a way of studying change over time which takes into account nearly every sphere of human activity. It bridges the gap between the cultural and the material. Food provides nourishment, but it also carries with it a range of assumptions, symbols, and signs which are occasionally as important as its primary function. When Spanish missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico refused to celebrate communion using maize, instead of wheat, wafers, they did so purely on the grounds that wheat, an imported crop, represented Europe and, thus, civilisation. Similarly, when well-meaning lady food reformers attempted to ‘Americanise’ the cuisine of recent immigrants to the United States during the 1920s, they did so because the cooking of Italy, Poland, and Ireland was seen as less ‘civilised’ than that prepared by white, Protestant Americans.

Given their aim to write total history, it seems inevitable that the first examples of food history were published in the journal of the Annales school in France in the 1960s. Beginning with a series of articles which examined the diets of a group of former European servicemen during the Second World War, Annales ESC regularly featured writing on food history. An edited volume of the best scholarship on the topic, Food and Drink in History, appeared in 1979. The Oxford Symposium for Food and Cookery was founded by Theodore Zeldin and Alan Davidson, the editor of the Oxford Companion to Food (1999), in 1981. Beyond Annales and the papers read at the Symposium, the first significant work in the field was Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972). Crosby’s achievement was to write about the implications of the conquest of Latin America for human bodies and for landscapes – both Latin American and European. By writing about disease (specifically syphilis), plants, animals, and other foodstuffs, he demonstrated the extent to which political conquest altered the environment, demographics, and social and cultural life of Latin America and Europe. This study, along with Bridget Ann Henisch’s Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (1977), and Savouring the Past: The French Table from 1300 to 1789 (1983) by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, heralded the beginning of a flood of histories of national and migrant cuisines, recipes, particular ingredients, hunger and famine, gender and food, and food and imperialism.

This historical research was complimented by a range of anthropological and, to a lesser extent, sociological studies published at around the same time: Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked (1965), Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), and Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (1982) by Jack Goody being some of the most influential texts. It was the publication of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz in 1985 which blurred disciplinary boundaries between history and anthropology. Indeed, more recently, the field has as frequently been called ‘food studies’ as ‘food history’ to indicate its interdisciplinary nature.

It is no coincidence that food history emerged as a field in its own right during the 1970s. The effects of Green Revolution, which used technology to increase wheat, maize, and rice yields all over the world, but most spectacularly in Mexico, India, and Vietnam, became particularly evident in this decade – and these, along with the oil crisis and a spike in global food prices between 1972 and 1974, were partly responsible for the emergence of a more vocal green movement. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and in 1972 the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth argued that humanity must learn to live within the earth’s natural limits. One of the important streams within the movement was the food counterculture – sometimes dubbed the ‘counter-cuisine’ and exemplified by the cooking of Alice Waters at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse –  which had particularly strong support in California in the 1960s and 1970s. Food activists argued for a rejection of industrialised food production and encouraged consumers not only to buy ‘natural’, locally sourced food, but also to grow their own. In Diet for a Small Planet (1971), the book which summed up much of the thinking of the counter-cuisine, Frances Moore Lappé wrote that the meat-centred diet favoured by most Americans threatened the ability of future generations to feed themselves. Later, she argued that meat-centred diets were not only unhealthy, but also as socially and ecologically unfair.

It is not surprising, then, that historians should turn to food history as a way of accounting for contemporary diets and explaining how tastes and food preferences change over time. Like environmental and women’s history, then, the origins of food history overlap to some extent with a kind of activism. This is particularly evident in the body of work which has been produced since the 1990s. There are few more potent indicators of global inequalities than the over-abundance and waste of food in the West, and the scarcity of food and famine in the third world. With concerns about food supplies, food security, changing eating patterns, obesity, and the industrialisation of food production escalating, it is unsurprising that the history of food has emerged as a popular field over the past decade. Food history is now as frequently styled food studies – even when written by historians – and the best known food historian is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, Michael Pollan, author of the wildly popular The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006).

If there is anything unusual about the field of food history, other than its plurality of focus, it is its popularity among lay audiences. Indeed, Gastronomica, one of the three main journals for food history (the others being Food and Foodways and Food, Culture, and Society) is a popular periodical sold in upmarket American supermarkets. The discipline is largely based in the United States. Its professional organisation, the Association for the Study of Food and Society, is located there, and the most prominent food historians are American: Jeffrey Pilcher has written extensively about histories of food, identity, and nationalism in Mexico – his study ¡Que vivan las tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998) is considered by many to be the founding text for the new generation of food historians; and Harvey Levenstein and Warren Belasco both focus on the nature and history of the American food industry since the beginning of the nineteenth century – the oldest, most extensive, and most influential such industry in the world. There is a strong streak of activism in Levenstein and Belasco’s writing. In Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food (2006) by Belasco and Levenstein’s The Paradox of Plenty (2003), the authors argue that their purpose is to account for, and offer solutions to, the pervasiveness of bad American eating habits. Similarly, Italian food historians – who constitute the second biggest grouping within the field – have allied themselves closely to the Slow Food Movement.

