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Posts tagged ‘West Africa’

Gourmet Traveller

One of the perks of academia is being able to travel for research, study, and conferences. The odd side-effect of this is that academics become unwitting experts in the quality of travel food – by which I mean the meals available in airports and railway stations and on planes and trains.

I’ve never really understood the griping about airline meals: they’re certainly not the most inspired dinners and, particularly, breakfasts I’ve ever eaten – and I’ve probably drunk the worst coffee in the world while on long-haul flights between Cape Town and London – but I haven’t ever had anything that was actively offensive.

In fact, I rather liked the lamb biryani with cashew nuts and caramelised bits of onion I ate on a flight from Qatar to Joburg, and the macadamia and honey ice cream I had while flying from Perth to Melbourne. I’ve had considerably worse food on trains. On a nine-hour journey between Montrose in northern Scotland and London, the dining car was closed because the tea urn was broken. Which, although an interesting commentary on the centrality of tea to the British diet, was nevertheless unpleasant. A woman can subsist on crisps for only so long.

I wonder why there’s so much complaining about airline food. I think it has something to do with the overall unpleasantness of economy-class flying – the cramped seats, the mucky loos, and the dismaying misfortune of being stuck beside fellow passengers with strange personal habits – but it’s also connected, to some extent, with the ways in which we understand travel.

I’ve just returned from a month in Australia – it was amazing – and became particularly aware of how much I spend on food when I travel because it’s probably the most expensive country I’ve ever visited. But I still went out of my way to eat friands and Anzac cookies and to drink fantastic coffee to try to understand the cities I visited in Australia.

There are few non-fiction genres which blur so easily into each other as food and travel writing – as attested by the continuing popularity of magazines like the Australian Gourmet Traveller, and the legion of food-and-travel cookery books and blogs. The best food writing is a kind of inadvertent travel writing. Claudia Roden’s writing on the Middle East and North Africa, Fuchsia Dunlop on China, Madhur Jaffrey on India, and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth David’s writing on France, are as much introductions to these countries and regions at particular moments in time, as they are recipe books.

And it’s striking how much travel writing focusses on food. One of the most memorable sections of Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (1937) – by far my favourite travel narrative ever – features a blue porcelain bowl of chicken mayonnaise.

It was in Isfahan I decided sandwiches were insupportable, and bought a blue bowl, which Ali Asgar used to fill with chicken mayonnaise before starting on a journey. Today there had been treachery in the Gastrell’s kitchen, and it was filled with mutton. Worse than that, we have run out of wine.

Later, stranded in the middle of the night and in the freezing cold on the road between Herat and Murghab, Byron and his travelling companions take refuge in a makeshift tent after their car breaks down:

Quilts and sheep-skins replaced our mud-soaked clothes. The hurricane lantern, suspended from a strut in the hood, cast an appropriate glow on our dinner of cold lamb and tomato ketchup out of the blue bowl, eggs, bread, cake, and hot tea. Afterwards we settled into our corners with two Charlie Chan detective stories.

Byron uses food to suggest his and his companions’ feelings at particular moments of the journey. Relieved to have reached Maimana – now on the Afghan border with Turkmenistan – he and Christopher Sykes are treated to a feast:

The Governor of Maimena was away at Andkhoi, but his deputy, after refreshing us with tea, Russian sweets, pistachios, and almonds, led us to a caravanserai off the main bazaar, a Tuscan-looking old place surrounded by wooden arches, where we have a room each, as many carpets as we want, copper basins to wash in, and a bearded factotum in high-heeled top-boots who laid down his rifle to help with the cooking.

It will be a special dinner. A sense of well-being has come over us in this land of plenty. Basins of milk, pilau with raisins, skewered kabob well salted and peppered, plum jam, and some new bread have already arrived from the bazaar; to which we have added treats of our own, patent soup, tomato ketchup, prunes in gin, chocolate, and Ovaltine. The whisky is lasting out well.

Byron is less interested in what the people around him are eating, than in how food reflects his experiences of his journey through the Middle East and Central Asia. Writing in 1980, in an essay included in the collection What am I doing here, Bruce Chatwin uses food to emphasise his sense of what was lost – culturally, socially – during the communist revolution in Afghanistan:

And we shall lose the tastes – the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms; the grapes we cooled in the snow-melt; and the nuts and dried mulberries we munched for altitude sickness.

