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Posts tagged ‘sustainability’

Food Links, 03.08.2011

‘It’s very difficult to define’ – the Staggers attempts to pinpoint what is meant by ‘British food’. And gives up.

Eating while black: on food and race.

The Middle Class Handbook considers the rise of strange snack foods.

McDonald’s removes McFalafel from its menu in Israel.

Twelve signs that we’re running out of food.

David Lebovitz lists ten strange things to be found in French supermarkets.

We need a ‘brave new menu’ to be the basis of a sustainable food system.

Surprisingly, America doesn’t consume the most meat in the world – take a look at this fantastic infographic to see which country does.

Where do baby vegetables come from?

The equitable redistribution of rigatoni. (Thanks, Mum!)

What are the chances of substitutes – like seitan and soy – replacing meat in our diets?

Check out Nourish – an amazing project aiming to raise awareness about food and sustainability in schools and communities.

‘encouraging agricultural diversity and local food production – particularly of vegetables – can help communities boost their self-sufficiency and protect vulnerable populations from price shocks’. In other words, the diversity and quality of the food supply are more important than quantity in ensuring food security.

Ferran Adria has written a book about cooking staff meals.

Where is all the safe drinking water?

This is the most amazing project: what we eat.

In whose hands?

I am not by nature a joiner. I became a member of the Green Party in the UK mainly to spite Phil Woolas after he made some more than usually daft comments about non-EU immigrants. That the Green Party did exceptionally well in the last general election and seems, to me, to offer the only credible way out of the global recession were pleasing perks of membership, but otherwise I didn’t appreciate being told to toe the party line on a few issues, sugar pill-based quackery homeopathy being one of them. I suppose that I don’t particularly enjoy being told what to think. This is why I’m in academia which is, as a friend put it, the last refuge of the sociopathic.

It’s partly for this reason that I’m fascinated by groups of people who set out, purposefully, to create alternative communities away from mainstream society: people who base these experiments in new living on complex rules for behaviour and thought. It’s something I would never do, and I am curious as to why others find it so attractive. I wrote my MA thesis about the first boarding school for the daughters of the Cape Colony’s Dutch-Afrikaner middle classes in the nineteenth century. This institution was a secluded, strictly evangelical retreat from colonial society for the pupils who lived there, many of whom complained that they found it difficult to return to the habits and routines of normal family life. Mission stations run by societies like the Moravian Brotherhood were similar. There, at places like Genadendal and Elim, residents were required to adhere to strict rules regarding work, dress, and speech.

The best known of these retreats were Robert Owen’s utopian socialist communities in the United States during the 1820s. The first of these, New Harmony, lasted only a few years. But there have been hundreds of similar examples, most of them unsuccessful. It seems that nearly every generation of reformers has a fringe which believes that the best way to reform society is to leave it, and construct a new way of living on its fringes. There are elements of this in the recent Dark Mountain Project founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. They argue that the best way to prepare for a post-peak oil world and catastrophic climate change is to retreat, and to learn how to live sustainably and self-sufficiently away from society.

One of the most striking features of these experiments is the primacy they give to food. The cultivation of crops and, less frequently, the care of animals (and it’s interesting, although not surprising, how many alternative communities were vegetarian) were central to life in these societies. Not only was this importance due to practical reasons – before the beginning of the twentieth century, at least, it would have been too expensive to buy in adequate food supplies in rural areas – but for symbolic ones: ‘pure’ food produced by hardworking and hardthinking workers was bound to be better than that grown by exploited wage labourers.

I’ve recently finished reading This Life is in Your Hands, Melissa Coleman’s gripping memoir of her early childhood on the homestead established by her father, Eliot Coleman, a man believed by many to be the father of the modern organic movement in the United States. In 1968, Eliot and is wife Sue packed their belongings into a VW van and travelled to rural Maine – five hours from Boston, and three from Portland – to a plot of land on which they intended to build a homestead and grow enough vegetables and fruit for their own consumption. They had been inspired by the experiences of an older generation of ‘homesteaders’, Helen and Scott Nearing. Indeed, the idea of modern homesteading – living entirely self-sufficiently – was popularised by the Nearings’ book Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World (1954) in which they described a lifestyle in which was independent from the economy; healthy; and completely ethical. It was a life sustained by work done by their own hands.

The Colemans bought their land from the Nearings, and, using Living the Good Life as their Bible, set about living in accordance to the rules established by the Nearings. Eliot built their wooden cabin himself; they lived without electricity and running water; they cultivated most of their food themselves; and they bought as little as possible from the local shopkeepers. However idyllic this life may have appeared, it was precarious and dependent on backbreaking labour:

That my parents had chosen this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn’t matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water was muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town – not to mention that Jeep’s registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on.

They soon realised that complete self-sufficiency was impossible. The Nearings, for all their status as homesteading gurus, bought in a range of luxuries, and the Colemans had to purchase oats and other grains, yeast, seeds, bacteria for making yogurt, and vitamin B supplements for their diet. And the absolute seclusion they enjoyed during their first year or two of homesteading – when Melissa was born – came to an abrupt end as a result of an article in the Washington Post by a sympathetic journalist, and Eliot’s ambitions to spread the gospel about organic gardening. He was already selling the surplus from their garden, and believed that organic methods offered an alternative to the new farming orthodoxy espoused by Nixon’s Secretary for Agriculture, Earl Butz, who advised farmers to plant maize ‘from fence row to fence row’.

