A Cape Town master's student has tucked into the history and significance of one of the city's most popular foods - the gatsby.
A gatsby is a large, South African submarine sandwich, typically sold as a foot-long roll cut into four portions at take-away restaurants, particularly in the Western Cape.
It is filled with a protein, usually polony or viennas, and packed with chips, colloquially known as "double carbing".
In a 134-page thesis, Tazneem Wentzel, a master's student in the history department at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), explored the "cultural agents of apartheid" and how they played a dominant role in producing and disseminating ideas of race and ethnicity through food. She also explored how the concept of tradition was produced in culinary writing from the 1950s to the 1960s, as well as how small businesses developed as a critical space of self-authorship, autonomy, and reconstituted a community through food.
"I feel that food history is an often overlooked and neglected topic," Wentzel, 32, said. "I think we take for granted the kinds of histories we make, perform, and ingest every day."
Her paper combined interviews, archival research and theoretical readings of food literature in South Africa and more broadly, she explained, recipe books and menus have also been key sources in locating the changes in bread-based take-aways.
She also spoke to a range of people: from take-aways owners to food activists, consumers and academics.
"Food is political. In South Africa, the production of biological racial categories was operationalised through food management and dietary prescriptions as a technique of biopower. The 'native question' and later the 'poor white problem' were social ills around which the political project of racialisation was rationalised through bread production and consumption between 1900 and 1970."
Wentzel, from Grassy Park, said she decided on the topic while working on a food timeline for the District Six Huis Kombuis book.
"From this, I realised that the food timeline kind of stops at a certain point and the take-aways landscape, as we know it today, only emerges in the late 1960s to 1970s. I began to ask questions about halaal take-aways. How did this become a permanent feature on the Cape Flats and what did this emergence say about the socio-political context?"
She decided to focus on Athlone from 1950 to 1980, as it was a hub of cultural, creative and political activity.
'Food was racialised'
"To some extent I wondered how the culinary landscape was infused with these activities and what kind of relationship there was between food, place, people and politics, keeping in mind that 1950 to 1980 was also the period in which apartheid flexed its racial muscle in every mundane aspect of life, from hair to food," Wentzel explained.
"Food was racialised. In my thesis I focus specifically on formations of bread. I read the Whopper and the gatsby as an archive that can be read against the state-subsidised bread production."
The Whopper is the signature dish of the historic Wembley Roadhouse in Belgravia, Athlone.
"Family-owned take-aways [outlets] such as Wembley and Super Fisheries have been examples of resilience and agency. Both these food institutions developed on the outskirts of the city. They embraced and adapted principles of production from the 1950s American roadhouse, a cornerstone of the 'American dream', and drew on the Portuguese fish and chips shop to cater to the palates of the periphery," Wentzel said.
"The menus of these take-aways [outlets] were inculcated with the flavours and meanings of resilience traditionally associated with home-cooked food, also referred to as huiskos. Often, take-aways will proclaim in their signage that they are 'home' to a particular unique food item. Wembley describes itself as 'The Home of the Wembley Whopper', and Aneesa's 'Home of The Vienna Chips Parcel'. At the centre of the 'homes' of the whopper, the gatsby, and the parcel, is the kitchen."
The Whopper and the gatsby blended the principles of the production line with the flavour of traditional home-cooked meals, Wentzel said.
"Now, with eating on-the-go, a consumption style based on sociality and sharing was popularised. The gatsby, cut in four, eaten with the hands out of grease-proof paper, combined a collective contribution by four people that would split the cost accordingly. The changes reflected in eating habits began to constitute a particular kind of culinary belonging based on the sociality of consumption.
"Thus, as the social political context changed, so did the foodways, practices and patterns."
Wentzel – who treats herself to a gatsby once a month, her favourite being a rump steak gatsby from Cosy Corner (in Wynberg, Cape Town) without the egg – said her thesis has made her more conscious about what she chooses to consume.
"Ultimately, when you pay for food, you are 'voting' with your stomach. You are allowing certain histories of production and stories of preparation to become part of your body. I think that I have become more selective about the histories that I 'ingest'."