Food represents the encounter between the private and the political, the individual and the world. Whether growing food, preparing it, producing it, gathering or procuring it, or even consuming it, whether alone or with others, in all these instances the private and the public aspects of food intersect.
Eating food constitutes the intake of a foreign substance into one’s body. What was public becomes private, what was out there literally becomes internal matter. A boundary is crossed in that moment of the individual encountering the larger world, both at the level of the world coming into one and as one engages with the world through its material production
The larger political economy in which food is produced, exchanged, traded, denied people, given to people, sold to people, fed to some and taken from others is concretised when you hold the food in your hand or at the end of the utensil and put into your mouth or the mouth of somebody else, whether it is a child or an elderly person. Food is therefore not just that large political debate about food scarcity, food insecurity, food surplus, or the use and abuse of food in macro- and micro-political negotiations, but it is actually a deeply intimate, personal and universal human experience.
Food is thus integral to human processes, from the point of gathering in some communities stretching from ‘pre-history’ to the present, in the rituals of growing food whether for oneself or others near or distant, at the point consumption, at the point of digestion (or indigestion).
Food is politicised through conceptions of ‘race’, class, gender, nationality, sexuality and economics. These shape how we view, consume, talk about and do not talk about it, whether in or about the moment of gathering growing, consumption, digestion or indigestion. Who eats, and when? How and what do they eat? And whom do they eat for? These are not just different between polities, but within polities and the smaller organisational units within such, even down to the level of families.
Children eat because adults force them to. Humans engage in play when feeding children, partly to signify the pleasure of food consumption, but also to maintain our own image as competent carers, especially in the hyper-visible age of bourgeois image-management. Think about the policing and the political and personal ease and unease around breastfeeding. Think about the individual and communal distress around loss of appetite.
One thinks of a scene from Luis Buñuel’s Le Fantôme de la libertée (1974), where food is the private moment to be had in cubicles, its intake a moment of shameful delight and delightful shame, and the evacuation of bowels is done in communal spaces around the living room table. Inverting taboo in the film is instructive of the rituals around this universal phenomenon. We have invented the most elaborate codes which make up the policing regimes around food for ourselves for others. Whole moral codes are centred on food consumption. There are people who eat what we do and people who do not, familiars and strangers; folks who eat as we do, and people who do not: along such axes of difference politics and power determine the fully human from its others.
Food is also location. Everyone, of course, consumes food at a local level, wherever that locality or location happens to be, sometimes at the point of growth or production, or some distance away. Location is also locution, so it is important to pay attention to the mediation of food and its paraphernalia, given how we figure consumption, for ourselves, and for others. This is not just about the advertising industry and the gastro-porn it creates, or the figuration of such in the glossy hyper-real images in recipe books and magazines. People use social media like Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook to signal what food they are eating, what food they are not eating, what food they find distasteful or disgusting, and whose food inspires envy.
Food is also a metaphor for politics precisely through that policing in public, whether it is pleasurable policing or punitive policing. The generational politics of food is also significant. Do we eat what and how and when our immediate ancestors ate, and how is this related to that international political economy of food, its trade and mediation, its figuration in the products of the cultural and entertainment industrial complexes, whether in film and television, or in magazines and recipe books?
People think of specific food items today as staples of contemporary South African diets, but actually they are imported. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto traces how maize comes to be a global staple when its origins lie in Meso-American agricultural adaptation over centuries in situ before the genocidal European colonial conquest half a millennium ago. Today people will insist that the ‘mealie’ (or ‘mielie’) and its varieties are South African and not eating maize as a staple renders your South African particularity suspect. It is as if the maize product is misunderstood as so deeply and falsely precolonial South African that there the real political economy of the food has to be occluded if not erased.
Maize also becomes the sign of South Africanity, pace Roland Barthes. It becomes the sign for a kind of nostalgia, as if ‘what went before’ is untainted and free from any pollution of material history. You eat the food that your immediate ancestors ate to show your authenticity whether it is curry, pickled fish or mopani worms. The moment of your performing and displaying such food consumption as a link to a past is often uncoupled from the material and political histories of food. In Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks’s (the episode titled “The Itis”) the origins in slavery of what is considered ‘soul food’ is allegorised and satirised.
Food is also a metaphor for economics. Antonadia Borges, a social anthropologist from Brazil doing fieldwork in KwaZulu-Natal, recalled that the people who ate the puffed up corn snacks on sale at roadsides actually called them ‘poverty’ because they were not the brand name crisps which came in factory-sealed packages. These subjects were clearly aware that they were consuming these cheap sugar puffed corn snacks because they were poor and used that as a metaphor for the politics of consumption, and read that as a symptom of their position in the South African political economy. Multiple levels of mediation and self-analysis explain how what looks at a superficial level like low comedy is actually a sophisticated understanding of the symbolic value and significance (in the semiotic sense) of food in the larger social and political economy of the country.
Food also functions as metonym for nationality, and nationalism. This idea that multinational corporations can sell you your ‘national’ food becomes a Lacanian-Žižekian event, where the consumer is asked to enjoy your symptom as yourself; you are the food, the food is you, because of the context and content of consumption, all of it constituting an uncanny psychiatric cabaret. In South Africa, think of the refiguration of Heritage Day – itself a problematic concern – as ‘National Braai Day’ by a construction calling itself ‘Jan Braai’.
By what pathetic processes are human beings asked to allow themselves to be fully interpellated into such regimes of consumption that the ‘braai’ (between campfire cosiness and Vlakplaas horror, between hyper-masculine overcompensation and the reimagined idyll celebrating the ordinary which requires the extirpation of life forms as ritual to mark camaraderie) becomes the metaphor for the social cohesion longed for but unachieved in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa? Is this culture as cannibalism, consumption as abnegation?
Food also functions as political metaphor. ‘They have eaten for twenty years’ says Julius Malema, ‘it is our turn to eat’. This phrase has recurred in South Africa many times. When we see politicians with their unfortunately enlarged stomachs and people say ‘that one has the politics of the stomach’, the conflation of obesity with corruption works through the use of food as a metaphor for overconsumption, under consumption, deprivation and wasteful and fruitless expenditure in this most unequal society in the world. The language itself is revealing.
And then there is food as sustenance, and we have to ask ourselves whether our current notion of food is sustainable. The dominant conception of food in this culture is that it is about consumption, whether it is grown or bought, sold or gathered. The notion that we have as the UN found only 12% of arable land in this country with 55 million people to feed ought to influence the way in which food is conceived of by us as individuals and as communities.
The synchronic and diachronic questions which we need to ask ourselves about food and its symbolic and material histories are important for me. Where did the maize really come from before it becomes a staple and a sign of Africanity in South Africa? How did it get here? And what does it mean to have two seasons of a bumper crop of maize in South Africa?
What does it mean when genetically modified organisms as food have had the consequences we have seen in the Nile Delta, for example, and the longer term political instability that follows from non-reproducing seed as the new kind of food? What relations of dependence and deprivation are we engendering under the new transnational, supranational, and multi-national corporate regimes determining food production, consumption, and social reproduction?
This leads into a discussion about food as political order and disorder, as well as psychological order and disorder. Food wastage is not only what progressive people see as the dumping of large amounts of food in European spaces that could come through to the ‘Third World’ or the developing world, or discarding food from our own kitchens. Leaving tea at the bottom of cups is also a kind of wastage, particularly in places like Cape Town which have water challenges that prefigure the rest of the world across the rest of this century, if we take the research of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings and recommendations seriously.
The disorder is both political and psychological, and it is often that psychological disorder required in contemporary food production and food consumption by individual subjects however progressive we may think of ourselves. We have cognitive dissonance, denying that we produce this waste and we have this over-consumption in the local which leads to deprivation elsewhere, which in places like South Africa can be uncomfortably close by.
The taste of food and its pleasures and the discussions of food as taste which we see in television programmes and the endless reproduction of pornographic images of food (‘gastro-porn’) in a country of food insecurity in a society where food deprivation which has become a new norm is a political obscenity. In South Africa we are surrounded by images of food as index of luxury on billboards on the side of the road, in newspapers and magazines, on television.
It is the semiotic praxis of food as abundance that is everywhere and yet nowhere and so we are living in age where Buñuel has much to teach us because it is tastelessness as a critique of taste. The tastelessness of a billboard advertising an American fast food chain placed in a school ground in the Samora Machel section of Phillippi in Cape Town comes to mind. It is placed in a space where people are going to sleep at night hungry and have to spend their evening in the golden glow of a multinational corporation advertising junk food as largesse in a space of nutritional and food insecurity.
The presence of food in two-dimensional images functions as a critique of the absence of material food. The fact that on the other side of a horse farm which used to be a dairy lie the Philippi Wetlands, is a source of food for hundreds of thousands of poor people for a long time, becoming a space that is commercialised, commodified, which will lead to the deprivation that is seen as development and as food production provision through cold storage chambers for the bourgeoisie.
That tastelessness of cold storage buildings displacing arable land, which itself displaced the natural landscape, and the attendant loss of food production for a whole group of people who could get access to affordable food and no longer do cannot be understated. It epitomises the physiognomy of bourgeois (dis)taste which is at the centre of my own dysfunctional political and personal relationship with food, and which is the ground from which I am keen to pursue dialogues on food in South Africa and on this tiny blue marble spinning out its insignificance in this lonely neighbourhood in the universe.
