28 Mar 2017

The impact of food on history

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:09 pm on 28 March 2017

A taste for chocolate has done more than break the willpower of people across the generations.

It's also started wars. The fascinating impact of food on history is told in the new book, Food Fights and Culture Wars: A secret History of Taste.

Tom Nealon

Tom Nealon Photo: supplied

Author Tom Nealon explores how a taste for lemonade may have protected Parisians during the plague and the chaos that’s surrounded chocolate throughout the ages.

Nealon told RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan that much like the weather, the role of food is often overlooked when history is documented.

“Food and weather and things we’re just surrounded by, I think get overlooked almost because of their ubiquity.”

He says he had to drill down into history to find out about foods, because cook books of the time were often only read by wealthy people.

“To figure out what regular people are eating you have to drill down and make inferences.

Nealon has considered the impact food may have had on several significant events in history, including the outbreak of the bubonic plague, which ran through Europe in the 17th century.

“The plague of London was sort of in the middle of that and ran through Europe and France but somehow Paris never got hit.

“Which seems counterintuitive because with all the movement you would’ve thought Paris would’ve been one of the worst spots but it actually didn’t get hit at all.”

Nealon has a theory that Paris’ lucky escape could be due to the large amount of lemonade that was being drunk there at the time.

He says in order to spread, the plague has to travel from rats to humans via fleas, which would’ve been hard hit by the lemons.

“It was this big fad and everyone in the city was drinking lemonade and they’d have vendors walking around and throwing all the lemons and whatnot with limonene, which is an insecticide, in the garbage where the rats would’ve gone, it would’ve broken up the circle that sort of creates the bubonic plague.

“Limonene is still sprayed on your dog to get rid of fleas.”

Nealon says wars have also been started by food – or lack of – including the Crusade, which began in 1095 when armies from Western Europe went to fight in the Middle East.

“The People’s Crusade, which was one of the biggest parts of the Crusade, it was basically just a starving mob of peasants who had been whipped up into a frenzy by the Pope and by Peter the Hermit and they wandered over to the east and just sort of sacked everything.”

They brought back carp to be used in European fish farms, which were far more effective in producing protein for the masses.

He says historically dinner parties have often been a show of power, with one example being during the French Revolution.

Men Splitting Cacao Pots on 50 Cedis 1980 Banknote from Ghana.

Men splitting cacao pots in Ghana. Photo: 123rf

“The king had actually brought everyone to Versailles – all the people who could afford to live at Versailles – so he would have these big dinner parties that weren’t actually dinner parties, you got to go and watch the king eat for 45 minutes.

“The price of admission was this huge thing and you had to live there with your servants and all this and every day you would go run from 10 to 10.45 and you would watch the king eat and you weren’t allowed to talk.”

Meanwhile a lot of planning for the French revolution was underway.

“So you had these two things sort of impacting each other – these grandiose wealth of the aristocracy and then you had these other people using dinner parties for this alternate source.”

Chocolate has been a vitally important food throughout history, Nealon says.

Cacao beans were used as currency by the Mayans, as they had more intrinsic value than little pieces of metal and could be used to make chocolate.

The beans were then passed on to the Aztecs but Nealon says after that they began to cause trouble.

“Everyone after that that got beans for a couple of hundred years and turned them into chocolate, there was this tendency towards chaos and violence.

“The English attacked the Caribbean islands to get the cacao plantations from the Spanish. So it had this very violent history… until the Quakers learned to make bar chocolate in the 19th century.”

In more recent times, he has a theory that the use of condiments may be impacting American history, and links the overuse of the hot sauce sriracha with the presidential election.

“The number of condiments that we use is an expression of our democratic ideals and when we go into one, the autocracy of sriracha and now this is what we have here, this autocracy of Trump.

“This is what happens when you just put the same condiment on all your foods, you get this mess that we have.”

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