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Posts tagged ‘rationing’

No More Cakes or Biscuits

This year marks the centenary of the end of the South African War (1899-1902), a conflict which, it’s not too much to claim, produced modern South Africa, geographically, politically, economically, and, to some extent, socially. There is, unsurprisingly, a vast scholarship on the war, ranging from, for example, more recent sallies into the multiple ways in which it’s been commemorated, and medical histories of the concentration camps established for Boer and African refugees, to more old-fashioned accounts of its battles and sieges.

There are a few – interesting – lacunae in this research, and one of these is around food. For various reasons I’ve recently been doing some work around children in the war, and I’ve been struck how so many of the sources I’ve read are preoccupied with food. This isn’t really surprising. As Lizzie Collingham demonstrates in her recent book, The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food, it’s during war that the ways in which food is processed, distributed, sold, and valued become particularly significant to states. Food can be made a weapon of war.

Ironically, diets often improve during times of war, and this is particularly true of people who, in peacetime, can’t afford to feed themselves well. Italy during the First World War is an excellent example of this. Italian diets declined in the late nineteenth century because of exponential population growth and poor systems of distribution. The majority of Italians ate what was, essentially, a nutritionally inadequate pre-industrial diet based on cereals and legumes, supplemented occasionally with vegetables, and, even more rarely, with meat and dairy products.

What changed in 1914 was that the Italian state took control over the distribution of food. Carol Helstosky explains:

Wartime ministers were reluctant to take action, but their policies made a dramatic impact on food habits. Italy was ill prepared for war and survived on allied loans and wheat shipments. This situation benefitted consumers, who enjoyed cheap, subsidised bread and could afford to purchase foods like meat, milk, or fresh produce. Wheat bread and pasta became the foundation of diet for many Italians, replacing corn, chestnuts, and rice. … At the war’s end, public debate about the bread subsidy indicated that state intervention brought Italy to a political crossroads: should the government continue to foot the bill for a higher standard of food consumption? Would consumers be forced to choose between the necessity of bread and the luxury of meat as bread prices adjusted to the market?

Something similar occurred in Britain during the Second World War, where the strict system of rationing controlled by Lord Woolton’s Ministry of Food ensured not only that there was enough food to go around, but that most people ate fairly well. All adults received regular – if small – rations of butter, meat, sugar, and eggs. Everyone was encouraged to eat fruit, vegetables, and fish. For poor families who had subsisted on cheap white bread and sweet tea before the war, this represented a considerably healthier and more varied diet.

A combination of increased exercise and this standardised, if limited diet, relatively low in saturated fat and sugar meant that the health of the British population actually improved in the 1940s. This is not, though, to romanticise the effects of conflict on people’s diets. Millions of people died of starvation during the Second World War, as Timothy Snyder explains in his review of A Taste for War:

The Germans and the Japanese lost the war and returned to home territory and home islands. The Germans had hoped to supply themselves for eternity with grain from the rich black soil of Ukraine; but in fact they got very little. This is because, as Collingham demonstrates, war itself tends to disrupt labour, harvests and markets. Even if the intention of the Germans had not been to cause starvation, invasions tend to do so. Some two million people starved to death in French Indochina. At least 10 million starved in China, whose army was living from the land on its own territory. About three million starved in Bengal in British India.

This latter description of disrupted and destroyed food supplies seems to apply more accurately to the South African War. In fact, understanding how and why people were able to access food during the conflict helps us to create a more nuanced understanding of power within South African society during this period. There was enough food to go around – the tragedy was that it didn’t get to those people who needed it.

Indeed, the images most usually associated with the conflict are photographs of emaciated Boer children in concentration camps. These are both testimony to the war’s heavy toll on civilian lives – around 28,000 Boers died in the camps, 22,000 of them under the age of sixteen – as well as an indictment of British mismanagement of the concentration camps. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the even worse organised and provisioned camps for Africans, where both adults and children were used as free labour.

People went hungry in the camps because the British army hugely underestimated the logistics of supplying around 110,000 Boer inhabitants with food and water. The first camps were established early in 1901, in response to the Boer decision to switch to guerrilla warfare after the British annexation of the Transvaal in October 1900. Boer commandoes relied on the network of homesteads across South Africa’s rural interior for support, and it was these households – run overwhelmingly by Boer women – that the British targeted in their scorched earth tactics to end the guerrilla war.

