Humans need food. They want it, too. They need to eat to live; they want to eat to enjoy life. They need sustenance, which biologists tell us is about proteins, carbohydrates and the like; they want flavor, which contemporary cooks tell us is all about fat, salt, acid, sugar — never mind the spice, apparently. They handle it with their hands or, sure, utensils; they appreciate, despise or feel ambivalent toward different textures. They delight in scents, anticipating and tasting through their noses much of what they then consume with their mouths. They salivate when they see someone drizzle lemon over a piece of fish, groan when they hear fat crackle in a pan and just whistle with glee while basting steaks.
Humans treat food like they treat almost everything else. They love it. They share it. They fight for, over and about it. They love to share in the fights, just as they love to fight over sharing — or not, in societies full of cheap folks who make virtues like fairness and efficiency out of failures like stinginess and atomization.
They render it political, too.
Yes, food is political. It always has been, even though purported purists and cheap content curators peddle other, pseudo-historical narratives in our time. It always will be, regardless of the sensibilities and sensitivities of perpetual nostalgia-mongers, escapist fiends and glorified pornographers who feast with their eyes — and only, or at least primarily, their eyes. Not only does food have obvious relevance when it comes to security, safety and society, as strategists, visionaries and doomsday preppers alike have reminded us over the years, but it also has long had special symbolism in different times, places and cultures. See, a bit of bread isn’t just the sort of staple people consume around the world. No, that bit of bread is the sort of thing that folks in different societies feel is special even if it isn’t unique.
Understanding this in their minds and hearts, people have long cooked up dishes to represent their polities and societies with pride; whipped up specials (or called mistakes “specials”) to impress or honor the rulers and politicians on the spot; named courses after political leaders and their family members or companions; and rustled up plates of flattery to avoid an early demise, retirement, disappearance and the like. And they’ve renamed food for politically motivated reasons.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, expanding ongoing direct and indirect aggression including incursions that he’d begun earlier, folks everywhere have launched a food fight against Russian leaders, the Russian state and — perhaps unfortunately — Russian people.
Restaurateurs, chefs and bartenders have renamed foods, removed items from their menus and boycotted products while joining the fray. Chefs across Europe have changed “Chicken Kiev” to “Chicken Kyiv,” using an English-language spelling that corresponds more closely to the Ukrainian preference rather than the Russophone rendition that was the world standard when this year began. In the United Kingdom, Michelin-starred chefs and supermarket managers alike have made the change. Managers of Marks & Spencer — which helped popularize the dish by offering it as one of their first ready-to-eat meals in 1979 — Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Morrisons and Waitrose have all done so. Owners of smaller shops and brands, like Better Naked, have joined the campaign, too.
In Poland, shopkeepers have changed “Russian dumplings” to “Ukrainian dumplings.” While Polish folks consider pierogi dumplings to be a national dish, in the past they’ve called a popular version — stuffed with cheese and potatoes, served with fried onions or sour cream — a “Russian” dumpling. No longer. They’ve started to call these dumplings “Ukrainian,” honoring one neighbor instead of another. One business owner has chosen a different, and in a sense more intense, approach: negative messaging. She’s calling them “non-Russian” dumplings.
People across the pond have joined the food fight rather rapidly and with remarkable zeal. They’ve even done so in Canada, where opinion makers go to die in the grand graveyard of civility — and then apologize for it. In Quebec, restaurateurs have renamed their “poutine” — essentially a pile of fries, cheese curd and gravy — because its spelling corresponds with that of Putin’s name in French. The folks at Le Roy Jucep, who claim to have invented poutine, changed the dish’s name to the fry cheese gravy (“la frite fromage sauce”). Frite Alors, a popular franchise that has named foods after politicians like George W. Bush, has changed its standard poutine from “La Vladimir,” for Putin, to “La Volodymyr,” for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In the United States, restaurateurs and chefs have also renamed different Russia-linked items to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people or stick it to a new-old Enemy of the American People. Bartenders in at least three states, including Maryland, have been mixing up “White Ukrainians,” “Black Ukrainians” and “Kyiv Mules” instead of “White Russians,” “Black Russians” and “Moscow Mules.” They’ve also been dropping Russian brands — or, just as often, brands that they perceive as Russian or fear their consumers will associate with Russia. The owners of KGB Bar, in Manhattan’s East Village, have decided to keep their name. For starters, besides seeking the power of a pun, they named the place to honor Ukrainian heritage and the city’s community: “Kraine Gallery Bar.” Even so, they’ve dropped Russian beverages for Ukrainian alternatives — be they vodka or be they brews. At least one mixologist in America has gone all the way: He now makes a “Snake Island Mule,” honoring the site where Ukrainian service members told a Russian warship to go fuck itself.
Americans have given the world some of its most famous, and infamous, politically renamed foods. Indeed, while on the warpath after 9/11, American leaders and business owners engaged in the contemporary era’s most infamous politically motivated renaming of a food. They changed “French fries” to “freedom fries” — a term that was so warped and jingoistic, and yet somehow catchy and wonderful, that it still serves as shorthand for such tragicomic acts in different states and societies.
