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Real Revolutions

When Keenwa opened in Cape Town last year, much was made of the fact that it serves ‘authentic’ Peruvian food. I put ‘authentic’ in quotes partly because I’ve read far too much Derrida and Foucault, but mainly as a result of some scepticism. I doubt that any of the reviewers who’ve eaten at Keenwa have ever been to Peru, and there’s something odd about deciding how a varied and changing cuisine can be made ‘authentic’. The bobotie I cook has grated apple in it, but a friend’s doesn’t: which is more authentic? Neither, obviously.

I was thinking about this a month ago when I had supper with my friends Katherine and Ricardo in London. Ricardo is from Cuba, and cooked us a Cuban-themed dinner. The only Cuban food I’ve ever eaten was at Cuba Libre, a restaurant and tapas bar in Islington. It’s the kind of place which people recommend by saying ‘it’s not authentic, but….’ I haven’t the faintest idea if it’s authentic (whatever that may be), but it was certainly fun.

The food that Ricardo made showed up the problem with the mania for ‘authenticity’ particularly well. We had fried plantain, tortilla, and congrí. This is, to some extent, the kind of food his family would eat in Cuba, although because he and Katherine are vegetarians, we had tortilla instead of the usual, more meaty accompaniment to the meal (hurrah – I love tortilla), and the congrí was pork-free. It was delicious, but was it any less authentic? You tell me.

Christiane Paponnet-Cantat describes the food eaten in Cuba as ‘contact cuisine’, a concept borrowed from Mary Louise Pratt’s conceptualisation of the colonial space as a cultural and social ‘contact zone’ which ‘treats the relations among colonisers and colonised…not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practice’. She suggests that Cuban, and colonial cooking more generally, is a manifestation of the complex relationships between different groups of people in colonies.

Congrí is an excellent example of this contact cuisine. As in the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba’s indigenous population was eradicated – by disease and conflict – after the arrival of European colonists during the seventeenth century. Slaves were imported from West and Central Africa to work on sugar plantations. In the nineteenth century, indentured labourers from India replaced slaves. Along with foodstuffs introduced by the Spanish – like rice in the 1690s – these groups brought with them a variety of cuisines.

Congrí – at its most basic, a dish of rice and beans – can be found in various forms around the Caribbean. It’s a version of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) and rice and peas. And jollof rice, popular in West Africa, is similar too. The term congrí seems to have originated in Haiti and is a combination of ‘Congo’ and ‘riz’ (the French for rice), suggesting its African origins.

The recipe that Ricardo used for his congrí was by Nitza Villapol. To my shame, I’d never heard of her until Ricardo mentioned one of her best-known recipe books, Cocina al minuto. This was published in 1958, four years after Cocina criolla, the Bible of Cuban cuisine. Villapol seems to have been a kind of Cuban Delia Smith or Julia Child: she was as interested in writing about Cuban cuisine as she was in communicating it to people. She had a long-running television series which aired between 1951 and 1997. (She died in 1998.)

Villapol would be interesting simply on these grounds, but she was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Born into a wealthy family in 1923, she was named after the Russian river Nitza by her communism-supporting father. She spent her early childhood in New York, returning to Cuba with her family at the age of nine. During World War Two she trained as a home economist and nutritionist at the University of London.

This experience of wartime rationing proved to be surprisingly useful. In Cuba, Villapol began her career during the 1950s by teaching cookery classes to young, middle-class brides and her earliest recipe books emerged out of this work. But after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, she devoted to her formidable talents to teaching a kind of revolutionary cuisine. Tellingly, editions of her recipe books published after 1959 no longer included advertisements for American consumer goods.

Under the new communist regime, food distribution was centralised, and rationing was introduced in 1962. People collected their allowances of food – listed in a libreta (ration book) – from the local bodega, or depot. Villapol’s aim was to teach Cubans how to cook when they had little control over the quantity or the nature of the ingredients they would receive at the bodega. She taught a cuisine developed to underpin the goals of the revolution. Unfortunately, I don’t read Spanish and I haven’t been able to track down any substantial scholarship on Villapol. From what I’ve gleaned, though, it seems to me that she was interested in cooking a form of a ‘traditional’ Cuban cooking – but the cooking of ordinary Cubans, rather than those at the top of the social scale who would, presumably, have favoured American or European dishes as a marker of wealth and sophistication. This elevation of ‘every day’ Cuban food would have meshed well with the aims of the revolution.