But like the heavily interdisciplinary, largely US-based history of childhood (or, increasingly, childhood studies), the ascendancy of food history is due also to the ‘cultural turn’ in the humanities during the early nineties which drew attention to the interconnectedness between the discursive and the material. And it is related to the growing popularity of the field of global history. Interest in global or world history is linked as much to contemporary concerns about the implications of globalisation as it is to efforts within the discipline to write from less ‘West-centric’ points of view. Food history is particularly suited to understanding history in global or transnational terms. As Raymond Grew notes, the ‘universality of food gives it enormous potential as an indicator of cultural differences and historical change’. He adds: ‘food can be used as a kind of trace element, tracking the direction of change, revealing the complex intersections of old and new that demark the global and the local but belong to both.’

All societies produce, distribute, prepare, and consume food, and all societies construct rules around the preparation and consumption of food. The study of food is a useful means of gauging economic progress: it links labour systems with technological innovation, transport, social organisation, environmental factors, and nutrition. Since the sixteenth century, at least, the distribution of food has occurred on a global scale. As Grew notes, food history provides ‘particularly satisfying evidence of how ordinary, daily activities are related to larger, historical trends’. The study of food encourages the comparison of different societies on equal terms, and avoids imposing western models on non-western societies. The tracing of the diffusion of ingredients across the globe allows for the comparison of different responses to the same product, showing up the ways in which groups of people define themselves against others. Food history examines how food is used in the definition and demarcation of social and national identities, and how these change over time. It draws attention to how power is implicated in the distribution and consumption of food. Grew explains: ‘the study of food demonstrates how deeply processes of political and social change can reach into society. No wonder then that commentary on contemporary cuisine is often also a comment on politics, commercialisation, the ecology, and cultural decline.’ Food opens up ways of understanding how power operates within societies.

It is unsurprising that the field of food history is extraordinarily varied, and although generally politically left leaning, it is not dominated by any particular dogmas or controversies. This may be related to the fact that food historians do frequently write for lay audiences. One of the strongest and most popular trends within the field is the fashion for writing histories of single dishes, ingredients, or foodstuffs: like tea, salt, or milk. These are useful in showing how societies give ‘new’ cultural and social meanings, how these ingredients are integrated into existing social structures to reinforce or undermine identities and boundaries. Histories of chocolate and coffee, for example, trace how two beverages became quickly associated with elite status during the sixteenth after having been introduced to Europe, and then slid down the social scale as free trade policies, the development of the plantation system, and industrialisation caused prices to drop.

There is also a growing literature on the industrialisation of food production, and on the construction of national and immigrant identities. But possibly the most significant trend within recent food history has been its focus on addressing contemporary food-related problems – such as obesity, famine, unsustainable agriculture, and the apparently unstoppable power of the largely American, yet increasingly globalised, food industry – through food history. Grew notes that ‘commentary on contemporary cuisine is often also a comment on politics, commercialisation, ecology, and cultural decline’ and I think that this is true of food history as well. Indeed, this may be the cause of one of the field’s greatest weaknesses: historians’ present-mindedness often produces a rose-tinted view of the past, and a desire to return to a way of cooking and eating that never really existed. In fact, one of the most sustained criticisms of the field is that it is academically lightweight. Much of what passes under the name of food history can best be described as pedantic antiquarianism. And for all the field’s claims to being truly global in focus, it has largely ignored Africa and large swathes of Asia.

There is some scholarship on African food history, although much of it has been produced by anthropologists and archaeologists. Southern Africa has a kind of inadvertent food history: Diana Wylie’s Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (2001), Beer, Sociability, and Masculinity in South Africa (2010) by Anne Mager, and Lance van Sittert’s research on the South African fishing industry, and William Beinart’s writing on large-scale livestock farming, and especially sheep in South Africa, constitute, among others, a significant body of work. Elias Mandala’s The End of Chidyerano: A History of Food and Everyday Life in Malawi, 1860-2004 (2005) and Igor Cusack’s writing on recipe books and the construction of new, national identities in sub-Saharan Africa, engage with the field of food history to the greatest extent.

One way of addressing this lacuna is to consider the role of food within histories of imperialism, and especially of British imperialism.

Food and Empire

Histories of national cuisines are, inevitably, transnational histories too. In Britain, for example, the national dish of chicken tikka masala does not exist as such in south Asia, but was invented in ‘Indian’ restaurants staffed mainly by Bengalis in centres like London and Birmingham to invent a meal that would appeal to British palates while simultaneously appearing to be exotic and, at least at first, sophisticated. A history of twentieth-century cooking in Britain is as much a history of the British Empire, the Commonwealth, India, and Bangladesh. Indeed, the history of imperial conquest since the sixteenth century cannot be disentangled from histories of food. Sidney Mintz argues:

Sugar did more than revolutionise the tastes of the British people. It put into place a major economic and strategic system which lasted for more than two centuries and saw the lines of British trade and production directed along routes and towards destinations which were to dominate British global interests long after.

