Category Archives: food

British Indian POWs in New Guinea

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6755-6767:

As far back as 10 December 1944, the first two Indian prisoners of war had been found by an Australian patrol. Indians had been brought in by the Japanese to work in labour companies, and these two had walked for forty-five days from Wewak. The advance towards Balif in March gathered up more emaciated Indians: Sandy Pearson released some who had been kept in bamboo cages and were unable to stand. In March 1945, Gavin Long talked to a released Indian who had been captured in Singapore and brought to Wewak with about 500 other POW-slaves. Long wrote, ‘I have never seen a man so thin, he was literally skin and bone.’

The 2/8th Battalion recovered 102 Indian prisoners of the Japanese. Despite their starving condition, they refused bully beef because their Hindu faith proscribed it. One man who had survived a Japanese massacre fifteen days previously had been carried in on a stretcher. He gratefully ate biscuits and then gathered all the fallen crumbs and placed them in his shirt pocket.

By the end of the campaign, 201 Indian prisoners had been rescued by the 6th Division, the only survivors of around 3000 who had been brought to Wewak in May 1943. As Jemadar Chint Singh later wrote, ‘At this hour of our calamity the Division worked as [an] Angel for us.’ The angels kept particularly close to Singh: of the handful of Indian prisoners recovered from Japanese control at the surrender, he was the only one not on board during an aircraft accident in which the rest perished.

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The Japanese Retreat from Lae, PNG

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4518-4577:

After the loss of the Bismarck Sea convoy the previous March, the Japanese command in Lae had seen the writing on the wall and made contingency plans for evacuation. As part of those preparations, the engineering unit of Lieutenant Masamichi Kitamoto had orders to blaze a land route across the Huon Peninsula to Lae. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Kitamoto had run for Japan. Now he would again be asked to use his legs for his country. A week after the loss of the Lae convoy, his fifty-man detachment from the 30th Regiment Independent Engineers crossed the Vitiaz Strait from Tuluvu, on the western tip of New Britain, and landed on the New Guinea mainland. With a native guide, the heavily burdened engineers set out to cross the Saruwaged Range to Lae. ‘It was just like climbing a slide from the bottom to the top,’ Kitamoto wrote later. ‘You had to bend forward deeply to bring the centre of gravity before you. It was as if someone had put a heavy weight on our heads and [was] pulling our legs at the same time.’ It only got worse: ‘The incline kept going up and up into the skies. Our legs grew stiff and we gasped for breath . . . Gazing at the clouds below us, we continued the march up the sharp incline . . . It was so cold that it seemed that our hands which grasped the rocks to pull us up would become frozen.’ At 4500 metres, Kitamoto’s engineers crossed a summit higher than Mount Fuji in Japan. Almost as testing was the descent down the other side. The expedition to Lae took three weeks, but when Kitamoto reported to Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s headquarters on 3 April, just a month after the Bismarck Sea debacle, Nakano had his escape route.

Now it was mid-September, and the Japanese situation in Lae was desperate as Kitamoto again reported to Nakano’s headquarters. When the young lieutenant entered, Nakano was in conference with his key officers, poring over a map spread across the table. Kitamoto soon learned that Nakano had ordered a retreat: there would be no final battle for Lae. Civilian employees had already left, beginning their trek on 4 September. For the troops who remained, there were two potential routes: across the Saruwaged Range to the north coast, or through the foothills of the Finisterre Range, parallel to the Markham Valley. Having traversed both, Kitamoto was asked for his opinion. ‘The second plan is impossible,’ he told Nakano, knowing that Allied aircraft could easily interdict a route through the kunai grass that covered the foothills. Kitamoto continued: ‘The first plan is difficult, but there is still some chance of success. If I had to make the final decision I would choose Plan 1. However, the sacrifice will be great.’ The die was cast: the order was issued.

The first group of Japanese soldiers, about 2000 naval troops including Kitamoto’s men, set off from Lae on 12 September, making their way inland along the west bank of the Busu River. They formed one of four groups, totalling 8650 men, headed for the high mountains with enough rations to last ten days. Intermediate supply dumps were established north of Gawan and at Iloko. The first and third groups went into the mountains via Gawan, the second and fourth groups via Kemen. Kitamoto’s engineers led the way, setting up signposts and repairing the track as they went. They crossed the Busu about 3 kilometres upstream from the now fallen kunda bridge. General Nakano travelled with the second group, which halted at the Busu for three days while a new bridge was constructed. The final organised group left Lae on 15 September.

