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What we learn from the study of diets of previous wars and pandemics

They can teach us about food-waste management and save us from a food crisis


Updated: June 27, 2021 10:08:51 am
studyThe year of less Imagining the depths of past adversity brings a sense of gratitude for how much better off we are now. (Source: Getty Images)

Remember the good old pre-corona days when shopping for food felt like one big playful party? We marveled at the innovative offerings of producers, and coveted the latest global super foods. If everyone else was eating chocolate-covered goji berries and guzzling kale and avo smoothies, we wanted them too.
We shopped regularly at weekly farmers’ markets, and cooked only when the urge to make an interesting new recipe struck.

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A year and a half into the pandemic, the act of feeding ourselves is fraught with anxiety. With skeleton logistics and supermarkets running low on several items, much of our time is spent trying to come up fuss-free ways to cram flavour into perfectly balanced meals.

We feel overdue for some happy times, having just been dealt a bad hand of too much death and disease. Frayed nerves are craving the anodynes of restaurants, conviviality, and full-blooded merry making.

As we wait for the deadly second wave of Covid-19 to ebb, it might seem like the world has never seen anything as calamitous. This pattern of thinking would fit in with what sociologist Jib Fowles termed  chronocentrism in the 1970s,“the belief that one’s own times are paramount, and that other periods pale in comparison.”

Yet humanity has, again and again, endured pestilence, wars, pandemics, famines and the like. At all these points, we have embraced constraints and discovered the delicious creativity that can spring from making do with what we’ve got.

The emergency foods of famines and droughts have included everything from edible algae (eaten by coastal peasants during the Great Famine in Ireland of 1846–48) to the shoots and leaves of cactus (otherwise used to feed livestock) in the semi-arid areas of Brazil. During the Cambodian humanitarian crisis,
people took to eating fried tarantulas.

The Spanish Flu of the early 1900s, notes author and food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson in her blog, was associated with invalid cookery, which focused on “soft, liquid, and/or easy-to-digest foods including beef tea and other meat broths, blanc mange and other milk-based puddings….”

During the Second World War, rationing emerged as a popular strategy to enable a nutritious diet to be maintained despite shortages. In 1940, bacon, butter, sugar, meat, tea, cooking fat, jam, cheese, eggs and milk were rationed. Anyone found cheating could be fined or sent to prison.

Sequestered in the secret annex in Amsterdam, Anne Frank lamented in her famous diary: “In the twenty one months that we’ve spent here, we have been through a good many ‘food cycles’…periods in which one has nothing else to eat but one particular dish or kind of vegetable. We had nothing but endive for a long time, day in, day out, endive with sand, endive without sand, stew with endive, boiled or ‘en casserole;’ then it was spinach, and after that followed kohlrabi….”

Wartime restrictions on food called for inventiveness and thrift in the kitchen. An array of strange new foods was created ‘Potted cheese’ or crumbs of cheese, mixed with mustard, baked and served with toast, “Mock Goose,” so called because it involved a stuffing of pork knuckle, and the legendary Woolton Pie, a pastry dish of vegetables (parsnips, swede, carrots were commonly used) mixed with rolled oats, topped with grated cheese, and served with gravy.

Then there was the Wacky Cake, cooked up during the hardship of the Great Depression or the world wars. Made without butter, milk, and eggs, the confection got its name from a vigorous bubbly reaction between the vinegar and baking soda.

The legendary MFK Fisher, who chronicled her experiences of deprivation and food rationing in How to Cook a Wolf (1942), mentions a variation of this cake, made with bacon grease and spices, in the book.

Closer home in India, rawa idli originated as a result of the shortage of rice during the Second World War. To make up for the scarcity of the grain, Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) of Bangalore devised the recipe by substituting rice with semolina to supply adequate food to army camps.

It wasn’t always about wars and famines. In southern Italy, the kitchen of the poor tried to make the most of an inhospitable terrain. The cuisine, which represents peasant cooking at its most frugal, is typical in its transformation of unpromising ingredients.

A case in point is the poor man’s Parmigiano mentioned by author Pamela Sheldon Johns in her book Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking. The recipe calls for tossing breadcrumbs with garlic and spicy red pepper flakes that have been sauteed in olive oil.

The above examples underline the tremendous variation in the foods mankind can thrive on. The bottom line: We humans are exceptional in our ability to find a meal in any environment. But why excavate those gloomy times now? Pandemic lockdowns and restrictions may have disrupted workforces, trade, and supply chains, but there’s more than enough food available. And though selection is limited, our current diets aren’t anywhere near as austere they were in the past.

Yet imagining the depths of that adversity, and the degree to which humans were unable to access basic foodstuffs in the past, brings a deep sense of gratitude for how much better off we are today.

More important, these frugal diets and dishes can provide a perspective on the present by reminding us to eat in ways that are good for us as well as the planet. It is now blindingly clear that our rampant consumerism is eating into the planet. The backlash from nature is all around us, from wildfires to cyclones to pandemics, of which covid-19 may simply be the first in a series.

The food industry is among the biggest polluters of the environment. If we don’t re-calibrate the way we shop, cook and eat, we face a Pandora’s box full of consequences. The foods we choose to eat in the days, months and years to come will have dramatic ramifications for the planet. As we look to 2050, when we’ll need to feed 10 billion people, the question of which diet is best has taken on a new urgency.

Each of us has a role, both individually and collectively, to play in preserving a crumbling food system. American journalist and food activist Michael Pollan summed up the way forward for consumers in seven magical words. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Along with carbon emissions, food wastage is among the most unsavory aspects of the food system. An important way to increase food supply and decrease the environmental consequences of current food production is to reduce our individual food waste footprint.

The age of austerity ushered in by COVID-19 has taught us to manage our household waste better and reduce intake of foods that exacerbate environmental damage and food scarcity. In a sense, we are following the spirit of rationing and cucina povera in own kitchens, making great food with simple, locally
available ingredients, and devising dishes that lend themselves well to a good fridge purge.

These changes could be momentary blips — or the start of something new. Will we choose to consume thoughtfully, repurpose our leftovers, and give plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger a chance?

Or are we genetically predisposed, as Albert Camus pessimistically concluded in his masterpiece, The Plague, to forget the lessons we have learnt?
Only time will tell.

Sona Bahadur is an independent food writer and photographer based in Mumbai. She is the former editor of BBC Good Food Magazine India

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