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An Historical Sauce

Food is what we eat. It’s the calories that our bodies transform into energy. It’s simple. However, food, like most things throughout history, is politically loaded. It doesn’t always sit innocently on a plate, but rather, it changes history. Humans have eaten food regardless of time or place. Indeed, the need for food is one of the few things that has remained constant in people’s daily lives.

Sugar, tea, coffee and chocolate were first introduced into the UK in the 1700s having been sourced from Britain’s colonies. The trade of these exciting new foods brought alien cultures together for the first time – and coffee houses gave them a place to be discussed. It’s not so much of a stretch to argue that tea and coffee influenced the Enlightenment. Even a lack of food has caused shifts in history. The potato famine in Ireland lasted for seven years for instance, leaving an estimated one million residents dead, and another one million fleeing the country in search of food and work.

So food can help to bring about change, but it also acts as a signifier. While the need for food may be transcendent, access to specific types of food is anything but. The humble shopping list can tell us much about important things like class and religion. There are huge elements and class values attached to a dinner that is served up every night, whether it be a frozen meal or Nigella’s gnocchi, whether it be steak and chips or a truffle-infused Pecorino bake. If we zoom out, food can tell us about groups of people too. Much has been made of the introduction of McDonald’s in both Mecca and Cuba – signifying (arguably) the victory of Western capitalism.

National cuisines and recipes carry meanings and signify a community and agricultural practices of an area. Indeed, foods like haggis, mushy peas, dim sum, shish kebabs and croissants are more than just foods. National foods tie with national days and religious festivals as well. The Scottish have neeps and tatties on Hogmanay, or New Year’s Eve, while Americans have turkey at Thanksgiving. Food is even used to symbolise the Jewish exodus from Egypt during a Passover Seder. Historians have argued that the 1857 Indian Rebellion was caused, in part, by British troops greasing gunpowder cartridges with pig fat and insulting both Hindu and Muslim troops.

Thus, we would be remiss to assign food to the add-on, the side dish of history. Food doesn’t just fuel history. It isn’t just the escargot that Napoleon ate before the Battle of Waterloo or the jelly doughnut that Kennedy mistook himself for when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Food is history. Food, like people, is a living, constant reminder of change.

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