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Posts tagged ‘nationalism’

Ten Books That Shaped the British Empire: Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Last week WiSER hosted the Johannesburg launch of Antoinette Burton and Isabel Hofmeyr‘s new edited collection Ten Books That Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons. Isabel invited three historians to pitch the books that they feel should have been included, and it was the funniest and most entertaining launch I’ve ever attended – and had the honour of speaking at. You must, of course, read Ten Books. It is that rare thing: an academically rigorous text which is accessible without losing any of the complexity of its arguments.

51SQOLjtaXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I picked Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This is what I argued:

I nominate a book which has been accused not only of dooming British cooking to a repertoire which makes a virtue of stewed tea, turnips, and something called toast water – no, me neither – but whose author was labelled by Elizabeth David – no less – a plagiarist. David added: ‘I wonder if I would have ever learned to cook at all if I had been given a routine Mrs Beeton to learn from.’ I argue that Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – or, to give it its full title, The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc. – also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort – was one of the most important and influential books to circulate around the British Empire. It shaped both the colonial encounter, and the postcolonial kitchen.

This is not so much a history of a book, but a history of a compendium of advice assembled, edited, and changed over time, originally by a woman and her husband, and then by an assortment of publishers and printers. Isabella Beeton was twenty-one years old and newly married when she began publishing articles on cooking and domestic advice in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. In 1861, she published what was possibly the world’s first serial recipe book – her guide to household management – and it promptly sold out. Mrs Beeton sold 60,000 copies in its first year, and 2 million by 1868. It is still in print. But by 1868, Isabella Beeton had been dead for three years – and probably as a result of complications arising of syphilis, which she had caught from her philandering husband, Samuel.

As death was the most useful thing to happen to John F. Kennedy’s career as the best president the US never had, so Isabella Beeton’s early demise helped to transform her book from a, to the guide to respectable living for the middle classes. Samuel Beeton was the book’s publisher, and as readers clamoured for yet another updated edition of Mrs Beeton – and he remained deliberately vague as to where the real Mrs Beeton really was – the book was corrected and modified to suit the changing circumstances of nineteenth-century middle-class households.

Mrs Beeton was not the first or the best recipe book of the period – Eliza Acton and before her Hannah Glasse were more accomplished cooks – nor was Isabella the first author to compile her book from snippets and cuttings from other sources. Mrs Beeton was always a compendium, a scrapbook. But this book was the first to give cooking times, accurate lists of ingredients, and menus arranged by cost. This was a practical guide to living for Britain’s new middle classes, which demystified table settings, etiquette, laundry, the management of servants, and the everyday rhythms of a respectable households. Also, this book worked to empower middle-class women, providing them with a range of skills – bookkeeping, nursing, project managing – that their daughters would use as they began gradually to enter to the workplace during the early decades of the twentieth century.

Young women packed Mrs Beeton into their luggage and sailed with her around the empire, and so Mrs Beeton also became the foundation on which middle-class British households were made in regions as far a flung as Nigeria and Australia. But Mrs Beeton also became a metaphor for the British Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: endlessly mutable, able to change according to circumstance, meaning many things to all people at once. Linked to another saintly, if distant female figure, this book was both emblematic of a well-run household as well as a canny business machine.

Gradually, foreign recipes – for mulligatawny soup from India, lamingtons from Australia – made their way into the book. But in the colonies, Mrs Beeton became the basis for local guides to household management. In South Africa, the wildly popular Hilda’s Where Is It? by Hildagonda Duckitt (1919) and even Kook en Geniet (1951) were both obviously modelled on Mrs Beeton. In fact, Kook en Geniet could best be described as the Afrikaans Mrs Beeton. Published as a guide to housekeeping and cooking for young brides in 1951 by Ina de Villiers – and overseen by her daughter Eunice van der Berg since 2010 – it has never been out of print. Like Mrs Beeton, its success lies partly in the fact that it is regularly updated. There is no single version of Kook en Geniet. Each edition retains a core of essential recipes, but methods and ingredients change as new products appear. Dishes are added and, less frequently, subtracted as culinary fashions evolve.

