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Posts tagged ‘Israel’

Apples and Oranges

One of my favourite scenes in Alice in Wonderland is when the Caterpillar asks Alice ‘Who are YOU?’ Having spent the day being shrunk, telescoped, and grown again, Alice is at a loss: ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’ During a period obsessed with lineages, classes, and groups, Alice’s inability to slot herself into the correct category feels profoundly transgressive. Her ontological uncertainty—she remarks to the Caterpillar ‘I can’t explain MYSELF…because I’m not myself’—is more mature than the Caterpillar who will, as Alice argues, turn into a chrysalis and then a butterfly. Nobody is one thing for very long.

The same can be said, of course, for confectionary. Periodically, Britain convulses in a fraught debate over the status of the Jaffa Cake. In their commercial form these are rounds of Genoise sponge topped with orange jelly, and covered with chocolate. Supermarkets sell bright blue packets of McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes in the same aisle as Digestive biscuits, Hobnobs, and shortbread. So to the uninformed, the Jaffa Cake is – despite its name – a biscuit.

But is it really? Legally, the Jaffa Cake qualifies as a cake. A long and complicated court case in 1991 ruled in favour of McVitie’s, confirming that the Jaffa Cake is indeed a cake and should not, then, be subject to VAT. Harry Wallop explains:

In the eyes of the taxman, a cake is a staple food and, accordingly, zero-rated for the purposes of VAT. A chocolate-covered biscuit, however, is a whole other matter—a thing of unspeakable decadence, a luxury on which the full 20pc rate of VAT is levied.

McVitie’s was determined to prove it should be free of the consumer tax. The key turning point was when its QC highlighted how cakes harden when they go stale, biscuits go soggy. A Jaffa goes hard. Case proved.

So this is a Cake which looks like a biscuit but is really a cake.

Oranges trees in Perth, Australia.

Oranges trees in Perth, Australia.

But this ontological uncertainty extends beyond its position as cake or biscuit. Jaffa Cakes are named after Jaffa oranges. (McVitie’s never patented the name Jaffa Cake, so chocolate-and-citrus flavoured confections are often described as ‘Jaffa.’) These were developed in Palestine – in and near the port city of Jaffa – during the 1840s. Sweet, seedless, and with a thick rind which made them perfect for transporting, Jaffa or Shamouti oranges became Palestine’s most important export in the nineteenth century. The arrival of Jewish immigrants in the 1880s and 1890s revolutionised citrus growing in the region. These new arrivals introduced mechanised, ‘scientific’ forms of agriculture, dramatically increasing yields.

By 1939, Jewish, Palestinian, and, occasionally, Jewish and Palestinian farmers working collaboratively, employed altogether 100,000 people, and exported vast numbers of oranges abroad. Britain was a major importer of Jaffa oranges, particularly after Palestine became a Mandated territory under British control in 1923. The Empire Marketing Board – which promoted the sale of imperial produce – urged Britons to buy Jaffa oranges, something picked up by McVitie’s in 1927 with the invention of the Jaffa Cake.

An Empire Marketing Board advertisement for Jaffa oranges.

An Empire Marketing Board advertisement for Jaffa oranges.

Jaffa oranges were – and, to some extent, are – held up as an example of successful Palestinian and Israeli co-operation during the interwar period. But after 1948, the same oranges became a symbol of Israel itself. Similar to the boycott of Outspan oranges during apartheid, organisations like BDS have urged customers not to buy Jaffa oranges as a way of weakening Israel’s economy and demonstrating their commitment to a free Palestine. (Jaffa oranges are no longer, though, a major Israeli export, and are grown in Spain, South Africa, and elsewhere.)

The changing meanings of Jaffa Cakes – cake, biscuit – and their constituent ingredients – symbol of collaboration, symbol of oppression – show how the categories into which we slot food are themselves constructs. (We could, really, compare apples and oranges.) But also, the Jaffa Cake helps to draw our attention to how taxes, trade agreements, and the politics and practicalities of shipping shape the ways in which we eat, buy, and think about food. Last year, the supremely British McVitie’s – producer of the Jaffa Cake, the most widely recognised biscuit (I mean, cake) in Britain – was sold to Yildiz, a food group based in … Turkey.

