Category Archives: food

China’s Agricultural Revolutionaries

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5314-5338:

The transformation of agriculture in 1978 and 1979 proceeded with little instigation from the top. The peasants sensed the opportunities provided by the loosening of the party’s political control and pushed ahead. It was a process marked by wide regional variation; there seem to have been as many different names for agricultural reform experiments during this period as there are counties in China. It was also very much a matter of trial and error. When the politicians learned what the peasants were up to, they usually waited for evidence of success before they committed themselves unambiguously. Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang could claim credit for letting the farmers do what came naturally. When the experiments of the peasants bore fruit, Deng publicized their success, recognizing a good thing when he saw it. But he certainly could not take credit for giving farmers the idea.

The irony, as American anthropologist Stephen Mosher realized, was that Western scholars at the time regarded the Chinese as incorrigible collectivists. “Group thinking” was considered an indelible part of traditional culture that predisposed the Chinese to Communist ways. As a result, Mosher had come to the countryside expecting to discover evidence that the peasants were fundamentally satisfied with the stability and predictability furnished by the regime. According to scholarly reasoning, the Communist Party had taken power in 1949 largely due to the support of the country dwellers. It had promised to improve the lot of the peasantry, and in this it had surely succeeded. After all, hadn’t the Communists brought schools and basic health care to even some of the most remote villages? Hadn’t they eliminated the corruption and tyranny of the old landlords? Upon his arrival, Mosher carefully noted all the characteristics of a traditional society that skewed visibly to collective ways of doing things.

The rampant cynicism and apathy that he encountered in China’s real-existing countryside thus came as something of a shock, and his account provides a fascinating chronicle of how a preconceived view can disintegrate upon contact with reality. But amid the ruins of Mao’s utopian edifice, Mosher also discovered intriguing evidence of a powerful source of transformative energy: individual initiative. Though they were far from the places where the most important experiments were under way, the people in Mosher’s remote Guangdong village had already picked up on the spread of the household-responsibility system, and he succeeded in capturing a nice snapshot of the spirit that, once unleashed, would soon lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The old entrepreneurial mind-set of the Chinese “flared anew once opportunity presented itself,” Mosher noted. When one woman heard that the party might soon allow a return to household farming, she immediately began making plans to start cultivating her own mulberry patch, planting the bushes between the rows of trees on the farm. “You can’t do that now because people are careless when they work,” she explained to the American. “They would step on them when they are spreading mud [as fertilizer] or picking mulberry leaves. But I’ll be careful because they’ll be mine.”

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Wordcatcher Tales: 活伊勢海老

2016-12-31-12-00-55The local branch of Nijiya (‘rainbow shop’) Japanese supermarket in my neighborhood advertised live lobsters from Christmas Island on New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure which Christmas Island they were from (probably the one spelled Kiritimati in Kiribati, where /ti/ is pronounced [si]). The kanji string 活伊勢海老 on the poster gave me some trouble. The character 活 katsu means ‘living’, and the lobsters were indeed still alive. The characters 伊勢 ise presumably refer to Ise Bay off Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture south of Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture). And the last characters 海老 (which look like they could be read kairou ‘sea-old’) spell ebi (usually spelled in katakana エビ) ‘shrimp, prawn, lobster’, a general name for members of the order Decapoda. The more common name for 伊勢海老 Ise ebi is ロブスター robusutaa ‘lobster’.

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Killing Horses, Freeing Slaves at Yorktown, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1999-2026:

While Washington believed that a joint American-French assault on New York was the best option, Rochambeau was less than convinced. Their tenuous strategy sessions changed, however, in August when the French commander received a message from the French Admiral Comte de Grasse. In his letter de Grasse claimed that he was en route to Virginia with twenty-nine warships and over three thousand troops, but with hurricane season at hand and other pressing matters in the Caribbean, he could only remain until October. Time was now of the essence, and Washington and Rochambeau believed that if the Admiral de Grasse could blockade Chesapeake Bay with his fleet, Cornwallis could be trapped at his new operational headquarters of Yorktown. On August 19, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau began their march to Virginia; it would be the first time that the American commander had been home in over six years.