85808Mrs Beeton was also the model for guides to colonial living. The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide, published by the Church of Scotland’s Women’s Guild in 1943, walks an uneasy path between demonstrating to young wives how to maintain the standards of Home, but also providing practical advice as to keeping house in east Africa. This is a guidebook in aid of civilisation: while some concessions are made to Kenyan conditions, its model remains always Mrs Beeton. Its recipes are for macaroni cheese, chicken pie, and shortbread. Gardens are to be planted with poppies, dahlias, roses, carnations, and snapdragons. African servants are to be civilised. Phrases in Swahili and Kikuyu centre around cleanliness, punctuality, and obedience. Even African chickens had to trained into good behaviour. When local ingredients – like mangoes or maize meal – were used, it was in the context of familiar recipes: green mielies au gratin, boiled banana pudding.

093587But Mrs Beeton’s influence didn’t vanish with the end of empire. She is present, too, in postcolonial recipe books. Mary Ominde’s African Cookery Book, published by Heinemann in 1975, is intended for housewives in independent Kenya, eager to play their role in raising healthy Kenyan families. But it is based very obviously on earlier colonial guidebooks. It – too – has borrowed or plagiarised from other writers, and while it does include some local recipes, for nyoyo and blood in sour milk, its emphasis is overwhelmingly on cooking dishes familiar to readers of the Kenya Settlers’ Guide. But this – like Kook en Geniet – is a recipe book in service of nationalism.

Mrs Beeton was, then, essential to the shaping of the colonial encounter between white women and children and African and Indian servants. She provided its domestic framework – a model of the ideal home at Home in Britain – and local writers created guidelines for the achievement of this manifestation of order and civilisation in the colonies. She persisted even after the end of empire. Postcolonial recipe books were informed not only by the structure of Mrs Beeton, but also the book’s recipes and ethos. Building a nation through food, if you will.

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

Modern Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethiopian tea and coffee at Arts on Main, Johannesburg.

Arts on Main, Johannesburg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

Cows Come Home

Last week, Maharashtra, India’s second-biggest state and home to the country’s commercial capital Mumbai, approved legislation which would ban the sale or possession of beef. The slaughter of cattle – cows, bulls, and calves – is now illegal. The right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power both nationally and in Maharashtra since May last year, argued that the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act saves an animal revered by many Hindus as holy. In their view, this represents a victory for pious Hindus.

As many have pointed out, although some Hindus may be in favour of a ban on the slaughter of a beast which they believe to embody divinity, the consumption and sale of beef in India is a complex and contradictory business. Firstly, the beef trade is controlled by the country’s Muslim minority, and beef is consumed mainly by them and the even smaller Christian portion of the population. Despite the fact that India is supposed to be a secular state, this law is aimed directly as these religious minorities. Vashna Jagarnath writes:

This ban will devastate the beef industry in Maharashtra, an industry that is largely run by the Muslim minority. It is not an isolated act. On the contrary, it is part of a longstanding attempt by the Hindu right, now backed with the power of the state, to make the lives of religious minorities increasingly difficult.

The ban provides the fascist project with two immediate benefits – exerting control over the minorities by sending a clear message about their increasingly precarious position in contemporary India; and dealing an economic blow to Muslims who trade in the bovine industry.

In Gaborone, Botswana.

In Gaborone, Botswana.

Secondly, this is not the first time that there have been efforts to control the slaughter of cattle in India. Several states have made the killing of cows illegal, and there are laws which limit the sale of beef in some areas. Indeed, the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act has taken nineteen years to pass. The Bill was sent to the then-President to sign into law in 1996, but it floundered – only when the BJP was re-elected in 2014 was it able to recommit to making the ban real.

And the ban has caused widespread outrage in India – and not only among Muslims and Christians. This is the third point: some Hindus eat beef too. Not all Hindus stick absolutely (religiously?) to vegetarianism. In 2001, the historian DN Jha faced harassment and attempts to prevent the publication of his – by all accounts fairly dry – monograph, The Myth of the Holy Cow. His not particularly fresh thesis was that Hinduism’s ban on beef is a relatively new phenomenon. Pankaj Mishra explains:

the cow wasn’t sacred to the nomads and pastoralists from Central Asia who settled North India in the second millennium BC and created the high Brahminical culture of what we now know as Hinduism.

These Indians slaughtered cattle for both food and the elaborate sacrificial rituals prescribed by the Vedas, the first and the holiest Indian scriptures. After they settled down and turned to agriculture, they put a slightly higher value upon the cow: it produced milk, ghee, yoghurt and manure and could be used for ploughing and transport as well.

Indian religion and philosophy after the Vedas rejected the ritual killing of animals. This may have also served to protect the cow. But beef eating was still not considered a sin. It is often casually referred to in the earliest Buddhist texts.

The cow became holy first for upper-caste Hindus between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries CE. These were the people who could afford not to spend most of their time producing their food. What changed, though, to identify vegetarianism with Hinduism?

The answer lies in the 19th century, when many newly emergent middle-class Hindus began to see the cow as an important symbol of a glorious tradition defiled by Muslim rule over India. For these Hindus, the cause for banning cow-slaughter became a badge of identity, part of their quest for political power in post-colonial India. Educated Muslims felt excluded from, even scorned by, these Hindu notions of the Indian past; and they developed their own separatist fantasies.

The implications of these nationalist beginnings during the Raj are now playing out in Maharashtra.

My final point is one that I found the most surprising: the effects of the ban on the export of beef. India not only exports water buffalo – the red meat of choice for many Indians – but twenty per cent of the world’s beef comes from India. The Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act has implications, then, for the global food supply. Beef has been a commodity traded on national and international markets since improvements in transport – railways, shipping – and, more importantly, refrigeration, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, the price of beef dropped in the 1870s and 1880s because of the opening up of huge ranches in the west which were connected by rail to packing centres in large cities, most notably (and notoriously, given the revelations in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)) Chicago.

Something similar happened in South Africa, when the politician and wildly successful businessman Sir David de Villiers Graaff, 1st Baronet, pioneered refrigeration, allowing fruit, vegetables, and meat to be transported across the country’s vast interior without spoiling. His Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company – founded on the eve of the South African War (1899-1902), out of which De Villiers Graaff profited nicely – became one of the biggest meat packing businesses in Africa.

This and large-scale tax avoidance were at the root of the wild success of the Vestey brothers’ beef empire in the early twentieth century. By 1922, Vesteys had, as Ian Phimister writes, ‘interests in South America, China and Russia, and extensive land holdings in South Africa; it gradually extended its operations to embrace Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar.’ The business shipped beef – produced cheaply under appalling conditions for both workers and cattle – around the world with ‘five steamers refrigerated and fitted for the carriage of frozen meat’.

A poster in Williamsburgh's Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop.

A poster in Williamsburgh’s Spoonbill & Sugartown bookshop.

The demand that drove the expansion of ranching and packing in the US, and De Villiers Graaff and the Vestey bothers’ businesses, was a growing middle-class taste for a meat once prohibitively expensive. Beef became – like sugar, chocolate, and tea – an affordable luxury once an industrialised food chain caused prices to fall. A similar process is currently underway in India, as an ever-bigger middle class chooses to add more beef to its diet. Although a small, committedly nationalist middle-class was partly responsible for making Hindu diets vegetarian in the nineteenth century, the opposite is happening now. Part of a global circulation of both commodities and ideas – middle classes in other developing nations are also eating more red meat – to what extent will this large middle class be able to negotiate the demands of right wingers keen to protect the lives of holy cows, and the attractions of a more varied and ‘modern’ diet?

Sources

Ebbe Dommisse, Sir David de Villiers Graaff: First Baronet of De Grendel (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2011).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

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

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

Whose Heritage?

On 24 September, South Africans celebrate Heritage Day, during which they’re supposed to commemorate the rich and diverse cultural inheritance of the Rainbow Nation. That, at least, was the intention in 1996. Now, Heritage Day is a day of rallies and speeches organised by the government, or National Braai (Barbecue) Day – an initiative launched in 2007 to unite the nation in its shared enthusiasm for incinerating meat over wood fires.

Although there is something deeply ridiculous about a National Braai Day, there’s a logic in recasting Heritage Day into an uncomplicated, fun event which includes just about every South African. Not only did the then-Department of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology include food as part of South Africa’s cultural heritage, but most South African cuisines include some form of barbecue. Everyone – from the middle classes in leafy suburbs, to township dwellers – can, and does, braai.

The originators of National Braai Day manage – probably unwittingly – to solve, or to negotiate, the deeply troubling question at the heart of Heritage Day: what on earth do we mean by ‘heritage’?

Like most historians, I find the idea of ‘heritage’ problematic – and particularly in societies, like South Africa, with long histories of nationalist politics. ‘Heritage’ is constructed: it’s what we – the state, and other institutions – select from the past, and what we choose to remember. Usually, we decide to remember those events and people who are useful for the construction of national identities. What we leave out of these narratives of national becoming is almost as important as what we decide to include.

