Empire Week I: Canned Food

The pickled-looking Chancellor Palpatine raised his hand and squawked, “…the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society.” George Lucas’ latest Jedi mind-trick is to convince us that he is a political commentator. Whatever. I was more intrigued by the Galactic Empire [thanks to Doowan for the link] speech because I have been toying with the idea of dedicating a week at CM to Empires. Mostly because I have finally finished B. Porter’s book and have been following his tiff with N. Ferguson in the LRB. Also because spring is here and every young man’s fancy is turning imperial. Also, also, this.

In today’s first entry we shall discuss the history of canning foods. Remember that I am actively looking for an agent to pitch my micro-history so…

In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte [more on his contribution to Empire tomorrow] offered a prize of ₣ 12,000 through his Society for the Encouragment of Industry to anyone who could devise a method of food preservation for his military. After all, two years later, he was going to take a whole lot of grumbling frenchmen over to Egypt. By 1806, FranÁois Appert had perfected his idea of corking and sealing half-cooked food in glass. The Emperor gave him the reward, in 1810, just as an Englishman Peter Durrant sought the King’s patent for his canning technique – in a can, natch. Durrant’s patent was taken up by inventor Bryan Donkin [he invented the steel nib pen!] who set up the first British cannery in Bermondsey. By 1816, they were supplying canned meat & fruits to the Royal Navy which took them to all corners of the globe, including India. The history of canning, hence, owes a lot to the impetus of the Empire. Its invention, production and consumption followed the rise and fall of various sea-faring imperial formations with canned foods, and canning, making their way to US, Australia etc. almost immediately. Incidentally, it took the Civil War to popularize canned food in the US.

The story of canned foods and their relationship to the colonies goes in many different directions [bananas and pineapple should alert you to specific geographic locales]. And it continues to play a role in the post-colonial world as well. Here, for example, is today’s apocryphal tale:

The British Empire’s midnight children went to war in 1965. The war ended with both parties retreating to their positions and declaring victory. On the Pakistan side, they celebrate the Defense Day on September 6th to canonize their “victory”. Today comes the report that the “victory” may not have been possible without canned food! Gohar Ayub will claim in his upcoming memoirs that Gen. Ayub paid some $500 bucks to an Indian brig., whose wife had an expensive habit of canning fruits and vegetables [no doubt for the upcoming seige], for the entire Indian battle-plans.

Now. How to read this? Let us assume that the report is true because it is way too fun to be dismissed as false. There are two interpretations that I would like to highlight [keeping in mind, again, the rest of the week]: 1. The British Empire was evil, then, it’s products were evil – which makes canning evil [also modernity, enlightenment and partition]. Case in point, obsession with canning fruits caused India to fail in its noble aim of uniting a sub-continent fractured by the evil Empire. 2. The British Empire was evil, but, it’s products were beneficial to the colonies – which makes canning good [also modernity, enlightenment and railways]. Case in point, obsession with canning fruits allowed Pakistan to protect itself from the evil designs of Indians to drink champagne in Lahore Gymkhana.

The question I have is: Was she canning fruits or pickling them? Any other interpretations? Also see The Acorn on this.

tomorrow-ish: the history of the empire.

A History of Anything

I have been making jokes about this in the recent past. Even thought I’d do a post on it here. Arthur Krystal beat me to the punch. In the New Yorker [May 30th] is his review of At Days’s Close: Night in Times Past by Roger Ekirch. Krystal opens the review with a bit of snark about the glut of “pop-history” books [as I term it]:

A man has written a book about the night. Well, why not? In the past decade or so, we’ve seen books on pencils, bookshelves, tobacco, cod, salt, spice, blood, bread, caffeine, crying, the penis, the breast, boredom, smiling, the hand, and masturbation. (Do the last six items seem to nudge one another?) Eventually, such books, and others like them, will all come to dust, including the two so far on dust itself, but before they do we might ask ourselves if this expenditure of print on the obvious and the quotidian constitutes anything like a trend, or even a cultural shift. [hyperlinks added, painfully.]

There are many more such pop-histories, rarely written by actual historians. A sample: There is corn, sugar, potato, vanilla, chocolate, cotton, hemp, heroin, cocaine, screws and screwdrivers, the wife, the numbers: zero, e and pi, hair, lesbian hair, fart, and finally [because I must REALLY stop], hip.

So what is going on? Before I get to my thoughts, here is what Krystal postulates:

If it seems that any noun in the dictionary can be tricked out as a book these days, it’s because the minutiae of daily life have acquired some intellectual capital. Good microhistories do brisk business because they see the big picture in the smallest details, offering the hope that everything under the sun has meaning. So, whatever was formerly neglected, or looked at but not really seen – utensils, foodstuffs, or the hemp that was used to make the ladders that enabled enemies to scale the walls that housed a king – now demands the academy’s respect and scrutiny.