Although Mintz overstates his case, his point that imperialism, and particularly in its early stages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was driven by demand for luxury goods – such as spices, tea, and coffee – is an important one. Even if there is no acknowledged subdiscipline on imperial food histories, there is a large body of work which understands the complex workings of power within the British Empire through food. So much so, in fact, that some commentators have noted the absence of food in the recent Oxford History of the British Empire (2002). As in the case of the larger field of food history, there is no single approach or focus which distinguishes this historiography on food history in the British Empire. Some of the most popular works have been on single foodstuffs, like tea, curry, and, most recently, opium. These studies attempt to bridge cultural, social, and economic history by demonstrating how the meanings attached to particular ingredients or commodities change over both time and space – and the implications of these shifts for imperial networks of trade and finance.

Perhaps the best place to begin looking for such a history is the large scholarship on nineteenth-century domesticity. In an article about curry and cookbooks in Victorian households, Susan Zlotnick concludes:

As figures of domesticity, British women helped incorporate Indian food into the national diet and India into the British empire; and this process of incorporation remains etched on the pages of the domestic cookery books written by middle-class women like Eliza Acton and Isabella Beeton. If a later, more aggressively masculinist imperial discourse tries to erase them from the annals of empire …early Victorian cookery books attest to the important ideological function women performed in the construction of Victorian imperialism. At both the symbolic and the practical level, Victorian women domesticated imperialism.

As middle-class notions of domesticity were evoked in missionaries’ attempts to ‘civilise’ African subjects, so food, its preparation, and its consumption became increasingly significant in defining who was, and who was not, civilised. Nancy Rose Hunt demonstrates this in her study of the role of missionaries in educating young Congolese men and women during the early twentieth century, pointing out the number of ‘evolutionary theme[s]’ evoked by the missionaries to emphasise the progress of their protégés, from ‘darkness to lightness, savagery to civilisation, heathens to Christians, monkey stew to roast beef.’ ‘Civilisation’ is achieved when a traditional European meal replaces that originating from Africa.

Histories of food are, then, particularly useful in explaining the cultural and social implications of British Imperialism for both men and women. To my mind, the most interesting work on food history within the British Empire is being done in a relatively new sub-field which focuses on imperial trade, commodities, and consumerism during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Commodities of Empire research project run jointly by the Open University, the British Academy, the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, and London Metropolitan University, ‘explores the networks through which such commodities circulated within, and in the spaces between, empires’ as a means of understanding how ‘local processes…significantly influenced the encounter between the world economy and regional societies.’ Arguing that imperial expansion, the trade in commodities, and the industrial revolution should be understood in relation to one another, the project considers how the ‘expanded production and global movements’ of commodities ‘brought vast spatial, social, economic, and cultural changes to both metropoles and colonies.’ It is telling that of the seventeen working papers produced by the project so far, nine are on food, and half of the articles in the Journal of Global History’s special edition on commodities, empires, and global history are on food. Alan Pryor explains how the study of Indian ‘pale ale’ provides new ways of understanding the construction of imperial identities and the workings of imperial free trade:

The story of the development of Indian pale ale is one of cultural invention. This was a new product that was neither British nor Indian, occupying the space in between those two cultures in British India. In the late eighteenth century, George Hodgson developed a new beer for India in an obscure brewery on the eastern periphery of London. Hodgson’s pale ale was a light beer with a refreshing bitter taste, which was to become a signifier of Anglo-Indian identity in numerous accounts of life in India. Eighteenth-century beer was a relatively low-value product, and its export to India was only made possible by the Byzantine economics of the East India Company. The growing demand for pale ale in India brought competition from other brewers, particularly from Burton-on-Trent. …the difficult trading conditions of India were instrumental in the development of new marketing techniques, were subsequently employed to introduce a new genre of beer into Britain, Indian pale ale.

…there was an unofficial agenda to commodify the British Empire, particularly India, which is epitomised with the development of Indian pale ale. Heroic accounts of colonial adventures were often peppered with references to its restorative qualities. The sub-text was that India was Britain’s challenge, particularly the climate, but the superiority of her manufacturing ability was able to produce a beer that was able to meet it. This fitted with an idealised version of empire, where the metropole imported the raw materials for its manufacture, rewarding the colony with manufactured goods, education, governance and progress. By following the marketing and development of this product it becomes possible to gain greater understanding of the emerging debate over protectionism and free trade as it affected Britain’s relationship with its empire.

