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Posts tagged ‘Oxfam’

Food Links, 17.04.2013

Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brandsreport.

What to eat.

Why Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move tour may not succeed.

The right-wing agenda of Eden Foods.

How America gained weight between 1985 and 2010.

Whither the American food movement?

Insects: food of the future.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s faddy diet is very, very dangerous. (And why she’s an evil genius. Possibly.)

A short film about New York’s ‘canners‘.

Sustainable pig farming is possible.

Generational attitudes towards sushi and gay marriage.

Why we should eat wonky fruit and vegetables.

The rise of China’s tomato industry. And Asda’s ‘Italian‘ tomato puree comes from…China.

Surprising facts about fast food.

Concrete-filled walnuts.

The rediscovery of home bread making in Italy.

An attempt to remove Italian words from a menu in a Quebec restaurant.

The joy of cauliflower.

What causes beef rainbows?

Sales of golden ale increase.

Making little cakes with Martha Washington.

In praise of lentils.

Africa is a Country launches a new series on African cooking.

Where to buy the best toasted cheese in London.

Seb Emina on breakfasts in literature. (Thanks, Sarang!)

Different McNugget shapes have names.

The best TV shows.

Human-shaped gummi bears.

Madeleine, or biscotte?

Bread- and pastry-making in Lebanon.

On congee.

How to make your own mozzarella.

Improvising cake.

The Vaportini.

Aging wine in the sea.

Literary cakes.

A review of The Art of the Tart.

The food and drink of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Adria brothers’ new restaurant.

The fad for cereal milk.

The resignation cake.

These are courtesy of my Mum:

The self-stirring saucepan.

On strawberries and cream.

Goblin-Proofing One’s Chicken Coop.

On Fanny Cradock.

It’s Politics, Stupid

One of the most interesting blogs I’ve come across recently is written by the disgraced Labour spin-doctor Damian McBride (who was fired for planning to spread scurrilous rumours about the Tories). His blog offers insight not only into Labour’s last years of power, but also into the functioning of everyday business in Downing Street.

His most recent post, though, is about what he’s giving up for Lent. As someone who’s not at all religious, I’m always taken aback by friends’ declarations of what they won’t be doing or, more usually, eating until Easter. Every now and then I play along, more out of curiosity than anything else. It was rather useful a few years ago for nipping in the bud an incipient addiction to fruit pastilles, but this year I doubt I’ll be joining in.

McBride has pledged to give up the ‘staples of [his] diet’: meat, wheat, and potatoes. Other than the obvious health benefits of drinking less beer and eating less red meat, he’s doing this in solidarity with millions of people living in hunger. He’s not eating meat to draw attention to land grabs; wheat to protest the small number of multinationals which control the trade in grains; and potatoes to show the link between famine and food shortages and big food companies’ refusal to pay their taxes in low- and middle-income nations.

His Lenten self-denial is partly in support of the new anti-hunger If Campaign, launched with some fanfare last month:

As well as more money for nutrition programmes and small-scale farming, the coalition, which includes Oxfam, Save the Children, One, Christian Aid and Tearfund, is calling on the UK government to close loopholes that allow companies to dodge paying tax in poor countries; stop international land deals that are detrimental to people and the environment, and lobby the World Bank to review the impact of its funding for such deals; launch a convention on tax transparency at the G8 to ‘reinvigorate the global challenge to tax havens’; and force governments and investors to be more open about their investments in poor countries. It also wants the UK government to bring forward legislation to enshrine the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.

The Campaign is aiming to take its ambitious programme to this year’s G8 Summit, to be held at the luxury golf resort Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it deliberately compares itself to another campaign taken to a G8 meeting at a golf hotel in the northern British Isles: the celebrity-studded Make Poverty History Campaign, which demanded an increase in aid and the writing off of the debt of some of the world’s poorest countries, at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2005.

I am no fan of Bob Geldof, however well-placed his heart may be. I and many other South Africans were irritated by the Campaign’s simplistic characterisation of Africa – that it is a culturally, socially, and politically homogenous place of suffering and disaster, waiting for the benevolent ministrations of a white-suited Geldof and his similarly saintly fellow celebrities. Why were there no African performers at Live 8? Why did poor dear Peter Gabriel feel the need to organise an alternative event at the Eden Project in Cornwall, featuring only African artists?

That said, MPH did achieve some of its goals:

The G8 summit committed to spending an extra $48bn (£30bn) on aid by 2010, and cancelled the debt to 18 of the most indebted countries. Member states recommitted their pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, although none has yet achieved the magical figure. The UK government has promised to do so this year.