The Food Politics and Cultures Festival ran from 10 – 13 November 2017. The festival sought to engage with food in a holistic manner, highlighting inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral perspectives. It brought together visual artists, creative writers, performance artists as well as academic and activist thought in creating a forum for innovative and engaging discussions, debates, conversations and potential networking. We are happy to share with you over the next few months, the contents of The Daily Gêba, a once-off paper curated by Dee Marco for the festival. Enjoy!
Food as memory and life
As I started writing this piece, I could not escape the opening scene of Insecure. Issa Rae’s Insecure has literally changed perceptions around Black women’s roles and representations on television. We follow Issa’s ‘woke’ life, from her day job interactions with her do-gooder white colleagues, to her dissatisfying relationship, to the inner city black and Hispanic kids in the ‘We Got Y’all’ programmes. Insecure starts with the two best friends in a cozy Ethiopian restaurant for Issa’s 29th birthday. We are made aware of the popular diaspora cuisine in the scene, none of which include us actually seeing Issa or Molly eating but some of the references are the sign flashing, another patron being served the meal of decorated injira. I felt that this opening alluded to some of the ways in which food, eating, hunger, desire, politics and culture(s), are all lapsed into a single introductory moment… one which we do not latch onto as crucial to the plot of the show, but one which grounds the characters and their Black North American context into a universal ‘hip’ aesthetic, palate and temperament that speaks almost specifically to young people who can access to this version of ‘universality’. In essence, we are primed to believe that Issa and Molly are progressive, aware and cultured in their diverse tastes – that they have choice and agency, that they choose what they will eat and how.
There is another reason I couldn’t get the show off my mind –Issa’s first episode rap, ‘Broken pussy’ about young women’s desires and yearnings. Yearning, on its own, is not associated with food. Yearning in this context points to a slipperiness – an ever present awareness in relation to food and eating as acts themselves, needs which can be satiated. But yearning is also metaphorical – Issa raps about the insatiable – the tired (read Black) women who has had enough, who yearns for something more than the dissatisfied humdrum of the everyday. In the context of this show, yearning is also a metaphor for other versions of wants that are related to consumption, desire; tastes are thus also acts and positions. I see an inextricable link between ‘broken pussy’ and the sisterly camaraderie over Ethiopian food in Insecure, and, for example, Lady Skollie’s cover image for The Daily Gêba, titled ‘Kind of, sort of UNITED we stand: The Ups and Downs of competitive sisterhood’.
It is with this multifaceted tone of food and taste related to yearning, as currency(ies), that I wish to introduce and welcome you to the exhibition ‘Yearning for Taste’ and this accompanying edition of The Daily Gêba. This publication, which accompanies but is not limited to viewing the exhibition, ‘Yearning for Taste’, is one which incorporates texts from a range of positions and places. While the overarching theme for the show and festival is food and related concerns, the exhibition and this publication offer spaces which I hope resonate both as polemic and critical, as well as enjoyable and fruitful, in imagination and breadth. Here I mean that specific attention has been paid to really opening up the space for unearthing and simmering, which I hope can be conveyed through the various textures on show both in these pages and in the exhibition space.
The Food Cultures and Politics Festival (10 – 12 November 2017) more broadly, is also an engaging and explorative research and creative platform and this publication is one part of the significant contribution of the larger path breaking work(s). The exhibition and publication also lean in to various narratives of food cultures that are explored in the festival. One of them, the theme of memory, is very beautifully woven through by various texts and artworks, and is most fittingly emphasised in Sharlene Khan’s ode to her own mother in her work drawing on Trinh T. Minha’s work with the same title, When the Moon Waxes Red. Khan’s video and stills are part of a compassionate and beautiful series of which, in its very fabric and conception, weaves together constellations of food and culture. Her use of leaves, fruit and presence, create a magnetic and powerful image that stays secure in ones mind.
My grandma Sally died and I wasn’t even there. She died to the sound of cauliflower bredie in the kitchen and the koleweintjies in the oven and Christmas pork made just so.
Ma Sally drank tea as an act of quiet deliberation – saucer, tea in saucer, blow blow…. Ilze Wolff’s letter to me reminded me of this generational narrative of tea – it too speaks of tea, the comforting and familiar role it played growing up and the ways in which tea (and the accompanying five minute break) came to mean so many things at the Rex Trueform factory.
My granny Stephie died and I wasn’t even there. My own mother has surpassed her age at death and I wonder if this plagues my own mother. I imagine it does but I don’t ask… instead, I remember two things – Grandma Stephie gave my sister and I sweets, and she cooked even though she couldn’t see. When I think of my grannies I think of them in relation to the smells in their kitchens as spaces of expression but also as spaces of duty. Even though she couldn’t see, Grandma Stephie knew how to traverse the kitchen as a space of blind action. When I think of my grannies I also think of family meals, Christmas meats, pickled fish, ‘Happy birthday to you-s!’. At the same time, thinking about these two women, and their culinary sets, unravels a history of finding my own feminist killjoy voice, both in opposition to normative scripts as well as within what might often be dismissed as banal or oppressed – spaces like kitchens, women like my grannies. I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s ‘Feminist Killjoys and Other Willful Subjects’ (2010). As Ahmed points out in this excerpt, her own killjoy ways can be traced back to a family table – Although I think these iterations of finding voice occur differently, my feeling is that many can relate to the sentiment.
“What is my story? Like you, I have many. One way of telling my feminist story would be to begin with a table. Around the table, a family gathers. Always we are seated in the same place: my father one end, myself the other, my two sisters to one side, my mother to the other. Always we are seated this way, as if we are trying to secure more than our place. A childhood memory, yes. But it is also memory of an everyday experience in that quite literal sense of an experience that happened every day. An intense everyday: my father asking questions, my sisters and me answering them, my mother mostly silent. When does intensity become tension?” (Ahmed, 2010: 1)
The smell of the Gatsby hits me in a spectacular fashion – it is distinct in that oily vinegar way. In particular, the smell conjures up my teenage years when, after school, groups of students would make their way to the local TJ’s chips and gatsby spot. From what I remember, the gatsbys were great but that’s not really why everyone went – hoards of blue shirt and dress clad youths would use this place to eat and to hang out away from the omniscient gaze of authority. For fifteen to eighteen year olds, this meant that the smell of cigarettes was as pervasive as the smell of slap chips. The promise of the after school Gatsby was really the promise of a small foray into an autonomous life outside of school teachers and parents… and even just inhaling the second hand smoke was a wildly dissident and adventurous act.
This is my personal memory of the Gatsby but thinking about this act and this time, also brings to mind Parusha Naidoo’s work on the show about eating hands and using our hands as utensils. In claiming our hands as meaningful objects in this way, Naidoo invites us to embrace the enjoyment of eating this way. Also relevant to note is Shirmeez Samai’s problematisation of healthy bodies and what really constitutes a healthy body.
The piece by Angelo Fick also anchors some of the many concerns of this show and the larger festival. Fick’s article steers us to think about food in various ways – politically, as metaphor, as ordering, as dissonant, as nationalist, among others. These concerns are to be taken seriously also when thinking about the title of this publication. Tazneem Wentzel’s double page spread in the form of a food map of Athlone, is an exciting venture into exploring food as intrinsically linked with culture and history. In the context of Athlone, Wentzel offers explorative ways of remembering how apartheid’s forced removals impacted on food cultures in Cape Town.
‘Yearning for Taste’ is an exhibition about food and the cultural and political intersections that food, or the lack thereof, makes possible. It is an exhibition which thinks about food both as sustenance, political act and aesthetic object and taste. The intention was to bring together a range of works that incorporate an element, any, sometimes invisible, of food, and or any related matter. Having such a broad scope, related to the larger Food and culture project, has meant that the show incorporates a great variety of works, thinking of food as an intimacy, memory, a history, and intricately part of lives and people, both in their present(s) and their pasts. In this show, the notion of yearning takes on various tones and sensibilities.
Lady Skollie’s image invites us, for example, to think literally about the fruits as objects of consumption. At the same time, those fruits also pose as metaphors of desire and take on lives and positions of their own. Pointing to unapologetic intimacies, Kind of, sort of UNITED we stand: The Ups and Downs of competitive sisterhood, is also a satirical take on sisterhood. This reminds me of Issa and Molly, and the various women’s voices echoed throughout the works on this show and in the words in this newspaper. The notion of food-acts as intimate, or the kitchen as intimate space, is not new. Gabeba Baderoon has theorised about the deeply deliberate ways in which food and the kitchen have come to really illuminate problematic intimacies in slave narratives and histories, for example, and an excerpt from one of her Baderoon’s articles also appears in this publication. The relation between memory and food or food narratives is also explored in other works in this publication by Lauren Paremoer whose ‘Mens moet altyd dit in die huis hê’ conjures up many naughty and playful moments of experiencing food as a child… As does Suzall Timm and Donna Andrews’ dialogue with pickled fish.
Also relevant to this discussion is Berni Searle’s gripping images of large cooking pots. These reference cultural practices around community cooking for Eid, and again invites us to, like Wentzel’s food map of Athlone, remember and think about community and food as the basis for feasting, festivity and sharing. Searle’s pots also feel as though they are in dialogue with Khwezi Gule’s four course meal, another article in this publication in which Gule unravels meaning in the homelessness found in food through the way he relegates his own childhood stories of boarding school, childhood identity and the relationship between the body and food.
