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Posts tagged ‘industrial agriculture’

Food Processes

A fortnight ago my mother and I devoted a day to our annual chutney making, and we spent the evening recovering from the inhalation of vinegar fumes, in front of the television. We watched the first episode of the new series of Nigel Slater’s Simple Suppers. Being fans of Slater’s recipe books, we had high hopes, but these began to crumble when he remarked conspiratorially to the camera that ‘some people buy jars of pesto.’

We groaned. Of course, pesto out of a bottle is never going to be quite as amazing as pesto made freshly. (I’m not going to wade into the tiresome debate over whether pesto made in a food processor is better than that made with a pestle and mortar.) But it’s fine. Really: for a quick, warming supper, it’s absolutely delicious. And, as my father pointed out as he walked past to switch the kettle on, it’s great to be able to support businesses which train people and provide employment.

As an antidote to Slater’s preciousness, I read a couple of Calvin Trillin’s essays from Eating with the Pilgrims, a collection published in Penguin’s newish Great Food series (the one with the beautiful covers). Although he’s also a poet and journalist, Trillin is probably best known for his food writing in the New Yorker. His writing is clear, clever, and deeply sympathetic to others who, like him, love eating. Trillin tends not to write about food itself, but, rather about how people think about it, as he remarked in an interview: ‘I’m not interested in finding the best chilli restaurant in Cincinnati. I’m interested in Cincinnatians fighting about who has the best chilli.’

What I like about Trillin is that he writes about buffalo wings and barbeque with the same seriousness that other writers devote to stilton or cassoulet:

The sort of eating I’ve always been interested in is what I guess you’d call vernacular eating. It has something to do with a place. Buffalo chicken wings have something to do with Buffalo. The fact that people in Cincinnati have something they call authentic Cincinnati chilli, and seem unaware that people in the Southwest eat chilli, let alone Mexicans, and think that chilli is made by Macedonians and served on spaghetti, that’s interesting to me. Whether Skyline chilli is better than Empress chilli I don’t really care about.

This is Trillin on fried chicken:

Because a superior fried-chicken restaurant is often the institutional extension of a single chicken-obsessed woman, I realize that, like a good secondhand bookstore or a bad South American dictatorship, it is not easily passed down intact. Still, in sullen moments I blame these lamentable closings on the agribusiness corporations’ vertical integration of the broiler industry. In fact, in sullen moments I blame almost everything on the vertical integration of the broiler industry – the way some people trace practically any sort of mischief or natural disaster back to the Central Intelligence Agency, and some people, presumably slightly more sophisticated, blame everything on the interstate-highway program. If the civilisation really is about to crumble, everybody is entitled to his own idea of which is the most significant crack. Which brings us to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I urge you to read Trillin’s excellent cultural history of buffalo wings and his fantastic account of seeking the best barbequed mutton in Kentucky. My favourite essay, other than his celebration of Shopsin’s, the legendary-despite-its-best-efforts New York restaurant, is about boudin, a staple of Cajun cuisine which is, in its purest form, a kind of sausage made out of pork meat, rice, and liver. (I wish I could provide a link, but the New Yorker has an unfriendly unwillingness to open up its archives.)

These are not particularly sophisticated dishes, and they’re often produced with a heavy reliance on processed foods – pre-packaged seasonings, the inevitable Campbell’s mushroom soup – whose flavours become as important to the finished product as those elements which make boudin or buffalo wings unique. In fact, in between Slater’s snobbery and Trillin’s celebration of deliciousness is a useful way of thinking about what we mean by processed food.

We know that the cheapness and easy availability of processed food has been blamed, rightly, for facilitating a global obesity epidemic. (Even if the increasing prevalence of obesity can’t logically be described as an ‘epidemic’. Obesity isn’t really catching.) High in salt, preservatives, and calories, most processed food provides eaters with meals which are temporarily filling and satisfying, but without much beneficial nutritional content. In food deserts – areas where low incomes, and poor transport infrastructure and distribution networks make access to fresh food very difficult – it’s usually only processed food which is available at corner shops and discount supermarkets.