But poverty has not become history. Early analysis of the If Campaign suggests that with its focus on changing policy, rather than on increasing aid, its chances of success are far higher than MPH. Leni Wild and Sarah Mulley note:

The range of issues it covers – from transparency to tax to agriculture – also look and feel different to the more ‘traditional’ development issues which were the focus of Make Poverty History. The UK public wants to hear more about the role of big business and international corporations – including their tax responsibilities. This is a major plank of the new IF campaign which sets out some clear calls for action and does a good job of communicating these in accessible ways.

I also welcome a campaign which tries to eradicate ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that) by focussing on political solutions: ending tax evasion, preventing land grabs, and drawing attention to the fragility of the international food chain, are all excellent strategies for reducing food insecurity. Making links between poor governance and the functioning of multinationals and malnutrition is a far more effective way of ending famine than generalised campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ about the fact that children go to bed hungry at night. But some have expressed concerns about the campaign.

As Bright Green revealed, the If Campaign was organised by the British Overseas Aid Group (Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid, Save the Children and CAFOD) in close collaboration with the UK’s Department for International Development:

The real scandal of the IF campaign is that it appears to have been shaped more by the desires of the target department than by those of its members, and not at all by the views of its supposed beneficiaries in developing countries. It is constructed around a ‘golden moment’ pro-government PR event intended to ingratiate aid agencies (a large portion of whose funding comes from DfID) with the present rulers, never mind that the agenda of those rulers is implacably opposed to reducing inequality or moderating the global capitalism that causes it.

War on Want has been clear about its reasons for not joining the If Campaign, arguing that that it’s hypocritical for charities to work alongside a government whose ‘austerity programme is driving unprecedented numbers to food banks in Britain’. It notes:

War on Want understands hunger, like all forms of poverty, to be the result of political decisions that are taken by national and international elites, and contested through political action. In this context, the IF campaign is promoting a wholly false image of the G8 as committed to resolving the scandal of global hunger, rather than (in reality) being responsible for perpetuating it. The IF campaign’s policy document states: ‘Acting to end hunger is the responsibility of people everywhere. The G8 group of rich countries, to its credit, shares this ambition and accepts its share of responsibility, having created two hunger initiatives in recent years.; This is a gross misrepresentation, seeing that the governments of the G8 have openly committed themselves to expanding the corporate-dominated food system that condemns hundreds of millions to hunger. Even on its own terms, the IF campaign notes that the G8’s existing initiatives on hunger ‘fall far short of what is required’.

Instead, War on Want advocates a stronger focus on food sovereignty – ensuring that nations are able to feed themselves, and partly through supporting small farmers. (War on Want works alongside La Via Campesina, for instance.) Its point that G8 countries and big business have little interest in food sovereignty is borne out by recent comments made by Emery Koenig, executive vice president and chief risk officer of the massive agriculture business Cargill. He argues that it is food sovereignty that is the ‘true threat to food security’. It’s worth noting that in a time of food crisis, Cargill made profits of $134 billion last year.

In other words, we need far more radical solutions if we’re intent on ending food insecurity. I agree with War on Want’s reservations, and I’d like to add one, further, concern: like MPH, the If Campaign excludes the voices of those in the developing world – those whom it purports to help. Here is no partnership between a consortium of charities and food insecure nations, but, rather, an old-fashioned characterisation of the developing world – Africa in particular – in need of wealthy nations’ charity. This is no attempt to hold African – and other – governments to account for allowing corruption or mismanagement to contribute to malnutrition, nor does it engage with the farmers, producers, and businesses in developing countries involved in the food industry.

if-campaign

In a recent, well-meaning, but disastrous, campaign, Oxfam acknowledged that characterising Africa as a perpetual basket case helps neither African nations, nor those charities working on the continent. It called for Africa’s image to change in the western media. Amusingly, it suggested that Africa should be ‘made famous’ for its ‘landscapes’ rather than ‘hunger’ – indeed, rather than its cities, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, footballers, writers, researchers

Nigerian blogger Tolu Ogunlesi writes:

who – apart from Oxfam, obviously – really cares, in 2013, what the British public thinks about a continent from which they fled in varying stages of undress? What’s that proverb about crying more than the bereaved? In the 21st century are people still allowed to be zombies gobbling up everything they’re fed by a collaboration of powerful media and NGOs?

I wish … Oxfam the very best. Must be awful to have to take on that job of saving people from self-inflicted ignorance. In an age in which Google, Twitter and the news media lie at most fingertips, delivering, alongside stories of African suffering, narratives of determined recovery from tragedy and technology-driven change and emboldened youth and rising political awareness and growing intolerance for tyranny – is there still room for getting away with blaming [and] with fixating on photos of begging bowls and the oxfamished children attached to them?