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

Soup of a City

This week the institute where I work has organised a conference called ‘Curating the Afropolitan: New Ethnographies of Johannesburg.’ Its purpose is to bring together scholars, writers, and artists to think and talk about Joburg: its past, present, and many possible futures. I was reminded this morning of how frequently it has been evoked in fiction: from Nadine Gordimer, Can Themba, and Mongane Wally Serote, to Marlene van Niekerk, Ivan Vladislavić, and Lauren Beukes. Because the city is so new and has been subject to almost constant expansion and re-fashioning, it seems to be particularly attractive to being remade in fiction: writers can remould it according to their own ends, while still retaining something of its ‘Johannesburg-ness.’

My favourite literary description of a city is of a made-up metropolis. In The City and the City (2009), China Miéville traces a murder investigation in Besźel, a city somewhere, presumably, in the Balkans. What complicates Inspector Tyador Borlú’s work – and, indeed, life in Besźel – is that it occupies the same space as another city: Ul Qoma. As Besźel is modelled on the kind of Mittel-European city described by Kafka or Stefan Zweig, then Ul Qoma owes its architecture, culture, and ways of living to Turkey.

Although parts of the cities overlap in ‘crosshatched’ areas, for the most part, the inhabitants of the two cities keep strictly to their side, learning to ‘see’ and to ‘unsee’ Besźel or Ul Qoma during childhood. (Tourists are required to attend classes and pass a test before visiting either city.) When the invisible barriers between the cities are violated, a mysterious force called Breach is invoked to restore order.

Fittingly, the murder investigated by Borlú involves an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma. Instead of revealing the origins of the two cities and their odd connectedness – did they cleave together, or apart? – the academics and students working on the site retrieve a myriad of objects, the purpose and dates of which are unclear. This mirrors in some ways Borlú’s own investigation: the more he digs, the more confused he becomes.

the-city-and-the-city

Borlú needs, in other words, to pay attention to the things right in front of him: to the obvious. (Ironically, of course, he’s not allowed to ‘see’ some of them because they’re in Ul Qoma.) It is the very superficial which is allowed to inhabit both the cities openly: rubbish ‘drifts across borders, like fog, rain and smoke.’ Also, urban scavengers like ‘pigeons, mice, wolves, bats live in both cities, are crosshatched animals.’ And food. Or, at least, the traces of food. Borlú visits little Ul Qomatown in Besźel, where Ul Qoman immigrants have settled:

This is where pining Ul Qoman exiles come for their pastries, their sugar-fried peas, their incense. The scents of Besźel and Ul Qomatown are a confusion. The instinct is to unsmell them, to think of them as drift across the boundaries, as disrespectful as rain. (‘Rain and woodsmoke live in both cities,’ the proverb has it. In Ul Quoma they have the same saw, but one of the subjects is ‘fog.’ …) But those smells are in Besźel.

The City and the City is so compelling because it feels familiar: because although the idea of two cities existing on the same space, with their populations having to see and unsee each other, may seem outlandish, there is something recognisable about Besźel and Ul Qoma. I think part of Miéville’s success as a writer of speculative fiction owes something to his training as an anthropologist: he creates worlds which echo the logics of our own.

There are hints of another, real city in Miéville’s invented metropolises: Jerusalem. One of my favourite recipe books is partly written by another former anthropologist: Yotam Ottolenghi’s recent cookbook Jerusalem, which he wrote with his partner Sami Tamimi. The book’s conceit is a simple, but powerful one. Both men were raised in Jerusalem during the 1970s, but Ottolenghi in the Israeli part, and Tamimi in the predominantly Muslim East Jerusalem. They only met after leaving Jerusalem, having had fairly few opportunities to encounter each other there. In Jerusalem, they share the recipes of their city. Or their cities.

Jerusalem

Obviously Jerusalem isn’t segregated in the way that Miéville describes in The City and the City, but his evocation of a single space occupied by two groups who need to have as little to do with each other as possible, brings Jerusalem to mind. In Jerusalem, Ottolengi and Tamimi show that it is impossible to disentangle to the various culinary traditions in the city:

in this soup of a city it is completely impossible to find out who invented this delicacy and who brought that one with them. The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence each other constantly so nothing is pure any more. In fact, nothing ever was. Jerusalem was never an isolated bastion. Over millennia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors and merchants – all bringing food and recipes from four corners of the earth.

I am not trying to suggest, glibly, that a realisation of a common, shared culinary culture will somehow end all conflict. But, rather, that understanding how difference is constructed, and by paying attention to where it breaks down – where it breaches boundaries – is a means of undermining nationalisms’ claims, demands, and justifications.

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

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?