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Posts tagged ‘local’

Brave New Food

The TV series which I most want to watch at the moment is Portlandia. Set in Portland, Oregon, it satirises and celebrates the city which originated the ur-hipster. It includes a scene in a restaurant – which I’ve watched only on youtube, alas – in which a couple questions their waitress about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. Assured that it’s free range, local, and organic – partly because their waitress provides them with its papers and name – they leave the restaurant to have a look at it:

This is hilarious because it so closely mimics reality: the menus which list the provenance of all the produce used in the restaurant; the farmers’ market stalls with photographs of happy animals pre-slaughter; the recipes which insist upon free-range, organic ingredients.

I laugh, but I’m as implicated in this hyper-sensitivity about where my food comes from, and how it was treated before it arrived on my plate. I don’t want to eat animals that suffered so that I can continue being an omnivore. I eat relatively little meat and am prepared to pay for free-range chicken, pork, and beef. (I’m not terribly fussed about it being ‘organic’ – whatever we may mean by that.)

It is a scandal how animals are treated in factory farms, and increasing demand for red meat is environmentally unsustainable. So how should we eat meat, without causing harm? If vegetarianism is as implicated in the meat economy – veal is a by-product of the dairy industry, for example – and veganism seems far too difficult, then one way out of this impasse is to consider synthetic alternatives.

I’ve been amused by the overwhelming response to reports about the apparent viability of lab-grown meat. ‘Eeew’ and ‘yuk’ seem to sum up how people feel about it. But lab-grown meat is only the most recent panacea to the world’s crisis produced by scientists – and our views on it say a great deal about our changing feelings about the relationship between food and technology.

The meat in question is being grown by Dr Mark Post at Maastricht University. He’s being funded by an anonymous donor who’s concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions produced by cattle farming. Using stem cells from cows, Post’s team have grown sheets of muscle between pieces of Velcro, which are shocked with an electric current to develop their texture and density:

Post said he could theoretically increase the number of burgers made from a single cow from 100 to 100m. ‘That means we could reduce the number of livestock we use by 1m,’ he said.

Meat grown in the laboratory could have several advantages, because its manufacture is controlled at each step. The tissue could be grown to produce high levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, or to have a particular texture.

He believes it will be a relatively simple matter to scale up the operation, since most of the technical obstacles have already been overcome. ‘I’d estimate that we could see mass production in another 10 to 20 years,’ he said.

Post hopes to produce a burger by October.

When I read the earliest reports about Post’s work, I thought immediately of a scene in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where the protagonist visits a lab which grows chicken breasts out of stem cells. This is a dystopian novel which plays on our suspicion of food grown in laboratories. It seems strange, now, for us to consider synthetic, artificial, man-made food to be superior to all that is ‘fresh’, ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. But this is a relatively new way of thinking about food.

During the 1950s, a decade when science seemed to offer the possibility of a cleaner, healthier, and better organised world, there was a brief, but intense enthusiasm for Chlorella pyrenoidosa, a high-protein algae which grew rapidly and abundantly and was fed by sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The post-war baby boom gave rise to anxieties in the 1950s that the world would be unable to feed its growing population. Of course, we now know that innovations in agriculture during this period – including the wholesale mechanisation of farming, the increased use of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, and breeding high-yielding livestock – and the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s produced the crops and farming methods which, at enormous environmental cost, still feed seven billion of us. But at the time, politicians worried that hungry nations would create a politically unstable world.

Algae looked like a sensible solution to the problem. Easy and cheap to grow, and apparently highly nutritious, this seemed to be the Brave New World of food production. Warren Belasco writes:

The alluring news came from pilot projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park and by Arthur D. Little, Inc. in Cambridge. Initial results suggested that chlorella algae was an astounding photosynthetic superstar. When grown in optimal conditions – sunny, warm, shallow ponds fed by simple carbon dioxide – chlorella converted upwards of 20 per cent of solar energy…into a plant containing 50 per cent protein when dried. Unlike most plants, chlorella’s protein was ‘complete’, for it had the ten amino acids then considered essential, and it was also packed with calories, fat, and vitamins.

In today’s terms, chlorella was a superfood. Scientists fell over themselves in excitement: Scientific American and Science reported on it in glowing terms; the Rockefeller Foundation funded research into it; and some calculated that a plantation the size of Rhode Island was would be able to supply half the world’s daily protein requirements.

