Hunger is best sauce. Or the republican culinary tradition

Hunger is the best spice. Hunger is the best pickle.

Hunger is the Best Sauce. British postcard from a series on proverbs

If you google “hunger is the best sauce,” you’ll come across lots of variants (pickle, spice) as well as lots of attributions from Socrates to Cicero to Cervantes. It’s a proverb that crops up in almost all European languages.

And you’ll run across several explanations of the meaning of the phrase. Everything tastes better when you are hungry, perhaps, or being hungry makes you less concerned about the taste of the food.

Well, yes.  Both of those are true. What they miss, though, is that this phrase is the campaign slogan, if you will, for the republican culinary tradition that stretches from the Greeks, the Romans, and the Christian Fathers to modern Europe and America (and that I wrote about in my piece on Thanksgiving).

Through most of the past five thousand years, the norm was monarchical or aristocratic dining where every rank of society had a cuisine appropriate to that rank.  High cuisines, marked by appetizers, sauces, and sweets, exotic foods brought from long distances, prepared by professional cooks and served with great ceremony, were the exclusive right of the monarch and his court.

Those who wanted republics instead of monarchies used high cuisines as one of target of their attacks.  Their argument went like this.

Appetizers, sauces, and sweets all titillate the appetite, causing diners to eat even when they are not hungry.  Put another way, they create an unnatural or unbridled appetite (often called gluttony in the Middle Ages and think about contemporary discussions about sugar addiction).

They do so by using ingredients that are expensive (or at least that were expensive for much of history): salt for the salty appetizers; spices or meat stock for the sauces; and honey or sugar for the sweet things.

Thus the unbridled appetite becomes twofold: a physical appetite for these foods whose delicious tastes kept diners eating past the point of satisfaction; and an economic appetite for the ingredients.

Since many of these ingredients were not available within the state, this unbridled appetite made people greedy.  It meant that either they spent money beyond state boundaries, emptying coffers.  Or just as bad, it made them want more territory, propelled them into war against their neighbors.

If all this sounds a bit over-stated it’s worth remembering just how ruinous state banquets could be in the past.  And here’s another. Whether it was the ingredients, the costly china and silverware, or simply the length of the occasion, they consumed a high proportion of the state budget.  It was a proportion that dwarfed Nancy Reagan’s expenditure on china or the just over a million dollars for two state banquets in the Obama administration.

In a republic, so the republicans argued, citizens should listen to their natural appetite.  They should dine on good, simple, food from their own region, stopping when they reached satiety, not on food gussied up with sauces that made them continue eating long after hunger (their natural appetite) had been satiated. Or, in other words, they should recognize that hunger was the best sauce.

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If you want to read more about the long tradition of republican, anti-monarchical dining, the relevant sections of Cuisine and Empire are these: Socrates rejects Persian imperial feasting in Plato’s Republic (70-71); Cato, Seneca, Celsus and others advocate frugal dining in the Roman Republic (74-79); the Christian fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria pick up republican culinary philosophy, urging Christians to avoid stimulating unnatural appetites with sauces and sweets (169); all those against French high cuisine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including French philosophes, English protestants, Russian conservatives, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Dutch, and many in the American colonies pick up on Roman republican culinary philosophy (222-224; 225-231; 237); the theme is taken up again in twentieth century America (320).

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Some other interesting topics to explore in connection with republican culinary philosophy.

How does a republic cope with state and diplomatic dinners?

Why is there such a tight link between domesticity and home cooking?

How do those who accept a republican culinary philosophy deal with French cooking?

To what extent do these issues still underly contemporary discussions of food politics?

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14 thoughts on “Hunger is best sauce. Or the republican culinary tradition

  1. steve baker

    My Serbian grandmother had a saying along this vein:

    To miriše zbog svoje ništavilu. / It smells of its nothingness.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, Steve. That’s not one I know. I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing though. In what context did she use it?

      Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      No, but sweeteners (honey, for example, or sugar when it became available) were seen as one of the chief triggers of “unnatural appetite.”

      Reply
  2. kay

    ” … titillate the appetite, causing diners to eat even when they are not hungry.”

    Something about this niggles in the back of my mind and makes me think of the much castigated “fast food” franchises now enchaining the globe. Is this the a monarchy? the a goad to greed?

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Kay, well there is something to the view that the choice of food available in supermarkets/fast food chains/family dining/upscale restaurants would have been the envy of monarchs in the past. We can all eat like kings now.

      Reply
  3. Judith Klinger

    Pondering ‘hunger is the best sauce’, leads me to thinking that perhaps ‘glorious food is the opiate of the people’? Equating the endurance of food shortage with frugality, and superior morals is a very powerful weapon. Fascinating.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hunger here should not be understood to mean food shortage, Judith, though I admit that that’s not clear from the very short proverb. It’s meant instead to distinguish natural appetite (healthy hunger) from unnatural appetite (continuing to eat even when satisfied). Republican diners (who were not the poor) believed in what became called in Europe and the US an ample sufficiency or some such phrase.

      Reply
  4. Cynthia Bertelsen

    You don’t mention the Native American practice of the potlatch, common on the NW coast of the US – where feasting occurred, to show power. There’s a good deal of that element in the state dinners, regardless of the politics.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I don’t mention them, Cindy, because I am more concerned here with explicit theories about the connection between theories of the state and different kinds of cuisines. You are absolutely right, though, that food was used to express power and status both before formal theorizing and in parallel with it.

      Reply
  5. Robert Carnegie

    So, is feasting ever allowed for republicans? And how does all of this differ between small r and big R?

    Also, is gravy an allowable substitute for sinful sauce, or is it still wrong? And are you quite sure about serving cranberry at Thanksgiving being a Muslim tradition?

    As for monarchy and fast food, I suppose we think of golden arches, or of Burger King – or the aristocratic military image of Colonel Sanders.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Feasting is allowed. After all, Thanksgiving is a feast. But it’s a feast of everyday ingredients, an ample plenty for all. It’s not a feast designed to show aristocratic privilege.

      All sauces are suspect. But gravy uses neither expensive wine nor expensive cream, two key ingredients in aristocratic modern western sauces (spices would have played this role in medieval cuisines).

      Cranberries as such, no. But a sweet sour relish goes back to the medieval period when European dining owed much to the Muslim tradition.

      And an interesting comment about fast food chains. These really do democratize the white bread, beef, and chicken that were the privilege of the very wealthy well into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries even in Britain.

      Reply

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