…. Images of the apocalypse – Let them eat cake?

George Calombaris, the tubby avuncular celebrity chef, the lead horseman of the apocalypse? Or his counterparts, Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston, or Matt Moran? This is the imagery that the central thesis of this discussion raises. The discussion explores the idea that that the popular rise of the western gastronome is symptomatic of a cultural food decadence so resource intensive that its continuance will undermine the society that initiated it. The fantasy of a mounted skeletal Calombaris and co aside, imagery in support of this hypothesis are all too easy to summon: restaurant diners literally eating gold (leaf) while children in sub-Saharan Africa suffer permanent brain damage from malnutrition or often simply starve to death; bull-dozers pushing mountains of perfectly edible food into land-fill while people in the same city go hungry; and, thousands of square kilometers of carbon sequestering rainforest being clear felled so that cattle destined to become hamburger meat can be grazed.

Beyond the imagery though, the current discussion will seek to explore not so much the factual basis to the stark dichotomies between rich and poor in the contemporary global economy but rather the paradox that arises from the increased awareness of and concern about these dichotomies on the one hand and the increased adulation of gastronomic decadence on the other. To explore this paradox the discussion will take several steps. The first is consideration of the current trends in the consumption of food resources and the public perception of these. The second is to examine whether gastronomic culture has indeed grown in decadence and self-indulgence. Finally, the discussion will identify several commentators who have attempted to reconcile this apparent social self-denial.

The Malthusian Crisis

In 1972 the intellectual “think-tank” the Club of Rome published its first report Limits to Growth (Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behren 1972). The report based on mathematical modeling theorized that with an increasing global population but static natural resources there would be an inevitable social collapse (roughly in the middle of this century). It is usually assumed today that while there is merit in the report’s approach its modeling was deficient in failing to sufficiently take into account the increase in available resources by virtue of improved recovery technologies (although more recent analysts have suggested the original report is still surprisingly accurate) (Turner 2008). In a number of respects the Limits to Growth hypothesis echoed those of the eighteenth century demographer and economist Thomas Malthus who was one of the first theorists to propose that a society’s population growth would ultimately exceed the capacity of natural resource systems to support it. While the specifics of the economic modeling proposed by Malthus and the Club of Rome may not be entirely accurate there is an undeniable truth at the core of their hypotheses: there are limits to the level of natural resources available on the planet; global population is growing; and (the point emphasised by the Club of Rome) the rate of consumption of resources increases exponentially.

The Club of Rome proposed no solution but suggested they were only putting forward the modeling. To Malthus, a protestant clergyman, the solution to the dilemma was moral restraint and godly activity, ‘evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity’ (Malthius 1798, p158).

Without descending into a statistical smorgasbord the following statistics illustrates the concerns voiced by Malthus and the Club of Rome. The global population in 1950 was 2.5 billion; in 2010 it was 6.5 billion; by 2050 it is estimated to be 9.2 billion. By contrast in 1900 there was 8 hectares of cultivatable land for each person on earth. Today there is 1.6 hectares (Duncan 2011, pp124-125).

However, enlightening and disturbing though this data is, it serves only to illustrate the nature of the crisis – namely a fixed resource base and an increasing population and thus demand – identified by Malthus in the eighteenth century. It does not indicate the existence of the paradox at the core of this discussion – that the social response to this crisis is to increase the rate of consumption of food resources through a growing tendency to gastronomic decadence.

Gastronomic Decadence – Then and now

To suggest that the response to the Malthusian crisis is to increase consumption is to take the proposition to a different level. While the nature of the Malthusian crisis may have been recognised since the late eighteenth, the history of our culture, really all human cultures from the earliest times, has always resonated with examples of gastronomic excess.

The following description of a small dinner party in Roman Britain is illustrative:

Food would be served on bronze, pewter or the popular decorated red Samian ware dishes and wine would be drunk from small cups of glass, samian ware or pewter. The meal began with gustatio or hors d’oevre, often an egg dish, vegetables raw and cooked, including asparagus, peas, beans, carrots, lettuce, endive, radishes, and cucumber. Salt fish, oysters, mussels or the specially fattened dormice cooked in a variety of ways. During the meal mulsum – a mixture of chilled white wine and honey – or course wine mixed with water would be drunk, the more expensive wines, such as Bordeaux, being reserved for serious drinking after the meal. Entertainment such as music on the lyre or cithera, or perhaps poetry reading would be provided during and after the meal.

The main course, or primae mensai varied both in the number and elaboration of dishes. Roast and boiled meat, poultry, game or other meat delicacies would be served. No dish was complete without its highly flavoured and seasoned sauce. Contrary to present day preference, the main object seemed to be to disguise the natural taste of food – possibly to conceal doubtful freshness, possibly to demonstrate the variety of costly spices available to the host. Sometimes so many ingredients were used in a sauce it was impossible to single out any one flavour. One Roman cook bitterly complained that some of his fellow cooks ‘When they season their dinners they don’t use condiments for seasoning, but screech owls, which eat out the intestines of the guests alive’. Apicius wrote at the end of one of his recipes for a particularly flavoursome sauce, ‘No one at table will know what he is eating’. These sauces were usually thickened with wheat flour or crumbled pastry. Honey was often incorporated into a ‘sweet-sour’ dish or sauce.

Favourite foods of the Roman gourmet included snails fattened on milk until they could no longer retreat into their shells; dormice fattened on nuts in special earthenware jars – “battery dormice”; pigeons immobilized by having their wings clipped or legs broken, then fattened; oysters in plenty and other shellfish; ham and suckling pig; peacocks, pheasant and goose; and chicken cooked in a variety of ways, one of which required the bird to be drowned in red wine. Several dishes would be placed on the table for each person to help himself. Servants kept the guests supplied with small hot rolls – a useful means of cleaning the plate of a tasty sauce still practiced by the French today – and their glasses replenished with wine.

