Food, War, and Revolution

by Fernando Perfas

| Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

In the annals of human history, wars and revolutions have shaped nations’ social and political make-up. Invading armies often sacked cultural institutions, such as the burning of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, or the Greek Acropolis by the Persians, or the Persian Persepolis by Alexander the Great, or the ancient library of Alexandria in Egypt by Julius Caesar, and finally, the Mongols who razed cities and cultural edifices to the ground in their historic conquests across Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Empires go on a rampage to subdue enemy armies or convert natives into a new religion or ideology. In more recent history, Bolshevik Russia eradicated a class of intellectuals deemed a threat to their hold on power. The Chinese Cultural Revolution burned and forbade reading classical literature considered anti-revolutionary, setting back their countries’ intellectual and cultural lives for decades.

Despite these upheavals in human history, food preparations or culinary traditions were never suppressed or eradicated. For tactical reasons, invading armies might cut off the food supplies of adversaries, but they seldom purposely burn down kitchens. Instead, the conquerors often adopted traditional dishes and indigenous food items and took them home. No matter how foreign the taste of new delicacies, the intruders eventually acquired the taste for them. They also introduced their own cuisine, which eventually became indigenized, enriching both the conquered and the conqueror’s cuisines.

We can only thank the role of food as a safe (unless laced with poison) source of comfort. The ritual of offering food and drinks even to strangers or potential adversaries promoted a feeling of comity.

The quest for silver and gold, the real reason military expeditions were undertaken, eventually dissipated. But the legacy of newly discovered food and food sources could last centuries. Take the cacao bean, for example. It is native to Central and South America and is the forerunner of chocolates. Now a multi-billion-dollar industry and a commodity known in all corners of the world, chocolate had its beginnings in the Olmecs of Mexico and the Mayans of Central America. The Spanish conquistadors brought it to Europe, and the rest is history.

“Despite these upheavals in human history, food preparations or culinary traditions were never suppressed or eradicated. For tactical reasons, invading armies might cut off the food supplies of adversaries, but they seldom purposely burn down kitchens.”

Neither did the Spanish suppress the cultivation of such staples as corn or beans in the region. Corn was the main source of indigenous alcoholic beverages, such as chicha. Besides cacao and corn, the natives of Mexico also introduced tobacco to Europeans. These were food and spirits and recreational pastimes that promoted social amity.

On the other side of the world, drinking tea was not only adopted by the British, who colonized the natives of the Indian sub-continent; it was elevated by British high society to its culture. The French, who occupied Indo-China, brought the lowly snail dish and frogs’ legs from what is now Vietnam back to France. These exotic Oriental dishes eventually became French delicacies known as escargot and cuisses de grenouille.

The venerable coffee bean originated in Northeastern Africa in what is now Ethiopia. Later, the cultivation and consumption of coffee spread to the Middle East and the rest of the world. In the case of coffee, religious groups, merchants, and empires contributed to its spread, consumption, and popularity.

Enjoying foreign food and beverages is often an acquired taste, yet conquering armies adapt to what the vanquished had to offer. Except for prohibiting the consumption of pork and alcoholic beverages among Muslims and beef among Hindus, it is interesting to note that food preparations or cuisines are seldom a bone of contention in conflicts.

“There is something about food and beverages that soothes the mind and warms the heart.”

No victorious army had ever declared that local food is replaced by a particular cuisine they preferred. Instead, peace treaties were clinched over dinner and local beverages, and after the meal, the enjoyment of tobacco smoke. Dinner parties that feature the host’s local cuisine are integral to gatherings of international leaders and various conferences. A timeless tradition that goes far back in time.

There is something about food and beverages that soothes the mind and warms the heart.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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