Homesteads were burned or dynamited, crops and livestock were either commandeered or destroyed, and Boer women and children and their African servants were sent to camps. Rations were meagre. Emily Hobhouse, the British humanitarian who campaigned to bring the appalling mismanagement of the Boer – but not the African – camps to the attention of British politicians, wrote to her brother in March 1901:

Couldn’t you and your household try living for – say – a month on the rations given here in the camps? I want to find out whether it is the small amount of food the children suffer from so much, or its [sic] monotony or the other abnormal conditions under which they live. …

Coarse meal: 1lb a head daily

Meat (with bone): ½lb a head daily

Coffee: 1oz a head daily

Sugar: 2oz a head daily

Salt: ½oz a head daily

You must promise faithfully to abjure every other meat and drink – only adding for the children one-twelfth part of a tin of condensed milk a day.

Leonard Hobhouse did not do as his sister suggested, but her speculation that this inadequate diet, alongside the chaos and poor sanitation of the camps, left children particularly vulnerable to the epidemics of measles and typhoid which swept the camps, was correct.

Because of Hobhouse’s campaigning, rations did improve in the camps for Boers. Race, clearly, determined which interned people had access to food: Africans received even smaller rations than did Boers, and these did not increase after the international outcry about the concentration camps – summed up, famously, in Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s ‘methods of barbarism’ speech in June 1901.

Even within the Boer camps, though, there were divisions between those women who were able to buy provisions from the British army, and those who had arrived without money or possessions – and a large proportion of the Boer families in the camps were very poor.

In Johannesburg, this link between class and access to food was particularly evident. Isabella Lipp, the wife of the manager of the African Banking Corporation, kept a diary between the outbreak of war in October 1899, and the capture of Johannesburg by the British in June the following year. Although she complained occasionally of certain foodstuffs – butter, eggs, meat – not being available, throughout this early phase of the war, she and her husband were well fed. But this was not the case for the impoverished Boer women living in the city:

Thirty women, wives, etc. of the police (Zarps) now at the front ran ‘Amok’ as the newspaper heads it, poor things they and their children were starving so they made a desperate raid on some small provisions stores and in spite of the resistence [sic] of special police and constables, effected an entrance and helped themselves to food and who could blame them, certainly not their paternal Government who had neglected giving them their absent breadwinners wages which were due at the end of October.

The situation was considerably more desperate in the towns – Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley – to which the Boers laid siege during the first six months of the war. As food stocks ran low, Africans were either forced out or encouraged to leave – putting them at the mercy of Boer soldiers – to reduce the numbers of people dependent on rations.

In Kimberley, Lillian Hutton, the wife of a local minister, kept a diary over the course of the siege. The slow reduction of the food available to the inhabitants of the town – and rationing was introduced in December 1899 – signalled the ever more desperate state of Kimberley, as fresh supplies were halted by the Boers. While she noted with amusement in November that Colonel Robert Kekewich – under whose command Kimberley fell – had ordered that ‘No more cakes or biscuits to be made’, she became increasingly critical of the British army as the siege progressed.

As beef and mutton ran out, horses and donkeys were slaughtered for meat. Milk became scarce. She wrote in January 1900:

Mr Alec Hall’s cow, that was giving good milk, has been commandeered by the military to be killed, in spite of the fact that children and sick folk are dying in nos. for want of milk. … Mr Wilkinson had a splendid milk cow, which had just calved, when it was commandeered. These things are a scandal to the military rule of the town. The officers are living on the best of everything in the midst of widespread sickness and want and starvation.

White babies wanted fresh milk, but it’s unlikely that black babies received any adequate nutrition at all. Africans in Kimberley were allotted only mealie meal. Of the 1,500 people who died during the siege – which was ended in February 1900 – nearly all of them were African.

So although in Kimberley, the other siege towns, Johannesburg, the concentration camps, and in all the parts of South Africa under military command, everyone experienced the effects of either government or army control of the food supply, access to food was still mediated by race and class.

The study of food in the South African War also sheds light on contemporary concerns about food. Firstly, as diaries and letters written during the conflict demonstrate, most middle-class and, indeed, poor inhabitants of South African towns and cities at the turn of the century were reliant on shops to buy their food. The idea that ‘we’ (whoever ‘we’ may be) once (whenever that was) grew all our own food is disproved fairly neatly by desperate Kimberley housewives unable to find eggs, milk, or fresh vegetables at the grocer. In fact, Lillian Hutton commented on the novelty of people in Kimberley giving over their flower gardens to vegetables.

