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Posts tagged ‘tapas’

Small Things

The institute at which I’m based regularly hosts book launches, seminars, and workshops. This past week was particularly busy. There was a daylong workshop and I attended two launches and four seminars, one of them the first in a major series connecting academics and policy makers.

All this meant that I didn’t do terribly much cooking, relying instead on the buffets provided at these events. These ranged from middling wine and taco chips, to nice beer and miniature versions of comfort food. I tend to give anything containing fish and eggs and most forms of meat a wide berth (I’ve long experience with dodgy seminar food), and stay with the vegetables. I’ve written before how important food is to academic gatherings: it helps to force otherwise shy graduate students to interact with senior staff; it pushes along conversations, facilitates discussion.

The said, terrible conference food can create a kind of solidarity. At a conference in Gaborone last year, colleagues and I almost wept with joy at the discovery of a nearby supermarket that sold yogurt and other alternatives to the almost inedible lunches and dinners we were served. On the other end of the scale, I spent quite a lot of time at events at the London Review Bookshop as a PhD student because their snacks were so substantial I could easily eat supper there.

These kind of finger foods are now so ubiquitous at academic – and other – events that it’s easy to assume that it was ever thus. It is certainly true that many cuisines have invented small snacks to fill the void between meals, and to accompany alcoholic drinks: canapés – fish, meat, and other toppings on pieces of toasted bread – were developed in the French court during the eighteenth century. Similarly, tapas, crostini, and even sandwiches evolved as bread-based snacks to eat alongside beer and wine.

There is a difference, though, between finger food and snack food: the former is usually eaten as a light meal alongside whatever’s being served to drink, and often at formal occasions. Snack food – sometimes renamed street food today – exists for eating on the run: quick bites taken in a busy day. (Contemporary bemoaning of the fact that people tend to snack or ‘graze’ all day instead of eating three ‘proper’ meals ignores the fact that the idea of eating only during the morning, at midday, and in the evening, is a relatively recent one.)

The finger food that we’re familiar with today has a relatively short history, and emerged in the United States in the 1920s. During Prohibition (1920-1933), owners of speakeasies and hosts of private parties serving alcohol illegally, began to offer patrons and guests small snacks to eat alongside their cocktails. These needed to be small – easily held in one hand and eaten in a couple of bites – and enticing: speakeasies could drive up their profits by charging extra for food.

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But as Sylvia Lovegren notes, the popularity of finger food spread beyond places where alcohol was served. Middle-class American kitchens and eating habits were being transformed by the greater availability of relatively cheap canned and bottled products, and new appliances, like refrigerators and freezers. The rise of what she calls ‘dainty food’ was in many ways a reaction against the heavy, elaborate cooking of the turn of the century. Dainty food consisted of salads in jelly (not aspic), of vegetables and meat mixed with mayonnaise and arranged in hollowed-out melons or iceberg lettuces (a cultivar developed specifically to withstand long journeys from farms to greengrocers), and of very sweet, tiny puddings. The marshmallow was ubiquitous on party menus.

This food was, quite obviously, gendered too. As more women entered the kitchen in the absence of cheap servant labour, the slew of recipe books – many of them published by food companies and appliance manufacturers – and magazines aimed at these new housewives, emphasised the ease of making this food, and also that it was small and ‘ladylike’. Being based on processed food made in factories described as hygienic and using ‘scientific’ processes, this was food that was neither messy to make, nor messy to eat. Jelly out of a packet took a few hours to set, while making aspic from cows’ hooves – as cooks would have done only a few years previously – was a time-consuming, labour-intensive, and smelly process.

Although finger food may have been popularised by the fashion for cocktail parties during the 1920s – a worldwide phenomenon – they became part of the way we eat because of how kitchen technologies changed, and how women’s position in households altered. For young women with relatively little knowledge of food or cooking, they were an attractive, apparently scientific, and easy way of feeding a horde of guests.

Sources

Sylvia Lovegren, Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Jessamyn Neuhaus, ‘The Way to a Man’s Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 3 (Spring 1999), pp. 529-555.

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

The Cult of Authenticity

Last weekend I went to a wedding in Napier, a village in the rural Overberg, about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I saw a family of baboons sunbathing on the Akkedisberg mountain pass; went to a church bazaar and bought jam; and saw a shop (alas closed at the time) which sold ‘piesangs, psalmboeke en dinamiet’ (bananas, prayer books, and dynamite).

It was a very good weekend indeed. And made even better by the quantities of excellent food which I ate. I was struck, though, by the numbers of restaurants in Napier which advertised their menus as being particularly ‘authentic’. Napier is experiencing a kind of low-key gentrification at the moment, so this isn’t really all that surprising. But it was amusing how the idea of what is authentic was stretched beyond all recognition.