His elegy for Afghanistan is problematic on so many levels – his deliberate misunderstanding of Afghan politics, his romanticising of pre-1960s Afghanistan, and Chatwin’s own dubious reputation for factual accuracy – but it’s an evocative piece of writing which conjures up what feels like a realistic and layered portrayal of the regions of Afghanistan which Chatwin visited.

Describing food is absolutely integral to this: unlike foreign religious ceremonies or social customs, we can all sample – or imagine sampling – the cuisines of other societies. Food allows us some purchase on ways of living which are unfamiliar to us: we can use food to try to understand a different society, and also to judge it.

In her account of a journey through parts of West Africa in the mid-1890s, Mary Kingsley used food – this time cannibalism – to explain the what she perceived to be the ‘backwardness’ of Fang society:

It is always highly interesting to observe the germ of any of our own institutions existing in the culture of a lower race.  Nevertheless it is trying to be hauled out of one’s sleep in the middle of the night, and plunged into this study.  Evidently this was a trace of an early form of the Bankruptcy Court; the court which clears a man of his debt, being here represented by the knife and the cooking pot; the whitewashing, as I believe it is termed with us, also shows, only it is not the debtor who is whitewashed, but the creditors doing themselves over with white clay to celebrate the removal of their enemy from his sphere of meretricious activity.  This inversion may arise from the fact that whitewashing a creditor who was about to be cooked would be unwise, as the stuff would boil off the bits and spoil the gravy.  There is always some fragment of sound sense underlying African institutions.

Uncivilised – in this case, taboo-breaking – food and eating habits suggest an uncivilised society.

When I was in Perth, I dropped into the fantastic New Edition bookshop in William Street. Having taken photographs of the incredible mural which covers the shop’s back wall, I was afflicted with guilt – and also the same desperate desire that I feel in most independent bookshops for it to survive and flourish (which makes visiting independent bookshops needlessly stressful) – so I bought a book: a small, light collection of Italo Calvino’s essays, Under the Jaguar Sun (1983).

The three essays which comprise the collection are the germ of a longer book which Calvino had planned to write on the five senses. He completed only these three before his death, and the titular essay, happily, focuses on the sensation of taste. It’s about a couple who visit Oaxaca in Mexico. Their interest in the country’s cuisine becomes, gradually, the purpose of the holiday itself:

From one locality to the next the gastronomic lexicon varied, always offering new terms to be recorded and new sensations to be defined. …we found guacamole, to be scooped up with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream (the fat softness of the aguacate – the Mexican national fruit, known to the rest of the world under the distorted name of ‘avocado’ – is accompanied and underlined by the angular dryness of the tortilla, which, for its part, can have many flavours, pretending to have none); then guajote con mole pablano – that is, turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce, one of the noblest among the many moles, and most laborious (the preparation never takes less than two days), and most complicated, because it requires several different varieties of chile, as well as garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame, almonds, raisins, and peanuts, with a touch of chocolate; and finally quesadillas (another kind of tortilla, really, for which cheese is incorporated in the dough, garnished with ground meat and refried beans).

This obsession with the country’s food coincides, unexpectedly, with their shared enthusiasm for Mexico’s Pre-Columbian past. After a visit to a ‘complex of ruins’ in Monte Albán, where their guide implies that the losers of a ballgame played at one of the ruined temples were not only ritually slaughtered, but also eaten by the temple’s priests and the victorious team, Olivia, the narrator’s partner, becomes preoccupied with discovering how these human remains were prepared. The story implies that her desire to eat ever-more exotic Mexican dishes stems from her belief – never articulated – that some remnant of these cannibalistic feasts must exist within contemporary Mexican cooking.

The narrator reflects:

the true journey, as the introjection of an ‘outside’ different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country – its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot) – making it pass between the lips and down the oesophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays, when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.

For Olivia, eating becomes a way, literally, to imbibe the culture, politics, and history of Mexico. If she can’t be Mexican, then she can, physically, become closer to Mexico – its land and people – itself.