But, technically, most food that we eat – even ‘good’ food – is processed. I know that blogs have been criticised for simply listing the contents of bloggers’ fridges, but I’m doing this for a reason: with the exception of the eggs, lettuce, leeks, herbs, and cherries in my fridge, the rest of it is processed. This includes the milk and cream (nearly all dairy products are pasteurised and homogenised before they’re sold to the public), blackberry jam, sun dried tomatoes (laugh if you must), butter, Colman’s and Pommery mustard, mum’s and Mrs Ball’s chutney, salami, tomato paste, and the tube of sweetened chestnut puree.

By ‘processed food’ we mean food that is prepared in some way before it’s sold: from the most severely limited run of cured hams, to the strangest possible non-food imaginable. So it’s not all bad. In fact, I’m not sure that most of us would cope without processed food of some variety: I can’t buy raw milk in Cape Town, and I rely on tinned tomatoes and frozen peas. I am not about to make my own couscous, or knit my own yogurt, despite being politically left-wing.

We do, though, eat more processed food than ever before. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century as food production became increasingly industrialised, first in the United States and then in the rest of the world, our diets have changed. We eat more of those products which are difficult or time-consuming to prepare at home (bread, pasta), and mass production has made formerly expensive, ‘artisan’ items (Parmesan cheese, chocolate) cheaper and more readily available.

I think that that one of the reasons why I was surprised by Slater’s snobbery was because of the lengthy and often quite nostalgic descriptions of the processed food of the 1960s in his memoir Toast. We tend to associate the rise of processed food with the post-war boom: with bizarre recipes for spam fritters, and a hundred and one ways with Angel Delight. In the modernist 1950s, this was the sophisticated food of the future – the food of the newly prosperous middle classes. Michael Pollan remembers:

The general consensus seemed to be that ‘food’ – a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned – was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology. If not literally served in a pill, the meal of the future would be fabricated ‘in the laboratory out of a wide variety of materials,’ as one contemporary food historian predicted, including not only algae and soybeans but also petrochemicals. Protein would be extracted directly from fuel oil and then ‘spun and woven into “animal” muscle – long wrist-thick tubes of “fillet steak.”‘

By 1965, we were well on our way to the synthetic food future. Already the eating of readily identifiable plant and animal species was beginning to feel somewhat recherche, as food technologists came forth with one shiny new product after another: Cool Whip, the Pop-Tart, nondairy creamer, Kool-Aid, Carnation Instant Breakfast and a whole slew of eerily indestructible baked goods (Wonder Bread and Twinkies being only the most famous).

The appeal of cake mixes, tinned macaroni cheese, and, later, boil-in-the-bag meals was that these were quick, labour-saving dinners. As middle-class women entered the workforce in ever-increasing numbers, so eating habits adapted to new work patterns.

The backlash against processed food and industrialised agriculture of the 1970s – in the United States, the largely California-based counter-cuisine, for example – associated the mass production of food with environmental destruction and social inequality. (Poorer people tend to eat the worst processed food.) We’ve since begun to associate the idea of processed food with strange non-foods – with turkey twizzlers and cheese strings – rather than think of it as food which has been prepared in some way, and usually in large quantities, before being sold.

I know that this may seem like a fairly nitpicky point, but we need to acknowledge the extent to which we rely on processed food in order to feed ourselves. Most of us eat better and a greater variety of things because of the mass production of food. To my mind, the more pertinent question is not how we should prevent people from eating processed food, but, rather, how we can make this food better and healthier. Obviously, we need to teach people how to cook healthily – and we have to consider the relationship between eating patterns and the hours that people work. Middle-class foodies and other well-meaning campaigners around nutrition must realise that their anti-processed food stance is not only a kind of snobbery, but entirely impractical.