Opposing certain American diplomatic initiatives before the invasion of Iraq, the French were especially concerned about any U.N. Security Council draft resolution that might mandate an invasion of Iraq. Armed with anger, Americans began renaming fries in February 2003. Recalling the past, including during World War I, the owner of Cubbies — a Beaufort, North Carolina, establishment catering to service members from surrounding bases — renamed the popular food “freedom fries.” Others in Mississippi and California followed suit, with some satirizing and others hiding behind humor to promote the idea anyway. Then, in March 2003, Robert Ney — a Republican member of Congress from Ohio and chair of the Committee on House Administration — replaced “French fries” with “freedom fries” on the menus in the House office buildings. At least three congressional cafeterias thus renamed the dish. Moreover, cashiers began slapping star-spangled “FREEDOM” stickers on boxes of fries — just in case lawmakers and their staffers needed a booster dose of patriotism while on break. They also changed “French toast,” which others in the Anglosphere insist on calling “eggy bread,” to “freedom toast.” Others got in on the rename game across America, even taking on ice cream. The Star Spangled Ice Cream Company, which three influential conservative figures founded in the 2000s, came out with “I Hate French Vanilla” as its vanilla ice cream. Adopting another pun, it later changed the name to “Air Force (Plane) Vanilla.”
Americans did not begin — and would not end — such politically motivated renaming during the so-called war on terror. Americans have repeatedly renamed and otherwise handled foods politically. They’ve usually done so while inflamed, sometimes doing so because of their own government’s propaganda or while thinking about food as a strategic necessity.
They began, earnestly, in World War I, by attacking German and German-origin foods. They called hamburgers “liberty sandwiches” or “liberty steaks.” They renamed sausages — usually frankfurters, although perhaps including wieners and similar products originating in the German-speaking realm — “liberty sausages.” (They also adopted another name that would stick. More on that below.) Some Americans, including farmers and merchants, petitioned to rename sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.” (Missing the points of pride and propaganda, Americans also began calling “German measles” the “liberty measles.” Ach!)
Rallying around the flag, Americans demonstrated all the admirable, regrettable, useful and dangerous consequences of such zeal. They were renaming these foods while being inundated with U.S. government policies and propaganda that played on patriotism, sacrifice and the role of food on all fronts: the front lines in Europe, the damaged farmlands of allied states and the home fronts in America itself. Although plenty of Americans were acting emotionally, they weren’t always doing so alone, spontaneously or — all that aside — free of the influence of their own government, its policies or its propaganda.
As they prepared to fight overseas, American leaders began to wage a war on the home front, too. They passed laws and issued orders while preparing propaganda for different spheres of society. Congress passed at least one important law to organize how Americans made, used and conserved food: the Food and Fuel Control Act. Pursuant to that law, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover — later president during the Great Depression — to run the U.S. Food Administration. While the Wilson administration exercised many of its wartime authorities, it never rationed food at the federal level and refrained from launching compulsory programs. Empowered by law but constrained by policy, Hoover tried to encourage Americans to choose what their own president wouldn’t or couldn’t compel them to do: conserve. He pushed propaganda — or, sorry, “disseminated public information” — through different government agencies, (paid) civilian intermediaries and cooperative civil society organizers. Equating food-related initiatives with patriotism, these people pushed Americans to cultivate crops in the fields or in their lawn, backyard and communal “victory gardens”; encouraged folks to raise animals, even nudging kids to join “pig clubs” or “sheep clubs”; and — through general messaging, targeted campaigns and private outreach to influential or popular housewives — pushed women to win the literal and proverbial home fronts by tending to these gardens and packing foods.
The propagandists stayed positive, on some fronts. For starters, Hoover preferred to inspire Americans to see and seize upon the merits of — and virtues in — sacrifice for a greater cause. (He may have also believed, personal feelings aside, that such approaches were more effective. Who knows?) “Food,” the propagandists printed, in one famous campaign, “Will Win the War!” Americans went to work on the home front. They “Hooverized” — that is, conserved their food generally. They also preached and practiced the “gospel of the clean plate,” thereby avoiding waste even when they ate. And they designated different days of the week as meatless, sweetless and wheatless. Americans cut overall food consumption by about 15% in less than two years. They cut their use of select products — say, the beef they didn’t eat on Meatless Mondays — even more. The United States, as a polity, quadrupled its food exports during that time. In addition to helping feed troops on the front lines, Americans were able to help people in allied states who couldn’t effectively farm or otherwise find food because of disruptions and displacements on their battlefield of a continent.
Of course, American leaders, officials, propagandists and advertisers used negative messaging, too. They targeted the Central Powers, led by that era’s Public Enemy No. 1: the Kaiser. “Lick the plate,” they wrote, before hitting people with a pun that was destined to age poorly, “and lick the Kaiser.” They also engaged in good old-fashioned xenophobia, racism and incitement. While targeting the Central Powers, they hit immigrants and their descendants — especially the more than 10 million people who’d migrated to the United States from Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in the decades before the war. And they started at the top, from where American grandees kicked down at their own people. “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him,” Wilson declared, “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.” Former President Teddy Roosevelt slammed “hyphenated Americans” as saboteurs with dual loyalties. The Wilson administration held at least 4,000 German Americans under suspicion of espionage or for pro-German “sentiment”; compelled around 250,000 people to register as German immigrants and keep the registration (or status) cards with them; and whipped up a frenzy against the Kaiser — or the “Dark Hun.”
During these campaigns, Americans struck at another product that they saw as German: beer. The U.S. Senate investigated the National German-American Alliance, U.S. brewers’ associations and American brewers for two years. (German-origin folks dominated brewing generally. More than 70% of U.S.-based brewers were owned and operated by people of German descent, who in turn exercised significant influence in relevant associations and brew towns like Milwaukee, Wisconsin.) Other politicians and writers expressed what others had left implied: German Americans, and their beer, were enemies of the American people. In early 1918, a former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin blasted brewers as “the worst Germans who ever afflicted themselves on a long-suffering people.” Americans, he ranted, “have German enemies across the water” and “in this country, too. And the worst of all our German enemies … the most treacherous … the most menacing … are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.” Writers got in on the game, too. One declared that German-origin brewers were enemy agents, squawking that “every bushel of grain destroyed” to make their beer “serve[d] the Kaiser just as well as a bushel sunk by a submarine at sea.”