Eliot’s increasing renown, his ever longer absences to study and lecture, as well as the numbers of enthusiastic students who came to work on the garden in the summer – often in the nude – put strain on the Colemans’ marriage. And it’s here that one of the main problems of these alternative communities becomes especially apparent. For all their desire not to replicate the power structures of mainstream society, they invariably do. Women continue to undertake the burden of domestic labour. Eliot Coleman worked unbelievably hard – to the extent that he developed hyperthyroidism as a result of stress and exhaustion – but, as a contemporary article on homesteading makes the point, he did the ‘fun’ bit: the growing. When he finished his work in the garden at night, he could rest. Sue, though, was responsible for keeping house and doing laundry without soap, detergent, or appliances. She ground their own flour, made yogurt, sewed and mended their clothes, and bottled, canned, and preserved food to see them through the winter. She had three daughters under the age of seven to care for. Oh, and she ran their vegetable stall too. Her work – invisible and largely unappreciated – was unremitting.

Michelle Nijhuis suggests that one of the reasons why women find homesteading so difficult is because of the absence of labour saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners: without them, otherwise easy chores become difficult, time consuming, and very, very boring. But I’m not so sure about this argument. (Although who am I to disagree? I wouldn’t touch homesteading with a bargepole and she’s a paid-up member of the movement.)

Much of This Life is in Your Hands reminds me of John Matteson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning double biography of Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, Eden’s Outcasts (2007). Louisa May is now best remembered as the author of Little Women (1868), but during the mid-nineteenth century her father, Bronson, was a well-known and controversial educationalist and philosopher with strong links to the Transcendentalists. He also experimented with living away from society and, like the Colemans, his and his family’s time at Fruitlands, a commune in Massachusetts, ended in disaster. Established in 1843, Fruitlands lasted slightly more than a year, and Bronson was largely responsible for this: he and his small group acolytes planted the fields too late, ran out of money, and constructed a set of rules which actively hindered work on the farm. All animal products and labour were banned, and the members spent as much time raising funds and discussing whether or not they should drink coffee, as they did actually working the land.

Indeed, most of the work was done by Abba Alcott, Bronson’s long-suffering wife. She cared for their four young daughters, cooked, sewed, cleaned, chopped wood, and washed laundry. This was not an unusual lot for a women in nineteenth-century America, but it was made worse by their poverty, and wilful refusal to use ‘luxuries’ – warm clothes, hot water, a greater range of foodstuffs – which would have made the work any easier or, at least, more interesting. And, of course, the point of the commune was that it was meant to be wholly egalitarian. In the end, Abba did the same work – in possibly worse conditions – as women living in nearby Concord.

Towards the end of her memoir, Melissa Coleman describes her mother’s mental breakdown after the drowning of Melissa’s little sister, Heidi. But she makes it clear that this was the trigger for something which had long been developing:

Just that morning the gardens were bustling as usual with apprentices and customers and vegetables needing to be picked. It was a humid-hot day, a Saturday near the end of July. Baby Clara was strapped to Mama’s back in Heidi’s old sling, sleeping mouth-open as Mama cooked lunch, skin glowing and tan from summer. Skates was coming to visit, and Mama needed time to clean the house, to hide from her mother-in-law the chaos her life had become: Bess and Papa having breakfast together that morning, mud tracked in from the gardens, piles of laundry to be washed by hand, Heidi and I running around the small kitchen pulling each other’s hair and screaming.

In a recent post for Grist, Tom Laskawy makes the point that the longer hours worked by Americans – and I think that this is true elsewhere as well – have been sustained by the greater availability of cheap food – food which is not necessarily nutritionally sound, nor ethically produced.         On the other hand, appliances and a greater variety of food available at affordable prices in supermarkets have facilitated women’s greater entry to the workplace in greater numbers. We know, nonetheless, that this is part of a food system which is entirely unsustainable.

So what do we do? I certainly don’t want a retreat into homesteading. I suggest that we take another look at the ways in which we work: both at home and outside it. There is a significant body of work which suggests that a reduction in the numbers of hours we work would not only be good for our and the planet’s wellbeing, but also for the economy. If we had more time to cook and to grow our own food – although within reason – we would have the beginnings of a more stable food system. Importantly, most of the labour performed in the home is still by women and, clearly, men need to share more of it. The burden of ensuring a shift to more sustainable lifestyles cannot be women’s responsibility alone.

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

When Abundance is Too Much

I was in London last week and bought myself a copy of Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2007), a fantastic account of how America’s powerful food industry shapes the ways in which Americans eat and think about food. She argues that the food industry uses a range of strategies systematically to confuse the public into thinking that the processed offerings produced by Heinz, Unilever, and Kellogg are healthy, sensible things to eat. Of course, every food company does this – from the smallest, most down-homey organic business to the biggest, nastiest multinational – but in the US, the food lobby, which works along the same lines as the tobacco and gun lobbies in Washington DC, influences food policy to such an extent that the state has become complicit in encouraging Americans to eat fatty, sugary foods.