Under apartheid, European explorers like Vasco da Gama, various early Dutch officials, Voortrekkers (pioneer farmers), Boer generals from the South African War, and nationalist politicians were immortalised on bank notes, in statues and monuments, and in thousands of street names. These white men – and some women – represented what the apartheid state defined as South Africa’s heritage – alongside events such as the Battle of Blood River, the songs in the FAK Sangbundel, volkspele (‘folk-games’), and some kinds of Afrikaans literature.

Those aspects of South African history which could not be mobilised in the construction of a narrative of the triumph of white, Afrikanerdom, were ignored. So there was no room for the miners’ strikes of the early decades of the twentieth century; the histories of the ‘hendsoppers’ and ‘joiners’ – Boers who surrendered to, or joined, the British army during the South African War; the implications of the 1913 Land Act for Africans; and the Bulhoek Massacre, for example.

Perhaps inevitably, the ANC has engaged in its own process of myth-making in post-apartheid South Africa, having claimed the 1976 Soweto uprising as its own event (in fact, the exiled ANC was completely taken by surprise by these student protests); interred Sara Baartman – a Khoi woman who toured Europe in various freak shows between 1810 and 1815, and who is now seen as an emblem of African suffering and exploitation under colonial rule – in a grave in the Eastern Cape, a region she probably never visited, but which is the heartland of the ANC; and has renamed airports, cities, and streets.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, presented this year by Ben Okri. Biko exemplifies what happens to difficult figures during processes of national myth-creation: as the originator of the Black Consciousness Movement and often critical of the ANC, Biko stands outside of the traditions, events, and movements which the ANC has used to create its version of a South African history. It’s telling that the ANC did not – to my knowledge – release a press statement on 12 September, the thirty-fifth anniversary of Biko’s death, and has done very little to transform him into a hero of the liberation struggle – as they’ve done with Sol Plaatje, for instance.

Although much of Okri’s speech was very, very bad – a woolly, rambling call for a national and nationalist renewal – I liked his opening point that we need to hold on to Biko’s ‘incisive’ questioning, and ‘forensic’ thought. It’s this kind of critical thinking which holds governments to account – particularly when they harness the past in the name of ‘heritage’ to prop up their claims to legitimacy.

One of the best examples of a thoughtful engagement with the pasts that we choose to remember is Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia (2009). In this memoir-cum-essay, Dlamini makes the – potentially uncomfortable – point that for all the viciousness of life in a township in apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, black South Africans found ways of living – occasionally happily – under an oppressive regime.

He argues for remembering the strategies that people used to cope with the violence and discrimination of apartheid South Africa, suggesting that as we commemorate acts of resistance to the apartheid state, we should also remember the complex, ordinary lived experiences of the majority of South Africans.

As an historian and as someone who lived through the transition, I think that this is such an important point. Having been raised in a very politically aware household – both my parents were at various times engaged in anti-apartheid activities, and my mother was a Black Sash activist when I was little – I remember watching on television Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison just a few kilometres from our house; shouting ‘vote yes!’ during the 1992 referendum; the riots after Chris Hani’s assassination in 1993; the bomb drills at school; frightening white men dressed in AWB uniforms driving through Paarl, where we lived until 1995 ; listening to radio announcers enumerating the numbers of people killed overnight in the Vaal Triangle, KwaZulu-Natal, and other flashpoints; and the alternating terror and euphoria of the 1994 election.

But it was when ordinary, everyday things began to change, that I realised the implications of the transition to democracy.

It’s difficult to describe the experience of being so isolated from the rest of the world as sanctions were introduced against South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. As English-speaking opponents of apartheid, our family was doubly isolated – we didn’t have a large social circle in the small, conservative town where we lived.

One of the ways my parents coped with this isolation was through books and, particularly, magazines ordered from abroad. Our meals demonstrated particularly well how different we were from the conservative, white society around us, but also how isolated we were from the rest of the world. My mother cooked from Elizabeth David’s books, and also from Robert Carrier, the Supercook series, Good Housekeeping, and Katie Stewart’s recipes in Country Living. When my friends from school were eating lamb chops, rice, potatoes, and overcooked cabbage, we had paella, coq au vin, pasta in various forms, moussaka, and kofte. We drank proper coffee. We didn’t add Aromat to our food.

Making these dishes required some inventiveness: Arborio rice for risotto was almost impossible to find, and I can remember the first time I saw red peppers, mascarpone, ricotta, watercress, and couscous in the shops. My mother became adept at finding substitutes for the ingredients we couldn’t buy.