His point is that if charities want to make a difference in African countries, they should work alongside African organisations and governments, using African expertise and knowledge:

I think that somehow, the Oxfams of this world get so carried away by the salvation they bring to the helpless peoples of Africa, that they lose sight of the concept of African agency. Once you realise this you understand why Oxfam appears trapped in that irritatingly paternalistic mode of thinking. Saving Africa’s starving children (by providing food) and saving Africa’s saddening image (by providing images of epic landscapes) have this in common is this: they both rely largely on an obliteration of a sense of African agency.

It’s time for the If Campaign to allow Africans – and, indeed, people from other parts of the developing world – to speak, and to help shape foreign interventions in their own regions.

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

Tall Tales

I’m convinced that one of the reasons I became a historian was early exposure to the Indiana Jones films. (For all non-academics, they’re the best and most accurate depiction of academia in any cultural medium ever.)* My favourite remains Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – surely the greatest film ever made – and particularly for the bizarre and appalling feast to which Jones and his sidekicks are subjected at the Pankot Palace. I watched it again last night:


There are, of course, enormous problems with the film: it was banned in India for its depiction of Indians and Hinduism, and it can hardly be credited for providing an accurate portrayal of the subcontinent’s colonial politics during the 1930s. For me, the film’s campness and cartoonishness save it – like Tintin, it is barely on nodding acquaintance with reality.

But it does offer a useful way of understanding the relationship between food and colonialism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Pankot Palace feast is inedibly disgusting: from ‘Snake Surprise’ (a python slit open to reveal writhing, live snakes) and giant scarab beetles, to eyeball soup and monkey brains for pudding.

The scene cuts between our heroine’s increasingly panicked response to the meal and a tense, yet polite conversation between Jones, a British officer, and the juvenile Maharajah’s smoothly suave Prime Minister. Jones raises the question of the implications of the Kali-worshipping Thuggee (yes, really) cult for the local villagers – something which he argues is a greater threat to British rule in that region of India than was the 1857 Rebellion.

It’s all utterly ridiculous, obviously, but the film’s point is that the Palace’s enthusiasm for human sacrifice and the enslavement of children – we later see that the Maharajah’s wealth is mined by thousands of shackled child labourers – is linked in some way to its appalling eating habits.

For nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialists such a view would have made perfect sense. During this period, British imperialism was justified, increasingly, on the grounds that it brought the light of civilisation to the dark and frightening jungles and deserts of Africa and Asia. (The residents of these jungles and deserts – these communities, nations, and empires – begged to differ on this point, but their views were hardly deemed important at the time.) This ‘civilising mission’ empowered imperial agents, from officials to missionaries, to ‘civilise’ colonial subjects.

Importantly, this process extended beyond conversion to Christianity and – for boys, at least – education. The domestic space was a key site for the creation of civilised subjects. In Britain, the home was a marker of respectability: the furnishings, cleanliness, and efficient running of the home by servants were all signs of a family’s good morals. Food and dining helped to establish class status as well.

For missionaries attempting to civilise colonial subjects, living in the right way was as important as thinking in the right way. Converts were encouraged to wear Western dress, live in square – not round – houses, and adopt British eating habits. Not only were they to eat three meals a day, but these were to be modelled, as far as possible, on what the middle class would have eaten in Britain, using British ingredients and British recipes.

In her study of missionaries working in the Belgian Congo, Nancy Rose Hunt argues that the progress of the Congolese living on the mission station was measured in terms of their willingness to swop local dishes for steak and kidney pudding, rissoles, and fruit cake. She notes the ‘evolutionary theme[s]’ evoked by the missionaries to emphasise the progress of their protégés, from ‘darkness to lightness, savagery to civilisation, heathens to Christians, monkey stew to roast beef.’ Roast beef is on the same side as Christianity and civilisation, assuming, thus, a moral value.

This discourse around civilisation, domesticity, and eating exercised an enormous effect on the lives of colonised peoples. Such was its strength that settlers in India and Britain’s African colonies insisted upon eating versions of familiar dishes – despite the differences in climate and available ingredients. EM Forster wrote in A Passage to India (1924):

the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale, the peas might rattle less or more, the sardines and the vermouth be imported by a different firm, but the tradition remained: the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand it.