Shigeru Horiuchi, a twenty-two-year-old private with III/238th Battalion, had arrived in Lae only a week before the Australian invasion. Since then, his unit had gone through ‘two weeks of hell,’ under constant attack from Allied bombers; ‘even the officers were trembling in funk holes and had no taste for fighting.’ Horiuchi’s company did not leave Lae until 17 September, but Horiuchi was soon forced to drop out because of a leg wound. He was captured a few days later sheltering in a native village 25 kilometres north of Lae.

In the first days of the trek, 200 men had died, mostly wounded and sick. ‘The mountains were only 500 metres high and this much casualties,’ Kitamoto observed with dismay. ‘How many will die before we clear Mt. Sarawaket, which is 4500 metres high? The sharp precipices rising before us will take many victims.’ Once the track began to rise, ‘the soldiers helped each other along, the strong carrying the rifles of weak men. However, as they grow tired, even the strong began to discard their rifles.’ Kitamoto ordered that any discarded weapons should have the chrysanthemum insignia filed off because ‘it was humiliating to throw away the arms that belong to the emperor.’

As the men weakened, the incidence of malaria increased and more men dropped out. In the first 1500 metres of the climb after leaving Kemen, 500 men died. Steep precipices dropped away on both sides of the track. ‘After we escaped the clutches of the enemy we were confronted by nature,’ Kitamoto wrote. Those who lived also confronted the corpses of those who died. ‘Using the dead bodies as stepping stones and clinging to the slippery lichen-covered rocks, the men made their way up the mountain. Fresh red blood ran from the mouths of the dead when they were stepped on and their glassy eyes stared us in the face.’ Approaching 4000 metres, the cold bit hard into lightweight tropical uniforms; though exhausted, the men were afraid to fall asleep lest they freeze to death. Another 800 men died crossing the top of the range. ‘The screaming voices of the men who slipped from the log bridges to their death in the canyons below, the wailing cries of the men who could move no more and were asking for help . . . it was a sense of hell, something quite out of this world.’

By now the rations had gone. Starving, some men ate human flesh. As he approached the summit of Mount Saruwaged, Kitamoto saw that ‘in the shadow of the rocks, three soldiers had pinned a trooper to the ground while one of them stabbed him in the heart with his bayonet. There were no signs that the dead man had asked the others to kill him. The remaining three soldiers cut slices of the dead trooper’s thigh and began to devour the human flesh.’ After Kitamoto shouted at them, ‘the men looked in my direction, flies that gathered about dead meat swarmed about their faces but they had no strength to drive them away. They had become mad with hunger and fatigue.’ Kitamoto covered the corpse and moved on.

In the end even Kitamoto’s strength gave out, and he was carried to the coast on a stretcher. He reached Kiari, some 20 kilometres west of Sio, twenty days after leaving Lae. Staff Officer Sugiyama told him: ‘I wish to bow my head in gratitude for your strong legs. Your legs saved the whole division.’ Once he recovered, Kitamoto headed back to the top of the range to help the stragglers reach the coast. The last stretcher case was brought in on 15 November. An 18th Army report showed that of the 8650 who had left Lae, 6417 survived—a loss of over 25 percent. Most of the survivors staggered into Kiari suffering from malnutrition and malaria. Although only 1271 of them were officially classified as ‘sick,’ Kitamoto wrote that all the men ‘were a group of invalids . . . in no condition to fight.’

Even on the coast, safety was not assured: three men died as they rested on the beach, crushed by a falling coconut tree. ‘At second look, I discovered that they were the men who became mad and ate their comrade during the march,’ Kitamoto wrote. His right-hand man, the native guide Rabo, also knew what these men had done. ‘Those soldiers no good,’ he told Kitamoto as he stared at the three dead men. ‘They eat friend. God punish them.’ As Rabo turned away, Kitamoto felt a shiver run down his spine.

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Massive Volcanic Eruption in New Britain, c. AD 600

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 391-417:

The most recent of these caldera-forming eruptions occurred sometime around AD 600, though its exact date is a mystery. The eruption was cataclysmic—one of the most powerful since the time of Christ—and utterly devastated hundreds of square miles of New Britain and the surrounding islands. It likely began with a period of vigorous seismic activity which generated large quantities of magma beneath the existing ring fractures. Numerous tremors shook the island over a period of days or even weeks as pressurized gases weakened one of the old fault lines. The earthquakes grew in frequency and intensity until the conditions underground finally reached a critical state. At some point, the magma chamber not only boiled over, it blew apart.

