Monday, November 20, 2006

Our great fortune: an abundance of food

Perhaps thinking about food and its pleasures is in itself selfish, when so many people on our planet are not well fed. Hunger has been a constant experience throughout history, while delight in food may have appeared only with settled agriculture. Agriculture created surpluses, which allowed such delight. But periodically the crops failed, and the farmers suffered the same fate as their nomadic ancestors in similar circumstances.

In starting a food blog I want to think as well about how people have coped in the past when famine struck. Grain in the form of bread, porridge, or even beer was often the mainstay of the diet of people who lived on the land. Although farms produced diverse food, the most valued and tasty nourishment may have frequently fed only the privileged.

European peasants had long-standing practical methods for making some facsimile of bread during grain-harvest failures and other disasters: "When the dark days of famine came, the [Italian] peasants tried to make bread with an infinite variety of materials. In practice almost anything could be used to prepare a rude surrogate: darnel or tares, licorice, erba del vetro (a rough grass commonly sown in fallow fields, used as animal feed), roots, thistles, various leaves, scorzonera, hawthorn, etc." Other famine breads could be made from acorns, chestnut flour, grass, bran, and other less desirable foodstuffs such as pear-tree or apple-tree sawdust or animal fodder. Children in those days would sing: "The master gets the grain, the peasant gets the straw." (Camporesi, The Magic Harvest, pp. 23-4 and 95)

When their crops failed, English farmers may "have eaten the bark from trees and grass from the fields. . . . the French peasantry, in their extremity, ate unripe grain, roots, grass, and the intestines and blood of animals that had been slaughtered as food for the better-off." (Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England, p. 8)

In 1585-6, French peasants were "forced to eat acorns, wild roots, bracken, marc and grape seeds dried in the oven and ground into flour -- not to mention pine bark and the bark of other trees, walnut and almond shells, broken tiles and bricks mixed with a few handfuls of barley, oats or bran flour." They also ate "bread made from a mixture of couch grass and sheep's entrails." Even in good times, peasants would practice eating bark and other inedibles to ensure that they could still survive in case of famine. (Mennell, All Manner of Food, p. 26 and MacClancy, Consuming Culture, p. 44; the source for the "practice famine" is Eugen Weber)

One very famous famine drove roughly half the Irish nation to America about 150 years ago. The potato crop, sole nutrition of poor rural families, became infected and inedible. Irish farms produced a variety of other agricultural products, but these were not the right or the property of the poor, who died in shocking numbers. Hogs and grain were being sent to England, where politicians invoked a free market. Was not each individual responsible for his own welfare or his family's.

Are we better than that now?

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