We have two thick recipe files at home – one for cakes and puddings, and the other for everything else. They comprise clippings from magazines and newspapers – Fairlady, the Financial Times – as well as recipes from friends, including my great-aunt’s amazing vinegar pudding, and, more recently, print-outs from blogs. Some of the recipes are older than I am, and we keep adding recipe cards, torn-out pages from magazines, and bits and pieces from the internet. These files – eccentrically categorised by my sister – are a record of my family’s experience of the past thirty or forty years: they’re a catalogue of our heritage.

They don’t, though, fit into the narratives of national becoming pedalled by the government and, even, the organisers of National Braai Day. What’s missing – among many things – in our Heritage Day celebrations is an acknowledgement of ordinary, lived experience under apartheid – of the multiple ways South Africans adjusted to living under an oppressive regime.

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

National Kitchens

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my parents gave me a copy of the new revised English edition of that Bible of Afrikaans cooking, Cook and Enjoy. It’s testimony to the ubiquity of the book that I find myself referring to it by its Afrikaans title Kook en Geniet, rather than its English name.

Kook en Geniet is the Afrikaans Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Published as a guide to housekeeping and cooking for young brides in 1951 by Ina de Villiers, a Stellenbosch-based home economist, it has never been out of print. There are very few Afrikaans households which do not possess at least one copy of the book – and, like Mrs Beeton, its success lies partly in the fact that it is regularly updated.

De Villiers herself was responsible for testing and re-testing recipes, and for producing new editions of Kook en Geniet. Her long-standing association with the book helped Kook en Geniet to gain its reputation for being a fail-proof authority on Afrikaans cooking. Since her death in 2010, her daughter, Eunice van der Berg, who also happens to be a home economist, has taken over responsibility for it.

There is no single version of Kook en Geniet. Each edition retains a core of essential recipes, but methods and ingredients change as new products appear. Dishes are added and, less frequently, subtracted as culinary fashions evolve. De Villiers wrote in the preface to the 1992 edition:

As the microwave oven and food processor have become nearly indispensable in many kitchens today, their use is indicated in a number of recipes. However, experienced cooks will be able to use these timesavers for almost any recipe – it is left to their discretion.

My edition contains recipes for moussaka and lasagne. But it’s not for these that I use Kook en Geniet: it’s for staples of Afrikaans cuisine, like buttermilk rusks, Hertzoggies, quince chutney, vinegar pudding, and prickly pear jam. It’s a supremely practical recipe book. Helping out at the pancake stall which seems to accompany every major event – from agricultural shows to local government elections – in small town life? There’s a recipe to make enough batter for a hundred pancakes. Need to make bobotie for fifty at the church fete? Serving sosaties to eighty people at a barbeque? Kook en Geniet will come to the rescue with sensible, authoritative advice.

For anthropologists and historians interested in food, the value of Kook en Geniet lies in the fact that it changed as tastes evolved. It does not present readers with a static, inflexible view of ‘Afrikaner cuisine’. It acknowledges – tacitly – that cooking alters over time.

It’s not, though, the only source on what I’ve called Afrikaans or Afrikaner cuisine – more frequently referred to as boerekos, which translates literally as ‘farmers’ food’, but signifies considerably more than that. Boerekos is the homely, comfort cooking associated particularly with rural Afrikaans living. A wildly popular new series on the Afrikaans cable channel Kyknet, titled simply Boerekos, interviews a collection of Afrikaans women cooking their favourite, old-fashioned boerekos, from mosbolletjies to pie.

Programmes like this one, as well as other books on boerekos, seek to frame it as an unchanging cuisine: as a form of cooking which has remained reassuringly the same during a century of tumultuous change. For Afrikaner nationalists before and during apartheid, food was a useful way of forging a new, unified and distinct Afrikaner identity. As they codified and regularised Afrikaans, so they sought to create a unique Afrikaner cuisine.

C. Louis Leipoldt, culture broker, poet, journalist, doctor, Buddhist, and eugenicist, filled several journals with recipes he collected from friends, acquaintances, and people whom he came across while working during the 1920s and 1930s. (These are now held by the National Library in Cape Town.) He wrote about these recipes and rural cooking for Die Huisgenoot, a popular magazine with a distinct enthusiasm for nationalism, between 1942 and 1947. In 1933, at the height of the Afrikaner nationalist revival, he published Kos vie die Kenner (Food for the Expert), a collection of a more than a thousand recipes. Polfyntjies vir die Proe, Three Hundred Years of Cape Wine, and Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery appeared posthumously.