I had lunch at a place which specialises in ‘authentic tapas’ and was advised to order two items, as tapas are, well, small plates. I doubt that the vat of curried sweet potato soup and mound of salad, which included the best part of a head of butter lettuce and two avocados, I was served bore even the remotest resemblance to the tapas of Barcelona. But they were delicious.

I was wondering why, though, a café in a remote South African village would stake so much on serving authentic tapas. There is, I suppose, a kind of thrill in eating exotic, ‘real’ tapas. Even so, most of its clientele are unlikely to have sampled the real thing or, even, to care about the authenticity of their supper. (I don’t mean this in a patronising way. Travel abroad is expensive.)

This is part of a wider cultural trend, where people who describe themselves as ‘serious’ about food (I’m not entirely sure what that means) claim to be able to distinguish between those dishes which are really authentic – which are absolutely true replicas of the ‘original’ dish  – and those which have been adulterated through adaptation.

For instance, Cape Town’s best Mexican restaurant El Burro advertises itself as ‘authentic’ Mexican cuisine, and local reviewers go out of their way to emphasise just how authentic its menu is: here is no inauthentic Tex- or Cal-Mex cooking, but, instead it is the Real Thing. (How many of them have actually visited Mexico is open to debate.)

There is, really, no such thing as ‘authentic’ Mexican – or Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, or Indian, or Thai, or Norwegian – cuisine. These, and other countries, have a range of cuisines, which differ from region to region, and which have also changed over time. As Jeffrey Pilcher argues in his recent book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, it is more accurate to refer to a number of Mexican cuisines which exist simultaneously both within and without the borders of the country.

The problem with trying to identify ‘authentic’ cuisine is that it’s rather like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The same dish will vary from area to area – from household to household – in one country. I have seen recipes for ‘authentic’ risotto which assert, with equal vehemence, that it should be so thick that you can stand a spoon in it or, equally, that it should be liquid and flowing. My mother’s recipe for bobotie – a South African delicacy – contains grated apple. My friend Carina’s mother’s recipe has no apple, but, rather, raisins. Which is the authentic version? Both. Neither.

Food changes over time. In the early twentieth century, the medical doctor, poet, Afrikaner nationalist, and Buddhist C. Louis Leipoldt recorded a recipe for bobotie which, in today’s terms, would be understood as a meatloaf: it was not the dish that, today, we think of as being bobotie – a layer of spiced, slightly sweet minced meat underneath a buttermilk and egg custard. Although according to the European Union, authentic Cornish pasties may contain only beef, swede, and potatoes, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Cornish miners in the past had a range of ingredients in their pies – and not only this holy pasty trinity.

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There is also the problem of anachronism. Mexico became an independent state in 1810 and its borders changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Should only those dishes which were made within the country’s present boundaries be considered ‘Mexican’? The state of Texas remained part of Mexico until 1836, and significant numbers of Mexicans settled in the United States – particularly in New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Should we consider Texan cuisine to be Mexican? And, surely, it would be churlish somehow to consider the cuisine developed by Mexicans in the United States as somehow being of less value than that prepared by Mexicans in Mexico (whatever we may mean by ‘Mexico’)?

So which version do we accept as being the ‘real’ version of a dish? Which one is ‘authentic’? More often than not, a range of factors not particularly linked to food influence our decisions over what is considered to be properly authentic. There is a connection, for instance, between nationalism and cookery books. During the nineteenth century, middle-class Mexicans living in the United States used food both to maintain links with Mexico, as well as to assert the sophistication of Mexican culture. Encarnación Pinado’s El cocinero español (The Spanish Chef), published in 1898, described a Mexican cuisine made using modern technology, and incorporating dishes from Mexico, European, and the Mexican-American borderlands.

Something similar happened in Italy, as Tim Hayward explains:

‘Authentic’ Italian food has an even odder story. Pellegrino Artusi was a writer with a political desire to unify the regions of Italy into a single country and thought, quite logically, that food might be a way to do it. In La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well), 1891, he combined all the regional recipes he could find and in doing so artificially assembled what we regard today as ‘Italian’ food.

In fact, a lot of what we consider to be ‘real’ Italian food today, was created in a dialogue between Italian immigrants in the United States and Italians at home. Even relatively poor immigrants could afford the tomatoes, dried pasta, olive oil, meat, and dairy products which constituted the feast dishes of the homeland. This invented ‘traditional’ cuisine was used to construct and delineate new immigrant Italian identities. Overseas demand for the products of ‘home’ stimulated the Italian food industry – and the mass production of tinned tomatoes and other products made them more easily available in Italy. This American connection of Italian identity with a particular kind of Italian cooking was also exported back to Italy.