By writing recipes for favourites like congrí and flan, Villapol created a kind of canon for Cuban cooking. The popularity – and possibly the ubiquity – of her writing and television programmes meant that not only was she seen as the authority on Cuban cuisine, but she also became the source for all that was (or is) ‘authentically’ Cuban. The irony is that this happened during a time of rationing, when what people ate was determined by supplies available to the state.

This system functioned relatively well until the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989. Peter Rosset et al. explain:

When trade relations with the Soviet Bloc crumbled in late 1989 and 1990, and the United States tightened the trade embargo, Cuba was plunged into economic crisis. In 1991 the government declared the Special Period in Peacetime, which basically put the country on a wartime economy-style austerity program. An immediate 53 percent reduction in oil imports not only affected fuel availability for the economy, but also reduced to zero the foreign exchange that Cuba had formerly obtained via the re-export of petroleum. Imports of wheat and other grains for human consumption dropped by more than 50 percent, while other foodstuffs declined even more.

There was simply not enough food to go around. (A similar set of factors caused the famine in North Korea, a country as dependent on trade with the USSR as Cuba.) As a 1998 article from the sympathetic New Internationalist noted:

The monthly rations from the State for a family of four cost around 50 pesos ($2.15), almost a quarter of the average salary of 214 pesos ($9.30). Food from the bodega is not enough to live on and no-one, neither the Government nor the people, pretends it is. It may take you halfway through the month, but no more.

Even though he was shielded – to some extent – from the worst food shortages because he was in school and university accommodation during the Special Period, Ricardo described what it was like to live while permanently hungry – and entirely obsessed with the next meal, even if it was likely to be thin, watery soup or overcooked pasta. In fact, one of the most traumatic features of the Special Period was that staples like rice and coffee – things which most people ate every day – were no longer available. Some people seem to have made congrí from broken up spaghetti.

Drawing on her experience of wartime cooking in London, Villapol used her cookery series to show her audience how to to replicate Cuban favourites with the meagre rations available to the population. Ricardo mentioned one episode during which she fashioned a steak out of orange peel. She received widespread ridicule for doing this, and I think deservedly so.

Cuba managed to pull itself out of its food crisis by radically reorganising its agricultural sector. The state transformed most of its farms into worker-owned co-operatives which

allowed collectives of workers to lease state farmlands rent free, in perpetuity. Property rights would remain in the hands of the state, and [co-operatives] would need to continue to meet production quotas for their key crops, but the collectives were the owners of what they produced. What food crops they produced in excess of their quotas could be freely sold at newly opened farmers’ markets.

In addition to this, urban agriculture helped to provide a supply of vegetables and pork:

The earlier food shortages and resultant increase in food prices suddenly turned urban agriculture into a very profitable activity for Cubans, and, once the government threw its full support behind a nascent urban gardening movement, it exploded to near epic proportions. Formerly vacant lots and backyards in all Cuban cities now sport food crops and farm animals, and fresh produce is sold from stands throughout urban areas at prices substantially below those prevailing in the farmers’ markets.

Food may not be abundant now, and there are still occasional shortages of particular items, but no-one goes hungry anymore. Cuba does offer a model of a sustainable, largely organic and pesticide-free food system, and we can learn a great deal from it.

I’m interested, though, in how Cuban food has changed as a result of the Special Period. From a quick trawl of the internet, it seems to me that Nitza Villapol still exercises a kind of nostalgic appeal to some Cubans living in Miami – there’s even one woman who’s heroically cooking her way through Villapol’s oeuvre. But for those still in Cuba – and those who experienced the deprivations of the Special Period – she seems to be tainted by association. It’s certainly the case that despite Villapol’s best efforts, Cuban diets are more meat-heavy and vegetable-poor than ever before. I wonder if this is the effect of the hunger of the nineties: a diet which was based once mainly on rice and fresh produce, has become increasingly focussed around red meat because meat is associated with plenty – and with having a full stomach.