By October 14, the scene that was playing out at Yorktown was the stuff of legend. The Admiral de Grasse had successfully blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and the city itself was surrounded by almost nineteen thousand American and French soldiers. Like a great wall they fanned around Cornwallis’s forces, trapping them on all sides, and with de Grasse’s fleet in place the British were completely cut off from the outside world. For more than three weeks this had been the setting for General George Washington and the American rebels’ finest hour. It was also a welcome opportunity for the French to deliver a crushing blow courtesy of their world-famous brand of siege warfare.

Inside his headquarters in the besieged city, Cornwallis was growing desperate. His ramparts were being descended on at a rapid rate, and his food supply was running low. Clinton had sent reinforcements southward, but they would be unable to break the French blockade over the Chesapeake. To save vital stores for his men, Cornwallis had taken to extreme measures in a futile attempt to hold out for support. With supplies running low, the general ordered that all of the army’s horses be slaughtered at once and thrown into the York River. [Hessian Captain Johann] Ewald wrote that within days the tide brought the bloated carcasses back to shore, and his Germans were haunted by the somber and chilling sight. In the waning hours of what would be his last battle in North America, the British general took his desperate attempt to hold out a step further. After killing the camp’s livestock to save grain for his men, Cornwallis looked to further eliminate any usage of food that he considered unnecessary. His next demand though would trouble Ewald more than nearly any other experienced yet in America.

On October 15 the general ordered that all slaves, with no discrimination between men, women, or children, be expelled from the camp. In a wave of frenzy these people were thrust from behind British lines and abandoned in the no-man’s-land between Cornwallis and his besiegers. As the enslaved families scattered in the confused melee, Ewald could not sit back and watch. On his own initiative, the captain and his party of Jägers leapt from behind their defensive lines to drive the abandoned people to safety. Ewald recalled the event with great vigor and explained that he led a party of his men into the teeth of the firefight at their own risk. He continued by stating that in hindsight the order was far too dangerous to justify at the time, but he and his Germans could only think of the young families in harm’s way. They were overcome with the desire to usher them to safety.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1781, THE WHITE FLAG OF TRUCE FLEW OVER THE British position at Yorktown and Cornwallis had surrendered.

Today is the second anniversary of the sudden death of my closest brother, just one day short of his 64th birthday. He was a history professor who never got to finish his book on mercenaries (broadly defined) in Colonial America, including Capt. John Smith and Cmdr. John Paul Jones (who later fought for Russia against the Turks). My brother had many stories of mercenaries who proved more rational and humane than the citizen soldiers whose causes they were supporting. John Paul Jones, for instance, was horrified at Russian tactics against Turkish troops and civilians, and the Hessian captain Ewald in the passage above was as deeply disturbed by the barbaric tactics of the Iroquoian allies of the British as he was by Cornwallis’s decision to expel slaves from his besieged forces in Yorktown.

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Wordcatcher Tales: lych gate, barley-sugar chimney, bloater

Here are some more English words new to me that I found in Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013).

Kindle Loc. 2975:

Designed by a happy lucky-dip [grab bag] of architectural elements taken from all periods – a bit of Queen Anne, some Tudor beams, a stained-glass window over the door, a lych-gate [originally the covered gate into a churchyard (litchfield, from Old English lic ‘corpse’)], a novelty turret or a barley-sugar [corkscrew-shaped (or Solomonic)] chimney – still represented the oldest English ideal of all: the image of the cottage, nestling secure within its own small piece of land.

