Pandemic panic

Pandemic panic

Covid-19 is sweeping the planet like a plague. Thankfully, it is not as deadly, but the panic the coronavirus has stirred is worthy of rethinking our global order.

The world of gastronomy is greatly suffering from the pandemic; it’s not just about restaurants losing their customers or tourism coming to a halt, but also the fairs and food events that are being canceled, such as the European Food Summit in Slovenia or the Gastro-economy Summit in Istanbul. Press trips are practically stopped, and four-hand dinners with international chefs are being postponed to an unknown date in the future. Many cancellations were predictable, but suspending international flights augmented the panic.

It seems that throughout history, mankind’s greed and appetite for more has always begotten more trouble. Trade routes, of course, were great carriers of diseases. The plague, also known as the Black Death, killed millions in the 14th century. It remains a possibility that the start point was the Crimean trade port of Kaffa, where the Genoese-controlled city was under siege by Mongols, who threw the corpses of plague victims over the city walls to infect the inhabitants in one of the first examples of biological warfare. Fleeing inhabitants traveled back to Italy, which made Italian port cities the jumping-off points for its spread in Europe. It is now estimated that 45-50 percent of all of Europe’s population was wiped out within just four years; in densely populated port cities in the Mediterranean, however, the death toll was as high as 75-80 percent. There were several recurrences, making the plague one of the deadliest pandemics in history.

One cannot help but think of the consequences if something similar happened to our food sources, like agricultural crops and farm animals. History is already replete with great tragedies like the potato famine, grape phylloxera and the relatively recent mad cow disease. The Columbian Exchange transferred many diseases from the Old World to the New World, killing native populations with smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and the like. But it was not only humans that were affected, as new crops that went the other way were prone to further catastrophes.

The potato, which boasted three times the caloric values of most grains, was one of the New World crops that won the hearts of Europeans. It could be easily grown in damp and cold climates, stored a long time without spoiling, readily cooked simply by boiling, frying, baking, et cetera and – to top it all off – it was simply tasty. A poor family could even grow potatoes in a backyard; one did not even need to own land to have a potatoes in the pot. Most European countries were hooked on potatoes until the blight came.

The Great Famine, which was caused by potato blight, was especially ruinous for Ireland, where the island’s dependence on a single crop caused about 1 million people to starve to death and caused even more to emigrate, again in a four-year period between 1845 and 1849, pretty much like the Plague. But it wasn’t just Ireland, as many other countries where potatoes were a staple were also affected severely. Later, during World War I, Germany got hit by potato blight, causing many civilians to die from starvation.

And while it wasn’t deadly for populations, a similar epidemic almost completely destroyed another critical crop, the grape. Phylloxera was another New World, sap-sucking insect that infests vines, causing the plant to deform and collapse in what is often referred to as the grape plague. Most vineyards for wine grapes in Europe were destroyed in the late 19th century because of the uncontrollable spread of phylloxera, which English botanists introduced through American vines. The European wine grape Vitis vinifera was very susceptible to the insect that was brought by American vines. Hybridization with resistant American species was one resort, but it would have an unwanted effect on the taste. Grafting with resistant vine rootstock was the only way to save many local grape varieties without losing traditional tastes. There are a few untouched vineyards in the odd corner of Europe, but generally the disease changed the European wine world forever. 

And it is not only agricultural crops that get devastating diseases. One reason that many Brits discovered the virtues of vegetarianism was mad cow disease, the popular name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). It was caused by feeding cattle with meat-and-bone meal as fodder, which was obviously not the natural diet for such herbivores. Panic ensued as mad cow disease spread to humans, and many resorted to abandoning meat. But even that was not precaution enough, as jello puddings were an even-greater threat as gelatin was made from the bones and skins of animals.

While Covid-19 is not a threat to the food world, it is time to revisit those food disasters of the past. Another threat might also come from all the insecticides and pesticides developed to prevent these diseases but which have infested our soils and water resources incurably. We may well face disasters in relation to crops and livestock that may one day induce pandemic panic on a far greater scale.

Fork of the Week: St. Patrick’s Day is coming soon, so it is time to celebrate the potato and remember the days of famine. Colcannon or champ will be the answer; I prefer the latter at this time of the year as it is made with spring onions and/or spring garlic. Just boil a whole bunch of potatoes; in the meantime, heat two cups of milk with finely chopped spring onions and maybe a little spring garlic as well (just the green parts). Then mash the potatoes with milk and lots of butter; after that, season with salt and pepper. Enjoy it while you can!

Cork of the Week: It’s time to take time slow, remain at home, read and write. Of course, the food world is never short of having an optimistic attitude to life. There were pictures shared by bored partygoers, with the newly invented Quarantini cocktails. Quarantini is the new name for a classic martini cocktail; the only difference is it (or perhaps several of them) is enjoyed at home alone. Some suggestions advise people to add a sachet of Vitamin C, but of course that alters the taste. My bon vivant friend Kristian Brask Thomsen made his with vodka distilled six times and the brine from the cocktail olives. That is neat indeed.