So where does that leave us on ‘authentic’ Cuban cuisine?

Sources cited here:

Mavis Alvarez, Martin Bourque, Fernando Funes, Lucy Martin, Armando Nova, and Peter Rosset, ‘Surviving Crisis in Cuba: The Second Agrarian Reform and Sustainable Agriculture,’ in Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform, ed. Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, and Michael Courville (Food First Books, 2006), pp. 225-248. (Also available here.)

Christiane Paponnet-Cantat, ‘The Joy of Eating: Food and Identity in Contemporary Cuba,’ Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 3 (Sept., 2003), pp. 11-29.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ‘Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821-1911,’ The Americas, vol. 53, no. 2 (Oct., 1996), pp. 193-216.

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).

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

Food Links, 02.11.2011

On famine and food in North Korea.

How hummus conquered Britain.

How to taste wine without sounding obnoxious.

Cape Town appears in the London Review of Breakfasts.

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

Beer and the ethics of food blogging.

Allegra McEvedy discusses her knife collection.

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

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

So who is Ruth Bourdain?

Will the cupcake ever die? (Thanks Jane!)

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

The empty pantry: food insecurity in the United States.

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

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

How to make vanilla extract.

Peanut butter and climate change.

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

On cooking sous-vide. (Thanks Dad!)

Ten food myths debunked. (Thanks Mum!)

Berliner Pfannkuchen.

How to eat the rich.

Food Links, 11.05.2011

Ferran Adrià closes El Bulli and opens a research foundation, one of the aims of which will be to promote healthy eating.

It seems that there may be a link between fasting and preventing heart disease.

A fantastic farming project in Malawi demonstrates how good agricultural practices can combat malnutrituion.

A while ago I read – and loved – Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010) and was struck, in particular, by her description of the experience of famine. This article from the Los Angeles Times concerns Kim Jong Il’s bizarre eating habits.

What a clever idea: cooked too much for supper? Log in to Supermarmite (marmite as in the French for cooking pot, not the spread) and let others in your neighbourhood know what you’ve got going, and how much you’re charging for it.

Another reason to oppose the overuse of antibiotics in stock farming.

‘Americans need information, through labeling, nutrition education and medical advice, to make smart diet decisions. Then they should be free to eat what they want — as long as they bear the cost of their personal choices.’ The Los Angeles Times opines on the introduction of a ‘fat tax’ in the US.

Widespread obesity is caused by a range of factors – this is an attempt to collate research on all of them.

Revolution, Revival, and Food

Over the past fortnight another corporate conglomerate has bid to replace the evil empire Monsanto as the most problematic business within the global food industry. It has emerged that the Swiss-based Glencore,  a commodity trader specialising in energy and food which was listed publicly for the first time this week, was partly responsible for causing the hike in food prices at the end of last year when it became clear that Russia’s grain crop would be badly damaged by catastrophic fires. Raj Patel explains:

Glencore has now revealed its traders placed bets that the price of wheat would go up. On 2 August Glencore’s head of Russian grain trading called on Russia’s government to ban wheat exports. Three days later, that’s what it did. The price of wheat went up by 15% in two days. Of course, just because a senior executive at one of the world’s most powerful companies suggested a course of action that a country chose to follow doesn’t mean Glencore made it happen. But happen it did, and the consequences rippled round the world.

At the time, Mozambique experienced a massive uprising in response to increased food and fuel prices. Protests were organised via text messages and, in actions that foreshadowed those of governments in the Arab spring, the Mozambican state responded by shutting down text capability for pre-paid phones and sweeping up hundreds of protesters. Over a dozen people died, many were injured, and millions of dollars of damage was caused. It’s safe to say that tens of thousands were pushed further towards hunger as a result of the higher wheat prices.