One of the ironies of boerekos is that so much of it is derived from the cooking of the slaves who were transported to the Cape from southeast Asia during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The sambals, atchars, and chutneys of Afrikaner cooking are a particularly obvious debt to the food traditions imported to South Africa from present-day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although Leipoldt, an unusually thoughtful nationalist, acknowledge that many of the recipes he found were cooked and invented by ‘Malay’ women – a term which he used to describe the largely Muslim and Afrikaans-speaking descendants of slaves who lived in the Cape –their presence gradually disappeared in other, later boerekos recipe books.

There is no neat boundary between Afrikaner cuisine and what most South Africans dub ‘Cape Malay’ cooking: there are recipes for bredie (mutton stew), bobotie, and sosaties (kebabs) in both boerekos and Malay recipe books. But in order to use food to construct distinct, discrete national or group identities, the differences between these two cuisines had to be emphasised over their similarities.

Nationalisms have long co-opted food and cooking to construct national identities. Leipoldt’s recipe books are the first in an extensive literature which seeks – both overtly and inadvertently – to construct an Afrikaner cuisine. It’s telling that the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging (Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation), once strongly allied to the National Party but now a society which works towards the promotion of Afrikaans as a language, bestowed Ina de Villiers with its Afrikoon prize in 2010 for furthering the cause of Afrikaans.

But minority groups use food and recipes in similar ways – to construct, maintain, and assert identities, often in the face of discrimination and social and political marginalisation. Cass Abrahams as well as other Cape-based women have created a rich literature on ‘Cape Malay’ cooking, often basing their writing on recipes collected from, and donated by, local women. These are as much social histories as they are cookery books.

Similarly, one of my favourite South African recipe books, Indian Delights, was compiled by a community organisation, the Women’s Culture Group in Durban. First published in 1961, the book has been revised several times. My mother’s copy – which I covet – is the 1982 ‘Enlarged Super Edition.’ As the editor, Zuleikha Mayat, writes in the introduction, the recipes were

mostly passed on to me by persons ranging from ordinary housewives to the super cooks who abound in our community. This is why Indian Delights remains – as it has always been – a representation of the collective culinary knowledge of our Community.

The book is as much an assertion of a distinct form of South African Indian cooking as it is a record of how a group of women cooked for their families in Natal during the second half of the twentieth century. But it is also an attempt to preserve a culinary tradition at risk of being forgotten as family life changed:

Twenty years ago when Indian Delights was first published, I had stated that the cookery book as such was something foreign to Indian women; that each dish was taught down the generations till daughters became as proficient as their mothers; but that the need of a reliable cookery book was beginning to be felt since daughters were spending more time with studies and acquiring careers.

As a result of this ‘a good reliable cookery book has become essential’.

It’s partly because of this extensive collection of recipe books – from Indian Delights to Kook en Geniet – that it’s particularly obvious that there is no, single homogenous South African cuisine. One of the best collections of South African recipes, African Salad demonstrates this particularly well: it’s a series of photographs and short interviews with of a more-or-less random selection of South Africans on their favourite meals. The recipes are as varied as the interviewees.

I’ve been struck while watching the South African version of the MasterChef franchise by the absence of references to the African cuisines of South Africa. During one episode in which the contestants were required to barbeque, one (black) Twitter user commented jokingly that the black contestants would struggle because they would prefer over- rather than underdone meat.

So far the dominant cuisine (the meta-cuisine?) of the show has been broadly western. It is this which is most closely associated with ‘fine dining’ (hateful phrase). Indeed, I was annoyed when a black contestant was criticised for cooking a steak too well: a liking for pink, lightly cooked meat is both a relatively recent phenomenon and culturally specific. Why should someone be penalised if she has cooked meat according to the dictates of another cuisine?

A couple of contestants have cooked African dishes and I’ve watched those with the most curiosity: as a white South African raised in the Western Cape, I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of Afrikaans and Malay cooking, but African cuisine still eludes me. I know of certain dishes and have seen sheep heads and walkie talkies (chicken heads and feet) being sold, but this is as far as my knowledge goes.

I know that there probably isn’t a single ‘African cuisine’ or African culinary tradition in South Africa – that it must differ between regions and has changed over time. There are, to my knowledge, no substantial recipe books dedicated to this country’s African cuisines – although do please feel free to enlighten me if there are.

