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White Food

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One of my favourite places in London is Exmouth Market. It was about a five-minute walk from my amazing hall of residence in Bloomsbury, and its street food – some of the best in the UK, apparently – made a pleasingly delicious lunch from time to time. Its book shop, Clerkenwell Tales, is also excellent.

I think, though, that Exmouth Market is best known as the sometime home of Brindisa, the Spanish delicatessen which is also based in Borough Market, and Moro, the restaurant which more-or-less introduced the cooking of Spain, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean to Britain. Having cooked from the first Moro recipe book, and having read a great deal about its founders, Sam and Sam Clark, I was curious about the restaurant itself, but I never went further than a detailed perusal of its menu: the place was simply far too pricey for my student budget.

Like so many of the young chefs who led the revolution in Britain’s eating habits during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this includes Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the Clarks had worked at the River Cafe. Founded by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, the restaurant was never intended to be more than a canteen for Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the famous architectural firm run by Ruth’s husband, Richard Rogers. But it evolved into something more: into the first restaurant in Britain to emphasise the heavily regionalised and seasonal nature of Italian cuisine. The River Cafe imported Ligurian olive oil, cavolo nero, and Pecorino Romano to replicate the cooking of Italy in London.

It could be terribly precious and seemed to confuse eating ‘authentic’ Italian cuisine with some kind of food-based morality. The River Cafe recipe books exuded the restaurant’s self-righteousness, as Julian Barnes explains:

When the first River Cafe Cook Book came out – the blue one – it drew high praise followed by a certain raillery. Some felt they were having a lifestyle package thrust at them; some felt the emphasis on just this kind of olive oil and just those kinds of lentils was a little discouraging. As James Fenton put it in the Independent at the time: ‘I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for weeks now. I can’t say I’ve actually cooked anything from it. More, what I’m doing is deciding whether I can live up to its exacting standards.’

As many pointed out, the food served by the River Cafe, Moro, and others, is, essentially, peasant food. There is something deeply – and amusingly – ironic about the lefty middle classes (and the River Cafe had a deserved association with the rise of New Labour) paying through the nose to eat bread and cabbage soup, a range of cheap cuts of meat, and polenta.

Polenta is a staple of northern Italy and for all its association with the sophisticated eating of the 1990s, it’s really only cornmeal – or maize– or mielie meal, as we’d call it in South Africa. Partly because of the endless variety of the maize plant, cornmeal comes in both yellow and white and can be ground as finely or as coarsely as tastes demand. In fact, the difference between the yellow, medium-ground cornmeal used to produce polenta or the finer-textured yellow flour for cornbread from the American south, and the fine, white cornmeal favoured for mielie pap in South Africa is minimal.

People’s preferences for yellow or white cornmeal are, then, culturally determined. A recent article published by the magnificent Mail and Guardian explores South Africa’s taste for whiter, finer maize meal:

In the poorest communities a bag of maize meal is often the only way of satisfying a family’s hunger, and the cost factor plays a role too. An 80kg bag of maize meal is about R400: on a 500g portion a person a day, an extended family of 10 people would consume an 80kg bag in about 16 days. The daily total consumption of maize meal in South Africa is about 10 000 tonnes.

But these maize-meal consumers demand a product that is white – stripped of roughage and nutrients – and manufacturers have remodelled their businesses to serve this demand.

South Africa’s best-selling brand of maize meal is White Star, produced by Pioneer Foods. White Star is whiter and finer than other brands. Premier Foods and Tiger Brands, the country’s other two big producers of maize meal, have also invested in technology which produces this whiter maize meal.

In the pursuit of whiteness, the big millers began installing new-generation degerminators about a decade ago. In the grinding process, the degerminator extracts the greyish germ of the maize, which contains oil and other nutrients. The more of the germ extracted, the whiter and blander the end product.

Maize meal that has the least germ extracted is called ‘unsifted’; moving up the scale it becomes ‘sifted’, ‘special’ and ‘super’. Unsifted and sifted maize-meal products have been discontinued by the bigger millers. ‘Super’ is generally defined by millers as having less than 1% oil and it almost exclusively consists of the starchy endosperm. Degerminators were originally expensive technology used only by large mills, but today even relatively small maize millers have them.