Six months later, the Arab world exploded. The riots which began the insurrection in Tunisia were partly in response to high food prices. In Egypt, the government increased spending on wheat to compensate for a fifty percent hike in the cost of imported grain and cereals – even so, the price of bread rose by a quarter in Cairo’s private markets. In Libya, expensive and scarce food has fuelled the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Even the World Bank has woken up to the connection between food prices and political unrest, and warned that unstable regimes in North Africa and the Middle East were seriously undermined by discontent over the price of staples, like bread and pulses.

This association of high food prices and revolution isn’t anything new, as this graph posted by Paul Mason on his blog, shows:

Bread Prices, 1848 and 2011

What this graphic demonstrates is the extent to which political instability and the cost of food, and bread especially, are connected. This is particularly interesting because the graph links the Springtime of the Peoples, the ‘failed’ revolutions of 1848, with this year’s Arab Spring. In 1848, only four countries were immune to the revolution which swept Europe: Russia and Poland, and Britain and Belgium. The first two had small middle classes – the group largely responsible for the upheaval in the rest of Europe – and very efficient means of controlling and monitoring dissent. The second two had strong, flexible constitutional governments which could implement change and respond effectively to demands for reform.

High food prices are not, then, the main cause of revolutions, but it is telling that Britain could feed her population for less than did other nations in Europe in 1848. With the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 and improvements in technology which allowed commodities to be shipped around the world more quickly, grain prices remained low in Britain throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

I think that it’s best to think about food protests as catalysts for revolutions: they cause people who would not normally take to the streets – women in particular – to become involved in anti-government demonstrations. Protesting about food prices or shortages is not an especially politically partisan activity. Food protests demand simply that the state successfully distribute food and regulate prices – that it, in other words, fulfil one of its most basic obligations to its citizens.

As the Nobel prize-winning economist and all-round good egg Amartya Sen argued in his classic Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), food shortages and famines tend to occur not when there isn’t enough food to go around, but, rather, when it isn’t distributed effectively. This happens when systems of exchange – a labourer works in exchange for money which she can exchange for food – break down or change radically. Writing in 1976, Sen explained:

A recent example was the 1974 famine in Bangladesh. The flood that destroyed the crop did reduce the availability of food, but the sharp decline in employment and the failure of exchange entitlement of labour was immediate, and the famine was made severe by that.

The European potato crop failed in the mid-1840s because of an infection of Phytophthora infestans, but it was only in Ireland that this caused widespread and devastating famine. In 1845, at least a third of the Irish population ate only potatoes. When the blight destroyed the year’s supply of potatoes there seemed to be nothing else to eat. Why? After all, not all Irish people were dependent on potatoes in the mid-nineteenth century: about half ate grains as well. A century and a half previously, all the Irish ate a considerably more varied diet. The difference was that the system of assizes – rules originating during the medieval period which governed the weight, quality, and distribution of bread – were repealed in 1838, allowing the price of bread the rise according to market forces. This meant that the Irish who were starving in 1845, and these were, overwhelmingly, the poorest proportion of the population, weren’t able to buy bread – of which there was enough to feed everyone.

Famines are caused by bad harvests, but they are also the product of dysfunctional systems of trade and distribution. It’s little wonder that they should cause revolutions: they demonstrate very clearly when governments are no longer able to respond to the needs of populations. In France, the Flour War erupted in 1775 after the introduction of laissez-faire economic policies caused the ancient guild system to go into a terminal decline: the groups of merchants who had once controlled the pricing and trade of grain and flour in France were no longer responsible for doing so, and bread prices rocketed. The widespread violence – caused frequently by women – forced Louis XVI to fire Jacques Turgot, his controller general.

This was a prime example of the state’s inability to feed and care for its subjects. The War was also partly responsible for politicising poor French women, who on 5 October 1789 marched to Versailles to demand that Louis sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and that he lower the price of bread. This very, very angry mob of women forced the royal family not only to accede to the new revolutionary Assembly, but to move to Paris.

