Friday , 24 May 2019

Foods that began wars and revolutions

Zubin Dsouza

Humankind has the incessant desire to go to war. It might be a clash of tribes or a small skirmish at the border; sometimes it is a war of words or a build up by the choicest use of vitriolic rhetoric or sabre rattling.

If there is anything that I have learnt over the years, it is probably that humankind will look for the flimsiest excuse possible to go to war.

Sometimes wars or revolts are justified.

Around 30 BC, Rome took over Egypt because it was the largest producer of wheat and Roman citizens were starving.

When the British mandated that their American colonies should pay taxes for items such as tea, already simmering tensions were brought to the fore. A separatist group known as ‘Sons of Liberty’ entered the ships berthed at the Boston harbour and threw all the sacks of tea into the sea. The event known as ‘The Boston Tea Party’ became the clarion call for what would be the American Revolution.

When Indian soldiers in the employ of the British East India Company received a new batch of cartridges in 1857; there were specific sets of instructions related to their use. To employ the new bullets, the outside seal had to be ripped apart by the soldier’s teeth before they were placed in the rifles. Unfortunately for the soldiers who were mostly adherents of the Hindu and Muslim faith, the cartridges were coated with beef and pork fat; both these products were prohibited for consumption according to their respective religions. This was the spark that led to a nationwide revolt that later came to be known in history as the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’.

The British did do a lot of things during the period when they controlled the government of India. Amongst their many boo-boos was a law that taxed salt.

Now salt is something that is an essential for every household. Since most Indians were already reeling under several taxes and the difficulties of poverty, this was something that was truly unwelcome.

Mahatma Gandhi stepped in and led a nonviolent protest called the ‘Dandi Salt March’ that basically shamed the rulers to allow people to receive salt without paying the government anything.

But not all ‘salt wars’ were bereft of violence.

By the late 15th century, the country of Italy as we now know it hadn’t yet been formed. It was basically several states that coexisted within the same realm with each one trying to usurp power from the other. In the midst of this melee, somewhere, Venice and the venetians managed to garner all the rights to the mining and distribution of salt. This was resented by most of the other states and one fine day, Duke Ercole of Ferrara which was a neighbouring state decided to take over the operations of the salt works that lay within his state borders at Commachio. The venetians were incensed and declared war which quickly spread to other states in the region. History has a lot more to add but basically the end was a treaty that left Venice victorious.

The French aristocracy didn’t fare much better. The populace was demanding bread and Marie Antoinette the Austrian born princess committed a faux pas by suggesting the impoverished peasants should eat ‘brioche’ instead. Brioche, a very rich bread, later on got mistranslated into the oft quoted phrase where she asked them to eat cake. Now in her defence, she was Austrian and did not understand French very well and brioche was the only bread that she was used to. This did not help the simmering tensions and she lost her head to the guillotine along with probably all the landed gentry in the country.

The French really take their bakes seriously!

When Mexico broke away from Spain around 1838, there was chaos and lawlessness during the transition. When looters damaged the pastry shop of Chef Remontel, he approached the Mexican government with a claim for damages. When he realised that he was not taken seriously, he petitioned the French government.

It is not known whether the French thought highly of his pastries or were just using it as an excuse to flex their military muscle but they placed a damage claim of 600,000 pesos before the Mexicans. This was just about 600 times more than the actual damages.

The Mexicans resisted and the French used the opportunity to block the ports and cause havoc with the economy. At the end, the Mexicans relented and paid the French what they had originally demanded.

Another great military power that used to throw their weight around was the Ottomans. When Sultan Selim II was in charge, he was more interested in binge-drinking wine as opposed to running a country. When his cellars started running dry, he decided that the next best course of action would be to occupy Cyprus since his favourite wines came from there. The Cypriots were having none of it and in the ensuing struggle; the Ottoman navy was routed and so began the decline of one of the greatest military forces in the world.

The greatest food-war story however is a story of peace. In North Africa, the Amazigh tribes were having a go at each other for a very long time. Finally a truce between the warring parties was brokered. The terms of the truce were simple; each tribe had to cook a traditional breakfast for the other.

They have managed to keep the peace ever since.

If only we could all take a lesson from them and learn!