Review of Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt By Jessica Barnes, Durham: Duke University Press. 2022. 296 pp.

Reviewed Book

Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt By Jessica Barnes, Durham: Duke University Press. 2022. 296 pp.

Cover of Staple Security (2022)

Kimberley G. Connor

Stanford University

A protestor waving a loaf of bread. A man in a bakery purchasing subsidized loaves for his family. A woman shaping dough in front of an oven. Connecting these disparate domains is bread, which nearly all Egyptians eat at nearly every meal. Starting with these three vignettes, in Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt Jessica Barnes examines the centrality of bread in Egyptian life by tracing the path from field to bureaucrat’s desk to table. In bringing together national security with the sense of satisfaction a housewife derives from sacks of grain stored in her living room, Barnes seeks to explain “how staple security infuses everyday life.”

Beyond a detailed accounting of Egyptian wheat production, storage, and subsidized bread manufacture, Barnes’ work makes two major contributions. The first is a theorization of staple foods which makes explicit the characteristics which produce staples as a generalizable category. Barnes identifies staple foods as symbolically meaningful foods which accompany other foods and define the meal not necessarily in quantity but in their importance for a sense of satiety. With a subject so ubiquitous that it can become both overwhelming and invisible, Barnes’ definition provides a useful starting point for scholars of food and nutrition to refine.

The second major contribution is the concept of “staple security” which Barnes uses to explain the underlying symmetry between how the state, the household, and the individual “seek to secure the continuous supply of a palatable staple … so as to address anxieties about staple absence and meet desires for staple quality.” In a country where the very word for bread (‘aish) is synonymous with life, and 70%–80% of the population are eligible for government-subsidized bread, Barnes argues that security is not just a condition of having enough bread, but that it is a process and a state of being produced through the quotidian actions of individuals and the state.

Where the more familiar term “food security” emphasizes access to sufficient food, Barnes separates the two words and drills down into them to examine staples and the political and affective forms of security (and insecurity) which they produce beyond simply having enough calories. The concept is particularly useful for examining how different actors seeking staple security can produce conflicting outcomes, as when farmers keep their wheat crop to maintain their families’ supply, forcing the government to rely on imported wheat and less secure supply lines to ensure staple security for the rest of the population. As a result, “staple security” has the potential to be a useful explanatory concept within food studies and food policy, pushing scholars to consider how the feeling of security can be as important as material security itself.

While I have no doubt that this emphasis on the affective qualities of food represents a major shift in thinking for those used to thinking in terms of food security or the economics of the global wheat trade, it may not go far enough for those from a food studies background. Unlike say Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s classic Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time, Barnes does not explore how bread became central to Egyptian society or the valances that bread carries in different situations or to different people. In this sense, the book is fundamentally a study of the economic and bureaucratic systems that supply bread and not of bread itself. This carries over into the writing and throughout the book I found myself wanting sensorially richer descriptions of the bread, of the processes of making bread, and of the social meanings the bread carries. For example, as a reader it is difficult to meaningfully differentiate between roqaq (“This is a large, round, white bread made from refined flour, often with added milk and sugar. The bread is thin and hard, like a cracker”) and miladin bread (“This is a round, crunchy bread made from drying out siyahi bread,” and siyahi bread is “similar in appearance to baladi bread, but it is made with a more refined 72% flour and less bran so it is whiter in colour,”). The situation is not helped by the use of black and white pictures which turn “field[s] of gold” into fields of gray and render any visual distinctions between breads such as the flat, round, store-bought baladi bread and the flat, round, slightly larger, homemade ‘aish beiti almost invisible.

The lack of a sense of the bread is all the more surprising in a book that is otherwise marked by an engaging and descriptive writing style. Barnes deftly weaves together interviews and ethnographic observations with statistics and newspaper headlines to build her case throughout the book, but her writing shines particularly in Chapter 3 “Grain on the Move.” Her playful commentary on a presentation on the wheat futures market and a series of Tweets on Egyptian grain tenders gives an otherwise rather dry topic a sense of urgency and life. Also worthy of note is the section of methods where Barnes is admirably forthright about how her positionality, especially her role as a parent, shaped her fieldwork and research. Her attention to the careful practice of anthropology carries through working with research assistant Miriam Taher, and Chapter 4 which they co-wrote on how subsidized bread stands out as a model for ethnographers working with local assistants. Their account of one woman’s 4-year struggle to get a replacement card for purchasing subsidized bread will be dreadfully familiar to anyone who has had to deal with a labyrinthine government bureaucracy.

Overall, this book is an ambitious accounting of complex processes for ensuring security at multiple scales, from the household to the nation. It will clearly be of interest to scholars of Egypt or bread but the conceptualization of “staple security” will also be particularly useful to those working on food security, national food policy, and global commodities trading. Although not explicitly about health, it is a useful addition to the literature on staple foods from a nutritional perspective and a strong case study of how feelings and social norms affect health-related behavior more broadly. With its accessible writing and themes as well as the clear discussion of methods, selected chapters from this volume could easily be assigned in survey classes even for students not familiar with ethnography as a genre. The book in its entirety is more suited to seminar courses on topics ranging from a regional study to economic anthropology or the anthropology of food.