The noise must have been stupefying. The ground literally ripped apart around the weakened ring fracture, from which a great ring of fire twenty miles in circumference burst forth. Pent-up gases exploded from below, hurling a thick column of rock, dust, and ash into the sky. The tiniest particles, boosted by heat and convection, soared an estimated one hundred thousand feet into the upper atmosphere. Larger rocks and glowing blobs of magma arced back to the surface, where they splattered against the ground or struck the sea with the sound of thunder.

The greatest devastation resulted from the terrible cloud itself. Most of the material hurtling skyward eventually lost momentum, then gravity took over and the outer portions of the dark, roiling column collapsed. Superheated to more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, the material accelerated as it fell, and when it hit the ground it burst outward at more than one hundred miles an hour. Known as “pyroclastic flow,” the incandescent cloud spread rapidly over the ancient volcanoes and raced downhill to the sea, boiling the water spontaneously as it blasted across the surface. Outlying islands were wiped clean in seconds. By the time the energy finally dissipated, the fiery cloud had killed every living thing on land and marine life near the ocean’s surface for thirty miles in every direction.

Other destructive effects reached even farther. The prevailing winds carried heavy accumulations of ash fifty miles southwest of the volcano. Huts collapsed, crops were ruined, and the surviving islanders groped through blinding, polluted air. They too would be wiped out, doomed to eventual starvation unless they could quickly find a source of unaffected food.

Sometime after the eruption subsided, the unsupported roof over the empty magma chamber caved in. An oblong area approximately seven miles long and five miles wide collapsed suddenly, sliding downward for hundreds of feet. Additionally, the sea breached a portion of the southeastern rim and flooded most of the huge depression.

After the dust finally settled and the sea calmed, a large portion of the island resembled a bizarre moonscape. The pyroclastic flow had deposited grayish veneers of ash and pumice on the steep slopes of the old volcanoes, and low-lying areas around the caldera were buried under a hundred feet or more of the stuff. Based on vulcanologists’ estimations, the eruption had disgorged ten cubic kilometers of magma and debris from the earth. (By comparison, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 displaced only three to four cubic kilometers, and the explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980 displaced less than one cubic kilometer of material.)

Compare Krakatoa and Long Island (Papua New Guinea), which produced similarly massive eruptions.

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Antarctic Cuisine: Skua Piles

From Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, by Jason C. Anthony (U. Nebraska Press, 2012), p. 185:

Skua piles, named for the kleptoparasitic gull, are a USAP tradition and the clearest sign that we are a transient community. Simply put, departing people leave behind their excess stuff in a heap near their dorm recycling area, and arriving people grab what they need for their season. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you can find anythings: homemade bookshelves, insulated work clothes, flannel sheets, half-filled shampoo bottles or, less usefully, broken pencils, used batteries, and sex toys. Skua piles are so fundamental to the local culture that “skua” is as common a verb as it is a multipurpose noun. Stuff is skuaed, the wise go skuaing, and so on. Much of the food is condiments people are too lazy to return to the galley or odd items that no one really wants to eat but are unwilling to throw away. I saw the same can of fiddlehead ferns from Maine disappear and reappear over several years. Dusty jars of nearly flavorless spices that I twice claimed, never used, and returned years ago may still be snatched excitedly each summer by a desperate home-cooker. But again, anything is possible in the skua piles; I have stumbled upon rafts of cooking supplies and a new electric teakettle that someone didn’t feel like mailing home, as well as quick-cook oats, rice, and other staples there for the taking.

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Antarctic Cuisine: Aerovodka and Gristle

From Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, by Jason C. Anthony (U. Nebraska Press, 2012), pp. 146-148:

One of the exchange scientists who spent a year on a Soviet base [in Antarctica] was glaciologist Charles Swithinbank. At Novolazarevskaya with the 1963–65 Ninth Soviet Antarctic Expedition, he lived a very different life than he used to in England. As Swithinbank relates in Vodka on Ice, he learned while sailing south on a Soviet ship that his diet would be impoverished in both quality and variety. “Apart from feast days,” he wrote bluntly, “the food was not good.” Cabbage soup (borscht or shchi, depending on the type of cabbage), ragout, and compote (“an insipid rust-colored liquid with a faint taste of boiled apples”) became distressingly familiar. The quality of the beef was quite poor, all gristle and bone. Soviet cattle, he learned, fed on sparse grass.