The Women's March to Versailles, 5 October 1789

It isn’t necessarily the case the famine and food shortages will cause revolution: there was a catastrophic famine in North Korea in the mid-nineties and the country still has periodic food shortages, but dissent has not been allowed to grow into any significant anti-government activity. This is due to the effectiveness of North Korea’s security forces and to the fact that North Koreans are simply too hungry, too tired, and too broken to overthrow their leadership. They have been starved into submission.

But food shortages are responsible for other mass movements too. The Cape Colony experienced a series of bad droughts during the second half of the nineteenth century, the worst of which occurred in the late 1850s and early 1860s, at the same time as outbreaks of rust on the wheat and the appearance of the oidium mildew on vineyards. The Cape’s newspapers described the increasingly desperate situation in rural areas: all the water dried up in Swellendam, farmers lost their sheep and horses, and the land was too dry to plough; there were allegations that farmers were stealing water from neighbouring farms’ rivers in Ladysmith; in Victoria West and Calvinia the cost of meat, groceries and other household goods rose sharply, and transporting produce to Port Elizabeth was almost impossible as draught animals were in short supply. Finding freshly-slaughtered mutton – the meat of choice in the Cape – was difficult. On top of this, the population, many of whom had already been weakened physically by food shortages, was also subjected to ‘unusually virulent’ epidemics of measles, typhus, and ‘white sore throat’ (diphtheria).

It is no coincidence that the 1860 Great Revival began in the worst affected rural areas. From the 1850s onwards, the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church – numerically the biggest church in the Colony and the most politically powerful – had encouraged its members to pray for revival and religious ‘awakening’. Religious revivals are group manifestations of intense emotion, ranging from weeping and fainting to trances and speaking in tongues during which supplicants pray for conversion and salvation. Clergymen ascribed these outbursts of extreme religious enthusiasm to the presence of the Holy Spirit, but they were as much the product of social and economic change as anything else. There were at least three major revivals which swept most of the congregations of the Dutch Reformed Church in the nineteenth century (in 1860, 1874-1875, and 1884-1885), as well as several smaller, more localised ones.

The Great Revival in 1860 began in the colony’s impoverished, hungry, and desperate rural interior. It was brought to the attention of the church’s leadership when a fifteen year-old coloured servant girl went into an ecstatic trance during a service in Worcester – then the parish of Andrew Murray jnr, one of the church’s most prominent ministers. The girl lived in the rural village of Montagu and was visiting friends in Worcester. Her behaviour, which whipped the other congregants into a religious frenzy, mimicked that which had taken root at her church in Montagu. The revival subsequently from Worcester throughout the Cape.

The colonial state – rightly – blamed farmers’ unwillingness to conserve water during times of plenty for the devastating effects of the drought. But others – including members of the Dutch Reformed Church – accused the Cape’s government of not doing enough to help them, and believed that the scarcity of rain and food were a punishment from God. People’s willingness to turn to the church and to religion – away, in other words, from the state – showed that the authority of the state was being undermined by the crisis.

Similar circumstances contributed to the uprisings in the Arab world: instead of turning to charismatic religion, people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere demanded the removal of unpopular, corrupt, and dysfunctional regimes. In a time of increasing food scarcity and volatility, governments will have to work harder to prove their necessity to their citizenry.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Cynthia A. Bouton, The Flour War: Gender, Class, and Community in Late Ancien Régime French Society (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (London: Granta, 2010).

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

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Barbara Clark Smith, ‘Food Rioters and the American Revolution,’ The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 3-38.

Other sources:

Wayne Dooling, Slavery, Emancipation, and Colonial Rule in South Africa (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

André du Toit, ‘The Cape Afrikaners’ Failed Liberal Moment, 1850-1870,’ in Democratic Liberalism in South Africa: Its History and Prospect, eds. Jeffrey Butler, Richard Elphick, and David Welsh (Middletown and Cape Town: Wesleyan University Press and David Philip, 1987), pp. 35-64.

Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, trans. R.A. Wilson (London: SCM, 1976).

Steven Laurence Kaplan, Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade during the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Rhoads Murphey, ‘Provisioning Istanbul: The State and Subsistence in the Early Modern Middle East,’ Food and Foodways 2 (1988), pp. 217-263.

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