Works on the show by Churchill Madikida and Lawrence Lemaoana, both reference masculinities and problematic tendencies of assuming certain social hypermasculine roles and positions. Lemaoana’s lack of food at a table which is so reminiscent of the biblical ‘Last Supper’, leaves us feeling the lack. This is a feeling that stands in complete opposition to the excessive sentiment conveyed in the close up image of Madikida in Struggles of the Heart. Gwen Meyer’s series of works about the complexities of food ecosystems in Ethiopia, underlined by the fact that the country was not colonized, invites a gentle and explorative approach to thinking about sustainable food production and livelihoods. Leila and Zayaan Khan engage activist approaches to sustainable production and farming. Also on this show are works by artists from Ashton and Suurbrak, Donovan Julius and Sherriff Ramoabi. Students from UWC are also on this show and have either contributed to this publication or are in the exhibition itself. In particular, third year students from the Women’s and Gender Studies department were tasked with making creative works and many did an exceptional job.
By no means exhaustive, this introduction sets the tone for both exhibition and publication –a collaborative project of expression, memory and taste(s). Enjoy your slice of the gêba as well as the various works on show!
The Fish System
by Jolyn Phillips
Step one: my father takes a piece of fish
and hooks it on the line, feeds it to the sea
hoping a twakkie, harder or redroman would bite
as he becomes a piece of poisonous bokkoms
shrivelling in the sun feeding the fish themselves,
trusting they would bite he understands that fish
eat fish that eat the ocean that eats us, and
while my father tricks the fish to eat themselves
we eat ourselves when we eat the fish.
Step two: father brings the fish home
we do not cook the head of the twakkie or the harder
there is no brain to chew, it crunches better
when fried in white maize
even the eye chews like a bubblegum
chewed out, out of flavour
when we see it on our plates
we know fish can kill even when they are dead
so we remove the bones
we chew cautiously, afraid of the death bone
of the fish flesh, white and soft like fur
we have dry bread on standby if the bone
makes it to your throat and chokes you
inside your throat
even when gargling we instinctively reach for the bread
so it can blanket
the bone, push it down to die in our stomach.
Step three: we need money, we need food
we are running out of electricity but we have fire
the winter is not cold enough to freeze the fish
therefore, the fish can only be braaied
can only be frozen in our bodies
cannot be wasted even if the memory of fish and bread
reminds you that yesterday you died
even if you cannot buy life with a fish
even if the rotten fish is the reproach
that my father has failed us
even if the memory of fish and bread
reminds me that I died yesterday
I will put the leftover fish on my bread
and eat it in stages.
Jolyn Phillips is one of the contributors to Cutting Carrots the Wrong Way: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose about Food edited by Kobus Moolman. Cutting Carrots the Wrong Way will be launched at the Food Politics and Cultures Festival this Friday, 10 November 2017.
This is the second post in the series of Reflections on Food, Fun, and Culture in Rome. The purpose of these posts is to capture conversations, experiences, and reflections of exploring the food and culture in Rome.
Food court cultures in malls tend to be homogenous. In both the North and the South, McDonalds, Wimpy Bars, steakhouses, Kentucky Fried Chicken and various other food outlets dominate mall spaces in ways that make one forget which city one is in: the same food brand names, items and symbolism can be found in mall food courts in Kampala, Cape Town, New York, Atlanta, Dusseldorf, Bangalore, Gaborone, Johannesburg or Rome, while the malls themselves are even more terrifyingly uniform. Malls function in our political economy in very much the same way that big dams – as Arundhati Roy says – have been institutionalized as indices of global modernity. But while the mall culture in the North has started to shrink (in the same way that big dams, as Roy argues, have begun to disappear), mall cultures in the South steadily expand. Governments, in collusion with national and global capital continue to milk the resources and consumer potential of the South to create ever-increasingly large malls with their attendant food courts and mall food cultures.
One aspect of mall food culture that is of special interest to us both is the prominence of the “wild west” motif in restaurants and food outlets, especially through the stereotyping of Native Americans. This is starkly evident in the case of the Spur, the South African franchise whose brand image draws heavily on the imagery of the Wild West in fast food outlets and low-end restaurants in the US. The symbolic marking of these public eating sites establishes a connection between eating on one hand, and cultural appropriation, the imagining of extended frontiers, and fantasies of violent colonial conquest on the other. In the Spur, for example eating is often synonymous with the act of cultural misrepresentation, appropriation and satiation.
As a well-known South African steakhouse franchise, the Spur draws on globalized stereotypes for its advertising and décor. Its promotion of “authenticity” includes clichéd cultural artifacts, the logo of a Native American chief, and Native American tribe names to identify individual restaurants. In different ways, we have both observed the crude appropriation of Native American-ness, what certain critical race and postcolonial critics have called cultural appropriation or “eating the other”. While these critics have used the phrase as a metaphor, it is alarming how “eating the other” functions both symbolically and literally in the marketing and consumption of food in relation to the Spur.
In Rome, we found that both the Del West Steak House and The Wild West draw on this Wild West theme, with the interiors of both leaning towards a violent “cow-boy –encountering-Indians-and-vast-expanses-of-land” culture. To us, the Italian based outlets displayed especially disturbing symbols of violence: from dead animals, to skeletons, bow and arrows, chains, ropes, and guns engraved on the walls. Yet the images below reveal strong similarities between the symbolism in Spurs in South Africa and the imagery in outlets in Rome.
Michael Taylor remarks on the stereotyping of Native Americans in the North American context, where the “manipulated body of the Indian mascot reinforces stereotypes grounded in historical experiences based on power” (2015:119) . Some of the imagery above confirms Taylor’s allusions to the glorification and romanticizing of trauma and torture: handcuffs, barbed wire, rope, and skeletons are fetishized as sources of some imagined source of gratification and satiation.
Thembelihle, ever eager to discover traces of Spur imagery and culture around the world, found intriguing examples in a country which, paradoxically prides itself on its long tradition of national cuisine that seems totally unlike the cuisine marketed in wild-west food branding. One such restaurant was situated between the Via Vito Volterra area of Rome and the Termini station; not far from where we were staying. The second, almost a replication of the South African Spur steakhouses, was found at the Euroma shopping centre in the Viale dell’Oceano Pacifico area.
Generally, brand images of “typical” Italian cuisine convey moods ranging from gustatory serenity to pleasure. The images below convey this:
Pasta, bread and bolognese seem to have very little connection to bleeding steaks or pseudo -Mexican tortillas. But in Rome, at least one fast food outlet in one of the biggest malls, Euroma, most definitely makes the connection. Here you can enjoy the usual homogenized food such as steaks, chips, burgers, nachos or choose various incarnations of Italian pastas. This is typical of the way that globalized food court outlets combine the “universalism” of “wild west” foods with contextually specific and “nationally” inflected cuisine such as pap with your steak at certain steakhouses in South Africa
On the day we visited, the mall was packed with Italian families doing what global consumers have been persuaded to do on Saturday mornings around the world, which has turned into buying unnecessary and overpriced commodities, and eat unnecessary and overpriced foods. Before the arrival of our meal, Desiree had two tasteless cappuccinos, while Thembi wandered about photographing the décor.
One reason why we found this setting so shocking is of course because it is de-familiarized. We have become quite passé about the brutalized images of native American-ness in South African Spur because we have grown up with these images as part of our ideas about everyday public eating.
Travelling inevitably involves repositioning oneself being a bit different, seeing the world differently and of course seeing different things. Seeing Italians in Rome participate in the fantasy of colonial conquest through eating ways, to say the least, an eye-opener into the fantasies that inevitably accompany everyday eating in public spaces.
 Taylor, M. (2015). Indian-styled mascots, masculinity, and the manipulated Indian body: Chief Illiniwek and the embodiment of tradition. Ethnohistory, 62(1), 119-143.
To download the article click here
The Food Politics and Cultures Festival draft programme is available for download. Please note this is a draft programme and it will be updated, so please make sure to check back regularly.
This is the first post in the Reflections on Food, Fun and Culture in Rome where we will do a series of blog posts over the next few days. The purpose of these posts is to capture conversations, experiences, and reflections of exploring the food and culture in Rome. It will also cover other critical reflections on key issues that emerged during the food studies conference.
On the day of our arrival, we were driven to our hotel by a taxi driver who consistently crossed invisible behavioural boundaries. He laughed really loudly; he was excessively sociable; his shoes were over-the-top; he flirted outrageously. But he was very likeable. An uninhibited person who really didn’t seem to care much about what he should do, and who chose, in the way he wore his flamboyant socks without shoes, to do what he wanted to do.
One of the neglected aspects of current thinking about “decolonization” is the extent to which our cognitive and conceptual world is shaped by destructive dualisms: dualisms that dichotomize, for example, moderation and excess (very malleable standards), so that “excess” comes to connote lack of civility, crudeness etc.
It’s been instructive to think this through in Rome, where a long national food culture, (comprising several complex regional and class-based cuisine), has shaped distinct ideas about food, eating, and pleasure. No doubt, various social historians, and foodies have explored this historically and rigorously. But a blunt historical perspective involves thinking about how the ancient Romans are habitually caricatured as excessive revelers, especially excessive food consumers. There are indisputable political dimensions to this, and excessive food consumption then, as is the case today, was linked to the inhuman treatment of others – slaves, underclasses, inferior nations and so on.
