Devoured by fear: The dark history of food being used for repression – Economic Times

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In April last year the first case of African swine fever was reported from China’s far western Xinjiang region. Swine fever is common in China, but this virus had jumped 1,400 km from the nearest place of incidence.

Xinjiang is home to China’s Muslim Uighur minority so pork has never been big there. The outbreak indirectly confirmed how China has been pushing pork production and consumption there, not just for the majority Han population being persuaded to settle there, but to repress the Uighurs. Forcing them to eat pork and drink alcohol is part of the state’s project to erase their Islamic identity and become compliant Chinese citizens.

We think of food as sustenance or, hopefully, a source of pleasure. Yet there is also a dark history of food being used for repression.

Most directly food is denied to starve people into submission, even whole populations, as seen in man-made famines in Ukraine (1932-33), China (1959-61) or Bengal (1943). When food is given, its nature can be a problem, as with the Uighurs.


During Partition, Hindus and Sikhs were sometimes forced to eat beef and then told they might as well become Muslim.

Food is also used to humiliate people and remind them of their low status, as with the caste oppression in India. Gandhi railed at the hypocrisy of upper caste Hindus who left Dalits with only food considered unclean to eat — and then called them unclean for consuming it. Even the smell of food will suffice for humiliation, as with Indians abroad who are embarrassed for having clothes or homes that smell of “curry”.


And food has also been used to keep a community continuously under control. One example is of Jews in medieval Spain. They had flourished during the centuries of Muslim rule, from 711 till 1492 when the last emirate of Granada fell. They were subject to some restrictions but essentially left alone by rulers who understood the value that their trade brought to the country they called Al-Andalus.

As the Christian reconquest of Spain progressed, Jews were sometimes treated as Muslim allies, but rulers generally tolerated them in order to prevent further problems as they battled against the last Muslim rulers. But as Christian power consolidated, the tolerance diminished, and in the 14th century attacks of Jews increased, culminating in widespread massacres in 1391. Mobs led by fanatical preachers exhorted Jews to convert to Christianity and, unable to imagine leaving the country they lived in for centuries, many did. The Jews who converted were called New Christians or “conversos”, but becoming one did not end their problems.

A Drizzle of Honey gives recipes for the foods that were used to betray the Jews. It is a fascinating yet fearful reminder of how something as basic as food has been used against communities.

A forced conversion will always be suspect, and rumours soon spread that conversos were still secretly following Judaism. This seems to have been one of the reasons for the creation of the notorious Spanish Inquisition, which took on the role of investigating if they were sincere Catholics.

The Inquisition knew that most people would not obviously leave evidence like Hebrew scriptures or religious objects around, so they focused on how people behaved. One of the best known aspects of being Jewish was adherence to the food rules of kashrut, or kosher. Changing the food habits of a lifetime can be extremely hard, and since women did the cooking, this also became an easy way to keep tabs on them.

This has been documented in a remarkable book, A Drizzle of Honey, by historians David M Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson.

The Inquisition kept detailed records, and these include descriptions of the food that the alleged secret Jews were eating — or not eating. As with the Uighurs, pork consumption was an easy marker, and households that seemed to avoid it, or made sausages from lamb or beef could easily come under suspicion. We associate cooking with olive oil as a Spanish practice today, but at that time it was seen as Jewish since Christians used cheaper lard, or pork fat, to fry foods.

Jews were known for observing the Sabbath on Saturdays, during which they strictly did no work.

This meant that cooking had to be done the day before, so a whole category of Jewish foods involved long-cooked stews that could be set on the fire on Friday night. Cooking these dishes would have come as second nature to the Jewish women, but now this became a sign of secretly observing the Sabbath.

Jews commonly make a special braided bread called challah for the Sabbath, which was an obvious giveaway. But part of making the bread involves breaking off a pinch and throwing it in the oven as a symbolic offering to the priests. Doing this must have come almost automatically to many Jewish bakers, but now this was suddenly noted as proof of secretly sanctifying the bread for the Sabbath.

Many of those giving evidence to the Inquisition were servants who had worked in converso households, and had grudges against their mistresses, or just envied their possessions.

In 1492, all remaining Jews were expelled from Spain, but before that some remained, practising their religion under many restrictions.

The Spanish Inquisition focused on whether people were still adhering to kosher rules.

They resented the conversos as traitors so it wasn’t hard sometimes to persuade them to testify against them, often by asserting that they continued to eat Jewish foods.

A Drizzle of Honey is also a cookbook, giving recipes for the foods that were used to betray the Jews, and while the recipes often sound delicious it is hard to avoid imagining a lingering bitter taste. The book is a fascinating, yet fearful reminder of how something as basic as food has been used against communities, and how it could happen — and, in China, is happening — so easily again today.

Jews make a bread called challah for the Sabbath — it was a giveaway. Part of making the bread involves breaking off a pinch and throwing it in the oven as an offering. During the Inquisition, this was noted as people secretly sanctifying the bread for the Sabbath

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