In addition to investigating folks, American leaders began to restrict the alcohol industry while promoting conservation and (in part) protecting people against what they assessed (incorrectly and usually without a reasonable basis) was German-American subterfuge. American leaders had enacted such measures at federal, state and local levels even before Prohibition began in 1920. The Wilson administration, for instance, limited alcohol content in brewed beer to preserve grain. It then capped annual national beer production at 70% of a previous year’s production. In September 1918, the Wilson administration banned the brewing of beer altogether. Then, even after the armistice in Europe, the U.S. Congress lowered the limit of alcohol content to less than 2% of any beverage. States, counties and towns also took measures below the federal level. They banned beer, although states with big brewers or influential German American business folks were mostly “wet” states until Prohibition began. American propagandists blasted beer as a luxury, the consumption of which was harmful to individuals and to the republic. In printed posters, Lady Liberty yelled at a cowed and shamed saloon owner: Brews were “Non-Essential!”
To counter such policies and propaganda, German Americans tried to promote beer consumption as patriotic and in turn blast prohibitionists as “anti-American.” But they often did so in German or in publications catering to Germans, which had the two-fold effect of limiting their audience and playing right into the hands of propagandists and populists who had painted them as an ethnic cabal in the first place.
Americans engaged with food in a complex way during and after World War I. While they launched into jingoistic fits over food, drink and names, they reengaged the world more intimately and began to remake their tastes and tables in the subsequent century.
On the one hand, they failed to change the name when it came to some foods. For instance, Americans did not manage to rename sauerkraut. To overcome anti-German sentiment during the war, farmers, distributors and grocers in the United States petitioned the federal Food Administration for the right to rename — and thus market — sauerkraut as “liberty cabbage.” Notwithstanding their own thoughts and feelings, they believed that they could use the new name to repopularize a product that Americans were shunning during the war. Just as some Americans had renamed foods because of zeal and officials and propagandists had pushed one policy or another, these folks were trying to rebrand sauerkraut to make money. But sales stayed low during the war. And no Americans, or any other people, use the term “liberty cabbage” today. They also failed in their campaign against beer. Despite war-era jingoism and regulatory restrictions, to say nothing of postwar Prohibition, Americans drank more beer and came to regard it as a quintessential aspect of their own mainstream culture. They also rediscovered, celebrated and claimed beer drinking’s convivial culture, which German-origin folks had indeed used to promote the product while setting up establishments like beer gardens in the late 19th century. Emerging from the era of imposed teetotalism, moreover, Americans put beer back in the mainstream just in time for American GIs to popularize another sort of — warped, sure, but inevitable — war cool now associated with American brews above all: beer cans.
On the other hand, Americans created and consecrated new habits — and new names, which people around the world now use — at the table. For instance, they began to eat more pasta, in part because American propagandists began elevating it as the food of “our ally,” Italy. And they did change the name game, successfully and lastingly, for at least two famous foods: hot dogs and fries.
Consuming certain sausages since at least the 1860s, when Charles Feltman started cooking up his Coney Island “red hots” out in the far reaches of Brooklyn, Americans went wild for frankfurters, wieners and other German fare before the war. By the 1890s, Americans across the Midwest and South were eating frankfurters at baseball games — thereby incorporating the food of immigrants, and their immediate descendants, into their national pastime. Having connected “dogs” to sausages since at least the 1830s, doing so through serious speculation and snark, Americans may have merged that notion with “red hots” before World War I. Even so, they don’t seem to have called the sausages “hot dogs” seriously, broadly or steadily. Indeed, Americans first referred in print to “hot dogs” in a humor magazine: On Oct. 19, 1895, a writer in the Yale Record noted that students “contentedly munched hot dogs during the whole [chapel] service.” (Humorists at Yale had at least alluded to such slang three times in 1895. Some scholars thus believe that they derived the term from the lingo for lunch wagons at the Kennel Club: “dog wagons.”) By the early 1900s, though, vendors and business owners had basically eradicated “dog”-based terms for their sausages — even banning their use at different points of sale, such as boardwalks, parks and arenas — to assuage customers who believed that they were mixing up and serving bits of dog meat in the snacks. As Americans went to war, casting about in search of new names with which to assault the monsters across the seas, they started calling these German sausages “hot dogs.” Americans and people around the world still use the term and derivations today, more than a century later.
In a delicious irony, Americans also named the very food that their progeny would rename during another fit of jingoistic chest-beating a century later. Landing in Europe with Lafayette on their minds and in their hearts, many doughboys operated in and out of Wallonia — where French-speaking Belgians lived and had long been frying potato slivers. Encountering and eating these strips, American soldiers blessed them with a name that others around the world have since adopted: “French fries.”
Throwing bake stones while cooking in glass kitchens, elites around the world — especially in Europe — have slammed Americans for politically motivated renaming of foods without reviewing their respective records. See, just as Americans changed their culinary habits through increasingly complex interactions with others across the seas, people everywhere else reimagined, reinvented and rebranded their own “cuisines.” Carving out so-called nation-states out of the old order, they entwined their nascent nationalisms with technological innovation, political ideas and socioeconomic programs — and food.