The new, educated middle classes in Africa ate British-style food to signify their civilised, sophisticated status. In Nervous Conditions (1988), Tsitsi Dangarembga uses food to illustrate the differences between Tambudzai – the slightly educated young daughter of a large, poor family in rural Zimbabwe – and the middle-class, British-educated aunt and uncle with whom she lives to go to school. Her aunt offers her a spoon and a mound of sadza when she has difficulty eating a ‘western’ meal using a knife and fork. Tambudzai is amazed by the cake, biscuits, and jam she is offered at teatime – all luxuries at her parents’ homestead. Accustomed to drinking from an enamel mug, she misjudges the heat of her tea in the china teacup and burns her mouth. Food plays a vital role in her transition from ‘peasant’ to ‘a clean, well-groomed, genteel self.’

This was, then, a powerful discourse. However strange and illogical this narrative about food, civilisation, and identity may seem to us, similar narratives continue to be constructed by many Westerners to understand Africa, and their relationship with a continent whose complexity and diversity they can’t – or won’t – seem to understand.

In the current narratives about the continent, Africans are depicted either as innocent, perpetually suffering victims or as vicious, murdering monsters. The success – if that is to be measured by the number of times a video is watched on YouTube – of the extraordinarily misguided Kony 2012 campaign demonstrates the extent to which people consider these narratives to be true.

This annoys me, both as an African and as someone who believes strongly that in the age of Google, ignorance of a whole continent is totally unacceptable and inexcusable. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this stereotyping has an impact on American and, to some extent, European policy towards the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

It’s for this reason that she is so critical of the reporting done by Nicholas Kristof on Africa. Kristof, a popular New York Times journalist, has the power to shape American attitudes towards the continent. But he tells a story which persistently denies the agency of Africans:

This model does not question the causes of poverty, either general or specific, for the people it is meant to help. It does not pay attention to what people are doing for themselves or ask what they need. It is founded on a story that treats people as if they were just part of a natural landscape washed ashore by forces that aid agencies do not participate in or have any control over. It offers solutions, often expensive and technological, and therefore measurable, that inevitably cannot be sustained or make any genuine long term change in the lives of poor people around the world.

There is very little difference between Kristof’s view of Africa and that of nineteenth-century missionaries: the continent – populated by suffering and poweless, but essentially angelic, women and children – is the white man’s burden.

So what are the implications of such simple, and incorrect, narratives about Africa? Alex de Waal suggests that the attention that Kony 2012 drew to Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army may well detract from more nuanced and better targeted policy making around Africa. In an analysis of how three discourses have impacted on foreign intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Séverine Autesserre writes:

The dominant narratives have oriented international programmes on the ground toward three main goals – regulating trade of minerals, providing care to victims of sexual violence, and helping the state extend its authority – at the expense of all the other necessary measures, such as resolving land conflict, promoting inter-community reconciliation, jump-starting economic development, ensuring that state authorities respect human rights, and fighting corruption.

She adds:

Even worse, because of these exclusive focuses, the international efforts have exacerbated the problems that they aimed to combat: the attempts to control the exploitation of resources have enabled armed groups to strengthen their control over mines; the disproportionate attention to sexual violence has raised the status of sexual abuse to an effective bargaining tool for combatants; and the state reconstruction programmes have boosted the capacity of an authoritarian regime to oppress its population.

This has profound implications for dealing with famine and food shortages in parts of Africa as well. Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini point out that NGOs, think tanks, and policy makers need to think through the implications of the recent spike in the price of food for food security. Making the point that while high food prices increase the likelihood of poor people going hungry, they also benefit poor farmers, Swinnen and Squicciarini demonstrate that as recently as 2005, Oxfam and the Food and Agriculture Organisation were blaming low food prices for hunger. They write: ‘it can be hard to find a relation between underlying analytical work and the policy messages sent by communications departments.’

The problem with an approach which argues that only one factor – like food prices – causes hunger is that it can actually worsen the situation. For instance, consistently advocating an end to import tariffs and export subsidies in rich countries – ostensibly to benefit farmers in poor countries – could actually cause the price of food to increase.

The recent announcement that one billion people are hungry is equally problematic. Not only have these statistics been queried, but they ignore the fact that ‘[n]ew studies suggest that the number of hungry may have declined, possibly by many millions, despite the food price increase.’ This simple narrative about hunger and povety – which slots into pre-existing notions about the helpless African poor – actually undermines further investigation into the complex causes of hunger.

So why the disconnect between policy and research? Swinnen and Squicciarini suggest that in order to raise funds and to influence governments, NGOs tend to use – rather than challenge – the narratives offered by the media on poverty, Africa, and food security.

This is why stories and narratives are so dangerous. As Swinnen and Squicciarini conclude:

If the objective is to assist those who are hurt by price changes, this is no excuse for simplistic messages.