Serendipitously, I also came across this infographic which shows what proportion of their incomes people all over the world spend on food per year. It reveals a very strong correlation between development and food prices: populations of wealthier countries spend a smaller percentage of their wages on food than do those in poorer nations. In Western Europe, for example, the Irish spend the least (7.2%) and the Portuguese the most (15.8%) on food. This rises to 20.3% in Poland – slightly more than South Africa at 19.8%. The populations of middle-income countries – like South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey – tend to spend between twenty and thirty per cent of their budgets on food. Indonesians (43%), Algerians (43.8%), and Belarusians (43.2%) spend the most – although the map doesn’t include information for most of Africa. And the population which spends the least on food? Americans, at 6.9% of their incomes.

America has such low food prices because of the strength of its food industry. Controlling every aspect of the food chain – from the farms that produce meat and plants for consumption, to the provision of transport and packaging – the size and efficiency of food companies have driven down food prices, resulting in an overabundance of cheap food. In what Harvey Levenstein has dubbed the ‘paradox of plenty’, this variety and cheapness of food has led to less, not more, healthy patterns of consumption: Americans now eat more meat and dairy products than ever before – food which is labour- and resource-intensive to produce and which, until recently, was expensive to buy.

The association of meat and dairy with prosperity has led to concerns about China and India’s increasing consumption of these foods in the context of rising food prices globally. (Myself, I think that rocketing food prices have more to do with the oil price, climate change, and the deregulation of commodity derivatives markets than with greater meat consumption in the East. I wonder to what extent this is part of a ‘blame China’ trend?) But all over the world, experts agree that one way of improving food security is for us to eat less meat and fewer dairy products. As Michael Pollan put it in his food mantra: ‘Eat. Mostly plants. Not too much. Not too little.’

Much of the debate around what we should eat seems to imply a return to healthier, more sustainable eating patterns. While it’s certainly true that populations in the West consume more calories now than they did even thirty or forty years ago, and that eating less meat would be better both for us and the planet, I’m not entirely sure if looking to the past is always helpful. After all, my mongrel collection of ancestors scattered around seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and southern Africa were physically smaller than I am and lived shorter lives partly because their diets were less varied, less plentiful, and, importantly, less protein-filled than mine.

I think we could, though, take a closer look at the menus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If we need to cut down on our consumption of meat and dairy, it’s surprising to read that the teachers and pupils at the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington ate ‘mutton every day’ (as I noted a fortnight ago). The American headmistresses longed for the steak they had grown up eating in New England, but agreed that beef was far too expensive in South Africa. Instead, they ate mutton, the meat of choice in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony: ‘We have roast mutton, mutton chops, mutton cutlets, mutton broth, mutton soup, and mutton frigadelle [sic], that is mutton chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked.’

Although meat-heavy, this was a menu organised around using leftovers: the Seminary bought whole sheep carcasses from the butcher and the school’s cook broke them down herself. She would serve roast mutton on Sunday, and then use up that which wasn’t eaten by transforming it into soup, broth, and rissoles. If needs be, she could supplement their diet with smaller cuts – like cutlets. This was a typical middle-class Victorian practice. Writing about Victorian recipe books, Judith Flanders notes:

Most weekly menu plans listed entirely new dinners only three days a week; the other four were made up of reheated food from previous days. … Mrs Beeton gave numerous recipes for recooking food, usually meat: her Scotch collops were reheated veal in a white sauce; her Indian Fowl was reheated chicken covered with a curry sauce; Monday’s Pudding was made with the remains of Sunday’s plum pudding; not to mention the recipes she gave for endless types of patty, potted meat and minced meat, all of which used cooked meat as their base.

This was both an economical way of ensuring that some meat – usually the sole form of protein – was served during each main meal, as well as relatively healthy: it reduced the amount of meat eaten by each person. Recipe books from the mid-twentieth century have a similar attitude towards menu-planning, providing recipes for ‘made-over meat dishes’.

In a time of plenty when we don’t need to transform last night’s leftovers into tonight’s supper, the idea of ‘made-over’ food may seem a little quaint. But I think that these Victorian menus can help us to rethink how we eat meat. I don’t suggest that we adopt the pattern of roast on Sunday and then reheated meat for the rest of the week (I think this would become pretty boring), but, rather, that we change our thinking about the place of meat in our meals. If we see it as only one component alongside starch and greens, then we’ll eat less of it and more of that which is really good for us. Also, it’s a sensible way of ensuring that even those who can’t afford to buy expensive cuts can include some meat in their cooking. I don’t agree that an entirely meat-free diet will save the planet. If we eat as we should farm – with most land given over to the cultivation of plants and only a small portion devoted to animals – then we’ll adopt a menu that’s as healthy for the planet as it is for us.

Further Reading

Texts quoted 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).

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

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.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 1996).

Tristram Stuart, The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India (London: Harper Press, 2006).

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