Frank Trentmann has shown how the development of the Empire Marketing Board during the early twentieth century to protect and encourage imperial trade in food was connected to the development of early consumerism: the ‘imperial consumers’ – rather than customers – of the 1920s who could afford to choose between a new range of branded food, bought foodstuffs promoted by the Empire Marketing Board for the good of the Empire. In a study of the Empire Marketing Board’s promotion of the King’s Christmas Pudding in the late 1920s, Kaori O’Connor concludes:

The incorporation of specifically empire ingredients in a symbolic dish made especially for the king, and the partaking of the royal pudding in households throughout the kingdom, the dominions, and the colonies that Christmas Day of 1927, was an act of secular communion, the enacting of empire through consumption. It emerged as a unifying force during a time of social dissent and division at home and abroad, and it appealed to the public on many levels and across social classes. To begin, the King’s Christmas pudding was highly popular with the new breed of women consumers. It validated the social activism of women previously engaged in the empire and related movement; it was a gift to all the women to whom Christmas dinner in general, and the pudding in particular, were the ultimate test of their skills and taste as cook or hostess; it empowered women by giving them the opportunity to practise critical consumption. Retailers and wholesalers welcomed the promotion of the King’s Christmas pudding and empire ingredients as an additional spur to trade. After EMB initiatives, Sainsbury, for example, actively promoted ‘Empire’ goods across their product range and the firm’s Christmas advertisements began to specify the origins of dried fruit: ‘Australian sultanas’; ‘Special Offer for your Christmas Pudding and Mincemeat – try our Empire Raisins’. Origins had always been important in the luxury trade, and now they acquired a more general political significance. Above all, as a recipe the King’s Christmas pudding provided the vital link between production and consumption, becoming an instrument of social action.

By focussing on the production and reception of one commodity or product – be it Christmas pudding, pale ale, cassava, or tobacco – historians are able to construct an understanding of how the effects of imperial trade were felt and shaped by a range of people: housewives in Britain, businessmen in the City of London, producers in the colonies, and traders in imperial cities like Cape Town, Delhi, and Melbourne.

I would like to sketch briefly a project which addresses a lacuna in this imperial history of food commodities.

Meaty Questions

In a country where Heritage Day is renamed National Braai Day (or barbeque day), it seems that historians should not have to work very hard to justify the study of the historical significance of meat eating in South Africa. I became interested in tracing attitudes towards eating meat – and examining how these attitudes influenced and were shaped by the introduction of livestock farming and the growth of a meat industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – when thinking about why it is that no meal is seen as complete unless it contains meat of some kind. As Pollan writes about vegetarianism, meat is not only convenient and quick to cook, but most of our cultural and religious celebrations are based around the consumption of some form of meat. In a time of growing anxiety about the ever-increasing amounts of meat which the world’s population appears to be demanding – although there is some reason to believe that this concern is not based on any firm evidence – as well as mounting evidence to demonstrate the ecological unsustainablility of the meat and dairy industries, it seems reasonable to ask why meat is associated with prosperity and with eating well.

It also seems logical to base this study on a series of examples drawn from the southern hemisphere. Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil all have prosperous meat industries which supply both local and international markets with beef and lamb. This is a transnational history of meat-eating. All of these countries and regions are also all former colonies and dominions, and an understanding of how meat industries developed in these regions must be understood within imperial contexts. There is a small body of work on meat-eating, the best known of which is Roger Horowitz’s history of the American meat industry, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (2006). And research into livestock and cattle- and sheep farming in southern Africa, Australia, and other places constitute a foundation for such a study. But equally importantly, all of these nations constitute national and gendered identities around the consumption of meat – and particularly red meat.

I would like to trace not only the origins of the meat industries in these regions, but also consider how the origins of these businesses were linked to the complicated ways in which meat was used to define social, national, or gendered identities. Preliminary research on South Africa positions food, and particularly meat, as being central to the early colonial encounter, and I’ll end with a tentative discussion of how attitudes towards meat can be used to illustrate the first interactions between white settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of the Cape in the seventeenth century.

In a history of cassava production in Brazil, Kaori O’Connor notes:

It is a curious feature of colonial and imperial studies that food security and details of food production, preparation and consumption, which contemporary documents show was the overriding concern of settlers’ daily lives and the motivation for many of their relations with Amerindians and slaves, has been consistently overlooked or minimised in academic and economic histories of the period. A preoccupation with food and the dread of scarcity and famine runs through all the early European accounts of New World colonisation generally….

Indeed, Jan van Riebeeck’s journal of his time as Commander of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) settlement at the Cape is preoccupied with food. This was overwhelmingly the result of the fact that the settlement’s primarily – indeed only – goal was to produce and, where possible, procure fruit, vegetables, and meat for passing Company ships. Failure of the settlement’s gardens meant a failure of the scheme altogether. But Van Riebeeck and the other employees of the DEIC spent their first few years at the Cape with very little to eat: feeding themselves was considerably more difficult than they had anticipated it to be. Additionally, the consumption of particular foodstuffs was a marker of identity, and food became a means of facilitating contact between indigenous peoples and European settlers. The first communication between the employees of the DEIC and the Khoikhoi centred around food: two representatives of a Khoikhoi group were invited on board a DEIC ship and the Dutch ‘generously filled their bellies with food and drink’ in exchange for information about Khoikhoi willingness to barter cattle for DEIC goods. Later, a skipper who had gone ashore to find fresh provisions was presented with ‘4 bags of beautiful mustard leaves and sorrel and also a catch of about 750 lovely steenbras’.