*Not really.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Séverine Autesserre, ‘Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences,’ African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 442 (January 2012), pp. 1-21.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: The Women’s Press, [1988] 2001).

EM Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin, [1924] 1989).

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.)

Kathryn Mathers, ‘Mr Kristof, I presume? Saving Africa in the Footsteps of Nicholas Kristof,’ Transition, no. 107 (2012), pp. 15-31.

Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini, ‘Mixed Messages on Prices and Food Security,’ Science, vol. 335 (27 January 2012), pp. 405-406.

Other sources:

Jean and John L. Comaroff, ‘Home-Made Hegemony: Modernity, Domesticity, and Colonialism in South Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.)

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

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

Not Foodies, but Food

In this week’s Mail and Guardian, Mandy de Waal describes a spat between established food journalists and South Africa’s increasing ranks of food bloggers. This tension between professional food writers and amateurs who write simply for pleasure isn’t particular to South Africa: in the United States, Pete Wells was notoriously rude about food bloggers, and Giles Coren of the Times referred to them as ‘pale, flabby’ and ‘wankerish’ (although, presumably, he didn’t include his food blogging wife in this description). In a sense, it was inevitable that the same argument would boil over in South Africa.

The focus of De Waal’s piece is on charges of unprofessionalism levelled at the new media, as well as on the amusing pettiness of food bloggery in this country – particularly in the Cape, where most of the country’s top restaurants are situated. I’d like to pick up on one point that she makes in passing. She quotes JP Rossouw, author of the eponymous restaurant guides:

Yes, [food blogs] are playful and fun, but the mistake we make is to attach too much importance to what essentially is candyfloss.

Exactly. One of the most comical features of many food bloggers is their incredible self importance. (De Waal mentions one author who refused to accept food served to her at a special lunch at Reuben’s Restaurant because it came on a large platter and not individual portions. Good grief.) They dress up recipes and accounts of meals as moments of incredible profundity – moments which demonstrate the authors’ connectedness with the local restaurant in-crowd, insider knowledge of international culinary trends, and superior ability to understand the ‘real’ significance of food. These blogs are, in other words, manifestations of food snobbery.

It’s little wonder, then, that so many food bloggers describe themselves as ‘foodies’. This term has travelled a long way since it was coined by Ann Barr and Paul Levy in the early 1980s. Now it’s usually taken to mean a love and enthusiasm for eating, cooking, and finding interesting new ingredients. It’s shorter, and sounds less pretentious, than ‘food lover’. I think that many food bloggers use the term in this sense. But it was originally meant to describe a kind of food snobbery. Stephen Bayley explains:

We have, in the past, had epicures, gourmets and gastronomes, but today’s foodie is rather different. A foodie is someone whose interest in comestibles is not only ardent, but also exquisitely self-conscious. Foodies treat their asparagus kettles not as mere utensils, but as badges of honour in the nagging battle for self-identity.

The same goes for ingredients: while once we had only Sarson’s non-brewed condiment to put on our chips, the foodie store cupboard now contains vinegars with genealogies, rare and costly vintages of balsamic, fruit vinegars made with herbs, herb vinegars infused with fruit to put on their pommes allumettes. A defining foodie product is verjuice, or what used to be known as filthy cooking wine. And foodies explore more than the palate: they hunt and collect restaurants, too.

Barr and Levy’s The Official Foodie Handbook (1984) walked an uneasy line between being a spoof of a new middle-class trend (and this could only be a fashion followed by those wealthy enough to buy the exotic and expensive ingredients and meals demanded by foodie-ism) and a guide to it. Angela Carter commented that it was best to understand the Foodie Handbook within the context of the other Handbooks published by Harpers & Queen:

the original appears to be The Official Preppy Handbook, published in the USA in the early days of the first Reagan Presidency. This slim volume was a light-hearted check-list of the attributes of the North American upper middle class, so light-hearted it gave the impression it did not have a heart at all. The entire tone was most carefully judged: a mixture of contempt for and condescension towards the objects of its scrutiny, a tone which contrived to reassure the socially aspiring that emulation of their betters was a game that might legitimately be played hard just because it could not be taken seriously, so that snobbery involved no moral compromise.

The book was an ill-disguised celebration of the snobbery it affected to mock and, under its thinly ironic surface, was nothing more nor less than an etiquette manual for a class newly emergent under Reaganomics. It instructed the nouveaux riches in the habits and manners of the vieux riches so that they could pass undetected amongst them. It sold like hot cakes.

In other words, the books began a process which has recently been completed: satirising while simultaneously approving, even celebrating, snobbery.