I don’t, obviously, advocate cannibalism as part of the average tourist itinerary – it’s illegal in most countries, for one thing – but I think that this idea of ‘eating’ a country is a useful way of exploring how we use food to construct national identities.

In some ways, food stands in for a society: we eat piles of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup in the United States as a way of engaging with what many believe to be an excessive, consumerist society. Travellers who think of themselves as being in pursuit of the ‘real’ – unpredictable, utterly unfamiliar, occasionally dangerous – India eat the delicious, yet potentially diarrhoea-inducing, street food of country: eating the more familiar offerings at hotels signifies a failure to leave the tourist bubble. Since the 1940s and 1950s, France has promoted its cuisine as a symbol of its national culture. (Something which Charles de Gaulle may have been thinking about when he wondered how he would govern nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese.) French food is sophisticated, so French society is sophisticated.

There are grains of truth in all these stereotypes, but they remain that – simplified and often clichéd understandings of complex societies. They are also, largely, not a real reflection of how most people eat: they exclude the ingredients bought at supermarkets, and the meals eaten at fast food joints. So if we want, truly, to understand countries and societies through their food, we have to be willing to eat that which is, potentially, less interesting and, perhaps, less enticing, than the exotic meals described in travel books.

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

Food Links, 09.05.2012

Why wasting animal protein is unethical.

A pink slime timeline.

How to build your own food empire.

The flagrant LIES told by food writers about how long to cook onions.

A limerick about toast.

Food in South Korea.

Japan’s best street food.

How McDonald’s explains the world.

Technology and the transformation of the American dairy industry.

How to stop overfishing.

What is lampredotto?

The strange dietary habits of the Romantic poets. (Thanks, Sarang!)

Wallace Stevens on peaches.

Bacon-filled macaroons.

An introduction to West African cuisine.

The cupcake ATM.

The most common cooking mistakes.

Three ways with sea vegetables. (Thanks, Mum!)

An anti-baking manifesto.

How to eat a roast dinner.

The world’s ten best cities for food.

Scorpion lollies at Selfridge’s.

How to cook a giant slender-tailed cloud rat.

Betty Crockers over the course of the twentieth century.

Paleo fast food.

Ten facts about flavour. (Thanks, David!)

Pop culture cookies.

America. Made out of frying pans.

The dishes that Mark Twain missed when he was abroad.

A Georgian gentleman on dinner.

Eat more fruit.

How restaurants are named.

Is it time to stockpile maple syrup?

Six rules for dining out, by a frugal economist.

Anthony Bourdain on food-loving hipsters.

How to make custard in the microwave. (Thanks, Simon!)

Justice, not Philanthropy

This week José Graziano da Silva, the Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, announced that the famine in Somalia has ended. A combination of good rain, the most successful harvest in seventeen years, and the effective dispersal and deployment of food and agricultural aid means that most Somalis now have adequate access to food. But this is likely to be a temporary reprieve: it’s uncertain if food stocks will last until April, when the next rainy season begins and the main planting is done.

This already fragile situation is compounded by Somalia’s complicated politics: the southern part of the country is still controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which banned the Red Cross from operating in the area this week, and has disrupted food supplies in the past. Tellingly, around half of the 2.34 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and seventy per cent of the country’s acutely malnourished children are in southern Somalia.

The end of the famine is no cause for celebration, then. Thirty-one per cent of the Somali population remains reliant on food aid, famine looms in another three months, and there are the after-effects of the famine to cope with: the plight of the refugees scattered around Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and the generation of malnourished children.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine, half of them children.

Clearly, something isn’t working.

And as one famine comes to an end – or, at least, a halt – in East Africa, another one seems to be developing on the other side of the continent. Niger, and, indeed, its neighbours Chad and Mali, is both drought- and famine-prone. Even in good years, it struggles to feed itself. Fifteen per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in Niger. But poor rainfall at the end of 2011 and a spike in global food prices means that the country’s population faces famine.

