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Posts tagged ‘USSR’

A Sporting Chance

My expectations of the London Olympics’ opening ceremony were so low that, I suppose, I would have been impressed if it had featured Boris as Boudicca, driving a chariot over the prostate figures of the Locog committee. (Actually, now that I think about it, that would have been fairly entertaining.)

Appalled by the organising committee’s slavishly sycophantic attitude towards its sponsors and their ‘rights’ – which caused them to ban home knitted cushions from being distributed to the Olympic athletes, and to require shops and restaurants to remove Olympic-themed decorations and products – as well the rule that online articles and blog posts may not link to the official 2012 site if they’re critical of the games, the decision to make the official entrance of the Olympic site a shopping mall, and the creation of special lanes for VIP traffic, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the London Olympics.

But watching the opening ceremony last night, I was reduced to a pile of NHS-adoring, Tim Berners-Lee worshipping, British children’s literature-loving goo. Although a reference to the British Empire – other than the arrival of the Windrush – would have been nice, I think that Danny Boyle’s narrative of British history which emphasised the nation’s industrial heritage, its protest and trade union movements, and its pop culture, was fantastic.

As some commentators have noted, this was the opposite of the kind of kings-and-queens-and-great-men history curriculum which Michael Gove wishes schools would teach. Oh and the parachuting Queen and Daniel Craig were pretty damn amazing too.

There was even a fleeting, joking reference to the dire quality of British food during the third part of the ceremony. There was something both apt, but also deeply ironic about this. On the one hand, there has been extensive coverage of Locog’s ludicrous decision to allow manufacturers of junk food – Coke, Cadbury’s, McDonald’s – not only to be official sponsors of a sporting event, but to provide much of the catering. (McDonald’s even tried to ban other suppliers from selling chips on the Olympic site.)

But, on the other, Britain’s food scene has never been in better shape. It has excellent restaurants – and not only at the top end of the scale – and thriving and wonderful farmers’ markets and street food.

It’s this which makes the decision not to open up the catering of the event to London’s food trucks, restaurants, and caterers so tragic. It is true that meals for the athletes and officials staying in the Village have been locally sourced and made from ethically-produced ingredients, and this is really great. But why the rules and regulations which actually make it more difficult for fans and spectators to buy – or bring their own – healthy food?

Of course, the athletes themselves will all be eating carefully calibrated, optimally nutritious food. There’s been a lot of coverage of the difficulties of catering for so many people who eat such a variety of different things. The idea that athletes’ performance is enhanced by what they consume – supplements, food, and drugs (unfortunately) – has become commonplace.

Even my local gym’s café – an outpost of the Kauai health food chain – serves meals which are, apparently, suited for physically active people. I’ve never tried them, partly because the thought of me as an athlete is so utterly nuts. (I’m an enthusiastic, yet deeply appalling, swimmer.)

The notion that food and performance are linked in some way, has a long pedigree. In Ancient Greece, where diets were largely vegetarian, but supplemented occasionally with (usually goat) meat, evidence suggests that athletes at the early Olympics consumed more meat than usual to improve their performance. Ann C. Grandjean explains:

Perhaps the best accounts of athletic diet to survive from antiquity, however, relate to Milo of Croton, a wrestler whose feats of strength became legendary. He was an outstanding figure in the history of Greek athletics and won the wrestling event at five successive Olympics from 532 to 516 B.C. According to Athenaeus and Pausanius, his diet was 9 kg (20 pounds) of meat, 9 kg (20 pounds) of bread and 8.5 L (18 pints) of wine a day. The validity of these reports from antiquity, however, must be suspect. Although Milo was clearly a powerful, large man who possessed a prodigious appetite, basic estimations reveal that if he trained on such a volume of food, Milo would have consumed approximately 57,000 kcal (238,500 kJ) per day.

Eating more protein – although perhaps not quite as much as reported by Milo of Croton’s fans – helps to build muscle, and would have given athletes an advantage over other, leaner competitors.

Another ancient dietary supplement seems to have been alcohol. Trainers provided their athletes with alcoholic drinks before and after training – in much the same way that contemporary athletes may consume sports drinks. But some, more recent sportsmen seem to have gone a little overboard, as Grandjean notes:

as recently as the 1908 Olympics, marathon runners drank cognac to enhance performance, and at least one German 100-km walker reportedly consumed 22 glasses of beer and half a bottle of wine during competition.

Drunken, German walker: I salute you and your ability to walk in a straight line after that much beer.