I realise that many food bloggers don’t know about the etymology of ‘foodie’ and don’t mean to use it to mean what it did originally. And I have nothing at all against what most food bloggers do: sharing recipes, advice, and useful information about food and cooking. They do what cooks and food enthusiasts have been doing for hundreds of years. A greater flow and availability of information about food can only be a good thing.

But I do object very, very strongly to the foodies – in Barr and Levy’s terms – of the internet who use their blogs and, occasionally, presence on social media to write about food, and good food, as the exclusive preserve of those who have the knowledge, sensitivity, and right social connections truly to appreciate what is worth eating. A few years ago, the BBC aired a fantastic comedy series called Posh Nosh. Starring Arabella Weir and Richard E. Grant as a social-climbing (her) and upper middle-class (him) pair of foodies, the series lampooned the deep, moral seriousness of foodie-ism. As Grant’s character says in the first episode (and I urge you to watch the series – most of it seems to be available on YouTube), ‘Food is beauty. And beauty is food’:

One of the useful things about foodies is that it takes very little to show how ridiculous they and their pretentions are.

Food, then, is like cars, furniture, or clothes: it’s another way of signifying people’s class status and social positioning. Of course, we’ve used food to do this for hundreds of years. But the difference with foodie-ism is that it attaches a moral value to eating in a particular way. Foodies confuse this snobbery with doing and being good. For foodies, knowing about and eating good food is a badge not only of class status and social and cultural sophistication, but also of moral superiority. Roasting organic purple-sprouting broccoli and then drizzling it with an estate-origin extra virgin olive oil signifies the foodie’s commitment to being green and supporting small, artisan producers. This dish is a manifestation of why that foodie is a Good Person.

It’s for this reason that I object so strongly to foodie-ism. Not only does it mystify cooking and eating, and elevate them to experiences that can only be appreciately properly by appropriately trained foodies, but it judges those who – for whatever reason – eat less well than themselves. Foodies, then, don’t really care that much about food and eating.

The subtitle of the Official Foodie Handbook is ‘Be Modern – Worship Food’. By elevating – or fetishising – food to the level of something which needs to be worshipped, foodies no longer think of food as food – as nourishment which we all need to consume – but as something which is simply an indicator of status and value. They don’t aim to inform and educate about food, nor do they work towards making good, wholesome food more widely available. They simply congratulate themselves on eating well. In a time when food prices are sky high – and look likely to remain that way for the forseeable future – and the planet’s diet is looking worse than ever, it strikes me that to ignore these crises while claiming to be interested in food and to enjoy eating, is deeply hypocritical.

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

Food Links, 06.07.2011

Gordon Conway considers the global food crisis.

The Guardian lists the ten best literary picnics.

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

On Thomas Jefferson, food, and slavery.

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

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

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

One third of the world’s food is wasted.

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

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

We could be anywhere

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

The Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, New York

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

Breakfast at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

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

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

The menu at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

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

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

Tablespoon in the Flatiron District

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

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

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

The City Bakery, off Fifth Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The City Bakery, New York

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

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

How to find the City Bakery

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

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malawian Cornish Pasties

This week, Oxfam released a report on the world’s favourite food. Based on a survey of 16,000 people in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Tanzania, the UK and the USA, it tabulates the top three meals in each of these countries. In South Africa, pasta, pizza, and steak are favourites, while it’s chicken, pizza, and Chinese (whatever that may be) in Guatemala. Pasta rules supreme as the world’s favourite food.

Although fun, I think that the conclusions drawn by the survey, which is part of Oxfam’s Grow campaign, are pretty dubious. I don’t think that the likes and dislikes of sixteen thousand people – of a global population of six billion – count for terribly much. I am very surprised that Oxfam reports that most South Africans list pasta as their favourite food. Pasta isn’t included in the Medical Research Council’s list of the most widely foods consumed in South Africa – the top five of which are maize meal, white sugar, tea, bread, and milk. It seems to me that the people included in this survey were mainly middle-class urban dwellers – precisely the people who would list pizza, pasta, and steak as their favourite food.

But the purpose of the survey, flawed as it may be, is to demonstrate

the spread of Western diets across the world.  Although national dishes are still popular – such as paella in Spain, schnitzel in Germany and biryani in India – pizza and pasta are now the favourite foods of many, with more than half of the countries (nine out of 17) listing one or both in their top three foods.

I doubt that, as Oxfam suggests, all ‘people’s diets are actually changing, with many not eating the same foods as they did just two years ago.’ Diets change slowly over time. It’s more accurate to suggest that food preferences are changing. It’s only the affluent who can afford to change what they eat. As in Western Europe after 1945, the Chinese and Indian middle classes are eating more animal protein than ever before. In South Africa, pasta remains prohibitively expensive for most people – who still base their diets around maize meal.

