Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Yakuniku - The Emperor's new dish

If you eaten in a Japanese restaurant, chances are big that you devoured Yakiniku, grilled meat. You probably believe it is developed from a long tradition of street vendors selling barbecue. Nothing could be further from reality. At the age of twenty, Emperor Meiji staged a remarkable new year’s party in Tokyo January 1873. As part of efforts to modernize Japan into the direction of the model of an enlightened Nation state –Meiji means “enlightened rule” - , guests were dressed in western style cloths and on the plates French style food was served. Most remarkably, there was beef and the Emperor himself ate beef in public. By this he broke a more than thousand year old taboo. The first decree against eating meat was issued on 675 in Japan and was repeated several times over the almost eleven hundred years before that remarkable party.[i]

What we eat and how we eat it is to a very large extent shaped by many other forces than consumer demand. Many of the shifts in diet are consequences of power politics, capitalism and technology of modern imperialism. For example, by introducing, among other things, rice, cattle, coffee and sugar-cane to the Americas, Europeans, in turn, not only altered the local foodways, but also made the economies of American societies part of global markets[ii].

When I grew up in Sweden all our bread was sweetened, and I thought that was normal. But recently I came to realise that this was a result of public policy forty years before I was born. During World War I there was a shortage of grain in Sweden, but a surplus of sugar. Therefore the authorities commanded bakeries to mix sugar with the flour to keep people sated and happy. Once eating the sweet bread we got used to it – it became something we chose.

“War is probably the single most powerful instrument of dietary change in human experience” writes Sydney Mintz in Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past. Under conditions of war, old habits may be surrendered more easily and new ones established with less resistance than would be the case in peaceful circumstances. Katarzyna J. Cwiertka studied the food in Japanese canteens and observed that the menues in modern day Tokyo are made up of dishes that are luxury versions of those served in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy half a century earlier.

World War II reshaped food preferences of American citizens, both those who were drafted into the armed forces and civilians at home. This transformation of diet was also on close cooperation with the food industry. The President of Coca Cola, Robert Woodruff, ordered that every man in uniform should get a bottle of Coca-Cola for 5 cents, wherever he is, and whatever it costs the Company. In 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower sent an urgent cablegram to Coca-Cola, requesting shipment of materials for 10 bottling plants. “During the war, many people enjoyed their first taste of the beverage, and when peace finally came, the foundations were laid for Coca-Cola to do business overseas.” is how Coca Cola company describes the effect on its web site[iii].

As for many other industries, orders from the military have been a major driver of technology change. It is not only penicilin, aircrafts and the internet that are results of military demand but also canning. In 1795, a Parisian chef and confectioner, Nicolas Appert experimented in new ways of preserving foods by putting soups, vegetables, juices, dairy products, jellies, jams, and syrups in glass jars, sealing them and placing them in boiling water. In 1800 Napoleon, who is widely quoted, accurately or not, as saying, "An army marches on its stomach," offered an award of 12,000 francs to anyone who could devise a practical method for food preservation for the armies. The award went to Appert. Since the method was considered to be of strategic importance, Appert was not allowed to publish it until 1810[iv].

In a similar way as for Coca Cola, the Norman Camembert-makers were very successful in selling their cheese to the French military in World War I in sharp competition with Gruyere. Camembert won the war, and became itself part of the myth of the Great War, demanded by the million surviving conscripts[v].

[i] The politics of food, Marianne Elisabeth Lien & Brigitte Nerlich,  
[ii] Popularizing a Military Diet in Wartime and Postwar Japan, Katarzyna J. CWIERTKA
[iv] Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) No. 59.
[v] Camembert, a national Myth, Pierre Boisard

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