The gravy train – Huw Halstead munches his way through the politics of modern food
Greek film Politiki Kouzina, which translates into English as ‘Cuisine of the City’, the City being Constantinople, seems a fitting point of departure for looking at the political function of food. As we learn through the protagonist’s grandfather, grocer Vassilis, spices played a huge part in the culinary lives of the Greek community that lived in Istanbul, being used to add personal identity, and achieve specific effects, with otherwise identical staple foods. Cumin, for instance, is a strong spice, that “turns people inwards”, whereas cinnamon is a liberating spice, that makes people more accepting and amiable. So, when local lady Dorothea visits Vassilis’s shop to purchase some cumin to season meatballs for a tense meeting with her fiancé’s family, he instead sends her away with cinnamon, wistfully remarking “if you want someone to say yes, use cinnamon!” Fanis, nephew of Vassilis and now a forcibly ‘repatriated’ chef in Greece, preserves a sense of Constantinopolitan identity in his new environment by using his grandfather’s knowledge of spices to distinguish his food from that of his fellow cooks. This use of spice to socially distance oneself from others is a common device. In 14th century France, aristocratic families took to importing desirable and costly dry spices, such as melegueta pepper and ginger, to emphasise their economic and cultural superiority over the masses, who would be forced to eat food seasoned with moist local ingredients, such as parsley. Such culinary social distinctions are, however, not simply limited to seasonings.
“When a man’s stomach is full,” Euripides mused, “it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor.” Ah yes, but what is his stomach full with? Hunger abated or not, the peasant’s stomach in Medieval England is no more likely to be filled with white bread and fresh fish than his Lord’s is to be filled with vegetable stew and rye bread. Naturally, the rich tend to display their wealth by acquiring more expensive cuisine than their poorer counterparts can afford, although the types of foods that are considered desirable by the well-off vary over time. What is curious, and perhaps a little ironic, is that many foods enjoy a cyclical rotation between the staple of the masses and the indulgence of the few. Salted and smoked meats, once nothing more than a necessary way for the peasantry to preserve precious meat, can now be found in delicatessens and gourmet restaurants. Bulgar wheat, considered by elderly Greek villagers to be a sign of desperate poverty, is now sold by the bagful to middle-class customers in health food shops. White bread, the medieval luxury loaf, has now been mass produced to be cheaper than brown bread, which is now considered to be healthier, and thus more desirable.
So it is for European and Asian societies, but, mysteriously, Professor Jack Goody informs us that such socially-differentiated cuisine is not characteristic of African culture, where the rich, if anything, just eat more of the same things that the poor eat. The equivalent of the better-off student eschewing Tesco Finest meats then marching into another student’s flat and eating ten packets of super noodles at once. Genghis Khan certainly followed this principle, and is renowned for throwing huge victory feasts for his army generals as a testament to his power and importance. Fascinatingly, some have even attributed the infamous Five-Second Rule (which states that any food that touches the floor may be safely consumed within five seconds) to the ferocious warlord, who allegedly boasted that any food to fall on the floor during a feast would be safe to eat for twelve hours; time, it would seem, and the discovery of germs, have moderated his original claim.
Food is of such political importance that it even invades our socio-political discourse. A typical American is as American as apple-pie, whilst someone devouring mountains of melegueta pepper is likely to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth (and iron taste buds). A hypocritically well-off socialist is a champagne socialist in England, a gauche caviar in France and a smoked-salmon socialist in Ireland. Speaking of which, and by way of wrapping up, always remember that misjudging your culinary clientele can have disastrous consequences. Tony Benn (as Minister in a Labour government), assuming working men shared his puritanical distaste for fine food, served tea and sandwiches at a meeting for Trade Union leaders. Unfortunately, knowing Mr Benn to be a particularly well-smoked salmon socialist, they had been expecting him to provide something altogether rather more lavish, and left feeling thoroughly disgruntled and vaguely insulted.