Although the meat was poor, the butter was excellent. So was the black bread. And those feast days really were exceptional. Swithinbank sobered up after a New Year’s celebration full of black and red caviar, pickled herring, pickled mushrooms, sausage, crabmeat, and more. A May Day feast included roast chicken, crab salad, ham, salmon, smoked salmon and sturgeon caviar, apples, oranges, champagne, brandy, and orange juice stoked with airplane de-icing fluid.

Toasts drunk with de-icing fluid, called “aerovodka” by the Russians, were not restricted to holidays. At Molodezhnaya base, where Swithinbank visited en route to Novolazarevskaya, he noted that there was a more frequent aviator’s tradition: “On landing back at base after a long flight, it was the duty of the navigator to drain a litre of fluid from the aircraft’s de-icing system. Unlike some de-icing fluids, this was pure alcohol (ethanol). Once indoors, it was served to the aircrew and passengers.” One observer of a similar U.S. Antartic Program habit—drinking a rocket fuel known as JATO (jet-fuel assisted take-off)—equated the practice to that of a “warrior culture drinking blood.”

At Novolazarevskaya, the dining room was the community social center. One long table fit them all. Here he spent his year of good company, good science, and terrible food. The cook, Ivan Miximovish Sharikov, had spent over thirteen years in the polar regions as a weather observer. “The oldest, tallest, baldest, and humblest man” on staff, Ivan took on the cook’s role at Novolazerevskaya when no weather job was available. For him, as for all Soviet Antarctic staff, the pay was irresistible, since he earned five times what he might make in Russia. Ivan was not much of a cook, though to be fair he had little to work with—much of the better meat left by the previous year’s crew had gone to rot. Ivan was stuck making borcht, shchi, fish soup with bones, boiled potatoes, and lots of ragout, to Swithinbank’s dismay. Ivan’s ragout, he wrote, consisted “of stewed gristle with chips of bone, generally served with macaroni. Aside from the gristle, far, and bone, the amount of lean meat remaining could be held on a teaspoon.”

Ivan at least made a reliable porridge to swallow with the bread and butter each morning. Occasional treats included caviar, sauerkraut, and cheese. Cucumbers and tomatoes grew in window boxes, and ice cream was made from milk powder and freshly drifted snow. Each Russian expedition member also received a monthly five-hundred-gram chocolate ration but married men saved it for their wives, whom they had left behind for a very long time.

After an end-of-year inventory revealed more than one hundred missing bottles of vodka, champagne, and eau de cologne from Novolazarevskaya’s liquor stock, Ivan the cook confessed. He had a habit of taking walks alone after dinner, but Swithinbank “had assumed that it was to get a breath of fresh air as an antidote to the heat of the kitchen.” The eau de cologne was, for some Russians, an “esteemed substitute” when they ran out of vodka.

When Swithinbank returned to England, he had trouble adjusting back to his old diet. Meat, fish, and cheese made him ill. He eventually found a doctor with a good memory of World War II who diagnosed him with prisoner-of-war syndrome. After a year of high-carb meals garnished with stringy meat, Swithinbank’s body could no longer absorb high-protein English food. “The solution,” he wrote, “was simply to wean me slowly from the Russian diet.”

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Along the Sumatra Railroad, August 1945

From Chapter VI, The golden spike, in The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe, 1943-1945, by Henk Hovinga, trans. by Bernard J. Wolters (KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 276-281:

It was 15 August 1945. The previous night telexes had spread the news across the world: ‘Japan surrendered. Armistice on 15 August at 00.00 hrs.’ The Japanese officers there in the godforsaken green heart of Sumatra also knew that. They shouted: ‘Banzai Nippon’ while they knew that they had been defeated. But they kept quiet. They only talked about the railway that was finally completed at the cost of immeasurable human suffering. At the cost of more than eighty thousand dead, the vast majority of which were romushas.

The POWs who were waiting motionlessly between the trees, still had no knowledge of the surrender. With sweat dripping down their chins, they did not dare to move. Ignorant of this historical moment in the world’s history, they looked breathlessly at how the bottle on the table was uncorked, how the glasses went around and the biscuits were presented. A short while later the tense ceremony, that had lasted not even half an hour, was abruptly terminated. Tables and chairs were hastily loaded on to the lorries after the emaciated workers had also been offered a biscuit and a swig from a bottle. Then they were ordered back to the trains. One departed to the north, the other to the south, to the camp in the gorge, where fresh rumours had circulated in the meantime….