But maybe the caricaturing is also driven by a deep-seated Calvinist and rationalist anxiety about venturing into the territory of “excess”. The small restaurant not far from our hotel, La Trottaria is run by a family who have for years made and served delicious food. It’s frequented by Italians and not tourists, and people go there for serious eating: full meals in-between or after work of lunch (bread, starter, main, wine, and dessert) and for dinner (more bread, starter, main, wine, and dessert). The owner’s daughter who served me chastised me for “rushing” and not eating the jam tart she specializes in for dessert – even though I spent far longer at the restaurant than the average time I’d spend with a group at a Cape Town restaurant having lunch. On the walls of the restaurant are pictures of various celebrities reveling in what can only be described as sheer gustatory pleasure (what some of us might call “guzzling”): spaghetti spills out of one person’s mouth; another’s eyes bulge as he opens his mouth wide to accommodate the mound of gnocchi and bolognaise on his fork. For many of us, this is a strange and unsettling dimension to eating, an aspect that we often feel discomfort and anxiety about, and that we are taught to mock, ridicule or condemn. Conspicuously enjoying food – we have learnt – is dubious, disturbing, vulgar, being out of control. And only food outlets like the Spur or Kentucky Fried Chicken advertise food with images of people binge-eating.
Maybe this is the case. But the fact of the matter is that eating food opens up similar moral, ethical and sensory dilemmas that sex does. For example, what is excess, really? Who defines excess in terms of pleasure? Is excess sometimes important, what the feeling human body craves and has a right to? Or is excess inherently wrong?
It’s no coincidence that the Italians are not Calvinists, since Calvinism clamps down ruthless on the “excessive” and “immoderate” body – whether this body is seen to be eating, having sex, crossing behavioural boundaries like our taxi driver, sleeping immoderately….
Close observation of the everyday often tells us much more than vast amounts of talk at conferences, in lecture theatres, or through reading. And the everyday in Rome most definitely does.
Members of the food politics and cultures project team are in Rome for the 2017 Seventh International Conference on Food Studies. This conference takes place in the same month as World Food Day. October in Rome is the month of food fairs and festivals including the Giuseppe Arcimboldo exhibition at the Palazzo Barberini that is running from 19 October 2017 – 11 February 2018.
The FPC team members submitted abstracts focusing on the following three themes (1) Food production and sustainability; (2) Food, Nutrition, and Health; (3) Food Politics, Policies and Cultures. The conference runs over 2 days, 26th to 27th October and we will attend the pre-conference activity of the 25th at Gustolab International. The following are the titles of our abstracts accepted for the conference:
This is the first time for project members to attend an international conference as a group but also a first for most to experience a non-African country and travel to Europe.
On the day of the funeral, the mango tree in the back yard hung low with yellow fruit. That spring, there had been no green mango picking. And Amma had not made her legendary mango pickle.
It seemed as though hundreds of people had come to bid farewell to Appa. Their embraces were wet and Gnanum idly wondered if they were crying or perspiring. Only Appa looked cool, suited in his time-to-shine blue two piece. He looked as though he had just been to a wedding and had decided to take a nap. There was even a little smile on his face.
The Sangam group from the temple were singing thavarams in a whiny, slightly off-pitch way. Every now and then there would be a crescendo of wailing.
Gnanum looked over to the heaving group of women. In the centre was Amma, silent. Her forehead was bare. No customary, big, red bhottu. Her sari was white and her neck without her gold thali. Amma, without Appa, seemed pale and colourless.
Gnanum watched as a ripe mango fell off the tree and split softly at the feet of the mourners. Little flies hovered around the fruit. Appa had planted the tree long before Gnanum was born. It had stood there for over half a century, almost as long as he had been married to Amma.
Aunty Saras had once told Gnanum that when Amma was pregnant with her, Appa would feed Amma pieces of mango under the umbrella of the tree. Appa had that special way of slicing fruit. With his little pen knife he would finely score the skin, carefully peeling them back like petals around the base of the fruit. He would then carve diamond shapes into the flesh, and pry out the little jewels of fruit with the tip of his knife. Gnanum had not inherited Appa’s patience. She ate her mango whole, peel and flesh, and suck on the husk until it was white. She would then spend another hour trying to tease out the fine threads from between her teeth, while Appa shook his head and laughed.
Gnanum looked up and remembered the very first time she had climbed the tree. Every spring had been pickle season. Appa and Gnanum would wait for the tree to fill up with green fruit. Then Appa would say, “Gnanum, come, it’s time.” Timing was everything. Amma needed the mango still tart and crunchy for her mango pickle.
Appa had a long broom stick and on one end was a thick piece of wire bent twice over to form a hook. Under the hook was a bag made of hessian. Armed with his ‘mango catcher’ Appa would march off into the backyard. Gnanum would follow with a big enamel bowl. They would stand together, necks hinged back and hands shielding their brows from the sun, surveying the premature fruit.
That afternoon, Appa had looked down at his assistant, raised his eyebrow and said thoughtfully “You know, I spy some really fine specimens at the very top of the tree. I’m afraid the old mango catcher is not going to reach all the way up there.” Gnanum felt a little tingle of excitement. “My dear, I think you’re going to have to go up.” Gnanum suppressed a shriek of delight, looked up at Appa and with a little salute, said “Yes sir!”
From the top of the tree, Gnanum could see all the way to the sea. She could see the big houses and green lawns which belonged to the white people. When she looked down, she could see Appa, watching her closely.
Appa and Gnanum entered the kitchen together with their harvest and poured them into the basket next to Amma. Freshly boiled glass jars glimmered on the counter. Gnanum had to stifle a sneeze as the pickle spices travelled up her nostrils. Amma looked up and asked, “Thumba, were those monkeys on the tree?” “Only this little monkey here.” Appa replied. “Today she got just a little bit closer to the sky.”
After the mourners had left, Gnanum found Amma leaning against the solid trunk of the mango tree. Gnanum approached her, reached up and loosened a plump mango from the branch above. Sitting silently next to Amma, she began to slowly score the skin.
This short story was submitted by Pralini Naidoo. She is a PhD student at the University of the Western Cape. Pralini will present some of her creative work at the Food Politics and Cultures Festival.
MY TONGUE SOFTENS ON THE OTHER NAME
In my mother’s back yard washing snaps
above chillies and wild rosemary.
Kapokbos, cottonwool bush, my tongue softens
on the rosemary’s other name.
Aubergine, red peppers and paw-paw grow
in the narrow channel between
the kitchen and the wall that divides
our house from the Severos. At the edge
of the grass by the bedrooms, a witolyf tree reaches
ecstatically for the power lines.
In a corner in the lee of the house,
Sound falls here.
Early in the day shadows wash
over old tiles stacked
against the cement wall.
In the cold and silence
my brother is making a garden.
He clears gravel from the soil
and lays it against the back wall.
Bright spokes of pincushion proteas puncture a rockery.
For hours he scrapes into a large stone a hollow to catch
water from a tap that has dripped all my life.
Around it, botterblom slowly reddens the grey sand.
A fence made of reed filters
the wind between the wall and the house.
Ice-daisies dip their tufted heads
toward its shadows.
At night, on an upturned paint tin, he sits
in the presence of growing things.
Light wells over the rim of the stone basin
and collects itself into the moon
Everything is finding its place.
from Gabeba Baderoon, The Dream in the Next Body (Kwela/Snailpress, 2005)
Gabeba Baderoon is an Associate Professor in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Department and African Studies. She holds numerous positions including being a Fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. Her recent publication, Regarding Muslims: from Slavery to Post-apartheid was the winner of the 2017 National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Best Non-Fiction Monograph Prize and won the Book of 2014 Africasacountry. It was also long-listed for the 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction and the 2016 Academy of Science in South Africa Humanities Book Award.
Professor Baderoon will be part of the panel of the opening address of the Food Politics & Cultures Festival: A Festival of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences that will take place 10-12 November 2016. Her poem below is mostly about South African plants but also speaks to the theme of our intimate relations with food and plants.
Drawing on Angelo Fick’s formulation of food as both order and disorder, this exhibition complements the Food Festival and explores individual and collective engagements and representations of food. The visual arts create a vantage point outside of, yet in conversation with other academic, humanities-oriented and social enquiry approaches. They also extend text based work to unravel how see, taste, smell and imagine food. To this end, visual works are able to extend and develop debates and to ‘play’ with the quotidian nature of food. Alongside the larger concerns of the project, the exhibition is prompted by some of the following questions:
Alongside artists like Berni Searle and others, the exhibition also wants to invite young, aspirational artists interested in opening up creative conversations and fresh ways of using visuality to experience, explore food and the human in South Africa.
Artists or art collectives interested in being featured in this exhibition are invited to submit (electronic only) samples and short descriptions of their work to firstname.lastname@example.org by 12 OCTOBER 2017.
PDF document available here
Artists, students, academics and musicians interested in contributing to the programme are invited to submit proposals of panels, talks, musical performances, demonstrations or workshops on the following:
Expressions of interest should include a short paragraph of no longer than 1 page outlining the proposed contribution to the festival, explaining its value or relevance and indicating its form (e.g. Panel Discussions, Demos, Musical performances, Workshops, Talks or Other Genres).