Niger’s last famine was in 2010, when the World Food Programme provided food to 4.5 million people. But things seem to be more hopeful there than in Somalia, and largely because Niger has a government which functions relatively well. Realising that it needs to store its food supply properly, provide jobs so that its population can afford to buy food, and also limit the growth of its population, the government of Niger is introducing measures to improve people’s access to food. One new piece of legislation will make it compulsory for children to remain in school until the age of sixteen, partly because of the strong link between girls’ education and declining family size.

Somalia’s weak and ineffectual government can’t do anything to prevent famine from occurring there again. With all the will in the world, there is no way that Somalia’s food crisis will end until its political situation stabilises.

The comparison of Niger and Somalia is particularly useful for demonstrating the extent to which responses to famine – from the media, NGOs, charities, and other international organisations – are heavily politicised. Reporting on the Niger famine in 2010 was fairly muted and I’ve only seen a couple of references to its most recent food crisis. Somalia, though, never seems to be out of the news. The reason for this is depressingly simple:

Niger, the large West African country whose name is best known for being just one unfortunate letter away from a pejorative racial insult, has a few terrorists, but not enough to really matter. Elements from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wander across Niger’s border every now and then, taking advantage of the large desolate areas which characterise most of the country, but for the most part its contribution to the War on Terror is minimal.

Al-Shabaab is loosely affiliated to al Qaeda and the United States fears that the Horn of Africa could prove to be a useful base for planning future terrorist activities. It probably also helps that Somalia has media-friendly pirates too.

So all famines aren’t equal. All famines are complicated. Indeed, the whole question of ‘hunger’ is complex. I was amused to note that Monday marks the beginning of the WFP’s Free Rice Week. The project encourages individuals to play a game on a website. For every correct answer, Free Rice Week’s sponsors donate ten grains of rice to the WFP. The aim of the project is to ‘provide education to everyone for free’. Hmm…. ok – it includes some basic, if vague, information about ‘hunger’. And also to ‘help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.’

Huh?

So this is going to end world hunger by giving all hungry people rice?

Seriously?

Other than the fact that it would be as – or even more – effective for the project’s sponsors and participants to skip the cute competition and simply donate rice to the WFP (or, even better, to a local feeding scheme or food bank), this really isn’t going to end world hunger.

I know that this seems like a soft target to shout at, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with donating food or money to the WFP, but my annoyance with projects and competitions like this one, stems from the fact that they’re dishonest. There is no way that Free Rice Week is going to end world hunger. It’s a pity that the WFP sees fit to inform people that by taking part in it they’re contributing to solving the food crisis.

In fact, I think that Free Rice Week and other, similar projects actually contribute to the problem.

Firstly, they fudge the meaning of ‘hunger’.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become familiar with the FAO’s horrifying statistic that one billion people go hungry every day – that one sixth of the world’s population does not have adequate access to food. But there are problems with this statistic:

it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.

These figures need to be accurate because they ‘are also used to help guide where to send foreign aid, track progress towards international development goals, and hold governments to account for promises made.’

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that there are many kinds of hunger: the extreme events – the famines – which are the products of natural disasters, conflict, and state collapse; the hunger which is the product of poor diets and an inability to buy or access enough food; and the hunger in developed nations. In Britain and the United States, the numbers of people now reliant on food stamps and food banks has spiked during the recession.

Secondly, these projects ignore the fact that responding to various kinds of hunger requires far, far more than throwing money at the problem. In fact, the WFP’s website even acknowledges this: ‘People can go hungry even when there’s plenty of food around. Often it’s a question of access – they can’t afford food or they can’t get to local markets.’ Famines in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries occur as a result of a collapse of distribution systems, usually caused by conflict or a crisis in government. Famines tend not to happen in stable democracies. The WFP must receive money for food aid – that is absolutely non-negotiable – but long-term change, as we’ve seen in the cases of Somalia and Niger, can only occur once stable, effective governments are in place. No amount of free rice is going to end famine in Somalia.

In other cases of hunger, it’s clear that people are simply too poor to buy food: employment, education, good health systems, and higher wages will go far in remedying this situation. But even then, we have to accommodate the choices that poor people make when spending their money. In an article for Foreign Policy’s special edition on food last year, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo took a closer look at the lives of the ‘one billion hungry’ and came to some interesting conclusions:

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk [a Moroccan peasant] what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, but television is more important than food!’

