Food, Politics, & Society: social theory and the modern food system – out now!

I’m excited to say that the co-authored book that my Birkbeck colleagues and I have been working on has now been published. Thank you, University of California Press, for shepherding us through the process and producing such a handsome volume. Thank you, too, to my wonderful colleagues: Alex Colas, Jason Edwards, and Sami Zubaida. They generously brought me into their team to develop and teach the course for students in the Politics department that gave rise to this book project.

We are having a launch at Birkbeck (London) on December 13th. Eventbrite has all the details. Tickets are free, but it will be helpful to know numbers, so please sign up if you can make it. I hope to see you there!

 

‘Return from the Market’ by Paul Gavarni

Le Retour du Marché
Plate 10 in Masques et Visages: Les Anglais Chez Eux,
by Paul Gavarni, 1856.

Yesterday I saw for the first time this group of prints made by Paul Gavarni (1804-1866), published as a series in 1856, and part of a bigger group of ‘masks and faces’ that were published in L’Illustration in 1852 (volume 19). They give a savage and scathing commentary on the social and economic divisions in nineteenth-century England and Scotland, many of them played out through food and drink.*

I was particularly taken by this image of a portly gentleman carrying home his clutch of tiny game birds—plover? pigeon?—and the haunted, starving faces of the women and child flanking him. He almost entirely fills the frame, and yet they are the ones that overpower it. The more I look at it, the more they claim my attention. It makes me think of Charles Fourier’s impassioned critique of the gastronomes of the earlier years of the same century, feasting as others starve. These tiny birds are clearly one small element of this gastronome’s dinner-to-come, and presumably an expensive one, as he has purchased them himself. Their minute size, especially against his girth, brilliantly emphasises the contrast between the people’s lives; the birds are almost unnoticeable, so that on first glance, the image wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with the market. We see the image, and reading the caption makes us hunt for the food. As we focus on the birds, the hollow-cheeked spectres emerge from the background. The bland understatement (almost misdirection) of the caption directs us to the main point of this image—to remind us that poverty-stricken people must endlessly hunt for enough to eat in a modern urban economy almost literally filled with others who are able to eat only for pleasure, to whom they are wilfully invisible.

I wasn’t aware of Gavarni or his work until I visited Silverman Galleries in Alexandria, VA, yesterday, but it looks as if his is another rich seam of imagery for people thinking about the politics of food—and drink. My colleague acquired two different prints in the series, depicting gin and beer drinkers, respectively. It seems too good a coincidence that Gavarni’s visit to the UK was almost exactly 100 years after Hogarth published Gin Lane and Beer Street, and that his engravings depict depressingly similar themes. These iniquities and their relationship with food and drink has not gone away, and I’ve been trying to think about who the equivalent artists might be for the following century, and for now. So far, Martin Parr has come to mind, but there must be more. Any ideas?

 

*many of the prints (especially the fabulous beer and gin ones in Krysten’s possession) are clearly of scenes and people in Edinburgh, so ‘les Anglais’ should be read as the British more broadly, not just the English.

Why Borough Market Makes the World a Better Place

LoveBoroughlogoFour days after the attacks on London Bridge and at Borough Market, the Market is still cordoned off. This beautiful public space, at the heart of my local community – and the global food community – with its huge population of residents, workers and visitors, remains at the epicentre of the painstaking and important work that needs to be done after these terrible events.

My friends at Borough Market have generously commissioned me to write some pieces for their website over the last year or two, most recently on the theme of Utopia. That series has only just started, but it in the current circumstances it feels like even more of a gift, and an even more powerful concept, than it did before. For me (and lots of very brilliant scholars – I can’t claim to have thought of this all by myself), Utopia doesn’t mean a descent into unbending ideology or an impossibly perfect design for living. On the contrary, Utopia represents an unfolding, flexible journey of the imagination and a desire to make things better. It’s a constant, pleasurable striving for more humane ways of organising our world and living in it together. Given where we are today, it feels more  important than ever to recognise, celebrate and continue to build on all the aspects of food, place, community and shared culture that Borough Market so consistently and brilliantly brings to us.

It’s hard not to feel helpless in the face of such events, but there are always ways to do something. The Red Cross has designed a particularly brilliant campaign called ‘A Saturday Night for London‘. It’s come up with a way for everyone to raise money, remember those who died and support those suffering in the aftermath by participating in mass acts of public conviviality: exactly the kinds of sociable shared activity we associate with Borough Market, and one of the ways we celebrate our city every day.