Authentic cuisines are, then, heavily constructed. There is no direct, unmediated way of accessing the food of the past. Indeed, it is also pretty difficult to replicate the cooking of foreign countries at home. Rachel Laudan notes that if she were to write a cookbook on ‘authentic’ Mexican cooking, she would have to take into account the difficulty of finding many ingredients outside of Mexico:

I’d probably leave out the spinal cord soup, the sopa de medulla so popular in Central Mexico (fear of mad cow disease makes that a no-no) and I’d leave out quelites, the mixed wild greens sold already cooked in the markets (too difficult to get hold of in the States). I’d probably also leave out tripe, sugar milk and fruit confections and aroles, the family of thick gruels that warm Mexicans on cold winter mornings (not at all to my conception of Mexican taste).

Also, she argues that she would be constrained by middle-class Americans’ own ideas around what should constitute Mexican cuisine. The cult of authenticity is informed not only by snobbery (being able to identify and cook the ‘real thing’ is a marker of sophistication), but also by a powerful nostalgia for a pre-industrialised food past where all cooking was done from scratch:

I’d include photos of colourful fruit and vegetables stalls but not my neighbourhood supermarket shelves stocked with Danone yogurt and cornflakes.

I’d ignore my friend’s mother’s recipe for lemon Jell-O with evaporated milk. I’d pass over dishes that used Worcestershire sauce, pita bread and Gouda cheese, as well as recipes for Cornish pasties, hot cakes and biscuits, even though all of these are commonplace in Mexico.

This is a nostalgia produced by anxieties around change and a perceived homogenisation of the world’s diets. It is partly as a result of this concern that old ways of cooking and eating are being ‘lost’ that the EU introduced a protected geographical status framework in 1993, which provides legal protection to certain dishes and products in the EU, preventing them from being copied elsewhere. So only sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called ‘champagne’, and only Prosciuitto Toscano made in Tuscany can be called Prociutto Tascano.

For all that this is an attempt to preserve a food heritage, as the philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point, the EU actually decides what is authentic and what is not:

For instance, ‘traditional stilton was a raw-milk cheese up until the late 80s,’ says Dominic Coyte of Neal’s Yard Dairy. But when the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association got PDO protection in 1996, they stipulated that it be made with pasteurised milk. Hence the irony that the raw-milk stichelton, first produced by traditional methods in 2006, is arguably the most authentic stilton available, but it cannot carry the name.

Similarly, UNESCO’s recognition of Mexican cuisine, the French ‘gourmet meal’, the Mediterranean diet, and the gingerbread craft of Northern Croatia as the ‘intangible patrimony of humanity’ in 2010, fixed these culinary traditions in aspic. Also, the Mexican application focussed on only one regional cuisine, the ‘Michoacán paradigm,’ which, interestingly, happened to feature the home state of the President, Felipe Calderón

This recognition from UNESCO will boost the region’s tourism, and EU appellations have helped many small producers in Europe to continue to work in difficult economic times. The mania for ‘authenticity’ helps, inadvertently, to force our attention to how people cooked and ate in the past – to look at methods, ingredients, and cultivars which we may have forgotten. We shouldn’t try to return to the past, but we can certainly learn from it.

My problem with the cult of authenticity – other than its tedious pedantry – is that it conflates eating ‘authentically’ with some ability to make a meaningful difference in the world. More often that not, peasant food is labelled authentic food. Even the most passing familiarity with what most poor people eat will demonstrate that people’s diets improve as their disposable income increases. Peasant food in Italy before the mid-twentieth century was nutritionally inadequate: it consisted of bread and polenta with onions oil and, occasionally, cheap fish and vegetables.

There is nothing wrong with eating peasant food, but it is deeply problematic to believe that eating ‘real’ peasant food represents a solidarity with the struggles of the poor. In fact, it’s a distraction from the ways in which food and big agricultural companies exploit labourers and put small and peasant farmers out of business.

Food is political. Particularly if it’s ‘authentic.’

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

Food Links, 13.07.2011

This is possibly the best blog ever (other than this one, obviously): a guide to historic bars.

Ella McSweeney reports on proposed legislation in Ireland to ban the sale of raw – or unpasteurised – milk.

Ferran and Albert Adrià have opened tapas and cocktail bars in Barcelona: ‘We’ll do the impossible right away. For the miracles we need a little more time.’

This is a fantastic interview with food historian Steven Kaplan on food history.

Some lovely-looking American pie recipes.

Consider the bagel. Or the beigel.

How long can humans survive without food and water?

The Observer Food Monthly takes a look at a decade of eating in Britain – and at the top ten trends in food.

Madhur Jaffrey talks about her career.

The New York Times unpacks the marketing behind ‘functional foods’.

Wow, Georgia O’Keeffe had a taste for utterly revolting cooking.

Exploding watermelons demonstrate particularly well why it’s a generally a good idea to regulate properly what farmers may and may not use to fertilise their crops.