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Taste, power and distinction: Politics on a plate

Food is a trillion-dollar global industry and the associated businesses of wellness, health and dieting are raking in billions annually. People’s food choices are policed and controlled by mostly external factors such as affordability, location, requirement and social status. 

In my view, food is a very important element that needs unpacking and serious reflection. In fact, in my books, food is the fifth element alongside fire, water, earth and wind. It is a life force — humans and other animal bodies cannot go more than two months without it; it is an essential aspect of life.  

Food harnesses all four elements to grow, distribute itself and be manipulated for human consumption and survival. Simplistically speaking, you need earth to grow fruits and vegetables, water to help them grow, wind for pollination and fire for cooking. Scientists have even proved that dust carrying seeds and nutrients travels on the wind from some parts of the Sahara desert, over oceans and mountains to reach Europe, the United States and the Amazon to fortify forests and support agriculture. 

Humanity needs all these diverse forces for its survival.

According to Abraham Maslow’s  hierarchy of needs, humans have five spheres of needs that are organised into a pyramid — physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation. Humans must have the other needs met before they can reach self-actualisation.

Food is a fundamental building block of physiological needs. It is also, allegedly, one of the reasons 2020 went to the dogs (or bats) and the world is now scrambling to find a vaccine for the global pandemic

Food is the reason humanity fell from the grace of God and got banished from the Garden of Eden. 

Food, religion and poverty

Food is a religiously, biologically, socially and culturally important item; to worship, nourish, heal and socialise. In some religions, certain foods are not allowed. For instance, in Islam it is haram to eat pork or carnivores with fangs, such lions or dogs, or non-halaal meat. Hindus avoid beef. In Judaism, pork and prawns are not permitted. Rastafarians are taught to strictly stick to I-tal which means natural and clean food.  In Christianity’s Old Testament, God instructed Israelites to never eat certain foods, although this changed in the New Testament.

Growing up in my mother’s Pentecostal Christian Church, however, we were not  allowed pork because apparently Jesus cast demons out of a human being and sent them into pigs thousands of years ago. As such, every pig that exists in the world today, is demonic. 

This became rather awkward because I would regularly “sin” by eating pork-based cold meats or bacon in “Sphatlho or kota” whenever I could afford it, or when friends offered it  — because I was hungry. 

It was an unfair expectation from us to avoid any foods because we grew up in abject poverty and in a food-insecure household; we could not afford regular, reliable or sufficient nutritious foods, let alone those of choice. 

Our staple food was pap (which is maize based), sometimes “enjoyed” with seshebo such as chicken feet, heads, gizzards, hearts, tripe, cabbage, soya mince, onion and, at the worst of times, with a water and sugar mix or on its own. 

Every evening, Ntate Maringa, the township butcher would cycle past our shacks carrying a cooler box with afval (offal) and we would all stand outside with zinc or plastic containers and a few coins in our hands to buy our portion for the day. He would hoot his horn and we would each shout “Ntate Maringa!” or wave our containers. Sometimes he would neither hear nor see us so we would have to chase him down the street — chanting “Ntate Maringa!” If not, we would not have seshebo with our pap that night. 

A cacophony of “Ntate Maringa!” was the clarion call for the hungry, desperate for food; the throw-away bits from white-owned butcheries in towns nearby, sold to us at a cheap price to sustain our bellies. 

Ntate Maringa! 

To the dismay and discomfort of my very good friend, I refer to the food listed above and most staple food I grew up eating as “poverty foods”. I struggle to consume them because they trigger in me memories of times when I had to pick food from bins or remove mould and worms from leftovers that my domestic worker mom brought home from her white bosses. The smell, sight, touch and, in particular, taste of certain foods invoke the sad memories and the trauma of hunger pains.