Secondly, there has been a vogue recently for holding up Britain’s experience of rationing as a potential solution for both the country’s obesity epidemic, as well as the current, global food crisis. While I agree that eating less meat and dairy, using up leftovers, and other wartime strategies are excellent means of encouraging healthy eating and reducing food waste, we need to be careful of fetishizing austerity.

And, thirdly: we must acknowledge the significance of distribution systems to ensuring that all people receive an adequate supply of food. When shops in rural areas are badly provisioned; when social grants are not paid timeously; when officials steal food intended for the very poor, people go hungry.

Sources

Elizabeth Ann Cripps, ‘Provisioning Johannesburg, 1886-1906’ (MA thesis, Unisa, 2012).

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

Emily Hobhouse: Boer War Letters, ed. Rykie van Reenen (Cape Town and Pretoria: Human & Rousseau, 1984).

Bill Nasson, The Boer War: The Struggle for South Africa (Stroud: The History Press, [2010] 2011).

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Thirsty Knowledge

I’ve recently resuscitated my iTunes account, and I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the joys of the podcast. As a mad fan of Internet radio, having the most recent episodes of More or Less, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian‘s Science Weekly, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Granta Podcast and, obviously, the Food Programme, arriving periodically is a glorious thing.

Relatively recently, I’ve become faintly obsessed with This American Life, and have relied on its extensive archive to keep me sane while writing lectures. I particularly enjoyed two, linked, episodes on Pennsylvania State University. The first, broadcast in December 2009, is an account of why Penn State has consistently been nominated as ‘America’s number one party school,’ and the second, from the end of last year, revisits the university’s reputation for heavy drinking in light of the recent scandal.

As you’d expect of This American Life, both episodes are thoughtful, intelligent accounts of life in State College, PA, where townsfolk have to put up with the antics of drunken students – from stealing traffic signs, to urinating in private gardens – and where the university’s various strategies for dealing with the campus’s drinking culture are impeded by a strong lobby from alumni and other donors.

A lot of what these episodes covered felt familiar. I grew up in a South African university town and now hold a fellowship at that university. The institution is based in the heart of the country’s wine-producing region, so alcohol is cheap and plentiful. As someone with a comically low tolerance of alcohol, I’ve never been a big drinker. I sailed through university as, usually, the only sober person at parties.

A while ago, I wrote a post about academia and the food at conferences, and one of the themes in the responses I received was that I needed to focus more on the booze. And that’s absolutely true: while we may be – justifiably – concerned about undergraduate binge drinking, there’s a stereotype that academics drink – in the same way that we dress badly, drive banged-up cars, and are chronically forgetful. As Malcolm Bradbury writes in The History Man (1975):

It has often been remarked, by Benita Pream, who services several such departmental meetings, that those in History are distinguished by their high rate of absenteeism, those in English by the amount of wine consumed afterwards, and those in Sociology by their contentiousness.

I think that many would suggest that Benita’s point about the wine could apply to all departmental meetings, regardless of the discipline involved.

Just about every decent campus novel contains at least one scene of drunken, academic embarrassment. Or, indeed, in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), of success. Jim Dixon spends most of the novel either pursuing the pretty-but-dim Christine in a fairly desultory way, or trying – in post-war, still rationed Britain – to scrape together enough money to buy cigarettes and drink.  In the famous, final scene, he gets completely hammered, delivers a speech which should get him fired, but which, instead, gets him both the girl and his dream job.

My two favourite campus novels, The History Man and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995) – yes the one that was turned into the surprisingly fun movie – both feature heroes whose academic careers are linked to the – occasionally excessive – consumption of alcohol and various banned substances. Both novels have parties at key turning-points in the narrative. In The History Man the suave socialist sociologist Howard Kirk and his long-suffering wife, Barbara, host parties at the beginning and end of the novel – places where students and lecturers at a red brick, radical university mingle, discussing contraception, Hegel, revolution, and, of course, religion:

No sooner are the first arrivals in the living-room, with drinks, talking breastfeeding, when more guests arrive. The room fills. There are students in quantities; bearded Jesus youths in combat-wear, wet-look plastic, loon-pants, flared jeans, Afghan yak; girls, in caftans and big boots, with plum-coloured mouths. There are young faculty, serious, solemn examiners of matrimony and its radical alternatives…. Howard goes about, a big two-litre bottle hanging on the loop from his finger, the impresario of the event, feeling the buoyant pleasure of having these young people round him…. He poured wine, seeing the bubbles move inside the glass of the bottle in the changing lights of his rooms.