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

Food Links, 02.11.2011

On famine and food in North Korea.

How hummus conquered Britain.

How to taste wine without sounding obnoxious.

Cape Town appears in the London Review of Breakfasts.

More evidence that healthy people shouldn’t take vitamin supplements.

Beer and the ethics of food blogging.

Allegra McEvedy discusses her knife collection.

The New York Times awards Imperial No. Nine no stars in a scathing review – and here are some of the worst lines, presented by kittens.

The link between obesity and the incredible increase in rates of type 2 diabetes in the UK.

So who is Ruth Bourdain?

Will the cupcake ever die? (Thanks Jane!)

How to make sloe gin. (The answer? Sloe-ly. *ahem* Sorry.)

The empty pantry: food insecurity in the United States.

Jay Rayner waxes lyrical about a new food venture in London, Brixton Village.

China seems to re-think its embrace of industrial agriculture.

How to make vanilla extract.

Peanut butter and climate change.

The ten best and worst aspects of America’s food scene.

On cooking sous-vide. (Thanks Dad!)

Ten food myths debunked. (Thanks Mum!)

Berliner Pfannkuchen.

How to eat the rich.

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.


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.


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).

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

Food Futures

One of the funniest articles I’ve read recently was Robert Webb’s account of his experience writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph. He describes – for gleeful readers of the New Statesman – his battles with the commentators on the newspaper’s online edition. The internet’s equivalent to the ‘green Biro brigade’ of usually right-wing newspaper letter-writers, these ‘Ghouls’ as, Webb calls them, used the Telegraph’s comment function to heap scorn and ridicule on Webb.

These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their ‘comments’ were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell.

The problem was not that they disagreed with Webb, but that their comments were aimed solely at reminding him what a ‘worthless bastard’ he was.

I hadn’t realised that these internet trolls had moved beyond the places I’d usually expect to find them – news sites, mainly – and on to food sites as well. In a post which seems to have gone viral this week, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten Free Girl explains the extent to which she’s been subjected to internet bullying:

Every day, there is some nasty, vituperative comment on a post, something I skim quickly then delete. It could be comments about my husband (‘He’s obviously retarded. Look in his eyes. There’s something wrong.’) about our life on Vashon (‘Oh that’s right, everything is perfect on  your fucking ISLAND.’), about our food (‘That looks like dog vomit. Why does anyone pay you to do this?’), and mostly about me (my weight? my writing? my hair? my mere presence in the world? take your pick).

I want to make this clear: criticism and debate are absolutely vital – even on food blogs. I have no truck with writers who believe that any form of critical thinking is ‘mean’ or ‘negative’. But I have no time whatsoever for bullies. I had a small brush with one (or two?) this week after publishing a post critical of the Toffie Food Festival’s Menu magazine. A few commentators using dodgy Hotmail accounts and a suspiciously identical IP address sent comments which were fairly personal and meant only to tell me and the world that my ideas are stupid.

But a decade in academia has helped me to grow rhino hide for skin and it takes more than a few bullies to stop me. So troll who lives at IP, you know who you are. As do I.

Troll at IP did, though, ask a good question, and one which is worth answering. He (or indeed she) responded to my point that the authors of Menu have a profoundly problematic conception of food as a consumer product – like jewellery or clothing – which can be used and thrown away at whim, by asking: ‘where do you live where you don’t have to buy food’?

Yes, dear troll at IP, you’re quite right: food is a product or commodity which has to be bought (unless, of course, you grow or rear it yourself). But there’s an important difference between food and bed linen, perfume, cutlery, or clothes, for example. Only one of those products is absolutely essential to human life – only one has a significant impact on people’s incomes and the ways in which they live. Only one can cause ordinary people to protest when prices become too high.

Food is, then, is bought by consumers and treated as a consumer product even though it’s significantly different from other products. Our understanding of food as a consumer product is a relatively recent phenomenon: it’s only a century or two old, and linked strongly to the industrial revolution and mass production, as well as the development of a very powerful advertising industry.

