Recently I’ve been mildly obsessed with Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them (2011). It’s a collection of essays about Russian literature and her experiences as a PhD student at Stanford. In the first chapter, ‘Babel in California,’ Batuman describes a conference at Stanford, dedicated to the analysis of the work of Isaak Babel. Like so many academic conferences, it is simultaneously enlightening and farcical.
Posts tagged ‘recession’
I’m away this week and will be spending the rest of the month eating. Hurrah! But I leave you with some holiday reading:
A ‘Jewnitarian‘ Christmas.
David Lebovitz on Christmas in France.
Seventeenth-century decorations for mince pies.
A frugal Christmas cake for the recession from the Observer.
Yum – panettone.
Eva Wiseman on the Christmas sandwich.
Making Estonian blood sausages for Christmas.
It’s time to make latkes.
Christmas in Mexico.
Christmas recipes for those of us sweltering in the southern hemisphere.
See you in 2012.
I had a powerful sense of déjà vu yesterday as I read this weekend’s Financial Times. As the news section described the world economy’s recent nose-dive and entry into Phase Five of the early twenty-first century’s Great Depression, the FT’s monthly magazine How to spend it blithely informed its readers that ‘Homes are constantly borrowing bright ideas from luxury hotels.’ And went on to recommend the installation of architect-designed pool houses – which tend to go for around £3,000 per square metre.
Have you read How to spend it? If ever there was a cultural artefact which encapsulated the excess and arrogance of the boom time before the near-collapse of the British and American financial systems in 2008, then this is it. It’s a magazine aimed at the super-rich – at the sort of people who have so much money that they need advice on how they should spend it. I read it – or, at least, I read as much of it as I can before I’m engulfed with rage – because it offers an insight into a bizarre, yet incredibly powerful, world to which I will never have access. (And, frankly, life’s far too short to spend months in search of the perfect example of summer cashmere.)
Printed on glossy, A3-sized sheets of paper, it describes trends in the art market and fashion world; which yacht is de rigeur this season; where best to order bespoke jewellery; and whether or not it’s worth hiring a private chef. How to spend it is a celebration not of money – that would be vulgar – but, rather, of luxury.
In this week’s edition, Terence Conran comments in an article about his perfect weekend (which features his routine in his Georgian manor, designing furniture, and resting by his specially-altered river), that ‘luxury usually means simplicity, or easy living, rather than things that cost a lot of money.’ That Conran’s description of luxury as costing nothing is in a magazine which devotes itself to the top-end, exclusive, and incredibly expensive, is a pleasing irony. But it did make me think about how we define luxury, and particularly as regards food.
In his landmark study Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), the anthropologist Sidney Mintz traces how in Britain, sugar shifted from being a luxury available only to the very wealthy, to being an affordable commodity for most people by the early nineteenth century. Yet despite this – despite the fact that sugar was cheap and consumed in large quantities by the British population, and particularly by the poor – it was still seen as a treat. It became an affordable or everyday luxury.
It was the increasing popularity and cheapness of sugar – and it gradually replaced honey as the world’s sweetener of choice – which caused the democratisation of a range of other products, and chiefly chocolate, tea, and coffee. Chocolate, once associated with ritual and celebration in pre-Columbian Mexico, was introduced as a beverage to Spain in 1527, but only took off In Europe once sugar was added to it. It became popular among the aristocracy, partly because it tasted delicious but also as a result of its supposed medicinal qualities. It became widely available at the end of the eighteenth century when imports increased and the production of solid chocolate was industrialised.
Similarly, coffee arrived in Europe via Turkey – cafes were opened in Constantinople from 1554, and the first coffee house in Paris was established in 1672 – and more efficient production, bigger imports, and the relatively new idea of sweetening coffee with sugar meant that it was popular throughout the continent by the 1700s. Tea was introduced to Britain by Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s Portuguese wife, but it was only when someone discovered that stirring sugar into it made it less bitter, that it gained a bigger audience among the middle and upper classes. It was heavily promoted by the financially shaky East India Company, and also by the British government in the mid-eighteenth century as an alternative to alcohol. A drop in the tea price in 1784 caused the spike in British tea drinking: between 1801 and 1810, 12,000 tons of tea was drunk annually in Britain. By 1890, that soared to almost 90,000 tons.