Howard maintains – and gains – his position of power within his department and on his campus by wielding wine at important moments.

The appropriately named Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys uses grass and a range of other drugs – legal and illegal – to cope with the collapse of his marriage, his career, and his reputation as a writer. He holds a position at a small liberal arts university in Pittsburgh, but can’t finish his novel, is having an affair with the Chancellor, and has been (deservedly) deserted by his wife. Over the course of the university’s annual Wordfest weekend, his life falls apart. As in The History Man, parties take place at pivotal moments – one of them in Grady’s house. He returns to discover

writers in the kitchen, making conversation that whip-sawed wildly between comely falsehood and foul-smelling truths, flicking their cigarette ash into the mouths of beer cans. There were half a dozen more of them stretched out on the floor of the television room, arranged in a worshipful manner around a small grocery bag filled with ragweed marijuana, watching Ghidorah take apart Tokyo.

But most academic drinking is done more decorously: over dinner, and after conferences and workshops. Some of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges have legendarily well-stocked cellars. Just about every seminar I attended in London ended with a trip to the pub. There’s even a Radio 4 series called The Philosopher’s Arms, where Matthew Sweet and a collection of philosophers discuss ideas and issues in a real pub:

Welcome to the Philosopher’s Arms, the only boozer in Britain where, if you ask the landlady whether there’s a happy hour, she’ll remind you of the words of John Stuart Mill: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you’ll cease to be so.’

The appeal of the pub is that it allows for the usually fairly byzantine rules which govern academic life to relax a little. Anxious postgrads get to talk to well-known, senior researchers, gossip is exchanged, and friendships and alliances formed. One very grand historian who used to convene a weekly seminar I attended, was transformed from an incisive and ruthless eviscerator of poorly-constructed arguments, to a jovial old cove as he nursed his half-pint of real ale.

It’s also true that pubs and drinking can be used to exclude those who don’t drink, for whatever reason, or those who don’t feel welcome in pubs or bars. As AS Byatt points out in an interview with the Paris Review, up until the mid-1960s, university departments could prevent their female staff from contributing to important decisions by conducting meetings in pubs, then an almost exclusively male preserve.

But I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that pubs, in particular, feature so strongly in a lot of the mythology surrounding significant moments in academia: in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and in the meetings of the Inklings – the most famous members of which were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien – at the Eagle and Child in Oxford, for instance. Pubs – and other, similarly festive occasions involving drinking – provide academics with a chance to talk and to think beyond the usual strictures of academia and, in doing so, to arrive at new and surprising ideas.

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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).

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Waste

The only vaguely British royal-themed food I’ve eaten was sorely disappointing mock turtle soup (at an Oxford College – where else?) and coronation chicken. I wanted to write something about coronation chicken this week: it’s one of those dishes which say a great deal about a country’s attitudes towards food – and the relationship between these attitudes and national identities – as a particular moment in time.

This salad of cold chicken in a curried mayonnaise was invented by Rosemary Hume – the business partner of the more famous Constance Spry of the eponymous recipe book – to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. (Originally it was called poulet reine Elizabeth.) Before I continue, this is the original recipe:

Coronation Chicken (serves 6-8)

2 young roasting chickens

water and a little wine to cover

carrot

a bouquet garni

salt

3-4 peppercorns

cream of curry sauce (see below)

Poach the chickens, with carrot, bouquet, salt, and peppercorns, in water and a little wine, enough barely to cover, for about 40 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool in the liquid. Joint the birds, remove the bones with care. Prepare the sauce given below. Mix the chicken and the sauce together, arrange on a dish, coat with the extra sauce.

Cream of curry sauce

1 tablespoon oil

2 oz. onion, finely chopped

1 dessertspoon curry-powder

1 good teaspoon tomato puree

1 wineglass red wine

¾ wineglass water

a bay-leaf

salt, sugar, a touch of pepper

a slice or two of lemon and a squeeze of lemon juice

1-2 tablespoons apricot puree

¾ pint mayonnaise

2-3 tablespoons lightly whipped cream

Heat the oil, add onion, cook gently 3-4 minutes, add curry-powder. Cook again 1-2 minutes. Add puree, wine, water, and bay-leaf. Bring to boil, add salt, sugar to taste, pepper, and the lemon and lemon juice. Simmer with the pan uncovered 5-10 minutes. Strain to cool. Add by degrees to the mayonnaise with the apricot puree to taste. Adjust seasoning, adding a little more lemon juice if necessary. Finish with the whipped cream. Take a small amount of sauce (enough to coat the chicken) and mix with a little extra cream and seasoning.