Creating contemporary polities from principalities and confederations, intellectuals and cooks demonstrated the same latecomers’ zeal that they did in other domains. They did so for better and for worse — and, indeed, even for evil. As cooks created and consecrated national culinary traditions, leaders and dissidents selectively demolished, co-opted, remade and fabricated different dimensions of their societies while pursuing and then wielding power. In Europe, where leaders and peoples operated at the heart of the world’s political order, fascists did so on one end of the continent while communists did so on the other. Launching a pincer movement against an entire continent, the leaders and peoples, totalitarians and authoritarians, weren’t about to leave Europe’s food alone, either.
In 1891, a man tried to unify the Italian peninsula. Unlike French emperors and Austrian statesmen, or even peninsular popes, princes and poets, Pellegrino Artusi tried to forge this Italy with food, language and the language of and for food. He wrote a cookbook: “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.” Using Florentine Tuscan, Artusi helped standardize Italian generally and in the culinary sphere. He also changed the names of regional dishes to render them more national. He took agnolotti — a regional dish from Piedmont — and branded it “tortellini all’Italiana.” People throughout the peninsula, especially women cooking in homes, used the cookbook throughout the 20th century, though, of course, making the modifications and mistakes that turn standard recipes into family fare.
From then, though, factions emerged. The Futurists, for instance, did so in Italy while heralding, competing with, and joining fascists in the interwar era. Strident, brazen and pseudo-intellectual to the bone, Futurists wanted to remake people, politics and food alike. Announcing their arrival in 1909, they spent at least two decades concocting cookbooks, guidelines and other materials to remake Italian food, the Italian dining experience and (official and popular) banquets. In doing so, the Futurists named and renamed dishes to promote their warped political ideas and objectives: recognize and renew the vigor of man; animate paradoxical impulses about women; and celebrate the greatness of (remade) Italians. Indeed, Futurists often argued that Italians — people who, in their minds, had already accomplished so much while being fed “poorly” — would leap forward if they changed their diet and related habits.
As fascists revived the ancient Roman sense of the Mediterranean as an imperial lake, Futurists called one dish the “Italian Sea”: skewered cuttlefish, olives, figs and bananas. As Futurists fought over the “woman question,” with women like Rosa Rosa and Enif Robert contributing to the movement as individuals even as others elevated misogynistic thought, they named another dish “Italian Breasts in the Sunshine”: two semispheres of almond paste, adorned with a strawberry each, garnished with red peppers and sprinkled with black pepper. (Marisa Mori, the only woman contributing to this culinary campaign, proposed the dish and its name. Writers and scholars have debated the dish, then and since.) Targeting politicians and diplomats, including those they lambasted as plump, mediocre connivers, the Futurists also created dishes such as “The Cannibals Sign Up at Geneva” — one for which they, presumably, used poetic license. And they topped it all off with snarky, unsubtle entries like “The Solid Treaty” and the “League of Nations.” While naming and renaming such dishes, Futurists also tried to rename basic bits of food and equipment — especially if Italians had been using foreign, or foreign-influenced, words. Futurists renamed the “sandwich” as a “between-two” (traidue). They styled the “maître d’ hotel” as a “palate guide” (guidopalato). And they tried to rename the “bar”: quisibeve (something like “here one drinks”).
Clashing with other Italians, Futurists took on chefs, cooks and common folks alike. They reveled in revulsion; they cherished confusion. Bashing compatriots as bourgeois pigs or meek-minded weaklings, Futurists tried to end certain practices and eliminate existing foods. They even attacked pasta! Setting their sights on a food that people already associated with Italy, before most Italians could afford to consume it regularly and well before people around the world went crazy for anything Italian and Italian-inspired, Futurists such as Filippo Marinetti — a poet and founder of Futurism — attacked pasta in a so-called Futurist food manifesto. (He published that about 20 years after the Futurist Manifesto. In the interim, Marinetti helped write the Fascist Manifesto.) If the English benefited from a “diet of cod, roast beef and steamed pudding,” the Dutch thrived on “cold cuts and cheese,” and the Germans motored on “sauerkraut, smoked pork and sausage,” pasta — Marinetti argued, asininely — was “not beneficial to Italians.” Climaxing, he then declared that Italians needed to abolish “pastasciutta,” an “absurd … gastronomic religion.”
Blaring that spaghetti was “no food for fighters,” Futurists nonetheless lost this war. Well, they took a damn beating. As Italians improved their (material) standards of living, they ate more pasta and otherwise enriched their diets. Having spent decades creating and consecrating a cuisine, Italian chefs and cooks made sure to slam the self-styled visionaries going after new-old holies. One chef, a Roman at the Italian Academy of Gastronomy, branded the Futurists as heretics, threatening them with “thunderbolts” from the eternal city. Undeterred, the Futurists called him the culinary counterpart to stodgy “art history professors” who’d obstructed “movements of artistic renewal” in the preceding two centuries.
As Mussolini and the National Fascist Party consolidated control, the Futurists — including proto-fascists, converts and joiners, despite differences that became evident in the 1920s — put their principles into practice. Around 1930, they launched a flagship restaurant in Turin, Italy: “The Holy Palate.” There, and in “banquets” held in other towns, the Futurists restyled their eaters as “passengers” or “experimental passengers.” Modeling the place on a plane, they tried to merge “man and machine” in the kitchen and on the plate as they had in their political thought. They served dishes with industrial names, while serenading diners with the simulated sounds of mechanized flight — thereby, again, making something miserable out of the miraculous. In addition to the symbolic, they demonstrated a more literal streak by feeding people meat mixed with industrial materials and parts (such as ball bearings). They named and renamed more dishes politically, then served them up at the Holy Palate: for instance, “Geographic Dinner” and “Colonial Instinct,” imbuing people with imperial impulses and a sense of Italian grandeur to propagandize purported modernity or establish alleged connections between artistic food and the soul. After that, they published “The Futurist Cookbook” — a work including many of these dishes and musings.