Contact email@example.com for more information.
Read more about our upcoming even here
Food Politics & Cultures Festival: A Festival of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences
When: 10 – 12 November 2017
Where: Homecoming Centre (District 6 Museum)
Hosted by the Food Politics and Cultures Project within the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at UWC, the festival brings together intellectual activists, scholars, students and artists to generate interdisciplinary conversations about and responses to the socio-political implications of food items, foodwork and food consumption. The festival will challenge the rigid and technical models that usually frame activism and scholarship about food, land and agrarian studies, and will focus on multidimensional, interdisciplinary and creative responses to and dynamic conversations about the myriad facets of food in our lives.
Food is central to our day-to-day experiences of physical survival, pleasure and work. Yet scholarship rarely confronts this adequately, even though we live at a time when corporate capitalism controls the choices we make about food and how to grow and eat it; when the impact of harmful genetic engineering constantly threatens, what is on our plates; and when groups such as small-scale farmers, domestic cooks and artists are resiliently searching for liberating ways to grow, eat and think about food.
Other patterns related to food in our present include:
Broader themes for the festival include:
Responding to these themes, the festival showcases and celebrates new thinking by students and scholar-activists, as well as knowledge production in several genres including fiction, the visual arts and performance. The festival is also aimed at generating conversations between those working in the academy and specialist areas of cultural production, and the broader public.
The festival will include:
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This post features Angelo Fick talk at The Future (s) of Food panel discussion hosted by Food Politics and Cultures Project within the Centre of Excellence in Food Security in collaboration with Human Science Research Council that took place on 5 July 2017.
My approach here comes from my own position in the philological disciplines, and so my concerns are with meanings rather than the necessary but political-economic concerns which are often at the centre of work on food.
My concern is with the encounter with food which for me is an individual as well as a political encounter. Food is about that encounter between the private and the political, the individual and the world, and eating even in communal situations is about the self and the larger group. Eating food is about the intake of a substance into one’s body: at the same time, the deeply personal act of eating said food as well as communal and political acts of growing, gathering or procuring the food, preparing it or buying it. So food exists at the intersection of the private and the public. It is about crossing boundaries, in that moment of encountering the world, both at the level of the world coming into one and one engaging with the world through its material production but also its ideological reproductions as Donna Andrews spoke to earlier.
In that sense, I am interested in the individual level at which the larger debates Ben Cousins and Stephen Greenberg invoked. The larger political economic space in which food is produced, exchanged, traded, denied people, given to people, sold to people, etc. has an impact at the level of something which you hold in your hand or at the end of the utensil and put into your mouth or the mouth of somebody else, whether it is a child or an elderly person.
Food is therefore not just that large political debate but it is actually a deeply intimate and personal and universal human experience.
Food is a human process at the process of gathering for those communities that gather food in the wild, the process of growing food whether for oneself or others near or distant, at the point consumption, at the point of digestion (or indigestion).
Food is political precisely because of conceptions of ‘race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality and economics,’ and how these impact on how we view, consume, talk about and don’t talk about it, whether in or about the moment of gathering growing, consumption, digestion or indigestion. Who eats, how do they eat? When do they eat? What do they eat? And whom do they eat for? Children eat because we force them to. There is that moment where you have to play a little game and make a little mouth and play the ‘choo-choo’ train game for the child because you don’t want to be that bourgeois person whose child is underfed or overfed because policing happens on how we feed children, when we feed children and whether we feed children or the elderly or ourselves. Think about the policing and the political and personal ease and unease around breastfeeding.
This is not just about invoking that scene from Luis Buñuel’s Le Fantôme de la libertée (1974), where food is the private moment to be had in the cubical, its intake a moment of shameful delight and delightful shame, and the evacuation of your bowels is what you do in communal spaces around the living room table. However, the inversion of taboos in the film is instructive of the rituals around this universal phenomenon. We have invented the most elaborate codes which make up the policing regimes around food for ourselves for others. People who eat as we do, and people who do not, familiars and strangers: along such axes of difference politics and power determine the fully human from its others.
Food also functions as location: is food local or do we import it, and then from next door or from far away? Everyone, of course, consumes food at a local level wherever that locality or location happens to be, and sometimes at the point of growth or production, or something some distance away. I have for a long time held that location is also locution, and as such mediation of food and its paraphernalia is important, given how we figure consumption, for ourselves, and for others. This is not just about the advertising industry and the gastro-porn it creates, or the iteration of such in recipe books. People using Instagram or social media like Twitter and Facebook to communicate what food they are eating, what food they are not eating, what food is distasteful to them, whose food is disgusting, and whose food makes them feel envious. Perhaps an eleventh commandment in this post-millennial period should be about something like not coveting your neighbour’s food.
Food is also a metaphor for politics precisely through that policing in public, whether it is pleasurable policing or punitive policing. The generational politics of food is also significant: is what our immediate ancestors ate, the food we eat, and how is this related to that international political economy of food, its trade and mediation, its figuration in the products of the cultural and entertainment industrial complexes, whether in film and television, or in magazines and recipe books. People think of specific food items today as staples of contemporary South African diets, but actually, they are imported. Here I think of Felipe Fernando-Armestes whose work on the history of how maize comes to be a global staple when actually it is a meso-American product which has gone through extensive genetic engineering over centuries in situ before the genocidal European colonial conquest half a millennium ago. Today people will insist that the ‘mealie’ and its varieties are South African and if you don’t eat maize as a staple then you not being particularly South African. It is as if the maize product is misunderstood as so deeply and falsely precolonial South African that there the real political economy of the food is ignored.
Here I think of Felipe Fernando-Armestes whose work on the history of how maize comes to be a global staple when actually it is a meso-American product which has gone through extensive genetic engineering over centuries in situ before the genocidal European colonial conquest half a millennium ago. Today people will insist that the ‘mealie’ and its varieties are South African and if you don’t eat maize as a staple then you not being particularly South African. It is as if the maize product is misunderstood as so deeply and falsely precolonial South African that there the real political economy of the food is ignored.
Maize also becomes the sign of South Africanity, pace Roland Barthes. It becomes the sign for a kind of nostalgia, as if ‘what went before’ is untainted and free from any pollution of material history. You eat the food that your immediate ancestors ate to show your authenticity whether it is curry, pickled fish or mopani worms. The moment of your performing and displaying such food consumption as a link to a past is often uncoupled from the material and political histories of food. In The Boondocks’s “The Itis”, this is perfectly allegorised and satirised around the slavery origins of what is considered ‘soul food’.
Food is also a metaphor for economics. Antonadia Borges, a social anthropologist from Brazil doing fieldwork in KwaZulu-Natal, recalled that the people who ate the puffed up corn snacks on sale at roadsides actually called them ‘poverty’ because they were not the brand name crisps which came in sealed packages. These subjects were clearly aware that they were consuming these cheap sugar puffed corn snacks because they were poor and used that as a metaphor for the politics of consumption, and read that as a symptom of their position in the South African political economy. Multiple levels of mediation and self-analysis explain how what looks at a superficial level like low comedy is actually a sophisticated understanding of the symbolic value and significance (in the semiotic sense) of food in the larger social and political economy of the country.
Food also functions as metonym for nationality, and nationalism. This idea that multinational corporations can sell you your ‘national’ food becomes a Lacanian-Žižekian event, where the consumer is asked to enjoy your symptom as yourself; you are the food, the food is you, because of the context and content of consumption, all of it constituting an uncanny psychiatric cabaret. In South Africa, think of the refiguration of Heritage Day – itself a problematic concern – as ‘National Braai Day’ by a construction calling itself ‘Jan Braai’. What is the bathetic process by which human beings are asked to allow themselves to be fully interpellated into such a regime of consumption that the ‘braai’ (between campfire cosiness and Vlakplaas horror, between hypermasculine overcompensation and the re-imagined idyll celebrating the ordinary which requires the extirpation of life forms as ritual to mark camaraderie) becomes the metaphor for the social cohesion longed for but unachieved in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa? Is this culture as cannibalism, consumption as abnegation?
Food also functions as political metaphor. ‘They have eaten for twenty years’ says Julius Malema, ‘it is our turn to eat’. This phrase has recurred in South Africa many times. When we see politicians with their unfortunately enlarged stomachs and people say ‘that one has the politics of the stomach’, the conflation of obesity with corruption works through the use of food as a metaphor for overconsumption, under consumption, deprivation and wasteful and fruitless expenditure in this most unequal society in the world. The language itself is revealing.
And then there is food as sustenance, and we have to ask ourselves whether our current notion of food is sustainable. The dominant conception of food in this culture is that it is about consumption, whether it is grown or bought, sold or gathered. The notion that we have as the UN found only 12% of arable land in this country with 55 million people to feed ought to influence the way in which food is conceived of by us as individuals and as communities. Here I am not just talking about the over packaging of supermarket food or the individual, political and ecological significance and consequences of meat based diets, or potato based diets, or rice based diets. Are these sustainable in the longer term because making them more affordable in the shorter term might be sustainable at an economic level inside the capitalist regime, but it certainly not sustainable at a production level for a planet under very huge climate change challenges.
