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Good Neighbours

At the beginning of this year Michael Olivier asked me to contribute an article to his online magazine Crush!.  It could be on whichever topic I fancied, and because I had recently spent rather a lot of time at food markets both abroad and in South Africa, and had been thinking a great deal about the relationship between these markets and the communities in which they were held, I decided to write about Woodstock.

The point that I wanted to make in the piece is that there is considerably more to Woodstock than the Neighbourgoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill: that this multiracial inner-city suburb has a long and complicated history, and that its transformation into the embodiment of Capetonian hipster cool is not only a relatively recent phenomenon, but has profound implications for the community who lives there.

Woodstock – originally called Papendorp after the farmer on whose land it was founded – has never been a wealthy suburb. Situated in the teeth of the Cape Doctor – the southeasterly wind which blasts the city during summer – its population has tended to be poor and working class. With its low rents and easy proximity to the city’s industrial and business districts, it drew many of the thousands of immigrants who arrived in Cape Town from southern Africa and the rest of the world during South Africa’s industrial revolution at the end of the nineteenth century.

Cape Town’s first factories – which manufactured jam, matchsticks, artificial feathers and flowers, sweets, and cigars – were established in Woodstock, and employed a large proportion of the people who lived in the suburb’s growing slums. In the 1880s and 1890s, a collection of ministers, city councillors, and philanthropic organisation launched a campaign to clean up the appalling conditions in which people lived in Woodstock – with many calling it Cape Town’s ‘East End’.

Given the racial politics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Africa, much of the concern about Woodstock stemmed from the fact that it was racially mixed. As a result of the Group Areas Act (1950), one of the keystones of apartheid legislation, black and coloured (or racially mixed) people were forced to move out of the parts of Woodstock which were declared ‘white’. Those people who, according to the Population Registration Act (1950), were not white, were required to move to areas classified ‘black’ or ‘coloured’.

My mother grew up in Fairview Avenue, which was part of an area zoned as white. During the early 1960s, several families in her street left for other parts of Cape Town, or immigrated to other countries, because they were deemed officially to be black or coloured. But other parts of Woodstock were allowed to remain racially mixed. It’s worth understanding the social make-up of Woodstock geographically: above the Main Road – where Fairview Avenue is located – it is lower-middle- to middle-class with a largely white population which includes many Portuguese and Jewish families.

Below Main Road and above the railway, Woodstock becomes poorer and more racially mixed. And it is lower Woodstock which has experienced the brunt of the recent gentrification of the suburb. The revitalising of the businesses along Sir Lowry Road – developments like the Palms Centre and Buchanan Square, and the cluster of cafes, restaurants, and shops which have emerged between these two business hubs – have drawn relatively little criticism, as far as I can see (although do please let me know if it has).

Most criticism has been levelled at the Biscuit Mill development in Albert Road in lower Woodstock. The consortium responsible for the development, Indigo Properties, has recently come under fire for its revamp of the Woodstock Industrial Centre, which provided cheap rents and space for the small collective of artists who work in the suburb. On the one hand, the restoration of buildings – and Woodstock has some lovely, albeit crumbling, Victorian and Edwardian architecture – and the attraction of business to an otherwise poor area could be seen as a Good Thing. In Sir Lowry Road, for instance, the increase of pedestrian traffic between the Kitchen, the Deli, and the various agencies and offices along the road has made the area feel decidedly safer.

But on the other, it is questionable whether the Biscuit Mill and, now, the Industrial Centre developments benefit the community who lives in lower Woodstock.

On a ferociously hot Saturday towards the end of January, I parked as near to the Neighbourgoods Market at the Biscuit Mill – as near as I could, given its phenomenal popularity on weekends – and then made my way down Albert Road. Cars of eager market-goers zip down Albert Road on Saturdays, making only for the Biscuit Mill and the shops and restaurants which have opened around it. They ignore the large section of lower Woodstock which they pass through to get to the end of Albert Road.

My aim was to talk to the owners of the cafes and corner shops who actually sell to the people who live in lower Woodstock. I asked several what they thought about the Neighbourgoods Market and the response was similar: a shrug, followed by a comment that the people who go to the Market don’t really seem to be all that interested in the rest of the suburb. One or two laughed when I asked if they had benefitted from the opening of the development.