The Market and its people are having an incredibly tough and upsetting time, so let’s try to support them however we can. We can all keep in touch using #LoveBorough.  Join this very special community – whether in person or virtually – on its voyage into the future.

To read more on Borough Market as Utopia, go to this page on the Borough Market website.

The Cosmonauts’ Dining Table

IMG_8468

Mir space station base module table, c. 1990. See full detail in the excellent catalogue – Millard, D (ed.) Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. London: Scala, 2014, p 133.

After years of research and diplomacy – and unimaginable feats of transport and exhibition construction – the London Science Museum’s new show, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, is at last underway. Besides setting the record straight on the USSR’s pre-eminence in the development of space travel, Cosmonauts brilliantly expresses not only the technological prowess but also the deep humanity and emotional intelligence underlying these developments. While much of what is on show is impressive and awe inspiring, there is also something deeply moving about seeing Tereschkova’s charred and abraded Vostok capsule, Gagarin’s space suit, contemporary film clips and assorted relics of commemorative souvenirs – a lab coat scrawled with an impromptu celebratory slogan, specially designed china, playing cards and even a samovar. They bring the whole epic adventure back down to earth even as you find yourself gasping in front of an experimental lunar lander and marvelling at the range of technological suiting designed for maximum comfort and safety in every extreme of the space environment.

For me, though, the most thrilling aspect of the exhibition is one of the most basic and ostensibly least exciting: the table from Mir, shown in the photograph above looking as much like a model from Thunderbirds as a relic of the space age. I’ve written and thought about that table, and used it as a core argument for the contrast in space culture between the USSR and the USA, but I’ve never seen even a decent photograph of it before. I knew it was an amazing object, with its central suction device to manage crumbs and its heating compartments for the food; and that the very presence of a dining table was a radical statement of convivial intent in a total habitable space of 90 cubic metres, but I was unprepared for its beautifully designed fold-out sections and contrasting grey-blue and ancient red colouring. It’s still hard to imagine being a Cosmonaut strapped down to dine on some canned chicken stew and Borsch from a tube as the cosmos hurtles by, but seeing an object of this nature and scale certainly helps me to begin to enter that imaginative space. If you are anywhere near London before 13th March 2016, don’t miss it.

Historic cooking class in London

I’m very excited to have been asked to give a talk and run a workshop at the forthcoming Just Festival Westminster, taking place in London from 10th – 21st June 2015.

First, details of the workshop:

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David Reykart. Detail from Still lIfe with Lobster (c. 1620-30). In Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

14th June, 15:30 – 18:30
COOKING AND EATING THE PAST
This workshop is a combination of a short illustrated talk and a hands-on cookery session. Inspired by Barbara Wheaton’s amazing classes on approaches to reading historical cookbooks, I’ll give a brief presentation on some of the ways we can think about texts and images that help to draw out the maximum of information and historical context. Then, the class (12-15 people) will divide into small groups. Each group will be given a C17th or C18th recipe that I have redacted for the modern kitchen, and the ingredients and equipment to prepare it. Once we’ve all cooked, we’ll eat and discuss the food together, seeing what a hands-on approach to research and a convivial environment can do for our understanding of the food, cooking and eating of the past.

Next, the talk:

Fatal Effectf od Gluttony: A Lord Mayor's Day Nightmare

Fatal Effects of Gluttony: A Lord Mayor’s Day Nightmare. Lithograph by M.G. (1830), at London Metropolitan Archive.

13th June, 11:00 – 12:00
800 YEARS OF FEASTING: THE LORD MAYOR’S BANQUET, 1215-2015
It’s not only Magna Carta’s 800th birthday this year – it’s also the 800th anniversary of the Lord Mayor’s Show! The City of London is producing a lavish book about the whole event, which will be published to coincide with the 2015 Show in November. This talk builds on the research I did for a short piece in that book, giving me the chance to tell a few of the stories I didn’t have room for there, and talk about the food and the pageantry in a bit more detail – illustrated with some fabulous images found in the London Metropolitan Archives.

You can take a look at the whole programme here, where you will also find links for booking by Eventbrite: Just Festival Westminster. I do hope I’ll see some familiar faces – as well as make some new friends at either or both of these events.