The synchronic and diachronic questions which we need to ask ourselves about food and its symbolic and material histories are important for me. Where did the maize really come from before it becomes a staple and a sign of Africanity in South Africa? How did it get here? And what does it mean to have two seasons of a bumper crop of maize in South Africa? What does it mean when genetically modified organisms as food have had the consequences we have seen in the Nile Delta, for example, and the longer term political instability that follows from non-reproducing seed as the new kind of food? What relations of dependence and deprivation are we engendering under the new transnational, supranational, and multi-national corporate regimes determining food production, consumption, and social reproduction? What are its current and future trajectories where food is seen as integrally related to only profit and survival so we are not willing to take pleasure in the food you eat and whether you enjoy the food that you make but simply are you fed enough to operate as a functional digit in the current economic system and how sustainable is that over the next couple of decades?
For me, that leads into a discussion about food as order and disorder. Here both as political order and disorder, as well as psychological order and disorder. The idea of food wastage is not only what the very progressive people see as the dumping of large amounts of food in European spaces that could come through to the ‘Third World’ or developing world or the dumping of food out of our own kitchens. But we forget that leaving tea at the bottom of our cup is also a kind of wastage particularly in places like Cape Town which have water challenges that prefigure the rest of the world across the rest of this century if we take the research of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change findings and recommendations seriously.
So the disorder is both political and psychological and it is often that psychological disorder required in contemporary food production and food consumption by individual subjects however progressive we may think of ourselves because we can’t possibly deal with the fact that our own food consumption levels are actually deeply wasteful.
We have this cognitive dissonance where we deny that we produce this waste and we have this over-consumption in the local which leads to deprivation elsewhere.
The taste of food and its pleasures and the discussions of food as taste which we see in television programmes and the endless reproduction of pornographic images of food (‘gastro-porn’) in a country of food insecurity in a society where food deprivation which has become a new norm is a political obscenity. In South Africa, we are surrounded by images of food as luxury on billboards on the side of the road, in newspapers and magazines, on television. It is the semiotic praxis of food as abundance that is everywhere and yet nowhere and so we are living in an age where Buñuel has much to teach us because it is tastelessness as a critique of taste. The tastelessness of a billboard advertising an American fast food chain placed on a school ground in Samora Machel in Cape Town comes to mind. It is placed in a space where people are going to sleep at night hungry and have to spend their evening in the golden glow of a chain advertising junk food as largesse in a space of nutritional and food insecurity.
It is the presence of food in two-dimensional images which function as a critique of the absence of material food. The fact that on the other side of a horse farm which used to be a dairy lay the Philippi Wetlands, is a source of food for hundreds of thousands of poor people for a long time, becoming a space that is commercialised, commodified, which will lead to the deprivation that is seen as development and as food production provision through cold storage chambers for the bourgeoisie. That tastelessness of cold storage buildings displacing arable land, which itself displaced the natural landscape, and the attendant loss of food production for a whole group of people who could get access to affordable food and no longer do cannot be understated. It epitomises the physiognomy of bourgeois (dis)taste which is at the centre of my own dysfunctional political and personal relationship with food, and which is the ground from which I am keen to pursue dialogues on food in South Africa and on this tiny blue marble spinning out its insignificance in this lonely neighbourhood in the universe.
For the month of July, we are following “the Futures of Food” as a theme. We will be featuring works that bring different issues to the table. Our first post features an Essay by Shirmeez Samaai, an Honours student in the Food Politics and Cultures Project.
(Revised) Article by Donna Andrews and Desiree Lewis
It is often observed that neo-liberal capitalism revolves around the knowledge economy, with information and its control now being pivotal to big businesses’ capital expansion. Information, technological expertise and data management currently further enable corporate capture of resources, expertise and markets, so that the efforts of progressives and socially marginalised groups to develop equitable, liberating and healthy ways of producing, obtaining and eating food are ruthlessly outmanoeuvred. At the same time that corporations use knowledge and scientific expertise ruthlessly, they function behind the veneer of being benign, logical and efficient drivers of efforts to address the world’s food crisis. Their logic is that, given the Malthusian crisis of expanding populations in an environment of limited resources, only large-scale, technology-driven and corporate-controlled methods can guarantee steady and reliable supplies of food across the world. Central to this myth are corporate monopolies over the knowledge and prescription of what seeds to grow, how to grow them and where to grow them.
The power of the knowledge economy that now dominates food production became very evident at a recent seminar, co-organised by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) and the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA). The seminar focused on campaigning against proposed mergers among six of the world’s greatest seed- and food-producing companies. During the keynote speaker, Patrick Mooney’s address on how big data management is used to control food, the ramifications of the surveillance and regimentation of food production through seed became increasingly and horrifically clear. “Data management” ranges from laws that license genetic modification and privilege producers’ monopolies (through countless legal mechanisms, such as patents and plant breeders’ rights) through the actual growth of food (for example, the use of robotic and electronic technology to plant and grow) to the discursive representation and mass marketing of certain food stuffs for consumers . The corporate food industry’s data management and information production, therefore, shape hegemonic meanings about food, and increasingly are determining how we come to encounter, value and discredit certain foods.
Bayer and Monsanto are two multinational companies that are major global manufacturers of agrochemicals and seeds, including genetically modified seeds. In May 2016 these companies announced a merger that would realise a shared vision of integrated agricultural offerings and creating a leading innovation engine for the next generation of farming.
The Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) interviewed Mariam Mayet from African Centre for Biodversity on the implications of this merger for rural women in the region.
Q: Please give us a background to the Bayer-Monsanto Merger
MM: Bayer and Monsanto are major manufacturers of agrochemicals, improved and genetically modified (GM) seed. Bayer, one of the world’s largest agrochemical companies, has an extensive agrochemical portfolio in South Africa, while Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, operates in both seed and agrochemicals, particularly herbicides. Monsanto is also a pioneer of genetic modification of agricultural crops and the largest maize seed company in South Africa by sales. Most importantly, South Africa’s core agricultural markets of maize and soya are dominated by Monsanto’s GM traits which are licensed out to other companies for use.
In May 2016, Bayer started the bidding process for Monsanto. Monsanto shareholders accepted the bid for US$6 billion in December 2016. If the merger is approved by commission authorities in 30 countries, the new Bayer-Monsanto will be the world’s largest seed and agrochemical company. The Bayer-Monsanto merger has been driven by factors which involve:
a) Financial drivers including; the need to reduce the cost of operations, research, and development while maintaining market share and profit levels; large investment funds where institutional investors own shares in the companies and low-interest rates which enable access to cheap capital.
b) The need to own germplasm and traits to remain competitive; where the companies want to access proprietary technologies owned by other companies to be able to generate new products. Control of big data; Bayer notes that one of its prime reasons for acquiring Monsanto is because it owns The Climate Corporation, which has the most powerful data science engine and the most extensive field research network
c) Control of big data; Bayer notes that one of its prime reasons for acquiring Monsanto is because it owns The Climate Corporation, which has the most powerful data science engine and the most extensive field research network
d). The need to find new markets; increased operational, regulatory and research and development costs are forcing seed companies to grow in size to realize economies of scale and the expected return on investment.
To read full interview click here
My bookcase groans with the weight of green literature. Permaculture for idiots, double digging for novices, you get the picture. You see I am passionate about gardens, food and the planet. My garden should, in theory, be prolific with delicious organic food. Despite my cerebral imbibing of all knowledge organic, I have never been able to translate that knowledge into a food producing garden. Apart from some herbs and lettuce, I have never had a burgeoning food garden.
I decided to investigate my ‘roots’, as it were, to try to understand my relationship with my garden. The uncomfortable question was whether I had evolved in any way or whether I had forgotten some essential principles of food gardening from my forebears. I come from a family of gardeners. My dad had a forest of curry leaves outside our kitchen window. Visitors never left our house without their supply of these famously pungent leaves. In fact, that forest had flourished from a single plant which my grandfather had taken out of his curry tree forest. Years later, when I moved into my own house, my dad gifted me a curry plant from his garden and someday, I hope that my children are able to inherit some that tree’s many offspring. Our own version of a family tree!
We had so much more in my father’s garden. In winter we enjoyed nartjies, lemon, guava and bananas, and in summer there were sweet mangoes and peaches. We were also never short of coriander, red and green amaranth and chillies. Yet, as impressive as dad’s garden was, he did not pursue food gardening with quite the same zeal his mother had.
My grandmother was an earthmother. I have this whimsical notion of her standing in a desert which transforms into green fecundity – vines and trees erupting out of the earth around her. My Ava, as I called her, didn’t just have a green finger, her entire being radiated fertility. The backyard of her Asherville home was, what people would now call, a food forest. Every available space sprouted green. Double beans and peas crept up fences, the drumstick tree bent heavily with its slender fruit and there was always a surplus of holy basil, sorrel, fenugreek and okra.
I don’t remember Ava ever using nasty pesticides. She poured the dishwashing water into the vegetable garden and when the curry leaves looked a little diseased she splashed them with a turmeric solution. Turmeric is mainly used in cooking, but its antioxidant properties make turmeric’s function, medicinal and cosmetic as well.
I was more than a little impressed – but not surprised – when I discovered the nutritional value of some of the vegetables we grew and ate. A local environmentalist, Richard Pocock, was full of praise for the Moringa oleifera (the drumstick tree which gets it botanic name from the tamil name – Murungai). At Ava’s house drumsticks made their way from the tree to a fabulous dhall curry crammed with goodness. The juices of the drumstick were always sucked out with great gusto. Ava also braised the leaves with onion, garlic and chilli.
She was actually providing her family with the best nutrition possible. According to Richard, the Moringa tree is a wonder plant that may well be the answer to food security in Africa. The leaves have a very high protein and calcium content – great news for vegetarians like me. The plant is also rich in Vitamins A, C and potassium. Being a drought resistant plant with nitrogen fixing properties, its virtues seem endless.
Another favourite in the Naidoo household was methi (fenugreek). Incredibly easy to propagate, an enriching mulch, and a very versatile ingredient, fenugreek is rich in Iron and thiamin and has been found to reduce blood sugar levels. We enjoyed methi in potato curry, scrambled eggs and in a savoury lagan (cake).
Although many of the vegetables we grew up eating are grown in Africa, most were brought over from India. Informal seed saving, and sharing amongst the indentured community, ensured their continued propagation. These vegetables, once only found in markets such as the famous Bangladesh Market in Chatsworth and Victoria Street Market in Durban central, have, in recent years, made their way onto the shelves of selected chainstores. Bangladesh Market traders were once supplied by informal farmers from Demat, an area adjacent to Chatsworth, which meant that people who were buying from Bangladesh were getting produce which was literally grown on their doorstep. Anand Pillay, who has researched the farming community in Demat, says that farming methods were more in line with the principles of permaculture and that knowledge of pesticides did not exist. In recent years this farmland has been sold to the municipality for housing. The traders have to now source their produce from commercial farmers further afield.
The lifestyle of the South African Indian community has changed. With wealth, opportunity and the convenience of packaged foods, the need for food gardens has diminished. Many Indian homes still have the ubiquitous curry tree and perhaps a paw paw tree but, sadly, food forests seem to be a thing of the past.
Last night I dreamt my grandmother hugged me generously. Her presence assured me of abundance and seemed to suggest that I go out and DO. So today I combine this ancient wisdom with my precious literature and take action. I invoke the spirit of my Ava and other ancestors and scatter my seeds of promise.
Originally published in the Green Times E-Zine
By Pralini Naidoo
Pralini is a PhD Student based in Durban, ZA.
…written by Thembi Bongwana (PhD Candidate)
“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned-everywhere is war” – Bob Marley.
As a young South African feminist scholar whose interest is vested in race, gender, ethnicity and class and who now works on food studies, inevitably I am forced to think critically about the silent or subtle meanings that are often attached to food items, especially what we as consumers in global capitalist food chains often buy or eat without much thought. Increasingly, I have become particularly aware of symbolic meanings that are often less easy to detect. Symbolic meanings around social interactions within food spaces are often complex and embedded in multi-layered dynamics that can be hard to pin down. It is crucial, then, not only to look critically at power relations in human interactions with food, but also to expand one’s critical gaze on the layers and sites in which food acquires meaning, the spaces that consumers are encouraged to inhabit in eating, the coded meanings and life-styles that are linked to food items and food outlets, especially when we consider that enormous amounts of food are now eaten by South Africans outside the home – for example, in restaurants and fast-food outlets.
I was made sharply aware of this in relation to a controversy around the well-known fast food franchise, the Spur. The Herald Live reported that on Human Rights Day, the food chain was involved in an altercation between two parents who accused each other’s children of bullying inside the restaurant. The confrontation turned heated, reaching a point where one parent, an angry white man threatened to beat up the other parent, a black woman, whilst simultaneously flipping the table over, and scaring surrounding children around as they watched their food fly in all directions. Though Spur has publicly apologised for the violent incident, and subsequently barred the man from its premises, the failure of management intervention during the confrontation has left a bitter-sweet taste and received much criticism from many, including myself (www.heraldlive.co.za/…/man-threatens-beat-mother-spur-restaurant-sparking-outrage).
Initially, Spur denied the incident was racial. They have been quoted as saying: “Spur says the recent aggressive confrontation between a white man and a black woman at one of its restaurants in the south of Johannesburg was not a racist incident but rather an act of anger” (see www.ewn.co.za/2017/03/22/spur-altercation-not-a-racist-incident). Recently, however, Spur has appointed a law professor despite its initial hesitation (www.citizen.co.za/news/news-national/1498495) to investigate the matter further, and that is to investigate the racist allegations further. It is clear to me that the incident was racially motivated.
Overt racism involving black and white in public spaces is by far means not unusual in “post-apartheid” South Africa. However, the controversy at the Spur also made me think about the peculiarly silenced racism that many South Africans, both black and white, come to see as normal or harmless. This racism is often embedded in the symbolism I commented on at the start, and its presence in well-known public spaces that include restaurants can slip through the cracks. It is therefore crucial to extend a consideration of the racist incident at the Spur by noting that the Spur routinely reinforces racist stereotyping through its romanticized, caricatured or demonized portrayals of American Indians. All Spur branches promote a clichéd version of authentic steakhouse food by using globalized stereotypes for its advertising and décor. Its promotion of “authenticity” includes clichéd cultural artefacts, the logo of a Native American chef, and Native American tribe names to uphold its culture and to identify as a distinct restaurant as we see below.
University of Johannesburg’s student, Suzette Britz did a presentation on the racist imagery of Spur outlets at an International Symposium on Food Studies at the University of Pretoria, in July 2016. Britz’s presentation touched on various aspects that are vitally important to my critical reflection on the depth and complexity of racism and forms of exclusion at many fast-food outlets in contemporary South Africa.
Because South Africa, known as the Rainbow Nation comprises of a plurality of cultures, ethnicities, races and languages, the issue of national identity is a complex one. The advertising of commodities – including food – often promote the idea of homogenous “national identity” to encourage consumers from different groups and to increase their popularity. This is especially true in the case of fast-food outlets such as Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Nandos, Panarottis, Debonairs and the Spur, restaurant chains that are clearly cheaper and more accessible than high-end restaurants.
Food branding often becomes central in promoting ideas about South African identities, and we frequently confront images of cultural and racial diversity in the images that these outlets use in advertising. This myth of unity and diversity through convivial eating is conveyed powerfully in the image/s below.
Examples like these indicate that eating-out is a central pastime in many South African middle-class households. This has obviously become a lifestyle-choice amongst many across racial, class and affordability lines. Yet my opening remarks on the relevance of Britz’s analysis and ‘Spur’s othering of Native Indians are reminders of the conditions under which South Africans are encouraged to eat in public spaces. It is as though the displaced racism of stereotyping Native Americans were continuing to shape the real racial and classed forms of othering that actually occur in fast food outlets.
Fast-food outlets in the present day
It is therefore clear that deeply racialized relations and images continue to shape spaces of eating and food production that we often consider to be “modern”, “cosmopolitan” and free from bias and discrimination. The incident at Spur exposes a plurality of social tensions that encouraged me to ponder on the history of restaurants with reference to the historical paths of slave trade, colonialism, and the exploitation of black labour. Through segregation laws, certain groups were not allowed into “public” spaces, unless for “work” purposes where they were enslaved and were given little to none compensation.
What the “Spur” incident brought to the fore was a very deep form of racism and racial entitlement, and belief about where certain historically marginalized groups (mainly black women) legitimately belong. For a person to have the sense of authority and entitlement to walk up to another’s table and threaten to harm somebody else speaks a thousand silent volumes and tells a story of profound ‘entitlement’. Verbalising the threat of harm goes one step further and conveys how certain racialized and gendered bodies (white men) perceive other racialized and gendered bodies (black women) as being in these public eating spaces only for service. The threat of violence is an insistence that actually affirms that, even in 2016/7 they still do not belong there; they are not entitled to these public eating spaces, and integration at these spaces of serving and being served was a glitch in the way things should be.
It is disheartening to say the least, to see that even throughout the 23 years post-democracy, there are still individuals and some members of certain groups that assume ownership of certain places/spaces whilst simultaneously believing that black bodies are indeed inferior, and can only share in the same spaces they occupy by virtue of being cooks, waiters, waitresses, cleaners and the whole nine yards of low-ranking and looked down upon jobs. The entitlement syndrome is one that traces back to the history of restaurants.
The questions about the underlying prejudices, injustices and hierarchies that continue to influence post-apartheid food outlets, are huge. This is especially true when we consider that they are often advertised through images and messages of joyous South Africans in the rainbow nation socializing and eating together, and enjoying an eating experience that cements their equality. It is also important to note that the sense of class privilege was pronounced not only in the utterances of the racist bully, but also in Spur’s handling of the affair. This made it clear that the ostensibly “people-friendly” and “family” restaurant (which Spur prides itself on being) works to maintain the boundary between insider and outsider, ensuring that only certain individuals with buying power feel comfortable inhabiting it as the image below also puts into clear perspective the markers of boundaries between insider and outsider.
Personally, I have taken the decision not to frequent a Spur restaurant again. I have been disturbed by its marketing and design, acutely aware of the fact that the racist stereotyping of Native American people is in fact strikingly similar to the stereotypical images of South Africans – close to nature, wild, and prone to aggression and an over-fondness for traditional weapons. My disquiet has obviously been intensified by the more recent incident at the Texamo Spur. It is safe to say that the International Spur brand services the elite, middle-class and a small portion of the working class. Moreover, it serves these formerly marginalized groups interests against the background of the reminder that actually, the divide between bodies who eat and are served and bodies that cook and serve remains racial and gendered in the South Africa imaginary.
