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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