There is evidence of some exchange of culinary traditions – the Khoikhoi developed a taste for bread and the Dutch took to penguins’ eggs – but this was no example of happy multiculturalism: exchanges occurred because these foodstuffs tasted good and did not fundamentally alter the ways in which identities were forged through food. One of the most constant refrains in the journals is Van Riebeeck’s relief that the edible plants and animals at the Cape were similar to those ‘at home’. He wrote that the fish at the Cape were ‘quite as good and tasty’ as ‘any fish in the Fatherland’. Even hippopotamus meat tasted ‘like calf’. This meant that the Cape was a viable place for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables grown from European seeds for European ships, and that European settlement was possible in this part of Africa. It also meant that this landscape could allow Europeans to be ‘civilised’ in it.

For instance, in October 1652, nearly six months after landing in Table Bay, DEIC employees held a farewell dinner for a group of visiting Company officials. Van Riebeeck described the menu: ‘Everything on the table was produced at the Cape: the fowls were reared here, new green peas, spinach, chervil, pot-herbs, asparagus (a finger’s thickness) and lettuce as hard as cabbage and weighing at least 1¼ lbs each.’ It is reasonable to assume that his cook did his best to replicate the cooking of the Netherlands. This was European cuisine prepared using vegetables grown from seeds imported from Europe, but produced in the Cape. This feast was more than a meal: its purpose exceeded simply providing a group of DEIC employees with dinner. The inclusion of local ingredients or aspects of Khoikhoi cuisine would have been seen to undermine the authority of European settlement in the Cape.

Food did facilitate contact with indigenous people: the Khoikhoi were as willing to accept bread, tobacco, and alcohol in barter as they were copper wire or beads. Yet the Khoikhoi did not willingly relinquish the one possession which the Dutch desired above all: their cattle. After an initial exchange of a cow and her calf for ‘3 small plates of copper and 3 pieces of ½ fathom copper wire’, the Khoikoi were considerably less forthcoming. Cattle were not only a source of protein for the Khoikhoi, but represented wealth and status. There is some evidence to suggest that the Khoikhoi actually ate very little red meat, keeping it – like many societies all over the world – for times of celebration and, even then, only slaughtering as few animals as possible. Bags of copper wire could not compensate for the loss of such valuable beasts.

It is, thus, telling that one of the few recorded Khoikhoi outbursts against the Dutch centres around food. The diarist and DEIC official JG van Grevenbroek spent much of his time at the Cape – which spanned between c.1685 and his death in c.1726 – compiling a study of a group of people whom he dubbed ‘Hottentots’, based on a series of interviews which he conducted with them. By 1705, Grevenbroek had written an account of various Khoikhoi groups in the western Cape. He paid a great deal of attention to their eating habits, and recorded one Khoikhoi man: ‘You eaters of grass and lettuce. Feed it to your oxen: personally we would rather fast. Your habits disgust and sicken us: we never belch or fart. With your foolish values, you treasure a woman’s necklace of tiny beads above sheep.’ Here, the Khoikhoi – accused by white settlers of being dirty, smelly, and uncouth – turn the tables on the Dutch colonists, describing them as uncivilised, and partly for their enthusiasm for ‘grass and lettuce’ – foodstuffs considered by the Khoikhoi to be cattle feed.

But Grevenbroek notes that Khoikhoi tastes did change:

Our lettuces also and other vegetables they have at length learned to eat greedily, thought at first, mocking the indiscriminate taste of Europeans, they would say that they were only fit to be eaten by cattle along with the grass of field. Then, if asked to lunch or dinner, they would retort, make the oxen your guests, pile up the grass, boasting that they could endure fasting and had learned to bear poverty from childhood.

Ironically, travellers to the Cape during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries echoed the Khoikhoi outburst against Dutch settlers, describing the farmers of the rural interior as uncouth and uncivilised for their almost exclusively meat-based diets. James Ewart, a British officer stationed at the Cape between 1811 and 1814 described the ‘Boer’ – who was also, significantly, a stock farmer – with whose family he lodged on the eastern frontier:

At his meals that is dinner and supper the only which are regular, he eats an enormous quantity of beef or mutton swimming in the fat of the sheep’s tail, with a proportionate allowance of coarse bread or vegetables; this he washes down with liberal potations of common brandy, being excessively fond of ardent spirits, seldom using wine which he could easily procure. Having sufficiently gorged himself during dinner, he takes a sleep for two or three hours, and on rising again, resumes his pipe which is seldom out of his mouth.

These few examples demonstrate how food, and meat in particular, mediated the colonial encounter – and from both sides. I think that they are suggestive of a wider history which needs to be written about histories of meat, and especially red meat, in transnational perspective.

Conclusion

As histories of childhood tend to be about adults’ views of children rather than of children themselves – and the same could possibly said of animal history – so the history of food is not so much about food, but rather the complex interactions around it. Indeed, some of the worst examples of food history tend to focus on food itself, producing painfully nitpicking histories of ingredients and recipes. Nevertheless, a history of the ways in which we have used food to construct identities, to forge and break relationships, to fund and found empires, and to sustain economies provides us with new ways of understanding the functioning of imperialism, and of connecting global trends and changes with local, and even individual, experience.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Ken Albala, ‘History on the Plate: The Current State of Food History,’ Historically Speaking, vol. 10, no. 5 (Nov. 2009), pp. 6-8.

