A hungry people listens not to reason, nor cares for justice, nor is bent by any prayers. [Lat., Nec rationem patitur, nec aequitate mitigatur nec ulla prece flectitur, populus esuriens.] De Brevitate Vitoe (XVIII), Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)
Chronic hunger is something that most of us in the United States will never really know.*
Yet we, like most humans, fear it. Just as people have feared it for centuries. That fear permeated ancient myths and led to such collective cultural commonplaces as the black horse of Apocalypse, generally known as Famine:
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
— Revelation 6:5-6 NIV
Goading people to find food, to prepare it, and to eat it, this primal urge affected what happened within the household, as well as the larger group.
In early human groups, as Richard Wrangham suggests in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, the practice cooking did much to alleviate the time spent eating and probably led to social contracts between males and females, the beginning of human society.
For the individual, the consequences of hunger are obvious: unless adequate calories make up any deficit, death soon occurs, unless the body adjusts to a lower-but-consistent supply of food. For households, hunger and death ensuing from it leads to disruptions in production, familial structure, and obligatory food-related ties within the local community, such as marriage, funerals, and birth celebrations. For societies and cultures, prolonged and catastrophic hunger create disruption and dissension up to a certain level of caloric deprivation; after that people tend to be too weak to protest food shortages vigorously or to do much to remedy the situation. Since the wealthy generally enjoyed vaster stores against deep hunger, elements of power, privilege and class-related entitlement enter into the equation. (Feast days in early Europe provide an interesting view of a tenuous equality between serfs and lords, which later disappeared as the mocking and ridicule became too threatening to the aristocracy.)
It’s when the breakdown in food procurement occurs — for whatever reason at the individual, familial, or societal level — that hunger becomes the goad, the impetus toward change. And it’s then that class differences become glaringly apparent.
Trying to read the history of hunger is difficult. Sara Millman and Robert W. Kates sum up the dilemma beautifully by saying, “The history of hunger is for the most part unwritten. The hungry rarely write history, and historians are rarely hungry.”**
One of the most interesting and telling accounts of hunger comes from the pen of a Bolognese cleric named Giovan Battista Segni. In his Discorso sopra la carestia, e fame (Discourse on Hunger and Famine) (1591), Segni relates the differences between the rich and poor in times of famine. The following paragraph, enumerating the possible ingredients for poor people’s bread, contrasts greatly with that recommended for the wealthy, who might be “forced” to eat whole wheat bread instead of their usual white fare:
Fine sawdust of young trees, such as pears, apples, an cherries, and their bark dried in the oven and pulverized. A quantity of this powder, combined with equal amounts of prepared copuch grass and bran, and a cauldron of mashed turnips, well sieved, and fermented fennel, forms a kind of bread which when well cooked will sustain the poor. From vine-shoots gathered when green, dried, and pulverized, chestnuts, acorns, flour made from any kind of fodder and legumes combined in equal amounts, mixed with boiled pumpkins or spent grapes, first fermented and then well cooked, you get a sort of bread. From the roots of grasses such as artichokes, rinci or carline (a kind of thistle), cyclamen, pan casiuoli and cabbage cores, well washed, dried and combined with an equal amount of couch grass or flour of legumes or fodder and well cooked, you can make bread and sustain yourself.
A pasta recipe tells a story about this sustenance. Smoked pasta, as in the highly popular spaghetti di grano arso con le vongole (burnt-flour spaghetti with clams), comes from poor women gleaning stray wheat kernels from after threshing, roasting the grains before making them into flour.
A food of extreme poverty. And a recipe for social change.
Some resources for further reading and thinking on the complicated issue of hunger in history:
A couple of excellent Web sites on famine foods:
Famine Food Field Guide (Ethiopia) with a list of plants by catagories
Books (of course!):
Hunger and History: The Influence of Hunger on Human History, by E. Parmalee Prentice (1951)
Hunger and History: The Impact of Changing Food Production and Consumption Patterns on Society (Studies in Interdisciplinary History), by Robert I. Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb (1985)
Hunger: An Unnatural History, by Sharman Apt Russell (2006)
Hunger: A Modern History, by James Vernon (2007)
*Yet hunger exists, and persists. Between 1968 and 1977, the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (also known as the McGovern Committee) studied the issue of hunger in America. United States Department of Agriculture statistics from 2007 reveal that 36.2 million people lived in food-insecure households.
**Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation by Lucile F. Newman, ed. (1995). For an account by a sufferer of hunger, see also Hunger As a Factor in Human Affairs, by Pitirim A. Sorokin (1975, based on a 1922 manuscript written by the author who experienced firsthand the great Russian famine of 1921. A Russian sociologist, Sorokin later taught at Harvard and chaired the department of sociology there, which he founded.) In addition, In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín, edited by Cara De Silva (1996), provides a tangible example of the impact of hunger on people’s mental processes, in this case Czechoslovakian Jewish women held by the Nazis at Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen