Garam Masala - When Bread Becomes Butter for Protests

Karma karmagetiton at
Sun Jan 1 22:02:57 GMT 2012

Garam Masala - When Bread Becomes Butter for Protests
Vikram Doctor
Friday December 30, 2011

Food was in some way connected to the year-round protests seen all over 
the world as both cause and effect, says Vikram Doctor

Babette’s Feast, both the original story by Isak Dinesen and the 1987 
film based on it which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar, are testimonies to 
cooking as an art. Babette, a Frenchwoman who was once a famous chef is 
exiled to a remote Danish village where she lives by cooking only the 
plainest food for two elderly sisters. One day Babette wins the lottery 
and the sisters assume she will leave, but she asks to cook a special 
meal for them. Using all her long suppressed abilities she cooks an 
incredible feast – which uses up all the money she won.

Babette loses her chance to leave, yet fulfils the demands of her 
talent, to cook one last time the way she once did in Paris. But why was 
she in exile? The reason was her participation in the Paris Commune, the 
uprising which took control of Paris for three months in 1871 before 
being brutally suppressed (Babette’s husband and son were among those 
killed). Despite its short span the Commune has taken on historical 
resonance as the world’s first attempt at worker-lead government, and 
the red banner of the Commune became the international communist flag.

Babette passionately supported the Commune’s struggles against the 
French establishment. “They let the people of Paris starve; they 
oppressed and wronged the poor. Thanks be to God, I stood upon a 
barricade; I loaded the gun for my menfolk!” she tells the sisters. Yet 
these same rich and powerful people were also the ones she cooked for, 
who could best afford and appreciate her talent. All artists face 
dilemmas between the demands of their lives and their art, but Babette’s 
was all the worse for how far apart she was torn between her cooking and 
her convictions.

Food and protests have always had a complex relationship, as this year 
demonstrated. Perhaps it was because it was a food vendor who set it 
off. Mohamed Bouazizi was a fruit vendor, one of the most ubiquitous and 
basic street trades, and it was exactly his ordinariness that him such a 
sympathetic, identifiable figure when, unable to bribe the authorities 
to get back his confiscated weighing scales, he set himself on fire. His 
ordinary helplessness galvanized Tunisia in ways the government could 
not respond to, and it fell, setting off a chain reaction across the 
Middle East.

Food has always been a pretext for protests. Ottoman sultans lived in 
fear of the day their elite Janissary troops would start to bang their 
pots, as a sign of discontent with food that could lead to rebellion. 
Gandhi’s use of salt is well known, but the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, 
which some, like ET’s Swaminathan Aiyar, have argued was what finally 
convinced the British to leave India, was also partly instigated over 
poor food quality. ...

... One organisation involved with the Occupy protests has had much 
experience dealing with these issues. Food Not Bombs is a veteran of the 
social justice movement that started in 1980 amid anti-nuclear protests 
in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But its inspiration goes back even earlier, 
to a legendary 1960s activist group in San Francisco called the Diggers. 
This group pioneered many of the tactics of confrontation and street 
theatre and one of them, in 1966, was to start handing out free food 
with the slogan “Its Free Because Its Yours”.

The food itself had been scrounged from groceries and bakeries, stuff 
too old to be sold, but still quite edible, which helped point to the 
wastefulness of modern consumer society. The slogan emphasised that they 
were not a regular soup kitchen: the food was ‘yours’ because it had 
been unfairly appropriated by the system, and the Diggers were simply 
setting it free.

This is the point that Food Not Bombs has built on, in a more sustained 
way (the Diggers went on to other things, and eventually disappeared 
like many other ‘60s movements). When authorities try to defuse them by 
asking them to work with regular food charities, they decline on the 
grounds that they are not a charity, but in fact give food to make the 
political statement that no one would need charity if money spent on the 
military was diverted to investing in food for all.

No one is turned away from their food – their website notes that even 
the police eat there at times. Food is kept vegetarian, even vegan, both 
to support sustainability and animal rights movements, but also to make 
it acceptable to most people (meat donations are given to other groups). 
A spin-off group called Food Not Lawns advocates uprooting pointless 
lawns and replanting them with community vegetable gardens...

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