Why should we care about this? Given that the mass production of food allowed greater numbers of people to eat better and more cheaply than ever before, surely these processes could only be considered a Good Thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the industrialisation of food production as long as it is environmentally sustainable, humane to animals, respects workers’ rights, and produces safe and uncontaminated food – which, as the industry functions at the moment, is not always the case.

Moreover, as I wrote last week, this conception of food as a consumer product means that we understand food differently. Food moves from being something we associate primarily with nourishment to being a commodity which has the same meaning for consumers as other, less essential goods. This means, for example, that they are more willing to throw away large quantities of food. As the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation reported a few months ago, the average consumer in the West wastes 95 to 115kg of food every year – and wealthy countries are responsible for half of the total amount of food wasted every year.

There are many other implications for seeing food as a consumer product – not least the foodie worship of food since the early eighties – and I’ll consider these more carefully in the next few weeks. For the moment, I’d like to take a quick look at food speculation.

Of the many causes of the current global food crisis, food speculation is the most contested and seems to be the most complicated to understand. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter as well as Oxfam and other organisations have argued recently, the deregulation of commodities markets in the West during the mid-nineties have had catastrophic implications for food prices.

Let me explain: farmers have long traded in food futures to secure their incomes. Farmers protect themselves against bad harvests by selling their produce in advance to traders. They use the profits they make in bad years – when they have less to sell – to protect themselves against future losses. This works well for traders, who do particularly nicely in good years. Writing about the United States, Frederick Kaufman explains how well this tightly regulated system worked:

The result: Over the course of the 20th century, the real price of wheat decreased (despite a hiccup or two, particularly during the 1970s inflationary spiral), spurring the development of American agribusiness. After World War II, the United States was routinely producing a grain surplus, which became an essential element of its Cold War political, economic, and humanitarian strategies – not to mention the fact that American grain fed millions of hungry people across the world.

But things changed at the end of the twentieth century. Partly because of intensive lobbying from hedge funds and banks, like Barclays, governments in the West deregulated commodity derivatives markets. Banks and investors became interested in trading on the commodities market – once the preserve of specialists like Glencore – when bankers at Goldman Sachs (yes, they really do their best to be the embodiment of venality) devised new investment products which included speculation in food futures. Investors which hadn’t before been involved in the commodities markets, like pension funds, were, then, willing to play the futures markets.

As a result of this, food – grain, cocoa, fruit, rice, and meat – can be traded in exactly the same way as other commodities, like gold, timber, and coal. Brett Scott writes:

The controversy can be broken down into two separate issues. Firstly, are financial players in commodity derivatives markets causing derivatives prices to disassociate from what the price ‘should be’ if it were reflecting the fundamental balance of supply and demand in the underlying commodity? Secondly, does such a disassociation in futures prices get transmitted into the real price of food people end up paying?

The answer from the UN and a range of other charities is a definite, ringing ‘yes’. Irresponsible banks are driving up the price of food, they argue. John Vidal cites two well-known examples of food speculation causing price spikes:

Last year, London hedge fund Armajaro bought 240,000 tonnes, or more than 7%, of the world’s stocks of cocoa beans, helping to drive chocolate to its highest price in 33 years. Meanwhile, the price of coffee shot up 20% in just three days as a direct result of hedge funds betting on the price of coffee falling.

But what role does speculation play in causing food prices to rise more generally? This is more difficult to pin down, as Scott implies. De Schutter argues, convincingly in my mind, that even if speculation was not responsible on its own for causing the spike in food prices in 2008, it was a major contributing – and new – factor. I think it’s worth quoting him at length:

a number of signs indicate that a significant portion of the price spike was due to the emergence of a speculative bubble. Prices for a number of commodities fluctuated too wildly within such limited time-frames for such price behaviour to have been a result of movements in supply and demand: wheat prices, for instance, rose by 46% between January 10 and February 26, 2008, fell back almost completely by May 19, increased again by 21% until early June, and began falling again from August. The 2008 food price crisis was unique in that it was possibly the first price crisis that occurred in an economic environment characterized by massive amounts of novel forms of speculation in commodity derivative markets.

