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7 Foods That Have Led to War

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As authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett mused in Good Omens, "civilization is 24 hours and two meals away from barbarism.” Human history is indeed filled with moments of violence that broke out because groups of people found themselves running on empty. Some scholars even argue that human warfare itself may have evolved alongside our move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle into an agricultural one, given that any growing population (even a prehistoric one) will likely strain its available resources sooner or later.

Whether the cause of conflict was threats to a nation’s entire grain supply or simply the loss of a lone pig, these foods all ended up in the same place throughout history: smack in the middle of war.


Prior to the Pastry War, a.k.a. the First Franco-Mexican War, tensions were high in the new Mexican republic as competing leadership factions, European nationals, and just about everybody else struggled for a better place in the new order. Clashes in the street reportedly destroyed the bakery of one French chef, and one thing led to another until the French government demanded 600,000 pesos as reparations for his losses and other French businesses that had been destroyed. King Louis-Phillippe was already miffed at Mexico over the matter of un-repaid loans, so he allowed these pastries to be the ones that broke the camel’s back. He dispatched his fleet to Veracruz, and kicked off what would be a three-month conflict between the countries from 1838 to 1839.


World War II took an enormous toll on the stability, economics, and resources of French Indochina, and was one of several major factors (including colonial occupation and unseasonable weather) leading to the Vietnamese Famine of 1945. As war was waging in Southeast Asia, some regions of Vietnam had rice surpluses, but the effects of the war made transportation between regions much more difficult. Meanwhile, both the French and the Japanese were more concerned about fighting then averting famine, with the French being accused of storing harvests past the point of edibility.

The scarcity of the regional staple crop caused physical and financial “rice war” struggles throughout the region, drove many (understandably) angry Vietnamese peasants to foment rebellion and seek independence, and led into the almost eight-year First Indochina War. Current estimates of the number of north Vietnamese lives lost during the 1945 famine are typically between one and two million.



Often enough, reasons given for the eruption of a war will involve some minute detail or other that leaders have chosen for their "breaking point." In the case of the Pig War, an 1859 conflict between British and American forces on the West Coast of what's now Washington state, the "shot heard round the world" was fired at one very special porker.

Also called the Pig Episode and the San Juan Boundary Dispute, the confrontation occurred at the tail end of the period in which the U.K. and U.S. were expanding into the lumber- (and possibly gold-) rich Pacific Northwest of present-day Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. As the finer points of the border lines were being drawn, the San Juan Islands, located between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland, were disputed territory.

With tensions running high, representatives of the British Hudson Bay Company on the small island chain suddenly found themselves living next door to U.S. settlers. When a British pig (worth either $10 or $100, depending which party you asked) started rooting around in a nearby American's garden and was shot for its trespass, both competing powers were ready to throw down. Fortunately, no shots were fired, and there were no casualties—except for the pig.


As age-old staple crops for many millions of people, wheat and other grains have often been the focus of serious conflict when their supplies are threatened or running low. Food Republic points out, for example, that when the broad Roman Empire’s increasing demanding for bread “was leading to social unrest at home,” Roman forces responded by doing “what they do best: they brandished their imperial muscle and took other people’s grains, in this case Egypt’s, to placate their citizens.”

The struggle for access to grain-based food didn’t end there, though, and has followed Western culture throughout history. To name just a few examples: In the spring of 1775 (shortly before the French Revolution would finally erupt), the Kingdom of France was host to an ongoing series of riots referred to as the Flour War, when the price of flour skyrocketed thanks to a combination of poor harvests and new government trade policies.

In 1917, when Russia’s “average working woman was spending 40 hours per week” in bread lines, groups of such sick-and-tired women kicked off riots that quickly grew to over 100,000 people, and which led to the country’s first of two revolutions that year.

Conflict over bread and grain continues today, and was a perhaps lesser-known factor in the recent Arab Spring. Noting that Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco are the world’s absolute largest wheat importers, Salon explains that the movement “started in Tunisia when rising food prices, high unemployment, and a widening gap between rich and poor triggered deadly riots and finally the flight of the country’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali,” whose last act as ruler (“too little too late,” Salon says) was “a vow to reduce the price of sugar, milk, and bread.” And with wheat and corn prices almost doubling through 2010 and 2011, “it was not just the standard of living of the [region’s] poor that was threatened, but their very lives as climate-change driven food prices triggered political violence.”


Almandine viaWikimedia Commons// CC 3.0

After the partitioning of Korea, questions remained about the maritime boundary between the two countries—a matter of significant concern in a region that has, in recent years, fostered increasing competition and conflict for the seafood on which it relies. In particular, extremely valuable blue crabs can be found along this disputed line, and have sparked a number of clashes [PDF] between North and South Korea.


When many of us Yanks think of our split from Britain in the Revolutionary War and the foods that spurred it, tea (and a certain party with it) often comes to mind. When it comes to clashing over edible resources, though, England, France, and the soon-to-be U.S.A. were much more concerned about the fate of two other commodities: spice and sugar. As one financial advising firm explained to Business Insider:

From a European perspective the U.S. revolt was a sideshow to a larger British/French conflict fought mainly over the agriculturally rich East and West Indies trade routes. While the British lost to the colonists at Yorktown, the Royal Navy's victory over a French [and] Spanish fleet at the Battle of the Saintes was bigger news at home as it secured [sugar-rich] Jamaica as a British possession.


Salt Riot on Red Square, Ernest Lissner via Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain

Frankly, salt has been a source of conflict among humans for about as long as we’ve been utilizing it. Trouble tends to arise whenever one group (usually a ruling and/or powerful one) puts strain on another group’s access to this vital resource—something we’ve relied on through the millennia for preserving our food, treating our ailments, and balancing our bodily fluids.

There was the Salt War of 1482-84, for example, involving the duke of Ferrara, salt mining, and the Papal forces of Sixtus IV, and also the Salt War of 1540, involving the rightly fed-up denizens of Perugia, a new salt tax, and the Papal forces of Paul III. In 1648, too, the people of Moscow responded to Tsar Alexei I’s new universal salt tax with days of violent uprising.

Of course, as Mohandas Gandhi and co.’s famous Salt March across India proved, the struggle for fair access to salt—or anything else, for that matter—doesn’t always have to get rough.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.


Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.


Raw dough.

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.


Kids trick-or-treating.

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.


The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.


Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.


Kids knocking on a door in costume.

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.


Sugar skulls with decoration.

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.


Little girl trick-or-treating.

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.


Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Mill Creek Entertainment
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''


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