The latest development in the quest for greater whiteness is colour-sorting machines, which examine every grain of maize and remove any discoloured (non-white) grain. …

A manager at Premier Foods’ Kroonstad mill, the largest in the world, said there might nevertheless still be some discoloured specks in the final product, which happened when the seed was white on the outside but had discolouration within.

Removing the germ from the maize meal means that it tastes blander and has a longer shelf life (the germ contains oil which goes off quickly). It also means that the meal is considerably less nutritious – even though South African millers do fortify maize meal and wheat flour with vitamins A, B1, B2, and B6, as well as niacin, folic acid, iron, and zinc. And what happens to the discarded germ? It goes into cattle feed, rendering animal feed more nutritious than human food.

This demand for white food is neither particular to South Africa – there is a similar trend in Mexico, for instance – nor is it a recent phenomenon. Historically, food that is white – white bread, white sugar, white rice, or white maize meal – is more expensive to produce because it needs to be processed in order to rid it of those impurities or elements which cause it to be darker in colour. white food is associated with wealth and luxury.

The coming of industrialised food production caused an increase in the scale of the adulteration of food to make it go further or seem more appealing. As a result of this, whiteness was associated increasingly with purity. Ironically, though, food producers used poisonous additives like caustic lime to make bread and other products whiter.

The production of food in factories also reduced its price, and this was particularly noticeable for highly processed products like white sugar and white flour. Now produced on a mass scale, even the very poor could afford to drink white sugar in their tea. Indeed, white bread and sugar came to be seen as ‘affordable luxuries’ from the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These were comforting, ‘special’ items which could make an already meagre diet seem more luxurious. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread…? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! … White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

In the same way, in the midst of rising food prices and a stagnating job market, South Africa’s poor buy white, fine maize meal.

However, there does seem to be a surprising shift in bread sales, as lower-income consumers appear to be buying more brown bread – as opposed to the white bread they usually favour. This, though, is probably due to the fact that brown bread costs less because it’s exempted from value-added tax. This is a change caused by necessity rather than a new set of ideas around white or brown bread.

As Orwell makes the point, it’s the association of comfort with particular kinds of food which renders them more attractive – even if a diet rich in white sugar and white bread is not at all healthy. A combination of education, affluence, and a new set of values which associate unprocessed, ‘whole’ food – wholegrain bread, whole wheat flour, brown or wild rice, and sticky brown sugar – cause the middle classes to favour products which are overwhelmingly more nutritious.

It is infinitely strange that former peasant food – like polenta – should be sold at a premium to the middle classes at restaurants, while those who are poor prefer white maize because of an association with luxury and wealth. If we are to encourage more people to eat better, it’s clear that we need to lower the prices of ‘whole’ foods. But changing people’s buying habits is related more to a set of cultural assumptions about whiteness than to cost or even knowledge about their nutritional value.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen (London: Atlantic, 2003).

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Gollancz, 1937).

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusadors, 1879-1914 (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Other sources:

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

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

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Rise of the Giant Food Processors,’ Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 30-87.

Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Sweet, Salt, and the Language of Love,’ MLN, vol. 106, no. 4, French Issue: Cultural Representations of Food (Sep., 1991), pp. 852-860.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

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

Malawian Cornish Pasties

This week, Oxfam released a report on the world’s favourite food. Based on a survey of 16,000 people in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Tanzania, the UK and the USA, it tabulates the top three meals in each of these countries. In South Africa, pasta, pizza, and steak are favourites, while it’s chicken, pizza, and Chinese (whatever that may be) in Guatemala. Pasta rules supreme as the world’s favourite food.

Although fun, I think that the conclusions drawn by the survey, which is part of Oxfam’s Grow campaign, are pretty dubious. I don’t think that the likes and dislikes of sixteen thousand people – of a global population of six billion – count for terribly much. I am very surprised that Oxfam reports that most South Africans list pasta as their favourite food. Pasta isn’t included in the Medical Research Council’s list of the most widely foods consumed in South Africa – the top five of which are maize meal, white sugar, tea, bread, and milk. It seems to me that the people included in this survey were mainly middle-class urban dwellers – precisely the people who would list pizza, pasta, and steak as their favourite food.