‘An Elegant and Accurate Account of the African Race Living Round the Cape of Good Hope Commonly Called Hottentots, from a Letter Written by J.G. van Grevenbroek in the Year 1695,’ trans. B. Farrington, in The Early Cape Hottentots, ed. I. Schapera (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1933).

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

Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (London: Vintage [2005] 2006).

Donna R. Gabaccia, We are what we eat: Ethnic food and the making of Americans (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Raymond Grew, ‘Food and Global History,’ in Food in Global History, ed. Raymond Grew (Newton Centre: New Global History Press, [1999] 2004).

Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, ‘Hidden in Plain View: The History of Children (and Childhood) in the Twenty-First Century,’ JHCY, vol. 1, no. 1 (2008), pp. 43-49.

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).

James Ewart’s Journal Covering his Stay at the Cape of Good Hope (1811-1814) and his Part in the Expedition to Florida and New Orleans (1814-1815), ed. A. Gordon-Brown (Cape Town: Struik: 1970).

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. 1 1651-1655, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town and Amsterdam: AA Balkema, 1952).

Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

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

Anne MacClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Sidney W. Mintz and Christine M. du Bois, ‘The Anthropology of Food and Eating,’ Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 31 (2002), pp. 99-119.

Peter Novick, That Noble Dream:  The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Kaori O’Connor, ‘Beyond “Exotic Groceries”: Tapioca-Cassava, a Hidden Commodity of Empire,’ Commodities of Empire, Working Paper no. 10 (January 2009), pp. 1-32.

Kaori O’Connor, ‘The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globalisation, Recipes, and the Commodities of Empire,’ Journal of Global History, vol. 4, no. 1 (2009), pp. 127-155.

Douglas M. Peers, ‘Review: Is Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again?: The Revival of Imperial History and the Oxford History of the British Empire,’ Journal of World History, vol. 13, no. 2 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 455-456.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (London: Penguin [2006] 2007).

Alan Pryor, ‘Indian Pale Ale: An Icon of Empire,’ Commodities of Empire, Working Paper no. 13 (November 2009), pp. 1-22.

E.C. Spary, ‘Review: Ways with Food,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 40, no. 4 (Oct., 2005), pp. 763-771.

John Styles, ‘Product Innovation in Early Modern London’, Past and Present, no. 168 (2000), pp. 124-169.

John C. Super, ‘Food and History,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 36, no. 1 (Autumn 2002), pp. 165-178.

Alice B. Toklas, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (New York: Harper & Row, [1954] 1984).

Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Susan Zlotnick, ‘Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England,’ Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 16, no. 2/3, Gender, Nations, and Nationalisms (1996), pp. 51-68.

Other sources:

K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).

William Beinart, The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment 1770-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 1-27.

Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, [1993] 2007).

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

David Burton, French Colonial Cookery (London: Faber and Faber, 2000).

Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Yong Chen, ‘Food as World History: Broadening the Horizon and Reach of Historical Research,’ Journal of World History, vol. 21, no. 2 (June 2010), pp. 297-304.

Sophie and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).

E.M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).

Philip Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2001).

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Igor Cusack, ‘“Equatorial Guinea’s National Cuisine Is Simple and Tasty”: Cuisine and the Making of National Culture,’ Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, vol. 8 (2004), pp. 131-148.

Igor Cusack, ‘African Cuisines: Recipes for Nation-Building?’ Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 2 (Dec., 2000), pp. 207-225.

Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Gary S. Dunbar, ‘African Ranches Ltd., 1914-1931: An Ill-Fated Stockraising Enterprise in Northern Nigeria,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 60, no. 1 (Mar., 1970), pp.102-123.

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

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

Kevin Grant, Philippa Levine, and Frank Trentmann (eds.), Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c.1880-1950 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (eds.), Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998).

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

Carol Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy (London: Berg, 2004).

Roger Horowitz, Jeffrey M. Pilcher, and Sydney Watts, ‘Meat for the Multitudes: Market Culture in Paris, New York City, and Mexico City over the Long Nineteenth Century,’ The American Historical Review, vol. 109, no. 4 (October 2004), pp. 1055-1083.

M. Hubbard, ‘Desperate Games: Bongola Smith, the Imperial Cold Storage Company and Bechuanaland’s Beef,1931,’ Botswana Notes and Records, vol. 13 (1981), pp. 19-24.

Eno Blankson Ikpe, Food and Society in Nigeria: A History of Food Customs, Food Economy and Cultural Change, 1900-1989 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1994).

Naomichi Ishige, The History and Culture of Japanese Food (London: Kegan Paul, 2001).

John Keay, The Spice Route: A History (London: John Murray, 2005).

Kenneth K. Kiple and Virginia Himmelsteib King, Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet, Disease, and Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (London: Penguin [1997] 1998).

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002).

Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China (London: Picador, 2011).

Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, The True History of Tea (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009).

James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

S. Milton, ‘To Make the Crooked Straight: Settler Colonialism, Imperial Decline and the South African Beef Industry, 1902-1942’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 1996).

Robert Morrell, ‘Farmers, Randlords and the South African State: Confrontation in the Witwatersrand Beef Markets, c. 1920-1923,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 27, no. 3 (1986), pp. 513-532.

Alexander Nutzendal and Frank Trentmann (eds.), Food and Globalisation: Consumption, Markets, and Politics in the Modern World (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Richard Perren, Taste, Trade, and Technology: The Development of the International Meat Industry Since 1840 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

I.R. Phimister, ‘Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1938,’ The Journal of African History, vol. 19, no. 3 (1978), pp. 391-414.

J.A.G. Roberts, From China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (London: Reaktion Books, 2002).

Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire, and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink (London: Hutchinson, 2009).

Nhamo Samasuwo, ‘Food Production and War Supplies: Rhodesia’s Beef Industry during the Second World War, 1939-1945,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 487-502.

Nhamo Samasuwo, ‘“There Is Something About Cattle”: Towards an Economic History of the Beef Industry in Colonial Zimbabwe with Special Reference to the Role of the State’ (PhD thesis, University of Cape Town, 2000).

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (July, 2004), pp. 373-401.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Political Culture and Political Economy: Interest, Ideology and Free Trade,’ Review of International Political Economy, vol. 5, no. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 217-251.

Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (London: HarperCollins, 2004).

Deborah Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

Lance van Sittert, ‘“Making Like America”: The Industrialisation of the St Helena Bay Fisheries c.1936-c.1956,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 19, no. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 422-446.

Lance van Sittert, ‘“More in the Breach than in the Observance”: Crayfish, Conservation & Capitalism c.1890-c.1939,’ Environmental History Review, vol. 17, no. 4 (Winter, 1993), pp. 20-46.

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

David Y.H. Wu and Tan Chee-beng (eds.), Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001).

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

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Malawian Cornish Pasties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shahpar had noted previously:

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

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

A cupcake in Dhaka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Be Modern: Worship Food?

On Monday evening I watched the first episode of the latest series of Australian MasterChef to be broadcast in South Africa. The previous series was so wildly popular here that I was interested to see what the fuss was about. Based on the latest incarnation of the MasterChef franchise in the UK, over the course of a few weeks the programme whittles down a group of fifty aspiring cooks to a four or five finalists who are put through a series of challenges – working a shift in a hotel kitchen, recreating a chef’s impossibly complicated signature dish (I hate the term) – until only one contestant emerges triumphant. It’s fun, self-important, and utterly ridiculous.

And then, towards the end of this first episode of season two, an audience of at least sixty intelligent adults applauded a pavlova.

A pudding consisting of egg whites, sugar, vinegar, and vanilla received a round of applause. I mean, I lecture three times a week and I’m never applauded.

Donna Hay's adored pavlova

I love pavlova and the MasterChef version – baked and unveiled by Donna Hay – looked fantastic, and I really don’t have much against reality TV shows (I can’t – I was once badly addicted to the second series of My Restaurant Rules.) And, to be fair, to accuse MasterChef of not being adequately realistic would be to miss the point. The British version is hosted and judged by two middle-aged men who yell things like ‘Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!’ at the camera. It’s a competition and no attempt to train a new generation of chefs. But the round of applause and the reverence for a pudding struck me as being more than silly. It was, in fact, too serious.

MasterChef is like many other reality shows: it judges contestants on their ability at a particular skill. This skill can be anything – from fashion design to hairdressing – because it’s secondary to the format of the programme. It’s the vehicle for television series which are, essentially, talent shows, but on a more elaborate and glamorous scale. The adulation of the pavlova undermined this format. All of a sudden, the focus of that episode of MasterChef shifted from the contestants to the food.

Am I overreacting? Probably. But not without reason. Earlier that day I had read an article written by Angela Carter in 1984 for the London Review of Books, in which she reviewed The Official Foodie Handbook by Ann Barr and Paul Levy, Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. While she acknowledged that the Foodie Handbook was meant to lampoon middle-class ‘foodies’, it is was one of a series of guides – like the Sloan Ranger and Yuppie handbooks – to middle-class living which, she felt, walked an uneasy line between guide and satire. Writing about the Preppy Handbook she noted:

The book was an ill-disguised celebration of the snobbery it affected to mock and, under its thinly ironic surface, was nothing more nor less than an etiquette manual for a class newly emergent under Reaganomics. It instructed the nouveaux riches in the habits and manners of the vieux riches so that they could pass undetected amongst them. It sold like hot cakes.