We need to take people’s choices about how they spend their limited funds, more seriously.

Thirdly, by focussing on raising funds, the WFP transforms itself into a philanthropic organisation. Donations of food and other forms humanitarian aid are absolutely necessary to alleviating food crises, but they won’t end these crises – or end ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that). In an excellent article for the Guardian, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter argues:

our global food system…is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

Food aid doesn’t address the deeper, structural problems underlying the food crisis. It doesn’t consider bad governance; the impact of food speculation on rising food prices; and agricultural efficiency, particularly in the light of climate change.

By appealing to people to donate money to fund their response to food crises – which could have been avoided – the WFP and others cast hunger as something which can be remedied with old-fashioned philanthropy. It’s certainly true that philanthropic organisations can do immensely good work – like reducing rates of polio and malaria in the developing world. But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problems which give rise to these crises:

the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Precisely. The world’s poor should not be dependent on the goodwill of wealthy people who have the time and inclination to play games on the internet.

Creative Commons License 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.

Food Links, 24.08.2011

David Chang’s new food magazine, Lucky Peach, looks absolutely amazing.

Spain’s gastro burglars strike again!

Photographs of the last meal ever served at El Bulli. (It reopens in 2014 as a think tank.)

Niger and Somalia: A Tale of Two Famines.

On Beekeeping without Borders in Afghanistan.

Participation in the United States’s food stamp programme is at a record high.

American bread packaging from the 1940s and 1950s.

This is such a brilliant idea: Eat Your Books helps you to find recipes in your cook book collection.

Consider pasta.

The El Bulli dish name generator.

On the American government’s efforts to regulate the food industry.

This is fascinating: a new study published by the FAO argues that global demand for edible oils and cereals is actually slowing down. This means that high food prices are not the result of increased demand from China and India.

How to make Viking heather beer. (I imagine that one could use fynbos in South Africa?)

No Famine is Inevitable

Last week there was a flurry of excitement as commentators compared the R1 million pledged by the South African government to aid the victims of the famine in the Horn of Africa, and the potential billion rand loan which it is currently considering for Swaziland. Not only could Africa’s economic powerhouse donate considerably more than a million rand (about £90,000 or US$150,000) to Somalia, but granting a conditions-free loan to King Mswati III’s dysfunctional kingdom would serve only to prop up the continent’s last absolute monarch.

Although I was as outraged by my government’s apparent indifference to the plight of Somalis, I did begin to wonder if that money could be used more wisely. Of course, South Africa must – and can – contribute to the international effort to distribute food in Somalia. Given the scrutiny of aid agencies working in the region, as well as the awareness of how aid money has been channelled to elites over the past few decades, it’s likely that South Africa’s donation will go to those who need it. But giving money to alleviate the famine is a short-term fix.

Possibly because of the way it echoes Africa’s other best-known famine, the Live Aid-engendering Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985, the famine in the Horn of Africa has generated an enormous amount of coverage in the international press. More information and analysis can only ever be a good thing, but much of the discussion around the famine suggests that it’s a crisis which emerged suddenly and without any warning. As the Guardian’s John Vidal put it, ‘A massive drought, as if out of nowhere, has settled over the Horn of Africa’. Moreover, some commentators, like Vidal, have blamed the famine on only one or two factors, usually climate change or Western indifference to African suffering.

The causes of famines are complex, but they are never entirely unpredictable. Counterintuitively, they are not necessarily caused by a lack of food, but are, rather, the result of long-term systemic failure: in agriculture, trade, and, most importantly, in government. By suggesting that South Africa’s paltry million rand donation would be better spent, my point is that South Africa’s involvement in the Somali crisis should go beyond giving money for food. It needs to stop famines from happening in the first place, and that is not impossible.

We have managed largely to eradicate famine in the twentieth century. Before then, food shortages and famines were part of the rhythms of everyday life. In societies where food production was inefficient both in terms of labour and technology – and until the eighteenth century, eighty per cent of the population of Europe was engaged in agriculture – frequent crop failures meant that famine occurred often. But during the 1700s, an agricultural revolution allowed greater, more regular, and, crucially, more reliable yields to be produced by smaller numbers of people. International trade also meant that countries could buy food to supplement local shortfalls. For example, during the 1870s, the failure of the European grain crop boosted Canadian and American wheat exports, as these two countries fed Europe for almost a decade.