All of these affordable luxuries – tea, sugar, coffee, and chocolate – were popularised because innovations in technology and higher yields abroad made it possible for prices to fall at home. What revolutionised the cultivation the crops was the fact that they could be grown successfully all over the world – tea was taken from south-east Asia to east Africa, coffee from Ethiopia to south-east Asia and Brazil, and chocolate from central America to west Africa and south-east Asia – and in vast plantations.
It’s little wonder that colonialism is so closely associated with the production of all of these commodities, and particularly with sugar. Not only were imperial powers, most notably the Dutch, Portuguese, and British, responsible for globalising the cultivation of these crops, but they put slaves to work on tea, coffee, and sugar plantations. The plantation system of farming – in which a single crop is farmed over a vast area – is labour intensive, and European colonisers worked their slaves, literally, to death.
In this way, slave labour allowed for the democratisation of chocolate, sugar, tea, and coffee. This is particularly ironic in the case of coffee. Coffee houses were connected to the rise of modernity in Europe. Anne E.C. McCants explains:
The expression ‘to break bread together’ now has an archaic feel to it. A proximate contemporary substitute, albeit devoid of the powerful religious significance of bread, is to ‘go out for a cup of coffee’, which is at least as much about conversation as it is about nourishment per se. Historians associate this total reorientation of the culture of food and drink with the substitution of coffeehouses for taverns; the wider dissemination of public news; trading on the stock exchange; … new arrangements of domestic and public space; [and] the ability to sustain new industrial work schedules despite their tedium….
Not only is there a connection between coffee drinking and the Enlightenment and democracy in Europe, but also between coffee, sugar, tea, and chocolate – and capitalism and consumerism. Joyce Appleby writes:
American slave-worked plantations and mechanical wizardry for pumping water, smelting metals, and powering textile factories…may seem unconnected. Certainly we have been loath to link slavery to the contributions of a free enterprise system, but they must be recognised as twin responses to the capitalist genie that had escaped the lamp of tradition during the seventeenth century. Both represented radical departures from previous practices.
Both factories and plantations took a significant capital investment to set up; both produced healthy profits which were reinvested; both relied on plentiful, cheap labour; and both introduced new work routines. Appleby describes sugar as ‘one of capitalism’s first great bonanzas’, arguing that ‘its successes also revealed the power of the profit motive to override any cultural inhibitions to gross exploitation.’
As sugar shaped the capitalist system of the eighteenth century, so it did consumerism. Demand for particular items had driven trade for hundreds of years, but it was only during the eighteenth century that widespread demand from all classes of people, and particularly in Britain where wages tended to be higher, began to fuel capitalist economies:
[A] large body of domestic consumers fuelled England’s commercial expansion and a richly elaborated material culture dependent upon the market. … New attachments to objects, a raging delight in novelties, and the pleasures of urban sociability bespoke a deep engagement with the material world that made spending seem more beneficial to the economy than did parsimony.
As Appleby implies, consumerism links a desire for things with the construction of identities. Sugar, coffee, chocolate, and tea were the first foodstuffs to be transformed into consumer goods. By no means essential to our diets, demand for them was driven by factors other than hunger: people bought them in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because, even though they were cheap, they represented luxury and comfort.
Food has always signified more than simply nutrition, but it’s been implicated in the rise of a consumerist society since the eighteenth century. This means that not only do consumers attach a range of new meanings to the food that we buy – we purchase food not only because we need to eat, but because of how we construct our identities as consumers of goods – but consumer demand drives the production of food. It’s for this reason that efforts to reform eating habits – either to combat lifestyle-related diseases or, indeed, to produce a more sustainable food system – have to deal with the fact that we approach food as consumers operating within a global food system.