Kindle Loc. 3019:

Other alternative residential setups included hostels, such as the one where young Bronwen Morris worked as a kitchen-maid, helping to produce three daily meals for ‘young businesswomen’, just off Sloane Square, London. Bronwen was kept busy cleaning the kitchen and peeling vegetables and was later upgraded to the post of cook, producing three large hot meals a day for seventy-two young women who came back for lunch: ‘bacon, bloaters [whole smoked herring] or kippers [split smoked herring] and boiled eggs for breakfast, rabbit stew or rabbit pie for lunch and dinner, or pork, beef with vegetables – also always steam or rice puddings and suet puds‘. By the 1920s there was a proliferation of these residences for girls working as stenographers, typists or clerks or generally what E. M. Forster’s anxious Mrs Honeychurch called ‘messing with typewriters and latchkeys’.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kedgeree, Koshary

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3187:

For Helen Mildmay White, whose family lived at Flete House, breakfast was, without fail, ‘bacon and eggs and when there were visitors, four different kinds of eggs and bacon, sausages, kidneys and always a kedgeree, cold ham and cold tongue and scones with butter and Devonshire cream.’

I read this passage a few days after having had my first—very pleasant—taste of an Egyptian dish spelled “koshary” at a restaurant named for that very dish in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. It turns out that British (Anglo-Indian) kedgeree and Egyptian kushari are from the same Sanskrit source, transliterated kichdi in English Wikipedia. Its basis is rice with legumes, like rice and beans in so many other cultures, but the added ingredients vary greatly around the world. A relatively recent addition to the Egyptian version is macaroni.

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The Navajo Joyful Walk Back West in 1868

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 8215-8256:

General Sherman rose and spoke first. “The Commissioners are here now for the purpose of learning all about your condition. General Carleton removed you here for the purpose of making you agriculturalists. But we find you have no farms, no herds, and are now as poor as you were four years ago. We want to know what you have done in the past and what you think about your reservation here.”

Barboncito stood up to answer for the Navajos. The Diné had finally come to realize the importance the bilagaana [< Span. Americana] placed on having a leader, a single representative of the whole tribe. They regarded Barboncito as their most eloquent spokesman. He had great poise, a calmness at the center of his being. But an unmistakable passion also rose from his words and gestures. As he talked, his long whiskers bristled and his tiny hands danced. He spoke for a long time, and Sherman let him go on without interruption.

Barboncito said that he viewed General Sherman not as a man but as a divinity. “It appears to me,” he said, “that the General commands the whole thing as a god. I am speaking to you, General Sherman, as if I was speaking to a spirit.”

The medicine man continued. “We have been living here five winters,” he said. “The first year we planted corn. It yielded a good crop, but a worm got in the corn and destroyed nearly all of it. The second year the same. The third year it grew about two feet high when a hailstorm completely destroyed all of it. For that reason none of us has attempted to put in seed this year. I think now it is true what my forefathers told me about crossing the line of my own country. We know this land does not like us. It seems that whatever we do here causes death.”

Barboncito then explained to Sherman his aversion to the prospect of moving to a new reservation in Oklahoma, an idea that the government authorities had lately been floating among the Navajos. “Our grandfathers had no idea of living in any other country except our own, and I do not think it right for us to do so. Before I am sick or older I want to go and see the place where I was born. I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country except my own. This hope goes in at my feet and out at my mouth as I am speaking to you.”

Sherman was visibly touched by Barboncito’s words. “I have listened to what you have said of your people,” he told Barboncito, “and I believe you have told the truth. All people love the country where they were born and raised. We want to do what is right.”

Then Sherman said something that gave Barboncito his first stab of hope. “We have got a map here which if Barboncito can understand, I would like to show him a few points on.” It was a map of Navajo country, showing the four sacred mountains and other landmarks Barboncito immediately recognized. Sherman continued, “If we agree, we will make a boundary line outside of which you must not go except for the purpose of trading.” Sherman carefully showed Barboncito the line he was considering and warned him of the dire consequences of straying beyond it. “You must know exactly where you belong. And you must not fight anymore. The Army will do the fighting. You must live at peace.”

Barboncito tried to contain his joy but could not. The tears spilled down over his mustache. “I am very well pleased with what you have said,” he told Sherman, “and we are willing to abide by whatever orders are issued to us.”