Although initially developed in the Netherlands and Britain (and there is a strong link between the development of capitalist economies and efficient food systems), the methods pioneered during this green revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spread around the globe. By the early 1900s, famine was caused increasingly by people, rather than only by nature. That said, the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852) was certainly the product of the potato blight, but it also occurred at a time when Ireland was an exporter of wheat: there was enough food to go around, it was just that those who were starving couldn’t afford to buy bread. The Cattle Killing Movement in South Africa (1856-1857) caused widespread famine among the Xhosa. Around 40,000 people died of starvation, 33,000 moved away from the eastern Cape to seek work, and the authority of the Xhosa polity was fatally undermined. But this was caused by a decision to slaughter cattle and destroy crops on a mass scale.

Equally, some twentieth-century famines were caused partly by crop failure, but were also the product of bad governance and ineffective systems of food distribution. As Cormac Ó Gráda explains:

Wars, blockades, poor governance, and civil unrest can also lead to famines; panics about the food supply and poorly performing markets can exacerbate them. In such cases…factors other than crop shortfalls reduce the purchasing power or ‘entitlements’ of vulnerable sections of the population: the size of the loaf matters less than its distribution.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argued in Poverty and Famines (1981) that – contra Thomas Malthus who suggested that exponential population growth would result inevitably in famine – famines can occur in times of peak food production. Why? I think it’s worth quoting Sen in full:

In every society that exists, the amount of food that a person or a family can command is governed by one set of rules or another, combined with the contingent circumstances in which that person or that family happens to be placed vis-à-vis those rules. For example, in a private ownership market economy, how much food a person can command will depend on (1) what he owns, and (2) what he can get in exchange for what he owns either through trade, or through production, or some combination of the two. Obviously, in such an economy a person may suddenly face starvation either because his ownership bundle collapses (e.g., through alienation of land to the money lenders), or because the ‘exchange entitlement’ of his ownership (i.e., the command of what he owns) collapses (e.g., through his becoming unemployed and not being able to sell his labour power, or through a decline in his terms of trade vis-à-vis food).

In other words, people starve when they can’t buy food – either because they no longer have the money to exchange for food (as a result of unemployment, for example) or because food prices become prohibitively high. Peaks in food prices could be due to droughts and other ecological factors, conflict, and speculation.

The crisis in Somalia demonstrates particularly well how state intervention can prevent or cause famine. In 1960, British Somaliland and Italian Somalia became the independent Republic of Somalia. Nine years later, Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup and ruled Somalia through a military dictatorship until the collapse of his government in 1991. Somalia’s experience of food shortages and famine must be understood in this context of Barre’s government (or lack thereof) and economic policies. In 1970, he announced the implementation of ‘scientific socialism’, introduced strict central planning, and viciously stamped out all forms of opposition. Peter T. Leeson writes:

The government slaughtered civilians who posed threats to the government’s plans or political power, used coercive intimidation to create artificial support for its activities, and forcibly relocated others to further the political or economic ends of Barre and his cronies. ‘Both the urban population and nomads living in the countryside [were] subjected to summary killings, arbitrary arrest, detention in squalid conditions, torture, rape, crippling constraints on freedom of movement and expression and a pattern of psychological intimidation’. The state ruthlessly suppressed free speech and controlled all forms of information reaching Somalis. Newspapers (only one was officially permitted by the government), radio, and television were fully censored and dissent in any form squelched with force. Under Somalia’s National Security Law No. 54, ‘gossip’ became a capital offense. Twenty other basic civil freedoms involving speech, association and organisation also carried the death penalty.

Funds were diverted from public works, education, healthcare, and infrastructure to the military, on whose support and ability to terrify and brutalise the Somali population Barre depended. The nationalisation of land and industry in 1975 was, predictably, a disaster. The abandonment of socialism at the end of the 1970s in order to attract assistance from the International Monetary Fund made very little difference either. Somalia was heavily dependent on international food aid during the 1970s and 1980s. The Horn of Africa is prone to drought, but it’s worth noting that despite catastrophic droughts in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, Somalia managed to avoid famine – unlike its war-torn neighbour, Ethiopia, whose government ignored the plight of its population.