That evening, shortly before sundown, the POWs were counted and recounted. All men had returned from the railway. The Japanese commander stepped forward in front of the hundreds of almost naked human wrecks. The ribs could be counted on most of them; many were covered in wounds and tropical ulcers. With their hollow eyes they tensely watched the well-fed, arrogant Japanese. Would he announce what they had all for so long desperately wanted to hear? Lieutenant Visser interpreted:

‘Now that the railway is finished, thanks to the efforts of all of you, I have been given the authority in the name of His Majesty, the Emperor, to inform you that all of you are permitted to rest from this moment on. In a short while you will all be relocated to more pleasant parts of the country. As of today all rations of rice, vegetables and meat will be increased. You will be provided with these new rations as soon as we receive new stock. At this moment we do not have any meat or vegetables and we have only a supply of rice for a few days. Pending your relocation, you are not permitted to leave the camp.’

That was all…. The choking uncertainty lasted for over a week, while the men were hanging around the camp with nothing to do. It was probably 24 August when the first train with a real steam powered locomotive stopped at Camp 11…. On August 27 a second contingent of POWs was transferred in the same manner…. The last group from the south departed on 30 August, taking with them the entire inventory of the camp that was now completely abandoned….

‘We obtained complete certainty a little later during roll call. Lieutenant Visser stepped forward and shouted: “Today is 31 August. It is the birthday of our beloved Queen Wilhelmina. That is why together we are now going to sing our national anthem, the Wilhelmus: one, two, three…” But nobody had the courage. “Then I will do it alone”, Visser said as he began to sing. Fearfully, we looked at the Jap, but when he did not move we all joined in one after the other. At first hesitatingly, but then louder, from the heart. It was a very strange moment. I saw the Jap slowly move his legs; he put down his samurai sword and stood up. When the last words of the anthem sounded, he stood directly across from us and saluted. That was when we knew. At last! We hardly dared to believe it, but this time it was true. We were free. We cheered, shouted and cried. We were free. Finally free…’

Without an official Japanese declaration of surrender lieutenant Visser’s group was the last to find out that the war was over. Two weeks earlier the wildest rumours of a possible surrender had already been going around the first camps near Pakan Baroe ['New Market']. Mid August hope of an impending liberation was also glimmering in Camp 2 when the usually sadistic Koreans suddenly turned friendly, even inviting a group of prisoners from the camp staff to a meal! That had to occur at midnight and without knowledge of the Japanese. Naturally the place that would be least likely to attract undesired visitors and snoopers was the cemetery on the other side of the stream. There, at the graveyards, the Koreans offered the representatives of their victims a conciliatory meal. They told the captives that the war was almost over and that they, the POWs, should not be too hard on them. After all Korea had also been occupied and suppressed by the Japanese for years, so that the prisoners and the guards were actually partners in adversity….

When a few days later the news of liberation seeped through to everyone, the most heart-warming scenes took place everywhere along the railway. On 25 August at eight o’clock in the morning the POWs in Logas (Camp 9) were informed that the war was over. The Japs disarmed the Koreans, while a Korean non-commissioned officer stood to attention before a Japanese soldier third class. The next day all ducks and chickens of the Japanese camp commander had disappeared. They had been consumed by the prisoners.

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Filed under disease, food, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, labor, Netherlands, slavery, war

Maggot therapy in Sumatra, 1944

From Chapter IV, Maggots with sambal, in The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe, 1943-1945, by Henk Hovinga, trans. by Bernard J. Wolters (KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 184, 186:

A great problem in many camps was the acquisition of an adequate amount of proteins. Even though in Camp 3 little fish were caught in the river with a klamboe [= Malay kelambu 'mosquito net', also borrowed into Tok Pisin], most other camps were not near a river. Again Indonesians knew that the maggots of fire ants and coconut beetles were edible and also palatable when cooked with sambal. Doctor W.J. van Ramshorst, who was fighting a losing battle against disease, came to similar conclusions:

‘The greatest problem was the lack of food. The sick men were totally emaciated and had lost their immunity to all kinds of infectious diseases. I got the idea to use maggots from the chickens that were quickly becoming fat foraging around the latrines, feeding on the fly maggots there. There was always a cloud of flies buzzing over the holes in the ground where people were defaecating. And I thought to myself, what is good for chickens, must also be good for men. It is a filthy story, but we hauled those maggots by the bucketful from the latrines, washed them, cooked them and gave them to the sick men with sambal. On this protein rich diet their condition improved visibly.