Sources cited here:
Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton,  2011).
Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.
Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).
James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).
K.T. Achaya, The Food Industries of British India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
E.M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).
Alain Huertz de Lemps, ‘Colonial Beverages and the Consumption of Sugar,’ 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. 383-393.
Kenneth K. Kiple and Virginia Himmelsteib King, Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet, Disease, and Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Sweet, Salt, and the Language of Love,’ MLN, vol. 106, no. 4, French Issue: Cultural Representations of Food (Sep., 1991), pp. 852-860.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Random House, 1992).
Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.
Frank Trentmann, ‘Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 48, no. 2 (April 2009), pp. 283-307.
Marijke van der Veen, ‘When Is Food a Luxury?’ World Archaeology, vol. 34, no. 3, Luxury Foods (Feb., 2003), pp. 405-427.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Life in post-1994 South Africa can be very strange. Yesterday morning my friend Ester and I went to the National Gallery’s retrospective on…Tretchikoff. Yes, apartheid South Africa’s favourite producer of kitsch, bad, and, occasionally, bizarre artwork has earned himself a serious exhibition and re-evaluation. As far as I can see, his sole redeeming feature was his consistency: Vladimir Tretchikoff was never mediocre, but always uniformly, consistently, bad.
But on our way into the Gallery, we came across Cape Town’s first experiment in yarn bombing. This is a form of graffiti or street art where knitting and other needlework is used to decorate public spaces. Statues get scarves; railings are covered in woolly tubes; and trees are festooned with crafty baubles.
Yarn bombing is now a global phenomenon, and it’s part of a broader craft movement which seeks to celebrate, promote, and often re-learn hobbies like knitting, crotchet, and tatting. Stitch and Bitch societies – founded originally in the United States – can be found now in nearly every major city, and knitting is particularly hip. Much of this is given a feminist spin. It’s an attempt to reclaim activities once derided as unimportant because they were performed largely by women. Some craftivists make the – legitimate – point that suffragettes used embroidery, tapestry, and quilting to create banners and to raise funds for their cause.
Baking is the less applauded of the cooking arts, whereas restaurants are a male province to be celebrated. There’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female.
She added that How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000), the recipe book which kick started both her career and the British enthusiasm for cupcakes, is an ‘important feminist tract’. Now if this is the case – and I write this as one whose copy is scuffed, stained, and torn from extensive use – then I am a three-toed sloth. But her point that baking is seen as a particularly feminine, and, as a result of this, frivolous, pursuit is worth considering. In fact, professional cake-baking seems to be dominated by women: most pastry chefs are female. Restaurant cooking and bread baking are largely a male preserve, and are seen as more serious, complex, and creative activities.
But feminists are not the first women to celebrate baking and home cooking as part of the construction of particular femininities. However much money suffragettes may have raised with their needlework, even larger numbers of women organised tea parties and sold cakes, cookies, and delicately embroidered goods at fetes and bazaars to support missionary work and other more conservative causes. In 1881, the Huguenot Seminary, an elite girls’ school near Cape Town in the Cape Colony, organised a bazaar selling cake and embroidery and raised enough to fund a year’s rent and living expenses for a woman missionary working on a Dutch Reformed mission station in the Transvaal.
Baking has been used by different women at different times to mean many things. What is so interesting about the recent rediscovery of baking (and knitting too, for that matter) is that it’s been embraced enthusiastically by young, educated, middle-class women. I think that this is the product of a variety of factors: the impact of a resurgent green movement and the global economic recession have encouraged a rediscovery of craft and cooking both to save money and to reduce our impact on the environment; young fashion designers and cooks’ interest in knitting and baking have made these fashionable pursuits and rendered ‘make-do-and-mend’ cool; the impact of television series like Mad Men have prompted a (hopefully ironic) re-embrace of domesticity; and this is also a reaction to the feminism of the 1970s which rejected traditionally feminine pursuits because of their connection to women’s subordination.