It’s worth considering how the meanings of particular food stuffs change over time and space. Particular dishes may mean one thing in the region in which they originate and something quite different in the countries to which they are taken by immigrants, fashion, or supermarkets and restaurants. We tend to assume that this ‘globalisation’ of food or taste is a relatively recent and pernicious phenomenon. But it’s far more complicated than that.

In response to last week’s post on cupcakes, feminism, and gentrification, our woman in Bangladesh comments:

I am also thinking about the term ‘gentrification’ in Dhaka‘s context. We have cakeshops here but they didn’t pop up as precursors to gentrification. They tended to set up shop near urban dwellings (lots of birthday cakes to be sold?) and later on they became common near office areas, since cakeshops in Dhaka these days also sell fried chicken and chicken patties (pronounced chicken petis) that office people love to eat, along with pastries (pronounced pess tree). Given that, what does gentrification connote in Dhaka and what are the precursors to it?

Shahpar had noted previously:

I was with Bangladeshi friends while chasing cupcakes. We noted how different cupcakes were in NYC than in Dhaka. Here they are made with the cheapest quality ingredients and sold in roadside shops. No frosting. Just a chunk of cake in marigold yellow, sitting in a greasy pleated paper skirt. We used to get them in our school canteens and kids in Bengali medium schools like the one I went to probably still eat cupcakes. It’s the food to go with roadside tea and is a quick snack for the blue collar workers. Rickshaw wallahs and bus ticket sellers and garment factory workers all eat it. Nothing girly about it.

In Dhaka, cupcakes and cake shops mean very different things than they do in Cape Town. Can you imagine a more heavenly combination than cake and fried chicken?

A cupcake in Dhaka

Cupcakes, cake, and pastries are the, now entirely assimilated, products of the long British presence in Bengal. As I wrote a few weeks ago, colonialism gave rise to imperial cuisines – the fusion of foreign and domesticated cooking – all over the world. It also caused a range of British or European foodstuffs to take on new meanings once exported to the colonies.

Set in Rhodesia in the 1960s, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions (1988) is a bildungsroman which focuses on Tambudzai, a little girl sent from her parents’ impoverished homestead to be educated by her middle-class, town-dwelling aunt and uncle. Upon her arrival at her new home, she has afternoon tea with her aunt, Maiguru:

There was food too, lots of it. Lots of biscuits and cakes and jam sandwiches. Maiguru was offering me the food, but it was difficult to decide what to take because everything looked so appetising. We did not often have cake at home. In fact, I remembered having cake only at Christmas time or at Easter. At those times Babamukuru [her father] brought a great Zambezi slab home with home and cut it up in front of our eager eyes, all the children waiting for him to distribute it. This he did one piece each at a time so that for days on end, long after the confectionery had lost its freshness, we would be enraptured. We would spend many blissful moments picking off and nibbling, first the white coconut and then the pink icing and last the delicious golden cake itself…. Biscuits were as much of a treat as cake, especially when they were dainty, dessert biscuits with cream in the middle or chocolate on top.

For Tambudzai, cheap cake and biscuits were part of annual celebrations. But for her wealthier, well educated aunt who had lived abroad, afternoon tea is indicative of her sophisticated, middle-class status. It’s also a marker of her assimilation of ‘western’ (or ‘civilised’) values and patterns of living.

One of the most striking features of the diets of British officials and expats living in southern Africa and southeast Asia during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries was their rigid adherence to the menus and diets of ‘Home’. In publications like the Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Guide, readers were urged not to go native. Eating roast beef, porridge, custard, and dumplings was a way of demonstrating civilised, European status. Local cooks were taught how to cook British staples. In White Mischief James Fox describes the eating habits of Kenya’s aristocratic expats during the 1930s:

The astonishing African talent for cooking European food, in particular hot English puddings, provided undreamed-of comfort. For their part, the Africans were astonished at the number of meals required by Europeans every day, and the quantity of food consumed. Europeans seemed always to be eating.

These attitudes towards food persisted even as – or possibly because – imperial rule came to an end in Africa in the 1960s. My father was a little boy in Olifantsfontein – then a mining village between Johannesburg and Pretoria – during this period. His mother, whose interest in food, cooking, and eating was minimal, employed a Malawian cook to take care of the kitchen.  The strange set of cultural and racist prejudices of the time decreed that Malawians were particularly good cooks. Luckily for my grandmother, Frank Nyama conformed to stereotype. (In a pleasing coincidence, ‘nyama’ means meat in Swahili.)