I made another discovery in that terrible camp, where those working on the railroad were sent to die. We had no disinfectants to treat the filthy tropical ulcers. But again maggots were the solution. I bound an old rag with larvae around the wound and after a few days it was cleaned beautifully. Many still died from undernourishment, beri-beri, malaria and bacillary dysentery, for which we had no cure. But at least with those maggots we were able to save a good number of our people.’

POW Ben Wolters discovered another remedy for tropical ulcers, when two large ones developed on his left foot instep. One afternoon he was sleeping on his left side on the balé-balé [bamboo stretcher on wooden posts] with his left foot instep toward the boards. He woke up due to an itch in the ulcers, which had turned dark red. When he took a closer look and inspected them he saw tiny ants. They had removed all deleterious material. After [he removed] the tiny ants, he covered the wounds with a cloth patch and glued it with fresh liquid latex from a rubber tree. Soon the wounds were healed. And so ants and maggots made a positive contribution to the POWs’ lives.

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Just Another Imperial Expansion

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3230-3243:

If we focus only on the century following Columbus’s voyages we see Mexica and Inca warriors as losers, West Africans as fighting slaves, and Spaniards as quite reasonably contemplating a world empire. But the age of expansion began with the rise of empires outside Europe, with the Mexica fanning out across Mesoamerica and the Inca dominating the Andes, and in West Africa with the rising of the Songhay empire from the ashes of that of Mali. In Europe, the Ottomans and the Muscovites began empire building before the Spaniards, as did the Portuguese—who beat their Iberian neighbors in the race for a sea route to East Asia. And after the sixteenth century the Spanish empire was gradually eclipsed by the trading and colonial networks of the Dutch, English, and French.

Looking at human history over thousands of years, the Spanish Conquest is a mere episode in the globalization of access to resources of food production. The plants and animals of certain Old World environments and regions have a greater potential as food, and the peoples of those regions have enjoyed advantages over others as a result. But eventually, through uneven encounters, those advantages have been introduced to the previously disadvantaged regions. In the case of Europeans introducing new foods to Native Americans, the parallel introduction of Old World diseases made the encounter especially uneven, while colonialism hindered native access to these new resources. This process is too broad and complex to be understood in terms of the alleged and simple “superiority” of one group of people over another. It is also a process that is incomplete. We are still living through the long period of uneven encounters and the gradual globalization of resources.

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Odessa, a “Russian Chicago”

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 109-112:

Until the 1860s, Odessa was the breadbasket for much of the Western world, feeding a hungry European and, increasingly, global market. Foreign consuls sent breathless dispatches to European capitals about fluctuations in the prices of wheat and barley. Foreign ministers contemplated the effects of diplomatic squabbles on the supply of foodstuffs. Only with the discovery of oil farther to the east, in the Russian Caucasus and the Caspian seaport of Baku, was Odessa’s chief cash export exceeded by that of a rival Russian city.

Odessa’s commercial success lay in its position at the intersection of flatlands and seascape, where the produce of the former could be sent to markets across the latter. But a series of fortunate accidents allowed the city to enhance this natural gift. Talented administrators such as Vorontsov argued for maintaining the freeport status, which was a considerable inducement to foreign and local entrepreneurs. Improvements in the harbor allowed larger ships to enter and lie safely at anchor. The fall-off in plague outbreaks around the Black Sea reduced much of the time that ships, goods, and passengers spent in quarantine. When the Peace of Adrianople was signed between the sultan and tsar in 1829, ending nearly a decade of diplomatic bickering, trade squabbles, and outright war, Russian secured a historic set of concessions from the Ottomans, including an end to the Ottoman practice of boarding and searching Russian merchant ships. The period of relative peace that followed—from the late 1820s to the early 1850s—provided ease of shipping through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.