The particular area of concern is speculation in derivatives based on food commodities. A study conducted by Lehman Brothers just before its bankruptcy revealed that the volume of index fund speculation increased by 1,900% between 2003 and March 2008. Morgan Stanley estimated that the number of outstanding contracts in maize futures increased from 500,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million in 2008. …the changes in food prices reflected not so much movements in the supply and/or demand of food, but were driven to a significant extent by speculation that greatly exceeded the liquidity needs of commodity markets to execute the trades of commodity users, such as food processors and agricultural commodity importers.

Food speculation is a manifestation on a very grand scale of a shift in thinking of the value and significance of food: here, food is simply another commodity to be bought and traded, often very lucratively. We know the futures are useful and important to farmers, but the unregulated speculation of food means that food prices are no longer linked to what people can afford to pay. When the UN and other organisations call for a greater regulation of commodities markets – to a return, to some extent, to the derivatives trading of the twentieth century – they are also pointing to the fact that food cannot be understood in the same terms as other commodities and consumer goods.

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

Food Links, 27.07.2011

Ever wondered what it’s like to intern at El Bulli? Here are two articles which describe the experience.

The glory of eggs.

I can’t wait to read this: Frank Dikötter’s Samuel Johnson Prize-winning new account of the 1958-1962 Great Famine in China.

Why industrial agriculture won’t feed the world – and why we need to stop industrial farms from denying us access to their operations.

The American Dietetic Association – an organisation providing supposedly objective and scientific advice on diet – has been accepting money from Coca-Cola and Pepsico. Not good.

The amazing ‘jellymongers’ Bompas and Parr organised a Rabbit Cafe in Brighton to celebrate Easter. It’s partly in celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the first Futurist restaurant. The Cafe, though, isn’t the first homage to Futurism’s fascination with food – this is an account of one recreation of the Futurist aerobanquet.

Food Links, 20.07.2011

How will fracking impact on our food supply?

Partly because of its emphasis on increasing yields, the Gates Foundation, in partnership with the evil empire Monsanto, is pushing genetically engineered crops in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi.

Seven food and drinks trends in the US for 2011.

Famine looms in the Horn of Africa. This is why.

Sarah Lohman cooks ‘temporal fusion cuisine’ and keeps an amazing website called Four Pounds of Flour. Here she plots changing tastes in America.

Chefs go wild about Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

Tom Philpott discusses the link between catastrophic flooding and industrial agriculture.

Consider corn.

There’s recently been a gloriously self-important spat between (some) South African food bloggers and food writers. This is Mandy de Waal’s excellent article for the Mail and Guardian which started it, and this is the hilariously bonkers response from one blog.

Jay Rayner considers the latest research into the relationship between meat consumption and cancer.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that the world wastes or loses 1.3 billion tons of food per year – that’s a third of the total supply.

Donald Paul for the Daily Maverick discusses South Africa’s food security.

How to make Cornish pasties. (And flapjacks – crunchies to South Africans.) And in praise of sandwiches.

Food Links, 06.07.2011

Gordon Conway considers the global food crisis.

The Guardian lists the ten best literary picnics.

Although hugely successful, organic farming faces a range of challenges in India – despite the growing  evidence that organic farming can feed the world.

On Thomas Jefferson, food, and slavery.

How can cruelty to animals in American factory farms be prevented?

Border conflicts – between Isreal and Palestine, Mexico and the United States – are made worse by competition over water and food insecurity.

Behold Coralie Bickford-Smith’s beautiful covers for Penguin’s Great Food series.

One third of the world’s food is wasted.

‘Sponge cakes for all!’ Is baking a feminist act?