With the current wave of enthusiasm for local producers, it’s striking that the various markets which have sprung up around South Africa have tended to model themselves on a foreign – mainly European – model. They are Borough Markets in miniature. These new ingredients – these cheeses, sausages, and free-range duck and chicken – are sold to be used in cassoulet, poule au pot, and arrosto di maiale al latte. We use local products for overseas cuisines.

I’m not some mad nationalist loon who advocates that we only eat local cuisines, but as South African society changes during the early twenty-first century – as urbanisation increases and as our middle class expands – we are, as in the case of any rapidly evolving society, in danger of losing a lot of culinary knowledge. This is a pity: not only do food and cooking provide useful ways of understanding how societies function, but it also strikes me as deeply strange that the white, middle-class customers of the Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town know more about the cooking of northern Italy than they do of the Eastern Cape. Or Langa, which is right next door.

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

Is the Future of Food Medieval?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It even adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose Slow Food?

While I was a PhD student in London I stayed at a really magnificent residence for postgraduate students in Bloomsbury. Our closest supermarket was a Waitrose which distributed leaflets to the local student population every September (the beginning of the academic year in the UK). Their most successful campaign stated simply, ‘Make your Mum happy. Shop at Waitrose.’ I did as I was told, and shopped at Waitrose. And Mum was indeed very happy.

In Britain, admitting that you shop at Waitrose is similar to calling yourself a Guardian reader: it denotes not only class status (Waitrose is very bourgeois), but also a set of values. Waitrose is like Woolworths in South Africa or, to a lesser extent, Trader Joe’s in the United States. It’s a business which has a commitment to stocking ethically-sourced, free range, and organic products and groceries – hence its association with the lefty, greeny, and affluent middle classes.

It does seem to be hypocritical to admit to shopping at Waitrose – or the even more expensive Marks & Spencer, which attracts a slightly different demographic – while vilifying those who depend on budget chains like Tesco in the UK or Shoprite in South Africa. After all, they’re all supermarkets, and it’s clear that supermarkets are responsible for over a million tonnes of wasted food per year in Britain alone; engage in environmentally harmful practices; exploit their employees; stifle small and local producers; destroy communities; and encourage poor eating habits.

But not all supermarkets are the same. Tim Lang, the food policy expert who invented the term ‘food miles’, suggests that one of the best ways of eating responsibly is to shop at supermarkets which preselect their products on ethical lines. So instead of buying free-range beef directly from the farmer (something which very few of us can do, in practical or financial terms), we should – if we can – shop at supermarkets which encourage this kind of farming. And we should place pressure on bigger chains to stock free range eggs and meat.

I love supermarkets. They’re one of the first places I visit when I go to new cities. When I stayed with a friend in Zürich last year I enjoyed the Swiss supermarkets (the yogurt!) almost as much as the Kunsthaus (the Giacometti statues!). Supermarkets tell us things about how a population thinks about its relationship with food.

It’s partly for this reason that I am concerned about the motives of the Slow Food Movement. Founded in Italy in 1986, and as a global organisation three years later, the Slow Food Movement is now a wealthy, international network of ‘convivia’ – or local branches – which encourage a ‘slow’ attitude towards food. Its members are encouraged to cook and to eat slowly, and also to think more carefully about how their food is produced and sold.

With its emphasis on localism and sustainability, Slow Food has, I think, done a great deal of good. It’s one of the forces behind the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets, and I’m particularly impressed by its publicising of the working conditions of farm workers, many of whom are migrants who are exploited ruthlessly by their employers.

The world is certainly a better place for the existence of Slow Food, but I am concerned by two aspects of its manifesto: its enthusiasm for regional food, which I’ll discuss next week, and its argument that we all cooked and ate better in the past. As an interview with the Movement’s founder and chair, Carlo Petrini, notes:

Slow Food launched courses to put consumers in touch with the producers of the food and wine they enjoyed, recreating the umbilical cord that was cut when supermarkets invaded the market place.

Petrini adds:

‘The idea of the modern has been superseded; the challenge today is to return to the small scale, the handmade, to local distribution – because today what we call ‘modern’ is out of date. The crisis we have been facing in the past year is not merely a financial crisis but also a crisis of systems and values. To overcome it we need to change our behaviour.’

Slow Food was founded at a time when McDonalds and the first big supermarkets opened their doors in Italy. It disapproves of supermarkets on the grounds, as Petrini suggested, that they facilitate a ‘fast’ way of living which relies on the consumption of processed food and does not allow for the enjoyment of cooking and eating. Slow Food asks for a return to ‘traditional’ eating patterns which celebrate ‘ancient’ knowledge about food. For all its efforts to think about the future of food, Slow Food seems to build its model of an ideal system on a set of ideas about ‘traditional’ cooking and eating.