And here is a crucial point: middle-class women now have no need to bake or to knit. These are leisure activities, to be done in the evenings and over weekends. We forget that until relatively recently in the West, most women baked and sewed not out of choice, but because they had to: because shop-bought cakes and clothes were expensive. One of my maternal great-grandmothers was a seamstress because that was deemed to be an appropriate trade for a white, lower middle-class adolescent in pre-War Cape Town. But my very bourgeois paternal grandmother employed a cook, nanny, and maidservant to do her domestic work for her – as indeed her mother had done too.
I don’t know what my great grandmother would have made of yarn bombing, nor of the slow gentrification of the Cape Town suburb in which she lived for most of her life. Woodstock, recently dubbed ‘Cape Town’s Manhattan’ by the New York Times, is being gradually transformed into a hip, middle-class enclave. And baking is an aspect of this transformation.
She’s not the first to do this. Kathe Newman has argued that ‘cupcake shops can provide a more accurate and timely guide to the frontiers of urban gentrification than traditional demographic and real estate data sets.’ This is certainly true for Cape Town. The very traumatic gentrification of parts of the Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter – where families were forced to move out of houses which they had rented for generations – was signalled by the arrival of upscale bakeries. In Woodstock, where gentrification seems to be proceeding at a slower pace and without the fracturing of existing communities, bakeries and cafes have begun to appear along the main road and near the Neighbourgoods Market, that ultimate expression of Capetonian cool.
In the city’s eastern precinct – the district which stretches from Parliament at the top of Roeland Street and all the way to the Cape Archives – people have been lured out of their cars and onto pavements first by Charly’s Bakery, and then by Mugged on Roeland Street (ho ho), and the coffee- and cupcake-selling Book Lounge. When I first started working at the Archives in 2005 for my MA thesis, the furthest I would go for lunch was to dash across the parking lot to a slightly dodgy sandwich shop. I returned in 2008 while researching my PhD, and could choose between at least five different places to eat – and felt safe to walk to all them.
As one commentator notes, it’s because cupcakes and cake shops are fashionable at the moment that we can use them as an indicator of gentrification:
In the 1990s, it might have been the proliferation of Starbucks coffee houses that indicated gentrifying neighbourhoods, and in the 1980s, perhaps gourmet yoghurt shops moving into an area, etc. I don’t know about other cities, but in NYC where I live, right now it would be the new doggie day care centres that are springing up in many places that appear to designate a change to a more affluent, up-and-coming hipster-ish nabe.
The point remains that cupcakes have been embraced with enthusiasm by middle-class women and have been implicated in the creation of contemporary middle class femininities. Activities once performed by women out of necessity have been transformed into hobbies – and because of middle-class buying power, cake shops and cupcake bakeries are now involved in the gentrification of poor, often crime-ridden neighbourhoods.
I am not suggesting, to paraphrase Cyril Connolly on George Orwell, that I can’t eat a cupcake without commenting on the appalling working conditions in the icing sugar industry. I understand how fraught and disruptive processes of gentrification can be, but I really enjoy being able to walk down main road Woodstock to buy coffee and cake at The Kitchen. And I think that it’s fantastic that so many cake shops and cafes are run by women, and I’m so pleased that the craft movement is reviving and remembering skills which were at risk of being forgotten.
But I do think we need some perspective. Our enthusiasm for cupcakes and cakes is helping to fuel gentrification of poor neighbourhoods – and we need to think carefully about the implications of this. As my friend Shahpar pointed out a few weeks ago, cupcakes are snack food for Dhaka’s busy street vendors. In other words, cakes and baking mean different things all over the world. Cakes, cupcakes, and baking can only be associated with feminism for white, affluent middle-class women. Baking a tray of cupcakes may be a subversive, feminist act for me, but it’s a well nigh impossible one for a woman living in Gugulethu.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.