As Abdi Ismail Samatar notes,

Somalia’s last major famine was in 1992 and was not caused by drought. Nearly 300,000 innocent people starved to death because of sectarian politics. The epicentre of that famine was in Bay, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions, and starvation was induced by warlords who used food as a weapon against farmers and pastoralists.

Barre’s government collapsed in 1991, plunging Somalia into civil war and a chaos from which it has yet to emerge. It’s telling that a country which had managed to avoid famine for over half a century, despite drought, food shortages, and incredible food insecurity, saw widespread famine only after food supplies were disrupted by war.

So why famine now? Over the course of sixteen years, Somalia has been the subject of fourteen reconciliation conferences, none of which managed to produce a stable government. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an anti-Islamist, pro-Ethiopian political grouping, was put into power in Somalia under the leadership of Abdullahi Yusuf and with the support of the United Nations. However, the TGF was neither popular nor effective as a government. In the absence of effective leadership, a number of attempts were made by Islamic groups, war lords, civil society organisations, and others to create some sort of order in Somalia, and particularly in Mogadishu. One of these, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, was formed by a group of war lords in February 2006. They were backed by the United States who saw them as allies against Islamic groups in the region.

Armed clashes between the Alliance and Islamist groups soon broke out and developed into a war which the Islamists won decisively. By the middle of 2006, they had taken control of Mogadishu as well as central and southern Somalia. Not only was this an embarrassment to the United States and its ally Ethiopia, but for the first time it seemed that Somalia was offered the possibility of a relatively popular and effective government in the hands of the Islamists, who quickly organised themselves into the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC). However, an invasion by Ethiopia at the end of 2006 caused the collapse of the CIC, the reinstallment of the almost entirely ineffective TFG, and the beginning of a new civil war between the Government and opposition groups. The most successful of these was Al-Shabab. Originally the CIC’s youth wing and affiliated with al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab is an Islamist group which now controls most of southern Somalia.

Years of political uncertainty, conflict, and chaos (best exemplified by the way piracy has flourished along the Somali coast) have left Somalis particularly vulnerable to drought and the less predictable effects of climate change. A combination of a US- and UN-backed blockade of the parts of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab, as well as this organisation’s unwillingness to allow the World Food Programme to deliver food to southern Somalis has caused the famine. Samatar explains:

Normally, societies have three lines of defence against mass starvation: local capacity, national government and the international community. When a disaster hits a region, the first help comes from local administrations and the communities themselves. If events overwhelm the first responders, then the national government takes charge of operations; and when the crisis exceeds the wherewithal of the nation, international actors come to the rescue.

It is clear that all three levels of livelihood protections have failed in Somalia. Al-Shabab has prohibited the local population from organising their municipal governments and charities to fend off the disaster. Similarly, Somalia’s national government, which is beholden to sectarian leadership and international patrons, has been oblivious to the emerging calamity, and has thwarted the international community from coming to its aid

This was a famine which could have been avoided had order been established in Somalia. Here, Somali politicians and war lords are as much to blame as the international community, East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the UN, and, crucially in my view, the African Union. This famine is not the result solely of dastardly foreign countries plundering Africa, nor can blame be laid entirely on Somalis themselves. But after the effort to feed Somalis has ended, reconstruction needs to begin. And it’s here where South Africa must – and I think is obliged to – take a leading role.

Somalia also demonstrates the extent to which food security is linked to strong, functioning governments. Countries which are badly run, have weak economies, and, most importantly, are authoritarian, are the most strongly disposed towards famine. Last year’s narrowly-avoided famine in West Africa was due largely to the incompetence of Niger and Chad’s malfunctioning, undemocratic political dispensations. Only the spread of democratic and open government, with, crucially, a free flow of information, will prevent famines from happening in Africa. As Sen remarked, ‘There is, indeed, no such thing as an apolitical food problem.’

Note: I try to use sources which are easily available, but for this post I’ve relied on articles from academic journals. Unfortunately, these are securely behind paywalls. If you’d like copies of them, let me know.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, [2010] 2011).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

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