Along with David and Waters, the authors of the Foodie Handbook elevate the preparation and eating of food to a rarefied art form only done ‘properly’ by those educated and sensitive enough truly to understand cooking. The book advised its readership: ‘Be modern: worship food!’ Carter was, like Jay Rayner and Anthony Bourdain, particularly scathing of Alice Waters:

Alice Waters [serves] a Franco-Californian cuisine of almost ludicrous refinement, in which the simplest item is turned into an object of mystification. A ripe melon, for example, is sought for as if it were a piece of the True Cross. Ms Waters applauds herself on serving one. ‘Anyone could have chosen a perfect melon, but unfortunately most people don’t take the time or make an effort to choose carefully and understand what that potentially sublime fruit should be.’ She talks as if selecting a melon were an existential choice of a kind to leave Jean-Paul Sartre stumped.

She concludes, gloriously:

Ms Waters has clearly lost her marbles through too great a concern with grub, so much so that occasionally ‘Alice Waters’ sounds like a pseudonym for S.J. Perelman. ‘I do think best while holding a tomato or a leg of lamb,’ she confides. For a person of my generation, there is also the teasing question: could she be the Alice, and ‘Chez Panisse’ the real Alice’s Restaurant, of the song by Arlo Guthrie? And if this is so, what does it prove?

Carter bases much of her criticism of the Foodie Handbook, Waters, and Elizabeth David on the grounds of insensitivity: how is it possible to be so precious about food, she asks, when so many people go without? I agree that there is something profoundly wrong with a world where some populations have so much food that they feel that they should spend a day searching for the perfect watermelon, while others starve or are reliant on the tender mercies of aid organisations.

We have, though, always imbued food with meaning. Food provides nourishment, but it also carries with it a range of assumptions, symbols, and signs which are occasionally as important as its primary function. When Spanish missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico refused to celebrate communion using maize, instead of wheat, wafers, they did so purely on the grounds that wheat, an imported crop, represented Europe and, thus, civilisation. Similarly, when well-meaning lady food reformers attempted to ‘Americanise’ the cuisine of recent immigrants to the United States during the 1920s, they did so because the cooking of Italy, Poland, and Ireland was seen as less ‘civilised’ than that prepared by white, Protestant Americans.

Pears' Soap - The White Man's Burden

There is a difference, though, between the association of food with civilisation and cultural superiority and giving a round of applause to a pavlova – or, indeed, to a melon. In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (1995), Anne McClintock examines the ways in which Victorian advertisers used images of empire to sell their products. Pears, the soap manufacturers, produced a series of advertisements which implied that soap was somehow connected to the success of British imperialism. In one of their best known ads from the early 1890s, a sea captain – surrounded by images of travel and conquest – is depicted washing his hands in his ship. It’s captioned: ‘The first step towards lightening the white man’s burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.’ Another titled ‘The Birth of Civilisation’ is of an African man holding aloft a bar of soap which has floated ashore after a shipwreck.

This campaign crudely linked cleanliness – long associated with being ‘civilised’ – with the civilising mission. Colonised people, suggested Pears, could be made European by a bath with Pears soap. In the first volume of Capital (1867), Karl Marx began to develop the idea of ‘commodity fetishism’ to explain the kind of ‘magical’ attraction and meaning which commodities – ordinary, manufactured objects – seem to exude. He argued that a range of meanings – which are socially and culturally inflected and which change over time – are attached to commodities. Capitalism encourages people to confuse the utility of the object and social meanings – this is what Marx called ‘commodity fetishism’. In other words, objects take on meanings to the extent that they assume a kind of independence from their utility. The purpose of soap was no longer to clean bodies and clothes, but, rather, to civilise.

Pears' Soap - the Birth of Civilisation

A similar process occurred with the pavlova on MasterChef: it was no longer simply a pudding, but, rather, representative of success and good taste. When one of the contestants in the final round produced what she thought would be a bad pavlova, she collapsed in tears and refused to continue. It was as if it was she – rather than her ability to bake a pudding – who was being tested. When Alice Waters hunted for the perfect melon, she was not only seeking out a fruit, but also an object which embodied what she believed to be her goodness and moral superiority.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I thought that this strange affliction was limited to Californian chefs and anxious Australians. Look at food magazines and food programmes: aimed at middle-class audiences, they conflate being able to cook well and to eat good – whole, organic, humanely reared – food with being good, successful, and environmentally and socially responsible. I have absolutely nothing against farmers’ markets, artisan bakers, small-scale farmers, co-operative supermarkets, and organic grocers – in fact, I think that they’re helping to create new ways of thinking about food – but I am deeply concerned when their produce is no longer thought of simply as food, but becomes a marker of middle-class morality.

This form of commodity fetishism is limiting: it associates good food with class and wealth. It encourages those who consume this food to think only about the product which they buy, and not to consider the complex processes which brought that piece of cheese or that steak to their deli or supermarket. It also mystifies the production, preparation, and eating of food. If we are to become more careful eaters – and more aware of how our eating habits impact on the world around us – we need to see food as food: as a product which is fundamental to life and which all people have a right to eat.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Donna R. Gabaccia, We are what we eat: Ethnic food and the making of Americans (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Karl Marx, Capital: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, [1867] 1990).

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Other sources:

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

Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Yves Péhaut, ‘The Invasion of Foreign Foods,’ 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. 457-470.

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