“Hunger is more savage than the sword,” wrote Vegetius, a fourth-century Roman military chronicler.
I was thinking about this quote when I saw the image below, of a 40-mile long convoy of Russian soldiers that was stalled because of shortages of fuel and food.
I thought about it again when I saw a video — shared by an investigative journalist from Bellingcat — apparently showing expired rations given to Russian soldiers.
Last week, I wrote about Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and specifically about how the book was Tolstoy’s argument against the so-called “Great Man Theory” of history — the idea that most people have no influence on the world, and the gears of history are turned only by a small number of heroic geniuses.
I found Tolstoy’s argument to be very persuasive. The historical essays on Napoleon in War and Peace, (which are interspersed with the story), contend that Napoleon’s single-handed strategic genius was not all it was lauded to be. Neither his victories nor his defeats were due to his commands, which were often irrelevant by the time they reached soldiers at the front.
That said — and I’m going outside of War and Peace now — when Napoleon ditched his attempts to micromanage from on high and turned to crowdsourcing, amazing things sometimes happened. That was certainly the case when it came to feeding his army.
The 18th Century Version of the X Prize
Napoleon was a science and tech booster, so in 1795 he offered a reward for research on food preservation, in the hope that his troops could carry more than just a few days’ worth of provisions.
For more than a century, some of the world’s most formidable minds had been working on the issue, including Irish scientist Robert Boyle, sometimes called the “father of modern chemistry.” To no avail. Enter Parisian confectioner Nicolas Appert.
Appert was a “jack of all trades,” according to the Can Manufacturers Institute. He had traversed the gustatory universe as a candy maker, vintner, chef, brewer, pickle maker, and more. His exceptionally wide-ranging culinary wanderings gave him an advantage over scientists who focused on the science of preservation.
“Having spent my days in the pantries, the breweries, store‑houses, and cellars of Champagne, as well as in the shops, manufactories, and warehouses of confectioners, distillers, and grocers,” he wrote in the aptly titled The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years, “I have been able to avail myself, in my process, of a number of advantages, which the greater number of those persons have not possessed, who have devoted themselves to the art of preserving provisions.”
He placed food inside of thick champagne bottles, which he sealed to make airtight and then placed in boiling water for hours. Appert’s innovation begat canned food. He preserved a whole sheep in a crock just to show it off. His solution preserved nutrients so well that scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency known as “the sailor’s nightmare,” went from deadly curse to avoidable nuisance. The main scientific epiphany — heat kills microbes — was still sixty years from being discovered by Louis Pasteur.
Appert’s method — born of Napoleon’s crowdsourcing — revolutionized public health. Unfortunately for Napoleon, it quickly crossed the English Channel, where in 1815 it fed the English troops at Waterloo.
José Andrés, an Anime Chef, and Ukraine
Any time I read news about food shortages of any kind, I think of chef José Andrés. I had a chance to hang out with him a few years ago, and he’s in the running for most delightful person I’ve ever met. He sprinkles ebullience like paprika on anyone who gets too close.
He and I and a small group had been walking together during a quick tour of a restored old mansion, when he vanished. A minute later, just as the guide was telling us what not to touch, José Andrés came charging out of a hidden door in a wood-paneled dining room bellowing, “I FOUND THE KITCHEN!” It was quite the lol moment.
He reminds me of one of the main characters from the Japanese comics/animation series One Piece, which has been running for 25 years.
The series follows the seafaring adventures of a motley team of characters in a mostly-ocean fantasy world. Early in the series, a theme emerges: most characters seem to have a particular dream or value that they will never compromise even to the slightest degree, no matter what danger they face. One such main character, named Sanji, is a ship’s cook (and martial artist who only uses kicks because hands are for cooking) whose immovable value is that he will not let anyone starve, and that includes his enemies in battle.
José Andrés reminds me of Sanji. No matter the circumstances, he wants to feed the world.
If you’re looking for a cause this week, consider contributing to World Central Kitchen. I’m going to. If you decide to donate, let me know in the comments so I can say “thank you.” I’m inspired by José’s immovable value, and his credo that we must “build longer tables” where all the world can sit and eat together.
Until next week…