In the context of a mid-century enthusiasm for all that was efficient, systematic, and man-made, algae’s appeal was immediate: it was entirely usable and produced little or no waste; its farming was not dependent on variable weather and rainfall; it was clean and could be transformed into something that was optimally nutritious.

So why didn’t I have a chlorella burrito for supper?

Unfortunately, chlorella didn’t live up to the hype. Not only did the production of grains and soybeans increase exponentially during the 1950s, meaning that farmers were loath to switch to a new and untested crop, but further research revealed that chlorella production would be more complicated and expensive than initially envisaged. Growing chlorella in the quantities needed to be financially viable required expensive equipment, and it proved to be susceptible to changes in temperature. Harvesting and drying it was even more of headache.

On top of this, chlorella tasted terrible. There were some hopes that the American food industry might be able to transform bitter green chlorella into an enticing foodstuff – in much the same way they used additives and preservatives to manufacture the range of processed foods which bedecked the groaning supermarket shelves of 1950s America. Edible chlorella was not a world away from primula cheese.

Those who were less impressed by the food industry suggested that chlorella could be used to fortify bread and pasta – or even transformed into animal feed. But research demonstrated that heating chlorella destroyed most of its nutrients. Even one of its supporters called it ‘a nasty little green vegetable.’ By the 1960s, it was obvious that at $1,000 a ton, and inedible, chlorella was not going to be the food of the future.

All was not lost for chlorella, though. It proved to be surprisingly popular in Japan, where it is still sold as a nutritional supplement. The West’s enthusiasm for algae also hasn’t dimmed:

The discovery in the 1960s of the blue-green algae spirulina in the Saharan Lake Chad and in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco gave another boost to the health food uses of algae. Spirulina has a high-nutrient profile similar to chlorella’s but without…production problems….

Ironically, the food that was supposed to feed the world is now the preserve of the wealthy, health-conscious middle classes – those who suffer most from the diseases of affluence – who can afford to buy small jars of powdered algae.

I hope that Post’s project manages to create a viable product which can be used to supplement people’s diets. I’m not particularly revolted by the idea of lab-grown meat, and if means that it reduces the numbers of factory farms, then that can only be a good thing.

What concerns me more are the potential motives of the businesses which would produce lab-grown meat. If it is taken up by the global food industry – which has patchy records on environmental sustainability and social responsibility – will we be able to trust them to provide us with meat which is healthy for us, and ethically produced?

Source

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

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

Food Links, 21.09.2011

Cooking may be 1.9 million years old.

On the north/south divide on ensuring food security.

The remarkable rise of Greek yogurt sales in the United States.

On ‘flexitarianism‘ and an apparent global decline in meat sales.

Glamour Magazine promotes healthy eating by teaming up with…Krispy Kreme to sell…Glamour-flavoured doughnuts during London Fashion Week. Words fail.

Fast food chains attempt ‘gourmet‘ options on their menus. And in a blind taste test, Pizza Express trumps Domino’s top-end offerings. Hurrah! (I LOVE Pizza Express.)

Lyons teashops and the invention of the world’s first business computer.

Food adventures at the Indiana State Fair. There’s deep-fried kool-aid. Yup.

Eating insects to save the planet. (Thanks Milli!)

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall waxes lyrical on the joys of eating less meat.

A diet book for little girls. Really?

Tee hee: Another Damned Food Blog.

Human Rights Watch reports dismal condition on South Africa’s wine farms – which, if you’ve ever visited one, shouldn’t be hugely surprising news.

You need to know more about Doom Cakes: see here and here. (Thanks, Dudley.)

Mycitycuisine.org collects recipes for and guides to local cuisines all over the world.

Happy animals make tastier meat.

We could be anywhere

I’ve spent the past fortnight in New York – mainly for a conference at Columbia – and on my last morning had breakfast at a restaurant which could only have been in New York, and, more specifically, in Morningside Heights. The Hungarian Pastry Shop is a shabby, comfortable, and much adored cafe among local residents and Columbia’s students and academics. It serves a range of unbelievably good cakes and pastries, the menu for which is an ancient and faded handwritten banner above the counter. Mothers with small children munch apple strudel alongside workmen in overalls, lecturers with textbooks, and small old ladies with thick foreign accents.

The Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, New York

Founded by immigrants, this could only be called The Hungarian Pastry Shop outside of Hungary. Over the years, it’s been tweaked to satisfy the demands of now elderly mittel-European customers, a group of whom was sitting in the sunshine when I arrived, as well as the undergraduates who spend long hours reading over its big mugs of strong coffee. The Shop has a menu in German and table service, as well as an exterior decorated with murals, a graffiti-covered loo, and posters advertising digs, extra tuition, and auditions for student productions.

Breakfast at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

Over a cherry danish, orange juice, and iced coffee, I considered a comment made by my friend Ester a few weeks ago when we had lunch at a new cafe which has recently opened in Cape Town. Skinny Legs and All (yes, as in the novel by Tom Robbins) in Loop Street serves ‘real food, unadulterated, and unadorned’. We had homemade lemonade, soup, and excellent coffee.

As we were admiring the cafe’s interior, Ester noted perceptively that we could have been anywhere – that we could have found this restaurant and eaten similar food, underpinned by the same values and ideas about cooking, in any other city with a demand for sophisticated good food, be it Melbourne, San Francisco, or London. I think that this is a point worth exploring.

The menu at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

In New York I had coffee and lunch in cafes which I could have described in precisely the same terms. At Bubby’s in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, Tablespoon in the Flatiron District, and the City Bakery off Fifth Avenue I could have been anywhere. Of course, all of these restaurants say a great deal about New York, its gentrification and the role of food and restaurants in this process. The City Bakery was founded in 1990, at a time when the slow regeneration of Manhattan was nearing completion and when enthusiasm for artisan bread (best exemplified by the craze for sourdough in San Francisco) was beginning to peak. Bubby’s and Tablespoon – both of which emphasise the extent to which they source seasonal ingredients locally – ride on the City Bakery’s success. In a similar way, Skinny Legs and All is an indicator of the success of Cape Town’s central city improvement district, and also of the very, very slow emergence of a food-focussed South African green movement.

For all their localism, these restaurants are very similar: they serve similar food, they’re influenced by the same collection of chefs and food writers, their attitude towards cooking is based on an understanding of the value of seasonality, and they are influenced by global fashions in decor. Even the cafe I went to in achingly cool Williamsburg – populated by hipsters who conformed pleasingly to type with oversized sunglasses, topknots (for the girls), v-necked t-shirts (for the boys), and MacBooks – could as easily operate in Cape Town’s Woodstock, or in the trendier parts of east London.

Tablespoon in the Flatiron District

To note this similarity isn’t a criticism – it’s simply to point out that these cafes are local manifestations of a global phenomenon. But not all aspects of globalised eating are seen in such positive terms. Since the 1980s at least, there has been a heightened concern that globalisation is causing diets to become homogenised: that the international popularity of fast food chains, supremely McDonald’s, signals the end of discrete, local food cultures.

The apparent ubiquity of the golden arches seemed to indicate a kind of culinary ‘end of history’: as liberal democracy appeared to triumph with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did the eating habits of the West. The opening of a branch of McDonald’s in Red Square in Moscow in 1990 was the final nail in communism’s coffin. I remember clearly going to eat at one of the first McDonald’s to open in South Africa after the end of the international business boycott. Eating there was as much an affirmation of South Africa’s re-entry into the world as was the country’s participation in the 1992 summer Olympics.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that McDonald’s no longer means these things – which isn’t to suggest that it’s not doing well. A recent article in the Economist predicts that McDonald’s and other budget chains, like Aldi, are set to profit out of a world in recession. However much revelations about the chain’s profoundly unhealthy products and poor environmental and labour practices have dented its apparent invincibility, it is still believed to be part of a broader shift in an international Westernisation of diet. This was confirmed, apparently, by Oxfam’s recent report on the global food crisis, Growing a Better Future, which claims that pasta is the world’s favourite food.

The City Bakery, off Fifth Avenue

But is this anything new? And it is possible for all of us, truly, to eat the same diet? As I wrote a few weeks ago, the survey on which Oxfam bases its report on favourite foods seems to be pretty dubious to me. It’s also worth noting that the success of global brands depends on their ability to ‘localise’ their products. McDonald’s has diversified its menu to appeal to local tastes, with a greater number of vegetarian options in Indian branches, smaller portions in Japan, rice products in Singapore and Taiwan, kebabs in Isreal, and pita bread in Greece. In other words, the success of McDonald’s lies not in the imposition of a foreign brand, but in its ability to make its products at once familiar and enticingly exotic.