The London Olympic Village is, though, dry. Even its pub only serves soft drinks. With the coming of the modern games – which coincided with the development of sport and exercise science in the early twentieth century – diets became the subject of scientific enquiry. The professionalization of sport – with athletes more reliant on doing well in order to make a living – only served to increase the significance of this research.

One of the first studies on the link between nutrition and the performance of Olympic athletes was conducted at the 1952 games in Helsinki. The scientist E. Jokl (about whom I know nothing – any help gratefully received) demonstrated that those athletes who consumed fewer carbohydrates tended to do worse than those who ate more. Grandjean comments:

His findings may have been the genesis of the oft-repeated statement that the only nutritional difference between athletes and nonathletes is the need for increased energy intake. Current knowledge of sports nutrition, however, would indicate a more complex relationship.

As research into athletes’ diets has progressed, so fashions for particular supplements and foods have emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Increasing consumption of protein and carbohydrates has become a common way of improving performance. Whereas during the 1950s and 1960s, athletes simply ate more meat, milk, bread, and pasta, since the 1970s, a growing selection of supplements has allowed sportsmen and –women to add more carefully calibrated and targeted forms of protein and carbohydrates to their diets.

Similarly, vitamin supplements have been part of athletes’ diets since the 1930s. Evidence from athletes competing at the 1972 games in Munich demonstrated widespread use of multivitamins, although now, participants tend to choose more carefully those vitamins which produce specific outcomes.

But this history of shifting ideas around athletes’ diets cannot be understood separately from the altogether more shadowy history of doping – of using illicit means of improving one’s performance. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans used stimulants – ranging from dried figs to animal testes – to suppress fatigue and boost performance.

More recently, some of the first examples of doping during the nineteenth century come from cycling (nice to see that some things don’t change), and, more specifically, from long-distance, week-long bicycle races which depended on cyclists’ reserves of strength and stamina. Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen explain:

A variety of performance enhancing mixtures were tried; there are reports of the French using mixtures with caffeine bases, the Belgians using sugar cubes dripped in ether, and others using alcohol-containing cordials, while the sprinters specialised in the use of nitroglycerine. As the race progressed, the athletes increased the amounts of strychnine and cocaine added to their caffeine mixtures. It is perhaps unsurprising that the first doping fatality occurred during such an event, when Arthur Linton, an English cyclist who is alleged to have overdosed on ‘tri-methyl’ (thought to be a compound containing either caffeine or ether), died in 1886 during a 600 km race between Bordeaux and Paris.

Before the introduction of doping regulations, the use of performance enhancing drugs was rife at the modern Olympics:

In 1904, Thomas Hicks, winner of the marathon, took strychnine and brandy several times during the race. At the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1932, Japanese swimmers were said to be ‘pumped full of oxygen’. Anabolic steroids were referred to by the then editor of Track and Field News in 1969 as the ‘breakfast of champions’.

But regulation – the first anti-drugs tests were undertaken at the 1968 Mexico games – didn’t stop athletes from doping – the practice simply went underground. The USSR and East Germany allowed their representatives to take performance enhancing drugs, and an investigation undertaken after Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping at the Seoul games revealed that at least half of the athletes who competed at the 1988 Olympics had taken anabolic steroids. In 1996, some athletes called the summer Olympics in Atlanta the ‘Growth Hormone Games’ and the 2000 Olympics were dubbed the ‘Dirty Games’ after the disqualification of Marion Jones for doping.

At the heart of the issue of doping and the use of supplements, is distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate means of enhancing performance. The idea that taking drugs to make athletes run, swim, or cycle faster, or jump further and higher, is unfair, is a relatively recent one. It’s worth noting that the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining standards for anti-doping work, was formed only in 1999.

What makes anabolic steroids different from consuming high doses of protein, amino acids, or vitamins? Why, indeed, was Caster Semenya deemed to have an unfair advantage at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but the blade-running Oscar Pistorius is not?

I’m really pleased that both Semenya and Pistorius are participating in the 2012 games – I’m immensely proud that Semenya carried South Africa’s flag into the Olympic stadium – but their experiences, as well as the closely intertwined histories of food supplements and doping in sport, demonstrate that the idea of an ‘unfair advantage’ is a fairly nebulous one.

Further Reading

Elizabeth A. Applegate and Louis E. Grivetti, ‘Search for the Competitive Edge: A History of Dietary Fads and Supplements,’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 869S-873S.

Ann C. Grandjean, ‘Diets of Elite Athletes: Has the Discipline of Sports Nutrition Made an Impact?’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 874S-877S.

Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen, ‘The History of Doping and Growth Hormone Abuse in Sport,’ Growth Hormone & IGF Research, vol. 19 (2009), pp. 320-326.

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

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).

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