Despite the book covers and titles, these are, broadly speaking, social or cultural histories of Western society. They follow a pretty set template – you start with classic literature and move on up to colonial records and archives and finally to 19th/20th c. cultural productions. They follow, if you will, a colored string through the various garments crumpled in the laundry basket of the past [eek!]. The emphasis is not to present a complete picture of a specific figure, time-period, region or practice but to gallop down the teleological path from then to now. The emphasis is to tell the history of commodity or consumption – in of itself [hint hint].

In this regard, these studies do mark a particular trend in the commercial reception of knowledge. They are dated before they are published, in my humble opinion. One can optimistically view them as trojan horses send into the masses to get them interested in history. Or one can pessimistically view them as the only vehicle for mass-publication available. Regardless, we can ask some questions: Are they popular? It is hard to say. None of these books have charted the NYT Bestsellers list while the tomes about DWM has been around there for a while. Are they any good? I have only read the one on Sugar and it is good. Most seem sketchy because…Are historians writing them? Hardly. A solid majority comes from the lit-crit crowd and the odd journalists. One can always put “A History of” in front of whatever without accrediation as a historian.

This is not to diss micro-histories which are, of course, a valuable tool of scholarship. To a generation of historians, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worm: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller will serve as a template. But, then, Ginzburg’s micro-history isn’t the same as these pop-histories that we are discussing here.

I need an agent.

update: Evan at The Scope documents how all these micro-histories claim their it “changed the world”.

Immigration Cricket

As I mentioned, yesterday we went to hang out at Washington Park for some sporty fun. The park is an amazing urban space. Someone recently was grouching that Chicago parks have no character and I wish they had come with us to see how much character and life they do have – from people, natch.

The pecularities of Chicago do exist. The baseball crowd tagged to the corners of the giant park happens to comprise of South Side blacks. The cricket crowd scatttered in the middle around 4 cement pitches is desi/carribean expats. The soccer crowd on the north end of the park is latino. Off to the side are a small group of white techies playing Ultimate. The audience seems to stick to their demographic. There is no cross-talk, no place where any one would mingle [not even a watering hole]. A sports segregation, if you will. I wish the Chicago Park people took some initiative. A small building/shaded structure would focus the crowds, at least, to interact around picnic tables or BBQ pits or vendors. We could have a scoring chalkboard. Something.

Driven by emigrant nostalgia, cricket has been going strong in the Midwest for a long time. A recent article in the WaPo touched on these issues in the DC area. It quotes a Jamaican immigrant’s desire to play cricket: “”It reminds me of my background,” he said. “It keeps me tuned.” Such were the sentiments of those who dedicate their weekends to cricket in Chicago.

Cricket as a vehicle to understand nationalism or society in the commonwealth has been done. Next step, using cricket to examine the diaspora.

Anyways, here are a few random pics I took.

Sunday Reading for Terra Wars

Beautiful, gorgeous day. Went to the Washington Park and saw some sports. Along for the ride were P. & friends. It was quite fun. Afterwards, a short and unsuccessful bid to buy a cast-iron skillet.

This coming week promises tons of time-wasting activities – at least one of which is to go see SW3. On to the links:

  • Maybe someone, somewhere wrote a funnier, harsher review of something. I don’t know. I do know that no one can top Anthony Lane’s particular take on SW3. “Mind you, how Padme got pregnant is anybody’s guess, although I’m prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes.” hehe.
  • On to serious tasks. Er. Actually no. This is still just amusing. Apparently, the Bush administration was cooking up evidence to go to War in Iraq. Some memo leaked out in the British press. Mark Danner lays out the whole hilarious[!] episode in his side-splitting The Secret Way to War in NYRB. Danner re-quotes a WH aide, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that realityójudiciously, as you willówe’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” HILARIOUS!! Danner also publishes the memo. Snore. Just keep the hits coming, yo!
  • Also in the NYRB is a profile of Fatah, Hamas and the Palestinian political scene after Arafat. Hussein Agha and Rober Malley’s The Lost Palestinians is, all kidding aside, a must-read. “The central contradiction that has bedeviled the Palestinian national movement since the early 1990s. How can it build state institutions while still under occupation? And how can it resist occupation while in the process of peaceful state-building? Over the years, that contradiction benefited Hamas and consumed Fatah, whose institution-builders became unscrupulous and whose rebels lost their way”.
  • There is a war brewing over the Taj Mahal. I, hereby, claim it as mine.
  • Asma Jahangir and Safia Siddiqi are winning wars of their own. I salute them.
  • Khaleeq Ahmed takes us through the etymology of Lahore, my birthplace. It appears that the residents of Markham Street, Toronto are prone to pronounce it La Whore. That may be, but she has a heart of gold.
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea didn’t leave much of an impression. But, I would like to give Desertion a shot after reading Elleke Boehmer’s review in The Independent. Zanzibar has been on my mind lately. Popo Bawa, and all.
  • Lastly, Will Cohu reviews Mike Dash’s Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult in the Telegraph. CM covered Thugees a while ago. Contrary to Dash’s claim, some revisionists have read Sleeman’s account. Thank you very much.

unrelated: Apple’s OS 10.4 aka Tiger has the Islamic Calendar built-in. I am so geeked right now. Like DOUBLY so.