The economic results were immense. Grain exports from all the Russian Black Sea ports stood at a yearly average of under two million chetverts (a unit of Russian dry measurement equal to 5.77 U.S. bushels) before 1813, but by the 1860s that figure had risen to over sixteen million chetverts. Over half those exports were coming solely from Odessa. Between the 1840s and 1850s, the annual volume of grain exports to Italian ports more than doubled, while the French were importing ten times as much Odessa grain at the end of that period as at the beginning. After the late 1840s, the easing of restrictive import laws in England the introduction of hardier wheat varieties in Russia opened new markets for Odessa’s produce, well beyond the traditional Mediterranean destinations. By the middle of the century, well over a thousand ships were leaving Odessa each year. The number of British ships sailing into the Black Sea increased sevenfold between the mid-1840s and the early 1850s, with Britain accounting for a third or more of all destinations of vessels exiting the port. Wheat, barley, rye, and other grains filled the holds of long-haul sea vessels flying flags of most major European powers.

Of all these goods, the queen was wheat. Ninety percent of Russian wheat exports flowed out of the empire’s Black Sea ports, and many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Odessa derived from its production and sale. Immense herds of cattle provided manure for fertilizer in the countryside and pulled the thousands of wooden carts that bore the harvested grain from field to storage centers….

Some carters would return north with cloth, wine, or other imported goods offloaded from merchant vessels in the harbor, while others chose to transform their infrastructure into capital. The dried dung could be collected and sold as fuel to poor families, and the animals could then be given up to slaughter for meat and hides. The sweet smoke of burning, grass-rich manure mingled in the air with the reek of tallow vats and the sharp odor of tanneries, the factories that produced the bricks of processed fat and bundles of unworked leather destined for Turkey, Italy, or France.

With hundreds of thousands of head of livestock coming through the city each harvest season, dust and mud were constant features of Odessan life. Choking, white-yellow clouds, stirred up by hooves and swirled about by the prevailing winds, powdered residents like talcum. Rain turned inches of accumulated limestone grime into impassable sloughs….

An open, brick-lined drainage system, about two feet deep, ran alongside the major thoroughfares, crossed by occasional footbridges and wooden planks. But the rivulets they contained—the wastewater runoff and solid offal of houses and hotels, as well as animal dung and mud from the streets—could gag even the toughest pedestrian. The blooms of acacia trees and oleander fought back with their perfume, but it usually took a change in wind direction, blowing off the plains and toward the sea, to unburden the city of its own stench.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Menbei, Yuzusco, Hakugei

While we were shopping for light, comestible omiyage (souvenirs) to bring back from Japan this summer, we came across three products of linguistic as well as gustatory interest.

mentai + senbei = menbeiMenbei < mentai senbei – Korea is the source of one well-known item of Hakata (Fukuoka) cuisine, 辛子明太子 karashi mentaiko ‘spicy cod/pollock roe’. The name mentai apparently derives from Korean 명태 myeongtae ‘Alaskan pollock’. Its genus (Theragra) is different from that of the Atlantic pollock (Pollachius), but both fall within the highly prolific family Gadidae (< Gadus ‘cod’) ‘cod, haddock, pollock, whiting’. We bought a few boxes of spicy mentai-flavored rice crackers to share with our colleagues at work. Their pungent aroma caused some comment.

Yuzusco & ShogascoYuzusco < yuzu ‘citrus’ + (taba)sco – The fresh taste of yuzu (柚子) is very popular in Japanese cuisine and is used to flavor many different things: from savory chawanmushi to sweet honey, bitter tea, vinegar, wine, and even bath oil. We brought back some tiny jars of yuzu pepper paste and two hot sauces marketed as under the brand names Yuzusco and Shogasco (< shouga ‘ginger’ + -sco). I’m not sure if the makers of Tabasco have licensed just the last three letters of their registered trademark, but they apparently encourage co-branding. Nor am I sure where these products rank on the Scoville scale of spicyness.

Sampler of five types of shochuHakugei ‘White Whale’ – At a duty-free shop at Fukuoka Airport, we got a sampler of five small bottles of shochu, a longtime Satsuma (Kagoshima) specialty. (The cashier unboxed them and put them in little transparent baggies so we could take them through security!) They included 麦わら帽子 Mugiwara Boushi ‘barley-straw hat’, made from barley; two types of Satsuma 白波 Shiranami ‘white wave’ made from sweet potato (my favorite) with dark and light molds; 白鯨 Hakugei ‘white whale’, made from white rice; and 蕎麦蔵 Sobagura ‘buckwheat granary’, made from buckwheat. Shiranami is perhaps the most famous brand name of Satsuma shochu, but the other brand names were well chosen to reflect their ingredients. As one might expect, Hakugei tasted the most like sake. I prefer sweet potato shochu myself.

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