But the purpose of the survey, flawed as it may be, is to demonstrate

the spread of Western diets across the world.  Although national dishes are still popular – such as paella in Spain, schnitzel in Germany and biryani in India – pizza and pasta are now the favourite foods of many, with more than half of the countries (nine out of 17) listing one or both in their top three foods.

I doubt that, as Oxfam suggests, all ‘people’s diets are actually changing, with many not eating the same foods as they did just two years ago.’ Diets change slowly over time. It’s more accurate to suggest that food preferences are changing. It’s only the affluent who can afford to change what they eat. As in Western Europe after 1945, the Chinese and Indian middle classes are eating more animal protein than ever before. In South Africa, pasta remains prohibitively expensive for most people – who still base their diets around maize meal.

It’s worth considering how the meanings of particular food stuffs change over time and space. Particular dishes may mean one thing in the region in which they originate and something quite different in the countries to which they are taken by immigrants, fashion, or supermarkets and restaurants. We tend to assume that this ‘globalisation’ of food or taste is a relatively recent and pernicious phenomenon. But it’s far more complicated than that.

In response to last week’s post on cupcakes, feminism, and gentrification, our woman in Bangladesh comments:

I am also thinking about the term ‘gentrification’ in Dhaka‘s context. We have cakeshops here but they didn’t pop up as precursors to gentrification. They tended to set up shop near urban dwellings (lots of birthday cakes to be sold?) and later on they became common near office areas, since cakeshops in Dhaka these days also sell fried chicken and chicken patties (pronounced chicken petis) that office people love to eat, along with pastries (pronounced pess tree). Given that, what does gentrification connote in Dhaka and what are the precursors to it?

Shahpar had noted previously:

I was with Bangladeshi friends while chasing cupcakes. We noted how different cupcakes were in NYC than in Dhaka. Here they are made with the cheapest quality ingredients and sold in roadside shops. No frosting. Just a chunk of cake in marigold yellow, sitting in a greasy pleated paper skirt. We used to get them in our school canteens and kids in Bengali medium schools like the one I went to probably still eat cupcakes. It’s the food to go with roadside tea and is a quick snack for the blue collar workers. Rickshaw wallahs and bus ticket sellers and garment factory workers all eat it. Nothing girly about it.

In Dhaka, cupcakes and cake shops mean very different things than they do in Cape Town. Can you imagine a more heavenly combination than cake and fried chicken?

A cupcake in Dhaka

Cupcakes, cake, and pastries are the, now entirely assimilated, products of the long British presence in Bengal. As I wrote a few weeks ago, colonialism gave rise to imperial cuisines – the fusion of foreign and domesticated cooking – all over the world. It also caused a range of British or European foodstuffs to take on new meanings once exported to the colonies.

Set in Rhodesia in the 1960s, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions (1988) is a bildungsroman which focuses on Tambudzai, a little girl sent from her parents’ impoverished homestead to be educated by her middle-class, town-dwelling aunt and uncle. Upon her arrival at her new home, she has afternoon tea with her aunt, Maiguru:

There was food too, lots of it. Lots of biscuits and cakes and jam sandwiches. Maiguru was offering me the food, but it was difficult to decide what to take because everything looked so appetising. We did not often have cake at home. In fact, I remembered having cake only at Christmas time or at Easter. At those times Babamukuru [her father] brought a great Zambezi slab home with home and cut it up in front of our eager eyes, all the children waiting for him to distribute it. This he did one piece each at a time so that for days on end, long after the confectionery had lost its freshness, we would be enraptured. We would spend many blissful moments picking off and nibbling, first the white coconut and then the pink icing and last the delicious golden cake itself…. Biscuits were as much of a treat as cake, especially when they were dainty, dessert biscuits with cream in the middle or chocolate on top.