As any good English graduate will quote to you, the world is a text. In other words, any thing – any book, chair, poem, song, garden, hat, or film – can be read as a ‘text’: as a collection of signs, or symbols, which, according to material and historical context, will mean a variety of things. So a washing machine manufactured in the 1950s and bought by a white, middle-class family in Pinelands (a Cape Town suburb built along the lines of a ‘garden city‘) is not only a washing machine: it’s indicative of the impact of wartime innovations in technology on households; of rising post-war middle-class affluence; of the association of race and class in apartheid South Africa; of the slow move of women out of the home and into the workplace; but also of the reaction against women working and the social conservatism of the 1950s.

In this way, a recipe is a text like any other, and a particularly rich source for social, cultural, and economic history. Coronation chicken is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a dish designed to be eaten with one, fork-clutching hand. This is food that can be eaten in front of the television – and Elizabeth II’s coronation was a landmark in television history. Secondly, its inclusion of mayonnaise – something which still needed to be made by hand during the 1950s – nods to the massive influence of French cordon bleu cuisine on British cooking until, at least, the 1960s. Elizabeth David’s enthusiasm for the bourgeois cooking of Provence and other regions had yet to make an impact. In books like The Constance Spry Cookery Book, cordon bleu remained the standard for all forms of cooking.

And then there’s the curry powder. Although the Victorians and Edwardians embraced Anglicised versions of some Indian dishes – kedgeree and curry, most famously – it was only after independence in 1948 that Indian food became more widely available and popular in Britain. Admittedly, these Indian restaurants served a range of dishes which had been adapted to British tastes – they had thicker, richer gravies and were usually less spicy – but their growing popularity pointed to the fact that in post-austerity Britain, the population was enthusiastic to try exotic new flavours, if only in moderation (coronation chicken has only two teaspoons of curry powder). Indeed, the idea of curry powder is a foreign one: in India, any blend of spices is called garam masala and will vary from shop to shop, or household to household. What we call ‘curry powder’ is a mix of spices chosen by food companies. The curry powder which I use – Rajah (owned by Unilever) – contains, according to the box, cumin, coriander, and turmeric along with other spices.

As tastes have become more sophisticated, so have interpretations of coronation chicken. In a recent article in which she reworks the dish, Felicity Cloake makes the point that it’s been subject to a range of changes: curry powder has been replaced with freshly roasted and ground cumin and coriander (although in her recipe she keeps shop-bought curry powder for its retro quality); yogurt and chutney have taken the place of cream and of apricot and tomato puree; and fruit and nuts have made welcome appearances.

Possibly the greatest difference between coronation chicken prepared in 2011 and that which was made in 1953 is that cooks in the 1950s would have been more likely to use leftovers. The dish was designed purposefully to dress up potentially unappetising leftover food. Even if the original recipe included instructions for poaching chickens, the curried mayonnaise complements leftover roast chicken just as well. The accompaniment which Spry and Hume suggest also uses leftovers: a cold, dressed rice and cucumber salad.

When I was leafing through my mother’s elderly copy of the Constance Spry Cookery Book (1956) – it belonged originally to a great-aunt – I read the introduction for the first time, and was struck by the way in which Spry linked the purpose of the recipe book – providing home cooks with clear, well-written good, delicious recipes – with its post-war social and economic context. Listing the changes in attitude towards food and cooking since the late 1940s, she adds:

Something else is new too: the immensely better and fairer distribution of food among all grades of society. This is due to a variety of causes, not the least of which was the rationing system at which we grumbled so incessantly and to which we so thankfully said good-bye. Remembering as I do the days of immensely long, boring, wasteful dinners, remembering too the starvation which was all too often at our very doors, I cannot forbear to remind you how much respect ought to be paid to food, how carefully it should be treated, how shameful waste is.

I think that the greatest achievement of Lord Woolton’s tenure as Britain’s Minister of Food during the Second World War was the way in which he not only eked out the nation’s food supply, but that he ensured that most Britons ate well. Food rationing was introduced on 8 January 1940 and at first included only butter (4 oz per person per week), sugar (12 oz), raw bacon or ham (4 oz), cooked bacon or ham (3.5 oz), and eggs (2). Meat rationing began in March that year, and, gradually, tea, jam, and cheese were also rationed. During the war, bread, potatoes, coffee, fruit, vegetables, and fish were not rationed, although supplies of these were very limited.