Why do Americans insist upon not using scales to measure ingredients when cooking?

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It even adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Links, 18.05.2011

If you’re in South Africa, go out and vote. Right this minute. Immediately.

In the US, some restaurants are now turning their leftovers into compost.

Are a billion people hungry? This brilliant article from the recent food edition of Foreign Policy examines the complex factors which determine diets.

The World Development Movement explains why it’s targeting Barclays over food price speculation.

Consider the aubergine.

The Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit specialises in providing cheap, high quality education to pregnant girls. The school is built around a food-producing garden (the girls grow vegetables and care for chickens, goats, and bees) and seems to have achieved some amazing things since its founding. And now it’s threatened with closure. Madness.

‘There’s more to salt than the taste.’ So there is.

This is an excellent overview of the origins, nature, and impact of the food industry in the United States.

Starbucks is now the third biggest chain restaurant in the US – after McDonalds and Subway.


One of my favourite books, and one to which I turn when I need comforting and amusing, is Julian Barnes’s collection of essays on cooking called The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003). It is wildly funny – there’s a particularly fantastic piece about cooking a Nigel Slater recipe for pork chops and chicory – and deeply wise about preparing and eating food. My favourite chapter is titled ‘Once is Enough’ and is about exotic delicacies which, once sampled, one is happy never to eat again. Some taste revolting, or are so closely associated with a particular event that eating them once more would raise far too many difficult memories. Others are simply too complicated to replicate:

I once bought an eel from a Chinese fishmonger in Soho, carried it home on the Northern Line, and then realised my next job was to skin it. This is what you have to do: nail it to a door-frame or other substantial wooden part of your dwelling, make an incision on either side of the neck, take a pair of pliers in each hand, grip the two cut pieces of skin, put your foot against the door level with the eel’s head, and slowly haul back the skin, which is firm and elasticated, like a dense inner tube. Afterwards I was glad to have done it. Now I shall know how to proceed if forced to survive somewhere with only an eel, two pairs of pliers, and a doorframe for company; but I don’t otherwise need the activity to be central to my life. Smoked, stewed, barbecued – eel is welcome on my plate in most forms; but from now on I’ll let others do the skinning.

I know exactly what he means. I feel much the same about pickling chillies: really, once was enough. But as to ordinary food – the sort found in supermarkets and the average recipe book – there are only two things which I refuse, absolutely, to eat. I don’t particularly care for mangoes, papaya, blue cheese, strawberries (yes, I know), and raw tomatoes, but I’ll eat them for the sake of politeness. Yet goats’ cheese and bananas are entirely beyond me. Even the thought of eating them makes me shudder with revulsion: for both it’s a case of pungent, unpleasant smell mingling with a sticky-soft texture and a gag-inducing flavour. I have only one friend who shares my antipathy for both foods, but I know at least three others who feel the same way about bananas, and my issues with goat’s cheese seem to be fairly widespread. So I refuse to feel that I should account for my antipathy.

It’s true that as our palates develop, what once revolted us as children ceases to do so when we’re adults. I remember the stomach-churning revulsion I felt when, as a child, I first smelled my father boiling artichokes. Now, I love them. And the same goes for olives and mussels. But our responses to food, as I noted in my previous post, are governed by a range of factors, several of which are irrational (so no chance of me ever willingly eating goats’ cheese or banana), while others are socially and culturally determined. Barnes writes:

No doubt in the future some of our eating habits will be high-mindedly condemned as shameful and disgusting and incomprehensible. Rather as we feel when we learn that they used to eat herons in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance; further, that they trained falcons to hunt them. The English roasted heron with ginger, the Italians with garlic and onions; the Germans and Dutch made them into pies; the French thought it bad form to serve heron without any sauce, and La Varenne further suggested decorating the platter with flowers to make the dish look more appealing.

As taste has changed over time, so has what we define as being too disgusting to eat. Medieval princes may have supped on lampreys; now these jawless fish are left largely to their own devices.