Citizen News, (2017, April, 27). “Spur appoints a law professor to investigate racism incident”. Retrieved from URL: http://citizen.co.za/news/news-national/1498495/
Eye Witness News (EWN), (2017, March, 22). “Spur altercation ‘not a racist incident”. Retrieved from URL: http://ewn.co.za/2017/03/22/spur-altercation-not-a-racist-incident
Herald Live, (2017, March, 22). “Man threatens to beat up mother in Spur restaurant”. Retrieved from URL: http://www.heraldlive.co.za/news/top-news/2017/03/22/man-threatens-beat-mother-spur-restaurant-sparking-outrage/
Particular foods carry very poignant and profound meanings – about spaces, emotions, relationship and social identities. Pickled fish, eating by many Cape Townians on Good Friday, might have origins in Christian observations about not eating meat, or the distinctively sweet-sour flavours of Cape Malay cooking. Its popularity over the years might even have something to do with the usefulness of a form of food preparation that doesn’t require the effort of labour over a long weekend, or the value of a dish that is easy to preserve at a time when many travel away from home. Whatever these origins (and they are definitely multiple), pickled fish, like many other South African popular dishes that are not considered “truly indigenous” or “really traditional”, has acquired distinctive value among those who have learned to enjoy and share it at particular times of the year. And the pleasure of the actual eating of the dish has often been part of the pleasurable process of procuring or buying fish (queuing at certain fish shops and chatting to the seller before choosing it, getting the best deal through “connections), buying spices that are now often sold over Easter as “pickled fish spices”), choosing the fish that works best (does it in fact have to be a white deep sea fish or does snoek also work), comparing different methods (whose family/mother/aunt, or maybe even father) prepared it better? So, pickled fish is incredibly ritualized, gesturing towards the complex networks and affiliations that eating and tasting – both individually and collectively – so often give rise to, and making one sharply aware of the complexities and fluidities of, among other things, “culture”, “indigeneity” and “identity”. In this conversation, Donna Andrews and Suzall Timm reflect on these and other processes.
It struck me that it might be rather odd carrying pickled fish back to Johannesburg (JHB) post Easter. Moreover, it was a rather precarious food to be carrying on a flight. It crossed my mind that I could buy it upon arrival in JHB at Woollies and that maybe even Spar might still have pre-packed pickled fish. Why all this hassle? What was important about taking homemade pickled fish back to JHB to share with my friends who did not make it back to Cape Town over Easter? What was so special about taking what I assume to be a Cape delicacy, made in a particular geographical space and at a certain time to JHB friends? Besides: the dish is made of picked fish and onions—curried with bay leaves, spices and is yellow in colour made with tons of vinegar and sugar. Surely this is not everyone’s idea of a treat!
I came back to JHB not with one sample of pickled fish but a tasting menu from my mom’s; my partners and aunt’s pickled fish. They each made it differently and with different types of fish. My aunt is traditional, insisting that it must be made with yellow tail, x-days before the time and with white vinegar but did not want to reveal all my gran’s secrets. My mom’s pickle is testimony to her – non-traditional and non-stereotypical methods – whilst making it palatable for all (so less vinegar and no sugar). She also avoids the traditional fish one associates with pickled fish. My partner’s mom combines the traditional with my favourite fish (snoek) and made for her son’s pallet – she was on the job for weeks. Scouting for the best prices and as snoek from her fish monger. She requires special pickled fish spice from Fargo trading store. She is relentless. Her story of the pickled fish is the hunt for the spice, the smelling and finding of the perfect bay leaves, the type of onion and feeling that its has the correct firmness and sweet smell, it is standing and talking with unfamiliar people about something that is familiar over Easter. It is an intimate dance with others to commune collectively.
Across many pickled fish meals, the chatter and numerous discussions ensured which fish was on the green or red list; which was in or out of season; how expensive the fish is etc. People seemed aware of WWF-SASSI list. The marketing and branding of the green economy and concerns about climate change is in full flight. An engagement about the politics and culture of fish and the fisher folk and how we live in relation to fish and fishing communities is however absent at the table.
In writing, it occurs to me that “being in conversation with the pickled fish” is about “who is the fish?” and “the fishing community.” This is a continuation of an analysis I started in my dissertation about fish as part of nature and part of larger web of life. In other words, it is much more than food or fish as a highly nutritional protein. Fish is political, cultural and social or as Da Costa argues polyvalent. My analysis makes visible the relationship between the fish and those who catch, prepare, sell and eat it. It puts forward that the fish intrinsically linked and embedded within social relations and is part of nature. Reducing fish to economics asserts one type of value above others. Reducing fish to the sale of fish as food in the market is to place food outside of its multi-dimensional and multi-layered ambit.
The study by Isaacs shows the relevance and significance of fish as part of community networks, livelihood and solidarity. Drawing on her study, I argue that for these working class poor communities in the Cape, fish is not frozen, packaged hake bought in the hypermarket, or farmed salmon and trout found in the chilled aisles of expensive supermarkets like Woolworths. Fish is snoek. It is what is bought at the end of day on the main road in your area, or on Sunday morning near the graveyard. It is bought from the local fish seller out of the back of his bakkie. It is a personal interaction – you decide which fish, how you want it cut whilst you chat with the seller and hear about the state of fishing and how the fishermen are doing. It is Sunday afternoons with the family, playing cards or dominoes. It is learning how to count, laugh and be communal. It is social and cultural cohesion. It is about the collective contribution to getting the fish to the table. The collecting of the money, buying, cleaning, preparing, serving, disposing of the bones, are all part of a whole. Everyone has a role when the fish is socially embedded outside the formal market. This fish is life, history, community, cultural and communion. This, however, has increasingly come under threat due to the commodification and commercialisation of fisheries.
Suzall, I look forward to hearing about your pickle fish delights and reflections.
Your conception of who is the fish in your piece is very appealing leading me to think of the fish on the plate with the hot cross buns as a ‘regulatory space’ that organises social life during Easter.
It all started during lunch break at the office when my colleague shared some of his pickled fish with me. He makes pickled fish every year over Easter. I was taken aback that Muslims also make pickled fish. I grew up learning that pickled fish and hot cross buns is what ‘Christians’ do. I recall asking my mother a Thursday night after cutting countless onions, “why do we eat pickled fish on Easter Friday?” She explained, “the fish signifies the body of Christ. We do not eat meat on Easter Friday because meat symbolises the flesh of Jesus Christ who suffered for us on the cross.” She then added, “it is for this reason, we eat pickled fish and hot cross buns to remember how he died on the cross and resurrected on the third day.” The story sounded fascinating and I left it at the idea of the fish and hot cross buns as the way of honouring the memory of Christ on the cross.
This year, after discovering that pickled fish is not only made by Christians, I went home to Worcester thinking more carefully about pickled fish and who makes it. Over the past 10 years, I journey by train to Worcester over the Easter period to eat my mother’s pickled fish and hot cross buns. While travelling on the train I overhear a young ‘Coloured’ woman tired after a day of working asking an older Xhosa woman where she is travelling to. The woman told her she is going to Worcester and she is looking forward to her aunt’s pickled fish. The young woman in surprise looked at her and asked – do you also eat pickled fish? The older woman nodded and said yes, we do. The young woman smiled and said she never knew that Xhosas eat pickled fish. The older woman smiled and said just like you we also eat pickled fish and hot cross buns.
As I sit down, in the kitchen in Worcester, I have one piece of snoek pickled fish and a piece of hake pickled with two hot cross buns on my plate. While eating this fish, the many years of eating from this plate, no longer symbolises the body of Christ instead I reflect on the conversations with my colleague, the women on the train and the story my mother told me many years ago…
The plate, pickled fish and hot cross buns with butter represents what Bruno Latour would call a collective or assemblage of animate and inanimate actants. I will refer to this collective of animate and inanimate actants as a ‘regulatory space’ that produce effects and regulate how we interact with others and the plate during Easter.
The plate and the silver tin foil in which the buns are assembled are regulators that come alive and shapes the way we engage with each other. Both are mediators of relationships that links us to our taste buds, to family, friends and many others.
The pickled fish and hot cross buns on the plate play a regulatory role during the Easter period. This collective does not normally go together any other time of the year except for Easter. For Christians, this collective comes together to act as a symbol of remembering the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Luke 24:41, Jesus showed his hands and feet to his disciples who did not believe him. He asked them if they have anything to eat and the disciples gave him a piece of fish which he took and ate in their presence. The act of eating the fish was to dispel the disbelief of his disciples. However, every Easter the plate of fish and hot cross buns is a religious symbol for Christians as they reflect on Christ’s sacrifice and the wondrous miracle of his resurrection.
The plate of pickled fish and hot cross buns collective also regulates how mothers and daughters interact in its production. It has become a site of intergenerational sharing of knowledge where mothers pass their knowledge – whether it’s in the form of a story or a recipe to their daughters.
The plate of pickled fish and hot cross buns collective also regulates the social interactions that happens around it. Family and friends gather around the plate on Easter weekend and connect with each other.
The significance of the ‘regulatory space’ in the production of food and culture is to show how we are all equal parts in the partaking of food. The living, the organic, the animate and inanimate are simultaneously objects and subjects, key actants in the ‘regulatory space’ making food knowledges and experiences different yet similar through the plate and the tin foil in which the buns come in.