Food rationing did not end with the war: it continued until 1953. Bread was rationed for the first time between 1946 and 1948, and potatoes in 1947. In the same year, the fruit and alcohol for Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten’s wedding cake was donated by Girl Guides in Australia, South Africa, and Jamaica because of the strictness of the rationing system.

A combination of increased exercise and a limited diet relatively low in saturated fat and sugar meant that the health of the British population actually improved during and after the war. In fact, many Britons ate considerably better during the war than before: improved distribution and a relatively standardised diet meant that those who had been too poor – or even too ignorant – to eat well before 1939 now received regular, healthy meals. George Orwell’s description of working-class meals in Wigan during the 1930s is particularly evocative:

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less  than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet.

Compare this to the Woolton Pie recommended by the Ministry of Food as a nutritious and thrifty (if not necessarily tasty) way of feeding a family:

Take 1Ib each of diced potatoes, cauliflower, swedes and carrots, three or four spring onions – if possible, one teaspoonful of vegetable extract, and one tablespoonful of oatmeal. Cook all together for 10 minutes with just enough water to cover. Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking. Allow to cool; put into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and cover with a crust of potatoes or wheatmeal pastry. Bake in a moderate oven until the pastry is nicely brown and serve hot with brown gravy.

This wouldn’t have made a particularly delicious supper, but it was much healthier and more filling than sweet tea and white bread with margarine. Again, this recipe made the best of leftovers and scraps. There’s a famous wartime propaganda poster which exhorts Britons to not waste food: ‘Better pot-luck with Churchill today than humble pie under Hitler tomorrow’.

Given the success of rationing in Britain, it’s not really surprising that so many green groups have suggested that it serves as an excellent model for limiting carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels. It’s even been argued that a return to a wartime diet would reduce the numbers of overweight and obese children in Britain. Although I think that these are creative and useful ideas, I’m concerned that they’re based partly on an idealised notion of life on the home front: that they don’t take into account the drudgery of cooking with such a limited range of ingredients (and how boring the food was); and the fact that many people did their utmost to get around rationing by growing their own food (good idea) and trading on the black market (not so good).

It’s particularly telling that the habits taught by rationing did not outlast the war. As Orwell made the point, low pay was only one reason why poor families in Wigan ate badly:

When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! … White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water.

I’m not sure that rationing will fundamentally alter people’s attitudes towards food and eating, but there are other lessons to be learned, and chiefly around controlling waste. In Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (2009), Tristram Stuart makes the point that in the United States and Europe, about half of all edible, safe food is thrown away. This is done mainly by supermarkets and food manufacturers, but households contribute as well. There’s no single way of reducing food waste – changing legislation on ‘sell-by’ and ‘use-by’ dates would be a start – but one strategy would be to encourage people to think more carefully about how they buy food: teach them that ‘buy one get one free’ specials tend to encourage waste, for example, and make the point that wasted food is, essentially, wasted money.

And this isn’t a totally unrealistic goal. After all, not very long ago, British households threw away much less food: 2-3 per cent during the 1930s, and 4-6 per cent two decades later. Moreover, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all have successful programmes which have reduced the amount of food waste. The latter two have made it illegal for food to go to landfill, and all three have educated the public about the importance not only of throwing away as little food as possible, but of composting or recycling that which absolutely has to go. South Korea transforms its food waste into pigswill (something banned in Britain after the outbreak of mad cow disease). Stuart writes:

Koreans obey the waste recycling law largely because they have resigned themselves to the reality: that sending food into landfill is against their own interests and that of the planet they live in. They know about the disease outbreak in Britain, and they know about the ban on swill-feeding – and they conclude, as a result, that Europeans are blithely continuing their reckless, self-interested exploitation of the planet in the manner that has characterised them for centuries.

You wouldn’t throw money away – so why do the same with food?

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Secker and Warburg, [1937] 1959).

Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume, The Constance Spry Cookery Book (London: The Cookery Book Club, 1956).

Tristram Stuart, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (London: Penguin, 2009).

Other sources:

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

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the Twenty-First Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).

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 Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Michael Pollan, In Defence of Food (London: Penguin, 2008).

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