Restaurants on the upper end of the scale use precisely the same strategy. Writing about the opening of a branch of Les Halles in Tokyo, Anthony Bourdain describes how he adapted his French bistro cuisine to suit Japanese tastes:

I…scale[d] down the portions and [prettied] up the presentations. …I rearranged plates to resemble smaller versions of what we were doing in New York: going more vertical, applying some new garnishes, and then observing customer reactions. I looked for and found ways to get more colour contrast on the plates, moved the salads off to separate receptacles, stuck sprigs of herb here than there.

At Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Verre in Dubai, the head chef had to become accustomed to cooking halal meat, which is drained of much of its blood and can’t be aged. Jay Rayner writes:

Then there was local taste. Some ingredients simply didn’t sell. If he brought in pigeon, he told me, they would lie in the fridge for a week, neglected by the customers, until, in desperation, he would turn them into a terrine. ‘And then I would eat the terrine.’ He also found himself serving a lot of meat well done.

On a domestic scale, the middle classes have eaten strikingly similar things all over the world since at least the nineteenth century. The movement of people within the British Empire caused the same dishes and menus to be served up on at last four different continents. When Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss arrived at the Cape from Connecticut in 1873 to establish an elite girls’ school, they were pleased – and relieved – to find that their middle-class Dutch-Afrikaner hosts ate the same meals, and in the same way, as they had done in the United States. Bliss wrote to her mother:

thus far I have seen quite as well regulated families & as much attention paid to ‘propriety’ as in America. … Wherever I have taken a meal there has been a servant in the room to wait on table or one has come at the tap of the bell, & all done so quietly & orderly.

The circulation of recipe books and advice on cookery in newspapers and in private correspondence around the Empire demonstrates the extent to which these diets remained fairly similar. They were, as today, inflected by local tastes and produce. In the Cape, the American teachers commented on the colonial habit of eating ‘yellow rice’ (rice cooked with turmeric and raisins and flavoured with cinnamon and bay) with every meal – something introduced by slaves from southeast Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The City Bakery, New York

In other words, the diets of the wealthy have tended to be fairly globalised since international travel was made easier, and more common, from around the beginning of the nineteenth century. With the invention of the jet engine in the mid-twentieth century and, latterly, the internet, these trends have moved around the world more quickly and we’re also considerably more aware of them. It’s the poor – those whose diets we have an unfortunate tendency to romanticise – who have historically tended to eat a fairly limited range of things.

The difference now is that there are far more middle class people wanting to eat similar diets. Oxfam also notes that the newly-affluent Indian and Chinese middle classes consume more meat and dairy products than ever before. Exactly the same trend occurred in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, but this was a shift on a far smaller scale and in a world where food systems were not as globalised as they are today.

How to find the City Bakery

I think that it’s misleading to suggest that diets are becoming progressively more Western. Rather, particular ingredients – meat and dairy above all – are increasingly popular in societies which, traditionally, have tended to eat more fish, vegetables, and other starches. Our planet simply can’t sustain meat- and dairy-heavy diets. Refocusing our attention to responding to the demand for these foodstuffs would be considerably more effective than simply bemoaning the Westernisation and homogenisation of global diets. This is an argument which not only draws an impossible distinction between ‘bad’ global and ‘good’ local diets, but also ignores a long history of global culinary exchange which has been mitigated by local tastes and preferences.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (London: Bloomsbury, [2000] 2001).

Sarah Emily Duff, ‘Head, Heart, and Hand: The Huguenot Seminary and College and the Construction of Middle-Class Afrikaner Femininity, 1873-1910’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2006).

Jay Rayner, The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner (London: Headline Review, 2008).

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

Other sources:

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

Rick Fantasia, ‘Fast Food in France,’ Theory and Society 24 (1995), pp. 201-243.

Claude Fischer, ‘The “McDonaldisation” of Culture,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 530-547.

Brian Harrison, ‘The Kitchen Revolution,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 139-149.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Perils of Abundance: Food, Health, and Morality in American History,’ in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, English ed. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 516-529.

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