Space food anniversaries: the first sandwich in space

Commemorative corned-beef sandwich on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum (image courtesy of colllectspace.com)

Last week the world commemorated fifty years since the first space walk. Today we should be rejoicing in the less known – but for space food enthusiasts far more significant – 50th anniversary of the very first Earth food-as-we-know-it to appear in the United States’ space programme: a corned beef sandwich.

On 23rd March 1965 Command Pilot Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom and Pilot John Young spent almost 5 hours in orbit in Gemini 3, successfully testing various aspects of manned space flight, including the food. Yet they came down to Earth with a bump, becoming the subject of excited news headlines and furious discussion at a US Congress House Subcommittee hearing that resulted in an official reprimand for John Young. What could possibly have happened?

Wolfie’s Restaurant & Sandwich Shop, Cocoa Beach, Florida (image courtesy of collectspace.com)

At least part of the answer lay in the food.The astronauts obediently sampled the securely packaged ‘official’ hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce they had been provided with, washed down with germicide-protected water and orange juice. But then, to Gus Gissom’s surprise, John Young produced from his pocket some illegal contraband – a fresh corned-beef sandwich from Wolfie’s Restaurant in Cocoa Beach, smuggled to him immediately pre-flight by Walter Schirra (another astronaut who was not flying that day). They gave it a taste, commented on the food smell (notably absent from the ‘real’ space food), and shoved it back in a pocket as it started to crumble. It was over in less than half a minute. The repercussions were felt all the way through the Apollo missions.

There were lots of reasons given for all the fuss. The US space programme was notoriously paranoid about crumbs, making a bread-clad sandwich seem the height of irresponsibility. It also seems to have been a question of control: in a billion-dollar mission with the eyes of the world upon it, there wasn’t much room for a sense of humour, and individuals simply couldn’t be allowed to introduce additional, unauthorised ‘human’ risks. If sanctioned, a contraband sandwich could be just the tip of a very significant iceberg. Most of all, perhaps, it was the contrast in the Cold War era headlines. There is a wide gulf between the heroic potential in “Cosmonaut (USSR) achieves first space walk” versus “Astronaut (USA) eats first space sandwich” – despite its subsequent significance to food historians.

For more on this incident see my 2010 article for Endeavour, on this site under ‘Publications’, and at Academia.edu.

 

The senses in space: Alexei Leonov and the first space walk

TV picture of Alexei Leonov on the first ever space walk, 18th March 1965 (image courtesy of www.starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov)

TV picture of Alexei Leonov on the first ever space walk, 18th March 1965 (image courtesy of http://www.starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov)

50 years ago today cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to conduct a spacewalk – or, less romantically, EVA (extra-vehicular activity) – when he left his Voshkod 2 spacecraft for an awe inspiring and stressful 12 minutes. This tremendous achievement paved the way for much of what became possible in space in subsequent years. If cosmonauts (and astronauts) couldn’t leave their spacecraft then repairs would be impossible, along with a whole host of other essential activities. For the USSR, focused more on inhabiting the first space stations than the USA’s race to the moon, testing and making possible all the activities that would make longer-term existence in space a possibility, even living and constructing new habitations there, were a top priority.

So, although Leonov’s walk-in-space might not seem to have all that much to do with my usual subject matter of food, it has everything to do with the path that made life on space stations and, perhaps, human travel to Mars, a possibility. Which, of course, has everything to do with food, the mainstay of life (and often, in space, both its greatest joy and inconvenience). As we mark a whole host of 50th anniversaries of space “firsts” in the coming months and years I’ll come back to this theme of eating in space on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, apart from being a pioneering space hero and scientist, Alexei Leonov is a painter and writer with an attention to the senses that has always made him one of my favourite cosmonauts. According to Helen Sharman, who visited the Mir space station in 1991 becoming the first Briton in space, it was Alexei Leonov who helped her think about some of the more human impacts being in space might have on her. Besides jovially giving her a ridiculous costume in which to ‘dress for dinner’ to entertain her space-fellows on their first evening together, he slipped a scrap of fragrant Kazakh wormwood into her pocket. Telling her to take it with her to sniff every now and again, he said “There’s nothing much to smell up there and this will remind you of home.” If I were ever to be lucky enough to have dinner with a cosmonaut, I’d definitely go for the one with a fabulous sense of smell.

[Quote from Helen Sharman’s autobiography, Seize the Moment (London: Victor Gollancz, 1993)]