For my father and his friends in the village, Nyama achieved minor celebrity status on the grounds that his brother had been eaten by a crocodile. (A pointless way to go, as Dad notes.) He cooked the ‘British’ food demanded by my grandparents. In fact, the Cornish pasties that we make at home are from his recipe. Yes, Cornish pasties – from Cornwall – made from a recipe written by a Malawian chef. And they’re fantastic – they’re as good as the (excellent) pasty I ate in Cornwall. Nyama cooked local dishes for himself, sharing them occasionally with Dad and his brothers. For my grandparents, Cornish pasties and other ‘European’ food was the cooking of civilisation, of ‘whiteness’, and of cultural superiority. To eat Nyama’s regional faire would have been, in their view, to admit a kind of racial defeat.

The point is that food has been globalised for as long as human beings have travelled around the world. It has been used to bolster and construct colonial, local, and foreign identities, and as a result of this, the meanings which we attach to particular dishes and food stuffs have changed over time. There is nothing inherently wrong with the globalisation of food. Food is adapted to suit local tastes and to fit into existing attitudes towards cooking and eating.

The change in contemporary diets and food preferences identified by Oxfam is not, then, anything new. I think it’s worth remembering this as we rethink the ways in which we grow and consume food: that there’s no mythical and ‘authentic’ regional food past for us to return to, and that there’s very little point in stopping people from borrowing cuisines and tastes from other countries.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: The Women’s Press, [1988] 2001).

James Fox, White Mischief (London: Vintage: [1982] 1988).

The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide, seventh ed. (Nairobi: Church of Scotland Women’s Guild, no date).

Other sources:

Janet M. Bujra, ‘Men at Work in the Tanzanian Home: How Did They Ever Learn?’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Timothy Burke, ‘“Fork Up and Smile”: Marketing, Colonial Knowledge and the Female Subject in Zimbabwe,’ in Gendered Colonialisms in African History, eds. Nancy Rose Hunt, Tessie P Liu, and Jean Quataert (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

Helen Callaway, Gender, Culture and Empire: European Women in the Colonial Nigeria (London: Macmillan, 1987).

Jean and John L. Comaroff, ‘Home-Made Hegemony: Modernity, Domesticity, and Colonialism in South Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

LeRay Denzer, ‘Domestic Science Training in Colonial Yorubaland, Nigeria,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

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).

Elizabeth Schmidt, ‘Race, Sex, and Domestic Labour: The Question of African Female Servants in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1939,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Karen Tranberg Hansen, ‘White Women in a Changing World: Employment, Voluntary Work, and Sex in Post-World War II Northern Rhodesia,’ in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, eds. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (London and New York: 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, 15.06.2011

Tim Lang argues that twentieth-century attitudes towards food cannot solve our global food crisis (and makes the point that Walmart’s presence in South Africa is a Very Bad Thing indeed).

The Carbon Brief provides a useful overview of recent research on food, hunger, and climate change.

A ‘food desert’ is a region with limited access to healthy food – usually because supermarkets, accessible only by car, have been replaced by convenience stores selling mainly processed food. This map plots food deserts in the US.

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, argues that the food movement is not elitist.

Tom Philpott discusses Walmart’s ‘commitment’ to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move programme.

Life for the very poor in Guatemala shows how screwed up the world’s food system is.

The World Health Organisation takes on non-communicable, lifestyle-related diseases (and shows how bad big food companies are for our health).

On gluttony.

Consider honey.

The Great Trek 2.0 – South Africa’s white farmers move north.

In praise of asparagus.

The New York Times reports that farming tilapia on an industrial scale is a bad idea. How very surprising.

Food Links, 08.06.2011

Hayibo covers the recent tension over vegetable exports in Europe.

Foreign Policy‘s theme for its May/June edition is food, and it’s fascinating. Lester Brown writes about the new geopolitics of food, and this amazing article shows how food explains the world.

Why are food prices at the mercy of bankers?

The Guardian has an excellent guide to the global food crisis.

Should the US government subsidise the growing of sweeteners?

The French government has banned the riot police from drinking alchohol with their meals. Daft.

On the origins of measuring the calorie content of food.

This fascinating infographic from the World Resources Institute charts global greenhouse gas emissions – agriculture is responsible for 13.8% of them, and loads of nitrous oxide and methane.

Penguin has just released its Great Food series: a collection of twenty short books each dedicated to the writing of great food writers.

‘The fact that half of the most costly food pathogens are found in meat suggests that food safety laws at the USDA need an overhaul’. Nice.

Can you feed a family of four on £50 a week? I would have thought so.

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).

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