I’ve been reading a collection of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s journalism, Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All (2006), and was struck by an article in which he lists all the unusual – and usually disgust-inducing – food which he has eaten and, for the most part, liked. In ‘Taste Not, Want Not’, he moves from the relatively normal (brains) to the weird (goose barnacles) to the (to me) utterly revolting (maggots). I was surprised, though, by his inclusion of donkey salami. Donkeys, to whose sanctuaries the British donate millions of pounds every year, and whose apparent uncomplaining willingness to be beasts of burden, seem to be the last animals who should be allowed onto a menu. They are too good – too noble – to eat. And yet they are eaten in France – along with horses.

My discomfort at Fearnley-Whittingstall’s admission – and he adds that he was initially uneasy about the salami – turned into a contemplation of how easily we distinguish between two groups of animals: between those that we will eat, and those that we won’t. More importantly, we imbue these two categories with moral meanings. It’s not just disgusting to eat dog, but morally wrong too. Our shifting views on the acceptability of eating animals are determined by a range of factors, not least of which is how we think about our pets. Humans have domesticated animals for thousands of years, but it’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to keep animals exclusively for our amusement. This is not to suggest that Xhosa herdsmen during the 1700s felt no affection for their cattle, but, rather, the idea that a family should include an adored pet originates in the West during the nineteenth century.

Along with our pet-keeping, our increasing concern for protecting wildlife has helped to diminish our enthusiasm for eating wild animals. It’s interesting how willing the employees of the Dutch East India Company stationed at the Cape Colony during the seventeenth century were to eat hippopotamus – and their enthusiasm was rewarded by the fact that it tasted ‘like calf’. Now, we eat neither hippopotamus nor calf. Indeed, veal is an interesting case: its popularity diminished substantially during the 1980s when the appalling conditions in which male calves were reared were made better known. I’ve never eaten veal mainly for this reason. But there is an excellent case for eating veal: bull calves are a by-product of the dairy industry and those which are not marked out for consumption as veal, are shot at birth. As an omnivore, I do have an obligation, then, to eat veal.

Veal: the ethical choice?

My disgust at eating veal is not because I am revolted by the idea of eating cattle or, even, young animals (I eat lamb, after all), but as a result of the fact that these calves had to suffer so that I may drink milk. I think it’s here that we could fundamentally alter the way in which we associate disgust and particular kinds of meat. With urbanisation and the industrialisation of food processing, we are no longer as familiar with the ways in which animals are raised for food: for someone brought up in a town and whose only close association with animals is the family pet, watching a chicken being killed is, understandably, horrifying. But we should not allow this distance between ourselves and production of food cause us to become too disgusted to think about how the meat we eat is prepared.

It is absolutely hypocritical to eat pork – an adult pig is as ‘intelligent‘ as a dog – but to refuse to eat donkey. Rather, I wish we’d distinguish between humanely reared and factory-farmed animals. I don’t want to eat any animal that endured a painful existence to allow me to eat it. Moreover, it’s clear that the conditions in which cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised en masse are not only cruel, but ecologically unsustainable.

A range of thinkers – Gandhi, Peter Singer, and JM Coetzee – have described the slaughter of animals for human consumption as mass murder. I agree with Michael Pollan and others who argue that we do need to rear and eat meat for the benefit of our and the planet’s health. We should consume fewer dairy products and eat less meat, and all of these products should be free range. Most importantly, we must rethink our sense of disgust around eating animals: I think it is far more disgusting to eat factory-farmed chicken breasts than humanely reared and –kept donkeys.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. I, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1952).

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen (London: Atlantic, 2003).

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All: Dispatches from the Gastronomic Front Line (London: Bloomsbury, [2006] 2007).

Other sources:

Kathleen Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, [1994] 1995).

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

Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Peter Singer, ‘A Vegetarian Philosophy,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 71-80.

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

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

Sandra Swart, Riding High: Horses, Humans, and History in South Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010).

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