Millions are hungry

My reality is not unique or special, in fact, it is sadly quite the norm for millions of South Africans.  According to StatsSA over six million people experienced hunger in South Africa in 2017 and that more than 20% of households experienced food insecurity. Behind the statistics are real human lives and not just numbers that paint patterns or correlations. Such stats need to be critically appraised because they cannot convey the realities that many experience, especially in the current pandemic.  Many have lost their jobs and more than 30% of South Africans are going to bed hungry. This means that millions do not have access to a basic human need during one of the world’s most precarious situations. 

From early on in my life I have viscerally known that lack of food was not just nor fair. I hated eating pap and chicken feet all the time, I also hated the smell of tripe — it made my stomach churn. My mom used to sell it at some point and, because we didn’t have a fridge, our whole shack would be filled with flies and the stench of dead cow. 

It was seeing my better-off friends, teachers or others eating cheese and polony, seeing “fancy” food on the neighbours’ television — food we could only dream about — that got me thinking about the “politics of food” and [in]justice. 

As a very curious child I questioned everything and was often unsatisfied with the answers: “Mom, why are we poor?”  “Why can’t we eat rice and chicken like the Mngomezulu family or have custard and jelly like the reverend at church?”

The status quo did not sit well with me. I recently discussed this topic at length during a radio interview

A question of food

Do you ever ask yourself why you enjoy that piece of fried chicken or your organic, gluten-free flourless bread? Do you ever pause to wonder why you prefer expensive wine over cheap gin? Why does the sight and smell of mopani worms make you cringe and yet you would happily splurge on prawns? Why do you eat olives? Is pap delicious? When buying food, do you care about quality or quantity? Why do you cook seven colours on Sundays and eat chicken feet and tripe during the week?  Is it because you innately enjoy it, is it your culture or were you socialised into it? 

Who decides what fine dining or gourmet food is versus disgusting and/or weird food? 

The answer is simple, it all has to do with the politics of food. By analysing and critically thinking about your taste and consumption of food we can unearth and unpack your multiple forms of identities such as race, class, gender, history and nationality. 

Globally,  patterns of food consumption have to do with taste. By that I am not just referring to literal palate sensation or umami  on your tongue, but to a sociological concept which captures structural and systemic power and distinction. 

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said that taste (which is underlain by habitus  —  sets of socially learned dispositions) mediates preference, be it in music, art, food or fashion and produces class distinctions as well as  economic structures. This means we can usually tell the working class, petty bourgeoisie and dominant classes apart through their food practices and material consumption. People from the same occupations, class and sometimes race usually share perceptions of the importance of various foods, goods and practices —  because of habitus. 

Most people go through their lives believing that how things are or how they behave is fate, natural and is not influenced by anything external. This is not true. Many people take food taste and consumption for granted because they take it as a given. It is the same for people in different settings, whether food assured or insecure; people hardly ever critically assess their eating practices. 

Debunking the politics of food

I use the help of C. Wright Mills who purports that sociology has three main elements which are: critical thinking, relativising and systems relating. Debunking, also known as critical thinking, indicates a cognitive move to undermine what we have “normalised” and stop to question why we behave in certain ways. 

Why do we always need the rich, who in most cases are also white, to decide what a superfood is or what is fancy? It is because money and power gives them influence over our practices. This hegemonic practice is so normalised that most of us hardly ever question it.

Food is political and it is so everywhere. “Soul food” in the United States of America emanates from slaves saving leftovers from their masters, making do with what they had; Yulin market in China holds a dog-meat festival annually because of the fact that during the 1958 man-made famine which killed millions, people started eating dogs for survival. Today it is seen as part of their culture by some Chinese individuals to much global disgust, protest and disapproval. 

Yet, I always wonder at how some get to decide which food is good and safe and which is not. Because whether Eastern or Western, our eating of animals can be problematised by vegans who use the speciesism argument as an ethical basis to encourage us to stop eating animals — be they dogs, cats, chickens or fish.