Enthralled, repelled and just confused, other Italians captured for posterity the pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo of Futurists (and other proto-fascists) in culinary, cultural and other realms. Futurist food, one valiant Italian noted, was “too poetic” for “the needs of the stomach.” Another Italian writer began to review what he believed was a dish, only to retreat and admit that he wasn’t sure what the hell he’d just eaten.
Russians revolted. After decades of rapid change and intermittent unrest, they rang in the new century by trying to overthrow their tsar in 1905. Clinging to their position, even if they couldn’t wield power effectively, the tsar and his circle then failed to institute reforms at home or win their wars abroad. Feeble, invisible and worse, the tsar — Nicholas II, the last Romanov ruler — presided over death, destruction and desolation for another decade. During World War I, Russians revolted again. After the tsar abdicated, different factions struggled for power and influence, with the Bolsheviks ultimately triumphing, imposing a new totalitarian tyranny and creating calamity upon calamity.
And so, as fascistic proto-totalitarians pushed for power in Iberia, Italy and Germany, their communist counterparts spent decades struggling to consolidate control over a new Eurasian empire. Eradicating tsarism, the communists renamed cities, buildings and more. They also renamed food-producing enterprises and famous foods — the former during contests for control, the latter as they dismantled one order and replaced it with another.
Like others in the world, communists found treats and sweets to be chock-full of political meaning. During the last decades of the tsarist period, industrialists and merchants had built factories and created companies to make more of these foods. Meanwhile, people in tsarist Russia went from consuming something like 5,000 pounds per year to about 180,000 pounds per year of chocolate. As royals, elites and upstarts feasted, Russian writers railed against gluttony and general excess. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and others — through ideal-types presented in fiction, then through straight-up argumentation — slammed Russians for taking too much pleasure in intricate cookery. When the Bolsheviks seized power, they commandeered state institutions, expropriated enterprises and confiscated — or, sorry, “collectivized” — assets. Taking over a famed chocolatier’s complex, they stripped it of imperial insignias and rebranded it as the “Red October Chocolate Factory.”
As communists came to own the sociopolitical fortunes of people in the Soviet Union, they began to celebrate what they once condemned: treats, sweets and more. Communist leaders and socialist writers had condemned them as bourgeois luxuries, depicting chocolate-consuming enemies enjoying the sweet life at everyone else’s expense in a string of pieces and films through the 1920s. Concurrently and thereafter, however, communists and state-sponsored writers began to hold up such goods as totems of their union’s industrialization. By the mid-1920s, they were penning poems and stories such as “How Chocolate Came to Mosselprom” — a children’s tale featuring none other than the “Red October Chocolate Factory.” The emblem of the empire’s excess was now at the heart of communist efforts to indoctrinate children in the guise of entertainment and education.
Having consolidated control by the 1930s, as Stalin purged the party and the party engineered disaster after disaster, communists continued their mad dash to increase industrial and agricultural production through top-down planning. As part of their policies, they pushed propaganda on the food front. They bragged about mass-produced foods while celebrating the 10 or so chocolate factories that Stalin built in successive Five-Year Plans. Anastas Mikoyan — an ethnic Armenian, an influential Caucasus communist alongside Stalin, and a minister and powerbroker for decades — led the charge, beating his chest so much about food that other bigwigs teased him about it. Under Mikoyan, the Institute of Nutrition of the Academy of Medical Sciences drafted another of the world’s cookbooks with a political purpose. In 1939, the Soviet Ministry of Food published the work as the “Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.” Replacing “A Gift to Young Housewives,” a 19th-century cookbook in which Elena Molokhovets shared 1,500 recipes, the Communist Party gave it as a gift to newlyweds across the Soviet Union, continually producing different editions to eliminate what they saw as lavish, bourgeois cooking and build a standard Soviet kitchen — all this a few years after their regime presided over, and indeed caused, devastating famines. Continuing to give it away, they also sold at least 2.5 million copies of the 1952 version. Communists thus created new standards while remaking cultural inheritances or driving them underground.
Seeking to Sovietize the erstwhile empire’s cuisine, or indeed invent and standardize a Soviet cuisine, the communists turned to renaming foods as part of their programs. They ended up essentially Russifying foods across the empire. For instance, they renamed “Chicken Kiev” to strip it of any of the bourgeois connotations and foreign culinary influences associated with Kyiv — a place where, especially in the late tsarist era, different chefs, cooks and folks had come together to change cuisine. They chose a basic form, something akin to “breaded chicken with butter and parsley.” And they renamed at least one famous, delicious and still-contested soup: borscht. People in at least four areas then claimed, as they now claim, the soup, folks in Russia and Ukraine among them. Culinary and cultural historians believe people in Kievan Rus — a medieval polity, or federation, straddling contemporary Ukraine, Russia and Belarus — may have first made such a borscht. As political gastro-nationalism and socioeconomic globalization have dovetailed, people around the world have come to consume a standard that is closer to the contemporary Ukrainian version while nonetheless associating the dish with Russians and Russian cuisine. In one chapter of their “Book of Tasty and Healthy Foods,” the communists listed “borscht”: the Russian version. They then included other beetroot-colored soups as variations: “summer borscht,” “Ukrainian borscht” and the like. Renaming the foods, or choosing to adopt one name over another, they thus set the Russian version as the baseline and rendered the Ukrainian version as derivative, modified, and somehow secondary. Some soups were more equal than others — in principle and in print.