For Tambudzai, cheap cake and biscuits were part of annual celebrations. But for her wealthier, well educated aunt who had lived abroad, afternoon tea is indicative of her sophisticated, middle-class status. It’s also a marker of her assimilation of ‘western’ (or ‘civilised’) values and patterns of living.

One of the most striking features of the diets of British officials and expats living in southern Africa and southeast Asia during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries was their rigid adherence to the menus and diets of ‘Home’. In publications like the Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Guide, readers were urged not to go native. Eating roast beef, porridge, custard, and dumplings was a way of demonstrating civilised, European status. Local cooks were taught how to cook British staples. In White Mischief James Fox describes the eating habits of Kenya’s aristocratic expats during the 1930s:

The astonishing African talent for cooking European food, in particular hot English puddings, provided undreamed-of comfort. For their part, the Africans were astonished at the number of meals required by Europeans every day, and the quantity of food consumed. Europeans seemed always to be eating.

These attitudes towards food persisted even as – or possibly because – imperial rule came to an end in Africa in the 1960s. My father was a little boy in Olifantsfontein – then a mining village between Johannesburg and Pretoria – during this period. His mother, whose interest in food, cooking, and eating was minimal, employed a Malawian cook to take care of the kitchen.  The strange set of cultural and racist prejudices of the time decreed that Malawians were particularly good cooks. Luckily for my grandmother, Frank Nyama conformed to stereotype. (In a pleasing coincidence, ‘nyama’ means meat in Swahili.)

For my father and his friends in the village, Nyama achieved minor celebrity status on the grounds that his brother had been eaten by a crocodile. (A pointless way to go, as Dad notes.) He cooked the ‘British’ food demanded by my grandparents. In fact, the Cornish pasties that we make at home are from his recipe. Yes, Cornish pasties – from Cornwall – made from a recipe written by a Malawian chef. And they’re fantastic – they’re as good as the (excellent) pasty I ate in Cornwall. Nyama cooked local dishes for himself, sharing them occasionally with Dad and his brothers. For my grandparents, Cornish pasties and other ‘European’ food was the cooking of civilisation, of ‘whiteness’, and of cultural superiority. To eat Nyama’s regional faire would have been, in their view, to admit a kind of racial defeat.

The point is that food has been globalised for as long as human beings have travelled around the world. It has been used to bolster and construct colonial, local, and foreign identities, and as a result of this, the meanings which we attach to particular dishes and food stuffs have changed over time. There is nothing inherently wrong with the globalisation of food. Food is adapted to suit local tastes and to fit into existing attitudes towards cooking and eating.

The change in contemporary diets and food preferences identified by Oxfam is not, then, anything new. I think it’s worth remembering this as we rethink the ways in which we grow and consume food: that there’s no mythical and ‘authentic’ regional food past for us to return to, and that there’s very little point in stopping people from borrowing cuisines and tastes from other countries.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: The Women’s Press, [1988] 2001).

James Fox, White Mischief (London: Vintage: [1982] 1988).

The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide, seventh ed. (Nairobi: Church of Scotland Women’s Guild, no date).

Other sources:

Janet M. Bujra, ‘Men at Work in the Tanzanian Home: How Did They Ever Learn?’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Timothy Burke, ‘“Fork Up and Smile”: Marketing, Colonial Knowledge and the Female Subject in Zimbabwe,’ in Gendered Colonialisms in African History, eds. Nancy Rose Hunt, Tessie P Liu, and Jean Quataert (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

Helen Callaway, Gender, Culture and Empire: European Women in the Colonial Nigeria (London: Macmillan, 1987).

Jean and John L. Comaroff, ‘Home-Made Hegemony: Modernity, Domesticity, and Colonialism in South Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

LeRay Denzer, ‘Domestic Science Training in Colonial Yorubaland, Nigeria,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Elizabeth Schmidt, ‘Race, Sex, and Domestic Labour: The Question of African Female Servants in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1939,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Karen Tranberg Hansen, ‘White Women in a Changing World: Employment, Voluntary Work, and Sex in Post-World War II Northern Rhodesia,’ in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, eds. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

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