The Digest

The Politics of Chocolate & Other News

28th April 2017

Words: James Hansen

In this week’s food writing survey: a great food writer rediscovered, a lost culinary era reimagined, and the native ingredients of Mexico photographed

We begin with Mayukh Sen profiling Sri Owen – a grande dame of Indonesian food writing, long resident in England – over at Food 52. Primarily biographical, the piece frames personal history with local observations: a tropical breakfast gone awry, Owen’s knowing indifference to Indonesian restaurants in London. Sen is alive to his subject’s relationship with food: as an exile from her homeland, Owen found in Indonesian cookery a conduit to her own past. This is complicated by a scarcity of both ingredients and recognition from home, which tempers a roving exploration of the mutability of culinary boundaries. It would go nicely with this Observer Food Monthly piece from our editor, Killian Fox, on the women ruling the kitchen at London’s Honey & Co.

From Somerdale to Skarbimierz with James Meek for The London Review of Books, writing on where chocolate fits in to the current political climate. The subject is Cadbury’s Somerdale factory, uprooted to Skarbimierz, in Poland, shortly after Kraft’s takeover in 2011. Meek’s essay – as with all of his writing – is laden with finely granulated detail, sweeping insights and sensitivity, particularly to the necessarily global history and present of chocolate production. A blackly witty section maps the dismantling of Somerdale bar-by-bar: “Fry’s Chocolate Cream went to Blois in France… Someone took a photo of the final Fudge to come down the conveyor”, while detailed accounts of Bournville and Somerdale articulate how food production writes itself into a community’s history. Pair with this from Melati Kaye at Lucky Peach –a trenchant look at the loss of Indonesian rice fields.

Next up is an entire book – a real treat. According to their triennial schedule, The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery has just released its Proceedings from 2013 online, free to peruse with a snack at hand. With three plenaries and a staggering 36 symposium papers to choose from, subjects range wildly – but elegantly – from solar cooking to the symbolism of Mongolian milk spoons. It is, emphatically, an academic symposium: the research is deep, the thought is complex and footnotes abound, but each paper articulates its thesis with clarity and verve. One to dip in and out of, or even while away an entire day on; either way, you’ll learn, be surprised, and never look at each subject the same way again.

Keep it historical with The Cleaver Quarterly, who have an imagined account of eating in 1720’s China based on John Bell’s travelogues. Bell was a diplomat sent to Peking – The Cleaver have reimagined his account of the journey with a witty send-up of culinary travelogues. From foraging with Mongols (all while waiting at immigration…) to the 50-man cossack detail required for security (no more, no fewer) the journey is arduous, but the dishes are worth the wait. The overload of dressings and details does not obscure a knowing bite in the direction of imperial history, and the lavish description of imperial feasts is punctured by a millennial lexicon: here’s to C18 shindigs.

Finish with pictures; specifically, those that disappear: Rene Redzepi’s Instagram Story. The chef-owner of Noma is currently in Mexico for their latest residency, before returning to Copenhagen for the establishment of Noma 2. You’ll have to turn to your mobile device for this one: on a daily basis, Redzepi films a brief explainer of a native ingredient, describing its flavour or texture as he holds it aloft. Today we’ve seen bull kelp, filled with a seaweed michelada, native oysters, and melon clams: other days focus on fruits or vegetables. It’s an accessible and educational insight into the challenges and joys of translating a philosophy – so connected to Nordic terroir – across thousands of miles in order to embrace local integrity, invention, and deliciousness. If you’re not such a fan of the Story format, his profile, and that of the restaurant, are worth a lengthy scroll.

Posted 28th April 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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