As an historian, I am always suspicious of any movement or organisation which demands a return to or rekindling of tradition. Petrini and Slow Food are pretty vague as to which ‘tradition’ – which ‘past’ – they’d like to return. And considering that Slow Food is a global movement, they seem to imply that all countries and regions have a similar, glorious food past which they should revitalise.

I’d like to know how they would propose to do this in South Africa. Even the most cursory overview of life in late nineteenth-century Cape Town suggests that a return to the past isn’t necessarily a great idea. All white, upper middle-class households employed cooks who, although supervised by their mistresses, were responsible for providing families’ meals. These families ate well: meat every day, even if it was reheated meat, with a variety of vegetables, both cooked and raw, starch of some kind, and usually a pudding with tea or coffee. This was an international diet. Visitors to Cape Town and surrounding towns commented that they ate as well – or even better, given the quality of local produce – in these affluent homes as they did at home in Britain or the United States.

Depending on the generosity of the household, servants may have eaten the same as their masters and mistresses, but, more likely, ate scraps from the table. So most of the food in these families was prepared and cooked by employees, many of whom did not share the same good diet.

Middle- and lower-middle-class households would have employed a maid-of-all-work who would have done some cooking, assisted by her mistress. The reason why a cook was such a desirable addition to the household – and cooks were the most expensive servants to employ – was the sheer backbreaking nature of nineteenth-century cooking. Meat was bought in bulk, with the cook or mistress having to cut down a whole or half-carcass of beef, lamb, or pork herself. All baking had to be done on one day per week – leaving little time for the equally laborious weekly laundry – and the lack of refrigeration meant that dairy products had to be used quickly. A spoiled batch of bread on Monday meant no bread for the rest of the week. Want to make a jelly? Well, you’d have to buy calves’ feet, crack them open, and boil them down to create a jelly which could be added to milk or a fruit puree.

‘Malay’ households padded out diets with rice and fish. The bredies and breyanis which we associate with Cape Malay cooking today were reserved for special occasions. Eggs and dairy products were expensive, even for wealthier households. For the poor in Cape Town’s slums, most meals consisted of a starchy staple – maize porridge, rice, or, possibly, bread – along with fish or whatever else could affordably garnish an otherwise unappetising, and not particularly nutritious, meal. And poor households would have had only one main meal.

These are only some of the diets eaten in South Africa during this period, but I’ve used them to demonstrate how difficult it is to define what we mean by a food tradition. Which one of these Capetonian diets should we return? To the one eaten by white, upper-middle class families? If so, should we ask one member of our households to devote her- or himself to the laborious preparation of these meals? This tiny proportion of colonial society ate precisely the kind of diet promoted by the Slow Food Movement – completely locally-sourced and homemade – but it required one person working all day to execute it in its entirety.

Women, in particular, need to take a closer look at Slow Food. We’re the ones who tend – still – to cook for our families, and much of Slow Food’s criticism of contemporary eating rests on a belief that something in the way in which families ate went profoundly wrong during the 1960s and 1970s. The mass entry of women into employment during these decades did mean that eating patterns changed, but I refuse to return to a time when my role would be limited to keeping house. And I can’t, and won’t, employ someone else to do my cooking for me. It’s interesting that Slow Food emerged from Italy, a country with a distinctly bad track record on women’s rights.

It’s for this reason that I think that Slow Food’s opposition to supermarkets is misguided. Of course, and as I’ve noted above, supermarkets do an enormous amount of harm, but they do allow us to feed ourselves affordably and conveniently. To reject them entirely, when so many people rely on them, is not the way to create a sustainable food system. But, possibly more importantly, I disagree with Slow Food’s belief that we need to return to the past to improve the future. We can certainly learn from the past, but this reification of ‘tradition’ can only be dangerous. Who decides which ‘tradition’ we should turn to? And who’ll cook it?

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

S.E. 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).

SE Duff, ‘What will this child be? Children, Childhood, and Dutch Reformed Evangelicalism in the Cape Colony, 1860-1895’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 2010).

Tim Lang, David Barling, and Martin Caraher, Food Policy: Integrating Health, Environment and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Other sources:

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

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.

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).

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

Tim Lang and Michael Heasman, Food Wars: The Battle for Mouths, Minds, and Markets (London: Earthscan, 2004).

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.

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

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