Nutrition 

Thinking about the dogs, I am reflecting about how so many (poor) people eat to fill their bellies, rather than for health. Food insecurity reduces options — “healthy”, “organic” and “nutritious” food is expensive. 

This then leads to people eating certain non-nutritious foods such as pap and tripe or chicken feet. They often romanticise how it is part of a culture or tradition to make it acceptable. But, if you could afford quinoa or couscous and salmon, would you still eat pap and tripe? 

Of course some would. I am not denying the fact that they do taste good for some, but habits are hard to break, especially if all your life you have been dogmatised into eating certain foods, prepared in specific ways. 

My personal tastes

I am aware of how I eat to compensate for the times I could not afford it. I also tend to feel over-sensitive around food and I often over-feed people — it is my love language. My new-found issue of weight gain is a special side order.

I am lactose intolerant but growing up we could not afford to eat lactose-free foods. I now use soya/almond/coconut milk as alternatives to cow’s milk. I legit cannot find it anywhere when I go to the malls ekasi — places frequented by darkies —  so the (assumption?) that certain people do not eat certain foods is real. 

Some people use racist, classist and tribalist stereotypes to assume that because I am black and reside in a township, I do not eat certain things. It is no wonder then that my friends tell me that I eat like a “white woman” because anyone who knows me knows that I love dates as a snack, drink green juice and kombucha to quench my thirst, that quinoa and mung beans are are my staples, that pesto is my favourite relish and that I eat my stews with polenta (when I am not going through a vegan phase). 

I would define my taste in food as somewhat eclectic, I am a very adventurous eater — even though I have a few allergies and intolerances — I always explore and eat different local and exotic foods whenever I travel. It is still perplexing to me why people feel the need to box and label me through certain food identity markers and signifiers. 

The performance of taste

Nowhere did the fact that food and eating is used by the dominant class to distinguish themselves become more pronounced for me than at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. I read for my master’s degree there, at Oriel College, and we used to regularly attend “formal” dinners where we had to dress up in formal attire and had three- to five-course meals. For those who might not know, Oxford is considered very prestigious and elite. A university attended by the offspring of world leaders and the wealthy, the haves, the upper classes — as such the culture mirrors that of the ruling class. 

The way the dining table was set up was something out of Downton Abbey or Harry Potter. I had used a fork and knife to eat before at the University of Cape Town, but I had used my hands to eat for over two decades. To then be in a space where how loud I spoke at the dinner table was policed, how I passed the salt and pepper was frowned upon, how I asked for someone to pass the gravy was side-eyed, how I poured it, how I cut my food, how many bites I took, how I chewed … all this and more came under review — the performance of taste, according to Bourdieu. 

My eating and food practices came under a microscope and it felt like I was suffocating. The performance was exhausting and frustrating because I did not know the rules (it’s outside in — Sarah would whisper with a disgusted look when I didn’t know in which order I should use the numerous pieces of cutlery surrounding my plate).

Even saying “fork and knife” is supposedly wrong; it should be “knife and fork”. This really gets to me and I am not alone because research shows that more than 40% of Brits do not know this dining etiquette.  Apparently there is also a specific way to communicate with the chef and waiters using cutlery! There are directions and patterns of placing the fork and knife as well as napkins to show whether you approved of the food or have had your fill.

I grew up eating for survival, not for aesthetics or performance.

Survival is an animalistic trait and instinct kicks in when it comes to hunger. Of course it is possible to go a few days without food, either through fasting or famine, but past a certain number of days, death comes knocking if the body is not properly nourished. 

The next time you buy, cook or eat, I would ask that you please ruminate on this.

Author

  • Paballo Chauke

    Paballo Chauke has a Bachelor of Social Sciences and an Honours in Environmental Geographical Science from the University of Cape Town as well as a Master’s in Biodiversity Conservation and Management from Oxford University. He has multi-trans-inter-disciplinary interests and currently works as a training co-ordinator. He also runs his own podcast Conversations with Chauke.