When a meal out changes lives

May 5, 2000

Geographer Ian Cook is studying the impact of changing western eating habits on Third World communities. He spoke to Wendy Barnaby

Dinner at the Bamboula Jerk Kitchen comes with small containers of pepper sauces of varying strengths. Our chicken, aubergine and snapper was cooked with authentic Jamaican seasonings, containing scallion, scotch bonnet peppers, salt, black pepper, allspice, nutmeg, citric acid, sugar and thyme. A meal at this tiny Brixton restaurant with its cheerful yellow walls is a testament to one of the more striking ideas of post-colonial gastropolitics: that one way of absorbing post-colonial history is, literally, to eat it.

Ian Cook, of the school of geography at the University of Birmingham, explains his research in the area in more positive terms: "It's basically about consumer power in the West allowing interesting things to happen in other parts of the world - things you wouldn't expect, and things that have a wider promise if those lessons could be transferred elsewhere."

Cook's interest is in connecting rural development issues in the Caribbean to changing consumption trends in North America, Europe and, particularly, the UK. He presented his work to the Association of American Geographers Conference in Pittsburgh last month. The Bamboula is, he says, a snapshot of how UK consumers are affecting the lives of Jamaican farmers.

Caribbean food is a slow but steadily growing part of the emerging UK ethnic food market: grouped with Cajun food by Mintel Market intelligence, they formed a Pounds 22 million market in 1999. Some of its popularity, Cook explains, is driven by the growth in holidays to the Caribbean, with travellers wanting its flavours on their return. But the sector is being held back by a lack of restaurant exposure in the UK.

The company that owns Bamboula - Walkerswood - is unique. Tiny by western standards, it connects British consumers and Caribbean workers, largely based on the authenticity of the food. The company is based in a community called Walkerswood - 1,500 people in the mountains of St Ann in Jamaica, north of Kingston and south of the tourist town of Ocho Rios.

"We are committed to Jamaican ingredients," says Walkerswood production manager Johnny McFarlane. "There are now companies in Jamaica who bring in really all of their raw materials from offshore, and claim it's Jamaican. We don't think the product is Jamaican. Our jerk sauce, for example is probably 98 per cent Jamaican ingredients. What isn't Jamaican is the bottle cap, and the nutmeg - which we can't get in Jamaica."

The company started with five workers jerking pork (slowly grilling marinated meat over a firepit of pimento wood) in a garage and selling it to local bars. It now supplies its pepper sauces to supermarkets in the Caribbean, North America, Europe, South Africa and beyond. Its growth has been phenomenal, from sales of 31,000 Jamaican dollars in its first year of operation to 100 million dollars in 1999. It is, Cook says, "a place full of ideas about what a richer and more egalitarian Jamaican society could be like".

Employing fewer than 70 people, it supports 100 farmers growing peppers, scallion, spices and the other ingredients of the sauces it sells. Originally a cooperative, it is now owned by 12 partners, all from the community, none of whom has more than 17.5 per cent of the shares. In the production company, 30 per cent of the shares are co-owned by the workers.

"We started here, we employ people in our district, we had five or six people get married last year who work for us, you know, they're building houses. This is the kind of impact that you want to have in the community; it's employment, it's a recognition that we're here and we're going to stay here," says McFarlane.

The community has won recognition from the Prince of Wales, who visited its factory in February during his Caribbean tour. "It's a good example of local people getting together and proving very successful in an area where people find it hard to make a living," said his spokeswoman.

Cook, who describes himself as a "thing-oriented" geographer, began to research the culinary links between first and third worlds when he was teaching a world regional geography course at the University of Kentucky in the late 1980s. He thought he could encourage his students to understand the rest of the world by showing them that their everyday actions could influence people living in other places. So he started research that would allow him to make those connections. He first studied tropical fruits from the Caribbean. UK supermarkets import papaya, sweet potatoes, plantains, mangoes and coconuts from the region.

"When you go into a supermarket, you can go and see Caribbean fruits - these things - on the shelf and pick them up," explains Cook. "But it's not just a thing, it's a huge bundle of economic, social, cultural, political, whatever, processes. And telling stories about how a single fruit gets from a Jamaican farm to a British supermarket is a great way to teach students about important but sometimes boring academic and policy debates."

Cook is hoping to undertake an oral historical study with the community and company of Walkerswood, to understand the secrets of their success better, and to ask what lessons this can teach others about alternative forms of development. The directors have been described as "radicals", because what they do is intended for the good of the community. Playing a vital role in this are UK and other overseas consumers buying its food, not because it is ethical, but because it is authentic and tastes good.

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