Review: Feeding the City

Review of

Feeding the city. From street market to liberal reform in Salvador. Brazil. 1780-1860

By Richard Graham
University of Texas Press

Reviewed By
Esther Katz
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD)
Brasilia, Brazil


Feeding the City does not really deal with food, but rather with food trade and traders in Salvador, Brazil, in the late colonial period. At the end of the 18th century, although it was not the capital of Brazil any more, Salvador was one of the major cities in the Americas, the biggest one in South-America. Its inhabitants had to be fed, mainly with products from its surroundings (the so-called Reconcâvo bahiano), from other regions of Brazil, and also from abroad (Europe, Asia and Africa). It was a major port, belonging to the Atlantic world, to the triangular trading network between Europe, Africa and America. From the end of the 16th century until 1850, it was a key entry point of slaves from Africa, since sugar plantations were the main activity of its hinterland. Slaves were also employed in the city, many of them in the food trade. Drawing from archives of trading licenses granted to street vendors and shopkeepers, and estate inventories, Richard Graham, a historian with a long experience on Brazil, gives a new perspective on Salvadoran society from 1780 to 1860. He refuses to present it through the usual light of slave exploitation, but rather focuses on the individuals, their life, their business, their goods, their relationships. He shows how, through food trade, Blacks and Whites, Africans, Brazilians and Portuguese, slaves and free people constantly interacted with each other at a personal level and were even able to climb social ladders.

In the first chapters, the author presents the context of the study, describes the city such as it was at that time; the houses and their interiors, the clothes of the different traders, and the goods they held. He draws vivid portraits of a few characters of street vendors – mainly black women, and shopkeepers – mainly Portuguese men. The most striking one is that of a woman born in West-Africa, sold as a slave in Salvador, who bought her freedom and ended up her life owning a shop, three houses, jewels, and seven slaves.

In the following chapters, he describes two types of markets: first the “grain market”, dedicated to rice, corn, beans and manioc meal (which is not a real grain, but rather a toasted semolina processed from manioc roots); then the meat and cattle trade.

The last chapters are dedicated to the evolution of the trade over the beginning of the 19th century, towards liberal economy, through the influence of Adam Smith on key politicians.

I would have liked to know more about food and food habits in Salvador in that period, so I am a bit frustrated on that subject. The author only dedicates a paragraph in the introduction to it:

The diet of Salvador’s inhabitants rested on two staples: manioc meal, the major source of calories, and meat. Cattle were driven to the city, but manioc meal came on boats from across a large bay, as did the bulk of the city’s fruit and vegetables. Those who were better off also consumed items imported from overseas in larger ships, especially wine and olive oil, but also beer, cheese, wheat flour and a great variety of high-value, low-volume treats. At the other end of the social spectrum, slaves often had little more than manioc meal and a little dried or salted beef to eat. Africans deeply influenced the cooking methods and spices used in most households, with a liberal use of red palm oil, peppers, coconuts and peanuts.

He does not say how food was prepared, nor how it was eaten at home. Other sources describe cooked beans, manioc meal and (often jerked) beef being the basic components of the meals of most social classes at the beginning of the 19th century, at least in Rio de Janeiro (El Kareh, in press). Red palm oil, chili peppers and coconut are the specific markers of contemporary Bahianese cooking, and are popularly associated with its African origins, as erroneously repeated by the author. Palm oil is definitely African, but chili peppers – and peanuts – (quickly adopted in Africa in the 16th century) are from the American continent, while coconut comes from the Pacific, probably brought from Asia by the Portuguese. On the other hand, he does not mention okra and black-eyed peas being of African origin. Further in the text, the author describes the “grains”, fruit, vegetables, fish, meats, sugar and coffee sold on the market, the imported foods, as well as the cooked foods available on the streets. He enumerates bread and corn cakes, cooked pork and sausages, grilled beef cut up into pieces, grilled fish, cooked whale meat wrapped in banana leaves, as well as dishes still found today in that region, such as pamonha and canjica (made out of corn), caruru, vatapá, acaça, acarajé, ubobó, “made from such ingredients as manioc meal, rice, black-eyed peas, dried shrimp, coconuts, and peanuts, prepared with okra, onions, garlic and tomatoes”. That is all about it.

Researchers who are looking for information on Bahianese food at the turn of the 19th century will not find much in this book. It would probably require another type of archives, but perhaps such documents do not exist. But researchers interested in economic history and history of social relationships in the time of slavery will be fully satisfied. As the book is written in a very pleasant style, with vivid life histories, it even addresses to a wider audience. I really enjoyed reading it. The book cover is an illustration of a late 18th century painting of a fruit street vendor, which Carney and Rosomoff (2009) used for the cover of their own book on the role of slavery in the introduction of African plants to the American continent. I recommend a complementary reading of these two books.

Carney J. & N. Rosomoff. 2009. In the shadow of slavery. Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley/Los Angeles, University of California Press.

El Kareh A. In press. A vitória da feijoada: “não há refeição sem feijão, só feijão mata a fome”. Niteroi, EDUFF.

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