He told Sherman that he had already sewn a new pair of moccasins for the walk home. “We do not want to go to the right or left,” he said, “but straight back to our own country!” A few days later, on June 1, a treaty was drawn up. The Navajos agreed to live on a new reservation whose borders were considerably smaller than their traditional lands, with all four of the sacred mountains outside the reservation line. Still, it was a vast domain, nearly twenty-five thousand square miles, an area nearly the size of the state of Ohio. After Barboncito, Manuelito, and the other headmen left their X marks on the treaty, Sherman told the Navajos they were free to go home.

June 18 was set as the departure date. The Navajos would have an army escort to feed and protect them. But some of them were so restless to get started that the night before they were to leave, they hiked ten miles in the direction of home, and then circled back to camp—they were so giddy with excitement they couldn’t help themselves.

The next morning the trek began. In yet another mass exodus, this one voluntary and joyful, the entire Navajo Nation began marching the nearly four hundred miles toward home. The straggle of exiles spread out over ten miles. Somewhere in the midst of it walked Barboncito, wearing his new moccasins.

When they reached the Rio Grande and saw Blue Bead Mountain for the first time, the Navajos fell to their knees and wept. As Manuelito put it, “We wondered if it was our mountain, and we felt like talking to the ground, we loved it so.”

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The Navajo as Pastoralists

From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 423-451.

The Navajo, almost alone among American Indians of the West, were primarily a pastoral people—shepherds, shearers, eaters of mutton, drinkers of goat’s milk, master spinners of wool. Navajos followed the slow and watchful life known among anthropologists as transhumance, a methodical seminomadism built around the seasonal moving of flocks to higher and lower ground in search of grass. This way of life was, in fact, an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world but nearly unheard of in North America. As pastoralists, the Navajo lifestyle was in some sense more akin to that of ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Arabs than to contemporary tribes of Native Americans.

The famous loomed wool blankets of the Navajos were among the finest in the world, patterned in bold, crisp geometric designs of red and black, and so tightly woven, it was often said, that they could hold water. (On the Santa Fe Trail, one Navajo blanket was worth ten buffalo robes.)

For the Navajos, everything revolved around the sheep. They talked directly to their flocks, gave them pollen to eat, and sang quaint songs to them on cold winter nights to protect them from freezing. “The sheep is your mother,” the Navajos told their children, “the sheep is life.” Most of their implements and artifacts were made from the hides, bones, and sinews of sheep and goats. Navajos slept on sheepskins. They made their carrying sacks from wool blankets sewn together with soapweed stalks. They ate every part of the animal—lung and liver, head and heart—even the blood, which they boiled and mixed with corn mush to make a thin, pinkish gruel. A special Navajo delicacy was sheep intestines tightly wound around a string of fat and roasted directly on the coals.

When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the Navajos found that the tough and surefooted churro sheep which the conquistadors brought with them was perfectly suited to their harsh rock world. Originally adapted for the spare environment of upland Iberia, the spindly-legged churro could eat nearly anything and travel long distances and climb steep cliffs. The churro’s wool was tight and coarse, and because it contained little natural oil—other breeds of sheep grew hair often greasy with lanolin—it could be spun without needing washing.

The horse, which also came with the arrival of the Spanish, profoundly changed Navajo life as well. Perhaps most significantly, horses gave the Navajos the speed and mobility to become sheep robbers on a large scale, thinning the flocks of the long and vulnerable Rio Grande Valley with impunity. The horse thus accelerated their pastoral culture. Less than a century after the arrival of the Spanish, the sheep had become the Navajo currency, their mark of status, their food and clothing and livelihood, and the centerpiece of their bedouin life—a form of movable wealth.

But the Navajos were far more than raiders of flocks; they also grew crops, tended orchards, carried on a vigorous trade, staged elaborate rituals, and composed epic stories and songs of a fastidious tonal complexity. The Navajos had a hand in everything, it seemed. They were horse people, cattle people, farmers, hunters, gatherers, weavers. They even occasionally ventured out onto the prairie to hunt bison, like the Plains Indians. They were clear-eyed pragmatists and far-out mystics. They were not sedentary, like the Pueblos, but neither were they strictly nomadic, like the Utes. They were the great in-betweeners, hard to pin down, semiwanderers rooted to their land but moving widely over it from season to season to make the best use of a stark desert topography.

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