By the mid-20th century, Americans were again crossing the seas to wage war. During World War II, as the Allied Powers clashed with the Axis Powers, erstwhile enemies became allies and old allies became enemies. Although Americans were again fighting Germans, this time in and under the depraved Nazi regime, they were now also confronting fascists in Italy, imperialist-militarists in Japan and others who — though they led smaller states, such as Romania — were equals in evil.
They again waged war with food. Renaming German and German-origin foods again, Americans called hamburgers “liberty steaks.” They also reimagined origin stories, claiming for instance that the hamburger — as a class of meat and as a form of sandwich — came from places like St. Louis. They also dusted off and repurposed old propaganda platforms and templates that they once used against the Kaiser to take on an even more menacing — and decidedly more warped — foe: Hitler. Unlike in World War I, moreover, the U.S. government instituted federal rationing. It also again promoted a sense of sacrifice and pushed people on the home front — above all, women, youth and children — to contribute to the war when they were unable to fight, or prohibited and discouraged from fighting, abroad.
American leaders, and members of the public, had a more complex interaction with Italian Americans during World War II than they did with German Americans during World War I. On the one hand, they rounded up Italian Americans just as they rounded up Americans of Japanese or German descent. They otherwise targeted, interned and excluded them as “hyphenated Americans,” including with signage restricting their access to certain areas or declaring community-specific curfews in English, German, Italian and Japanese. On the other hand, they worked closely with different Italian American leaders, businesspeople and even criminals. They also recognized that Italian Americans were joining the military in droves. Against that backdrop, Americans didn’t rename Italian and Italian-origin food in any pervasive or enduring way.
In the long run, Americans again adopted and contributed to popularizing certain foods during and after — and, in part, because of — a war. Already eating more pasta thanks to propaganda during World War I, Americans increased their consumption during and after World War II. One of the U.S. Army’s important suppliers was an Italian immigrant named Hector Boiardi. Eating canned spaghetti and sauce throughout the war, GIs associated an Italian-American form of the dish with seminal experiences — good, bad, tragic, noble and more — in their own lives and in their nation’s history. Successive generations of Americans, and others around the world, have since known this chef — and his brand — by an Americanized name that he later adopted: “Chef Boyardee.” The man remade food, even if Americans did not rename it; and yet, like so many immigrants, he ended up renaming and remaking himself.
Beyond that, scores of thousands of American service members landed in Sicily, worked their way up the Italian peninsula and operated in Italy for years. They fell in love with herbs and spices — above all, oregano. And they brought it all back, changing culture and cuisine in many ways. A decade after World War II, Americans were buying about 5,200% more oregano, which had not been listed specifically in import records until then. After the war, Americans consumed more pasta, pizza and other Italian-origin foods. They went crazy for what they thought were Italian, or Italian-origin, spices — almost always including dried oregano — just as they did with Francosphere fries and (canned!) German-influenced beers. Eventually, they came up with dastardly “Italian spice mixes.” Once again adopting hostile stances in the short term while changing their tastes, tables and other practices in the longer run, Americans couldn’t shake the power of life’s little pleasures: say, a plate of pasta or a slice of pizza.
People around the world have named and renamed foods for political reasons during different upheavals during the 19th century, two world wars and a tumultuous interwar period, the Cold War, the unipolar moment and this new century. Some have done so while consecrating polities that their predecessors once contested and thus working to nationalize and consolidate cultures and cuisines that were (and are) cosmopolitan, supranational or at least non-national. Others have done so to promote, enshrine, resist, reject or denounce ideas or conditions of their time. They’ve attacked capitalism or at least commercialization and disadvantageous labor conditions. They’ve promoted or undermined imperialism, perhaps after new cliques running empires masquerading as unions, republics and communes have sought to erase imprints of old orders. They’ve instilled nationalism, or at least some sort of post-provincialism. They’ve insulted rival polities, or polities with whom they disagree momentarily, including global superpowers or neighboring states. And they’ve targeted amorphous, nebulously named forces and structures like modernization, globalization, neo-imperialism, Britishness and — for some mediocre Frenchman who has been binge-eating Big Macs since the mid-1990s while failing to draft his masterwork reconciliation of quasi-Gramscianism and compassionate anarchism — “Americanization.”
They’ve done so in South America. Indeed, Argentines have baked politics right into their pastries — named and renamed, for political reasons — for almost 150 years. In the 1880s, people in Argentina began forming unions and syndicates. Bakers formed one of the first, and soon began striking and demanding different labor conditions. Two Italian Argentine anarchists exercised significant sway over the syndicate: Ettore Mattei led it, while Errico Malatesta wrote its principles. Pressing ahead, and clashing with authorities including police, the bakers began renaming bread and baked goods. They chose irreverent names, usually to blaspheme or to undermine the state: “monks’ balls” or “friars’ balls,” puffs filled with caramelized milk; “nun’s sighs” or “sisters’ sighs,” filled with caramelized milk and (un)subtly invoking orgasms; names denoting political violence like “bombs,” “cannons” and “vigilantes,” the latter of which look like police batons; and the “bill,” a general term for baked goods reminding consumers of labor’s value. Argentines, at least in Buenos Aires, still use these names today.
Often under the gun, the French have been guilty of such shenanigans, too. During World War I, they rebranded “café viennois” as “café liégeois.” They did so to honor those who resisted a German-led attack against Liege — and, perhaps, because the Central Powers used Austrian guns in that attack. Cafe owners in Europe and elsewhere have since used both names to refer to concoctions of espresso, ice cream and whipped cream. While the French may not have understood it, or just not cared, the town’s name — the very name they chose, in part, to spite the German-speaking peoples — is Germanic in origin.
