“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”: On gentrification, identity and pie & mash

Mmmm stodgy. Image: Getty.

I am a guilt-stricken carnivore. Even though I love eating meat, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of killing animals for consumption and with the environmental impact of the meat industry.

I also have mixed feelings about gentrification. I clearly see the benefits it can bring, but I am also aware it can adversely affect local communities and businesses. One thing I have not done until now is think of these two issues in conjunction.

A few days ago, a colleague sent me an article in the British free newspaper Metro about the recent closure of one of London’s oldest pie and mash shops, AJ Goddard in Deptford. According to the article, the owner blamed gentrification (a claim that has been previously made about the closure of pie and mash shops more generally). The influx of newcomers who were vegan, vegetarian, or “into fad diets” were apparently what caused the shop’s closure after 128 years of operation.

My initial reaction was to question this claim. The owner told the Metro that he’d had a few people coming in and asking if they did vegan pies: “It’s like some kind of bad joke – we’re a traditional pie and mash shop, of course we don’t sell vegan pies.” If this was the case, I thought, why not seek to reflect the desires of local customers and start selling a vegan option? If people were coming in to ask for them, then the demand was certainly there.

The owner’s apparent refusal to sell vegan pies was because the shop was a “traditional” one (in other words, one that sells meat pies). But this claim is problematic: the contents of London pies have changed over the years in response to changes in supply and demand. Pies in the East End were originally associated with eels. The move towards meat (mostly beef) came with the overfishing of eels in the 19th century, though the tradition of eating eels is still present (most shops sell jellied eels and a few also do hot stewed eels). And, the second element of the dish, mash, was only added on a few decades later.

Meanwhile, the media charge that vegetarians and vegans are to blame fits in well with a meat industry that perceives itself as being under siege. Across the world, there have been campaigns to prohibit vegetarian and vegan products from using meat-based labels such as sausage, steak and burger, and in France the industry has even asked for government protection from vegans.

Food identities

But the closure of this south London shop raises a wider question regarding the relationship between food and identity. People’s food culture tends to reflect their class, gender, national and political identifications and as such are often slow to change. The French gastronome Brillat Savarin famously said, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”.

Britain has been described as a “nation of pie-lovers” and pie and mash served with liquor (parsley sauce), aka the Londoners’ meal, has been closely associated with East End “cockney” culture for more than a century. And so one could read the closure of AJ Goddard, and many other pie and mash shops, as an indication of the decline of cockney culture and identity.

But we could go even further and lament, with Brexit in mind, the decline of traditional English culture and identity; in terms of food culture this has included the closure of “traditional” pubs, cafes and fish and chip shops. Gentrification and veganism are thus associated with foreigners or out of touch liberal elites who not only do not understand, share or respect local culture and traditions, but actively seek to change them, and authorities who do nothing to protect them. A pie shop’s decision not to reflect the tastes of local customers could in this view be political as well as pragmatic; tied to “traditional” views of food culture.


Dynamic food

Food culture is dynamic and not immutable. The rise and fall of pie and mash, just like other national food icons, reflects the changing nature of social and economic life in Britain over the past century.

The first pie and mash shop opened in 1844 to cater for the demands of a growing working class in East London, fuelled by the growth of the docks, and based on the flow of people (migrants) and goods (most of the eels originally served came from Dutch fishing vessels). Pie and mash were thus products of change and were probably, at the time, seen as a food fad. They were also, to an extent, products of migration from other parts of the country and from abroad. Of the three families that started the pie and mash trade in London, the Kellys, the Cookes, and the Manzes, the latter two were Irish and Italian.

The pie and mash shops that have survived have increasingly moved away from a narrow interpretation of authenticity and tradition. Most now include vegetarian options, which according to one owner are “really popular”, and some have even gone as far as providing non “authentic” sides such as gravy and chips. A few of the more modern shops have gone further and have included less traditional options such as Thai green curry and chicken tikka masala (and the latter can be arguably seen as a British national dish). One of the most successful London pie shops offers 21 different pies, including three vegetarian and five vegan ones.

All this is true. But the desire, particularly after Brexit, to lament the decline of English culture and to read events through the lens of identity politics has become pervasive. And in fact, according to the Huffington Post, the closure of this pie and mash shop had more to do with local politics and austerity than simply the influx of vegans. Apparently the owner later claimed that the real reason his shop was relocating to Kent was because of the rise in rent and business rates and the condition of the building, which is owned by Lewisham Council.

Whatever the reason, in today’s era of healthy eating, whether you are a vegan, meat eater or flexitarian, serving carbs with carbs is always going to be a hard sell.

The Conversation

Ronald Ranta, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Kingston University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.