Just as I was nearing Gympie Street – infamous for its association with the gangs which have long blighted life in lower Woodstock – a man standing outside Saleem’s Café beckoned to me. He was Rashied, the brother-in-law of the owner of the café, and seated comfortably indoors on upturned plastic crates, we had a chat about the development on the area. Rashied was deeply critical of the Neighbourgoods Market and the Biscuit Mill, making the point that they had done little to regenerate an extremely poor suburb. What profits they do make – and there is good reason to believe that the development is lucrative – benefit the shopkeepers, stall owners, and, of course, Indigo Properties.

Rashied is involved with I Art Woodstock, a project launched by Ricky Lee Gordon of A Word of Art last year. I Art Woodstock brings artists from around the world to paint murals in lower Woodstock. The project involves the suburb’s children, and it aims partly to encourage more people to visit the area, to look at the murals – and they are truly magnificent. Rashied invited me to take a look at the murals with him: he was due to check up on two artists, one from Sao Paulo, the other from New York, who were at work on a new mural, and he wanted to distribute yogurts to the area’s children.

The state does not exist in lower Woodstock. There are houses owned by gangs where drugs are sold and taken. There are people who live in shacks, with no hope of ever moving into houses with electricity and plumbing. It is unlikely that most of the children playing in the streets are attending school. These streets are dirty and unkempt. When incidences of domestic violence occur, the chances of police being called – or, if they are called, of arriving – are very slim.

As a recent, powerful editorial in the Mail and Guardian argued, South Africa’s policy makers and politicians must recognise the link between the appalling conditions in which people live, and the very high rates of violent crime which characterise so many poor communities:

we are building settlements that reproduce sexual violence, crime and xenophobia: shoddily constructed, disconnected from economic opportunity, home to failing schools that sit cheek by jowl with shebeens on shit-soaked streets.

It is certainly true that there are people in lower Woodstock who are employed, who send their children to school, and who manage to save a little towards their retirement. Their children will go on to tertiary education and to employment. They will move out of lower Woodstock and join South Africa’s growing middle class. But these constitute only one, small group of people within a much larger population, most of whom live in desperate poverty.

And within ten minutes’ walk of lower Woodstock – with its murals, yes, but also with its population of shack dwellers who do not have access to flushing toilets – is the incredible wealth and luxury of the Neighbourgoods Market, and the thousands of wealthy Capetonians who drive past lower Woodstock every Saturday morning to buy ice cream and artisanal, free-range bacon.

I don’t object to gentrification per se. Salon has reported recently on the so-called ‘Whole Foods effect’, where the opening of a new branch of Whole Foods – the US-based chain of organic supermarkets – is an indicator, and also cause, of the revitalisation of suburbs which have become crime-ridden, grimy, and run-down. The business is about to open a Whole Foods store in Midtown Detroit – signalling to many that the city’s long decline is now in reverse.

As Will Doig writes:

the Whole Foods Effect isn’t caused by the store itself, it’s caused by the events it sets into motion. And one thing Whole Foods does is stay open later than a lot of the other shops around it, laying the groundwork for expanding the length of that neighbourhood’s day.

The Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein – the sister of the market in Woodstock – is doing precisely this in Joburg. Situated in the parking lot of a skyscraper, that Neighbourgoods Market attracts footfall to an inner-city suburb which would usually be deserted – and dangerous – over the weekend. Similarly, the Hope Street Market in Cape Town brings life into an otherwise quiet corner of the CBD on Saturdays.

What angers me about the Biscuit Mill and the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock is that they exist within a community which desperately needs investment: which needs housing, plumbing, and, above all, jobs. Of course, it is primarily the function of the state to provide basic services, policing, and social welfare – but where there is so much wealth, there is a moral imperative to improve the lives of so many who have so little.

The Neighbourgoods Market’s success has grown partly as a result of an increased interest in the provenance and production of good, ‘whole’, food among Cape Town’s middle classes. This is excellent. But how do these customers – who desire to live and eat ethically – drive past such incredible poverty every Saturday, without thinking twice about the people who live there?

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

Whose Slow Food?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petrini adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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