Between the great wars, Franco’s regime and auxiliaries renamed foods as Spaniards and others struggled for influence in Iberia. While the Futurists in Italy and communists in Russia were more ambitious on these fronts, Franco basically worked to rid foods of “Russian” or “red” labels and imprints. Spaniards thus called “Russian salad” a “national” or “patriotic” salad. They also rebranded “Russian filets” as “imperial” meat.
People in southeast Europe renamed foods, too. In Romania, communists went to work renaming foods and restyling cookbooks — long vessels for writers who, as in other places, introduced neologisms into the language before dictionary curators caught on. (Romanians, for instance, borrowed Greek, Turkish, German and — yes — French words on food and cooking.) Coming to control the state after World War II, communists spent two decades renaming and removing recipes in seminal text: “The Cookbook,” by Sanda Marin, with forwards by different writers who reflected different political periods. They usually renamed dishes to eliminate cosmopolitan connotations, excise foreign influences, and hide — or at least minimize — scarcity. They emphasized a national, almost autarkic, idea of cuisine even as they promoted communism. For instance, making a great leap into their language, Romanian communists renamed the “éclair” as “ecler” while just getting rid of entries like “Kugelhopf,” “Moldovan cake” and “beignets.” They also restyled different dishes in “economical” and “imitation” form. If they couldn’t do the trick with renaming — or if circumstances changed, like when the state began rationing different staples — they simply removed recipes in the next edition.
In the eastern Mediterranean, Turks, Greeks and Cypriots have gotten into it over food — along with everything else — repeatedly. Restaurant and cafe owners in Greece included “Turkish coffee” on their menus until the 1960s, despite a long, complex relationship between Turkish and Greek people marred by conflict, massacres and massive population exchanges as recently as the 1920s. They began to call it “Greek coffee” in the 1960s, as monarchs, military committees and radicals began remaking the polity again. But they didn’t popularize the practice until after Turkish leaders ordered the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and carved out an ersatz republic in the island’s north. Cypriots, too, have renamed foods since that invasion. For instance, they’ve changed “Turkish delights” to “Cypriot delights.” Arab and Turkish leaders have also renamed foods, applied state embargoes and adopted popular boycotts while squabbling on issues great, small and sordid over the past few years. In 2020, restaurateurs in Saudi Arabia renamed their so-called Turkish burger the Greek burger — and, as if to insult the very people they were trying to use as a cudgel against rivals, promptly reduced its price.
In the Atlantic archipelago, people have renamed foods politically for generations. During World War I, the British renamed different German and German-origin people, places and things — including, of course, their own royal family. While doing so, they took on food and changed “German biscuits” to “empire biscuits.” They’ve also been struggling within Albion and Ireland, the members of each so-called home nation jabbing the others while they all go around the world shrugging at factionalism and tribalism in warmer climes. Each has a version of what most people on the planet now call the “English breakfast” — otherwise known as “the English,” the “full English,” etc.: bacon, sausage, eggs, beans, tomato, bread and multiple extras. If the English version is the baseline, then others have renamed their breakfasts at some point. While the Scottish and Irish have generally gone with the “Scottish breakfast” and the “Irish breakfast,” the Welsh have used silence to stake their claim or just deny others: They generally call their version a “cooked breakfast.” Of course, while folks agree generally that the breakfasts resemble one another, they also recognize and insist on highlighting differences. The English and Scottish usually use a black pudding. The Scottish and Irish may use white pudding, too. Some use both. They all use different sausages, reflecting different approaches to size, shape and taste. And the Welsh, especially on the coast, in places seeking to highlight coastal cooking or in establishments mimicking breakfasts once served to miners, may include cockles and laverbread in the old style. In all these places, peacemakers, cowards and people who couldn’t care less may order a “full breakfast.”
In Australasia, folks have been renaming foods politically since at least World War I. The Australians bake “Kitchener cakes” or “Kitchener buns.” Although they once called these pastry buns “Berliners,” they renamed them because of anti-German and pro-Commonwealth sentiment during World War I. They chose to (re)name them after the famed British lord and field marshal Horatio Kitchener. Having once eaten certain “German sausages,” which they also called “Fritzes,” Australians renamed them and related products “Devons” during the same war. (Oddly enough, having renamed a Berliner pastry and a German sausage, the Australians have kept on calling one form of pork sausage a “Berliner” all these years.) New Zealanders have done the same over the past century, renaming German and German-origin foods much like Australians did. They’ve also renamed foods for political reasons in more recent times. During the 1990s, as the French state tested nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean, New Zealanders rebranded French bread as “Kiwi loaves” in supermarkets and restaurants.
In East Asia, people have done the same for decades. During the Cultural Revolution, for instance, Maoists renamed “Kung Pao chicken” to mask its connections to — and other connotations of — the old imperial order. They called it something akin to “spicy chicken.” In South Korea, political leaders and government officials have tried to rename their own foods in other languages — thus going on the offense. Above all, the South Korean ministries of culture and agriculture have long worked to rename kimchi in the large Chinese market. In 2021, the South Korean ministry of culture amended its guidelines — suggestions for businesses, but binding on state-owned and perhaps state-funded entities — on “appropriate” foreign-language terms for Korean food. In doing so, it invented a new Chinese word and proposed a character for it: “xinqi.” In addition to differentiating between Korean kimchi and pickled vegetables, which is how the Chinese classify kimchi, officials proposed the name because it has an appealing meaning: “spicy, unique.” Of course, South Korean kimchi is — most commonly, and here — cabbage, which people ferment and season with garlic, ginger, chili pepper and more. Declining to capture this specificity or recognize the status of kimchi in Korea and to Korean folks, Chinese officials have rejected their South Korean counterparts’ overtures and guidelines. Indeed, some have blasted their rivals as the “so-called Kimchi Sovereign State.” Instead of resolving convoluted conflicts or agreeing on marketing parameters, South Korean and Chinese officials, business owners and consumers have again feuded over food — and over the act of renaming it.
As Americans were renaming fries in the mid-2000s, others around the world responded with an awkward fusion of anti-hyperpower and reflexive rejectionism — led, perhaps expectedly, by people weaving together French posturing, pan-Arab chest-thumping or pan-Islamic impulses. Having failed to secure a distribution deal with ZamZam Cola, an Iranian offshoot-knockoff of and replacement for Pepsi, a Tunisian Frenchman created his own company at the height of the so-called war on terror: Mecca-Cola. While the folks at Mecca-Cola tried to encourage and exploit politically motivated consumption, as Arab and Muslim leaders were then contemplating boycotts of American products, they ultimately didn’t make much of a dent — in France, or anywhere else. Not only did some targeted consumers slam Mecca-Cola for turning a holy place into a cheap marketing ploy, but the company failed to secure relevant rights in different jurisdictions — including in the United Arab Emirates, where laws basically preclude using certain religious terms in trademarks. Other peddlers of alt-pop took issue with Mecca-Cola, too. The founder of Arab Cola, a Morocco-born Frenchman, argued that the Mecca-Cola team was treading on dangerous ground by using religious symbolism to market soft drinks. (He, though, was apparently on solid ground by using a quasi-ethnic designation to sell such beverages.) And never mind the folks who created Qibla Cola around then.
Iranians have recently renamed foods for political reasons, too. They did so most prominently in the mid-2000s, as folks waged culture wars within and across spheres of difference. After cartoonists depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, people in Muslim-majority states and Muslim communities around the world protested what they deemed a violation of Islamic mores. Irate confectionaries in Tehran decided to rename “Danishes” — a family of popular pastries that, in fact, a Frenchman may have invented by making a mistake — as “Roses of the Prophet Muhammad.” Joining others in the syndicate of confectionaries, while unwittingly capturing the feelings engendered by all such political renamings, at least one baker replaced his sign advertising “Danish pastries” with a sincere, yet warped, religio-political lament: “Oh, Hussein!”
In the crosshairs now, Russians have repeatedly renamed foods politically under the Putin regime, grumbling about American jingoism, seeking to reconstitute an erstwhile Eurasian domain and eviscerating other people’s purportedly imperialist impulses.
After Russian and Russian-supported forces moved on Crimea in 2014, cafe owners changed their “Cafe Americanos” to “Cafe Russianos” or — more subtly snubbing Ukraine — “Cafe Crimeans.” Perhaps jokingly, though conveying a message anyway, Dmitry Medvedev, then prime minister of Russia, later called “Cafe Americano” a “politically incorrect” term and prodded “Eurasian” people to start calling watered-down espressos “Cafe Russianos.” Then, as leaders in Moscow and Tbilisi were duking it out a few years ago, Russian Communist Party representatives proposed that Russians rename two foods to send a message: “khachapuri,” a Georgian dumpling they argued was “ordinary Russian pyshka or pierogi,” and “khinkali,” another Georgian culinary staple, which they equated with Russian pelmeni. A century after communists in Russia overthrew the tsar and pushed for power, their successors thus thundered in failure by petitioning a neo-tsarist regime’s consumer protection agency to rename a tiny neighboring state’s dumplings.
Invading Ukraine this year, Russian leaders have created conditions for more politically motivated renaming of foods — or famous food brands. As American and multinational corporations have shuttered business and left Russian markets because of sanctions guidance or their own prudence and caution, folks in Russia have moved to take their places — literally and proverbially. As Russian leaders and regulators have removed intellectual property protection for companies that they deem hostile, or based in hostile states, others have run franchises on their own — that is, without the franchisers — and even filed to trademark knockoff names. As McDonald’s has packed up, scores of franchisees have kept running outlets. Others have warped the golden arches, using the Cyrillic letter “B” — or “V,” in a Latin alphabet — while choosing a name that is either full of deep, ironic meaning or just some cheap, reactive and vapid act of jingoism: “Uncle Vanya.” Regardless, they’ve accomplished one potentially positive thing: driven another nail into the corpse of the long-dead, original formulation of the Golden Arches Peace Theory.
As in all their ventures, humans have made a mash of things when it comes to food. They’ve perfected, botched, lost and rediscovered dishes. They’ve improved techniques and changed tastes incrementally, then sometimes leapt from old traditions to new tastes and tables that their successors in turn elevate, enshrine, ossify and break down once more. They’ve inspired, honored and deferred to each other. They’ve stolen from, spat on and otherwise insulted, rejected and denied one another.
And they’ve named and renamed dishes, for different reasons. For every person who may be ordering Chicken Kyiv or Chicken Kiev to stick it to the Russian regime or to honor Ukrainian leaders and fighters, another may be holding on to old names to honor their own leaders, fighters or indeed societies. They may keep old names, or adopt new names, to express solidarity sincerely, authentically, and deeply — no matter what others think, no matter how others feel. Others will hesitate. They may feel guilty, understanding that change may be more loaded than invention. They may dislike cheap bravado and performative proffering from a distance — or, perhaps, detest fetishistic fixation on and reckless infatuation with another bunch of old men with plans and young men with guns.
Ultimately, most people, in most places, at most times will keep it simple. They’ll joke about and poke each other over food they love. They’ll fight to claim and possess what they otherwise celebrate and share, though never as intensely — not in a good society or good circle — as they fight to pay the bill. They’ll eat delicious meals if, where and however the hell they can. And then they’ll get on with their day.