Desserts or mensae secundae, though not considered an important course, would consist of sweetmeats, pastries, dried or fresh fruit and nuts (Kentucky Educational Television)

Of course the banquet (convivium) was by no means unique to the Imperial Romans. In the middle of the dark ages in medieval an extravagant feast was still possible. Legrand d’Aussy, the French culinary historian described the following feast given by the Count of Anjou in 1455:

On the table was placed a centre-piece, which represented a green lawn, surrounded with large peacocks’ feathers and green branches, to which were tied violets and other sweet-smelling flowers. In the middle of this lawn a fortress was placed, covered with silver. The fortress was hollow, and formed a sort of cage, in which several live birds were shut up, their tufts and feet being gilt. On its tower, which was gilt, three banners were placed

The first course consisted of a civet of hare, a quarter of stag which had been a night in salt, a stuffed chicken, and a loin of veal. The two last dishes were covered with a German sauce, with gilt sugar-plums, and pomegranate seeds.

At each end, outside the green lawn, was an enormous pie, surmounted with smaller pies, which formed a crown. The crust of the large pies were silvered all round and gilt at the top. Each pie contained a whole roe-deer, a gosling, three capons, six chickens, ten pigeons, one young rabbit, and, no doubt to serve as seasoning or stuffing, a minced loin of veal, two pounds of fat, and twenty-six hard-boiled eggs, covered with saffron and flavoured with cloves.

For the three following courses, there was a roe-deer, a pig, a sturgeon cooked in parsley and vinegar, and covered with powdered ginger. A kid goat, two goslings, twelve chickens, as many pigeons, six young rabbits, two herons, a leveret, a fat capon stuffed, four chickens covered with yolks of eggs and sprinkled with spice, a wild boar, some wafers and stars; a jelly, part white and part red, representing the crests of the honored guests; Cream covered with fennel seeds and preserved in sugar; a white cream, cheese in slices, and strawberries; and, lastly, plums stewed in rose-water.

Besides these four courses, there was a fifth, entirely composed of the prepared wines then in vogue, and of preserves. These consisted of fruits and various sweet pastries (Middle Ages Food).

Faced with these examples of historical excess can we still say that contemporary society is increasingly decadent, or rather are we merely perpetuating the behaviour of our forebears? Is Heston Blumenthal more decadent than the Count of Anjou? While the qualitative comparisons might be fodder for televisions shows they will not take this discussion particularly far.

Quantitative data provides better fare. Even so accurate data on food consumption from the present back to Roman times does not exist, however the United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) does produce data on food consumption of a more recent inquiry period. The following table illustrates per capita kilojoule consumption by global region over a period of nearly fifty years. The last two columns are of course predictive.

Table 1. Global and regional per capita food consumption (kcal per capita per day) (WHO Nutrition Health Topics)

Region 1964 – 1966 1974 – 1976 1984 – 1986 1997 – 1999 2015 2030
World 2358 2435 2655 2803 2940 3050
Developing countries 2054 2152 2450 2681 2850 2980
Near East and North Africa 2290 2591 2953 3006 3090 3170
Sub-Saharan Africa (ex S. Africa) 2058 2079 2057 2195 2360 2540
Latin America and the Caribbean 2393 2546 2689 2824 2980 3140
East Asia 1957 2105 2559 2921 3060 3190
South Asia 2017 1986 2205 2403 2700 2900
Industrialized countries 2947 3065 3206 3380 3440 3500
Transition countries 3222 3385 3379 2906 3060 3180

There are three particular issues illustrated by this table. First, the continued growth in kilocalorie consumption in industrialized nations would suggest that we are indeed becoming more consumptive. Second, while this trend is (generally) shared on a global basis – noting the Sub Saharan Africa remains virtually static and transition countries experience a negative trend – the growth is most pronounced in East Asia, the Near East and “Developing Countries”; more so than industrialized nations. Finally though, it must also be borne in mind that the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations considers that 1800 kcal is a required minimum daily intake (UN Hunger Portal). On this basis the table would suggest that there should not be undernourishment in any of the world’s regions.[1]

The WHO provides some explanation for the growth in per capita food consumption in the following passage:

Economic development is normally accompanied by improvements in a country’s food supply and the gradual elimination of dietary deficiencies, thus improving the overall nutritional status of the country’s population. Furthermore, it also brings about qualitative changes in the production, processing, distribution and marketing of food. Increasing urbanization will also have consequences for the dietary patterns and lifestyles of individuals, not all of which are positive.

The dietary changes … include both quantitative and qualitative changes in the diet. The adverse dietary changes include shifts in the structure of the diet towards a higher energy density diet with a greater role for fat and added sugars in foods, greater saturated fat intake (mostly from animal sources), reduced intakes of complex carbohydrates and dietary fibre, and reduced fruit and vegetable intakes. These dietary changes are compounded by lifestyle changes that reflect reduced physical activity at work and during leisure time. At the same time, however, poor countries continue to face food shortages and nutrient inadequacies (UN Hunger Portal). (Emphasis added)

Accordingly it would appear that the WHO is suggesting that a feature economic development is a change in the nature of diet towards a more “decadent” pattern of consumption. It remains to consider whether this dietary change is a necessary feature of economic development or rather merely a common incidence. Before doing so though one final feature in the growth of per capita kilocalorie consumption should be noted; that is the growth in the total number of people. The United Nations has estimated that between 1950 and 2000 the global population rose by 71 million per year to 6.1 billion in 2000 and will continue to grow (at a slightly slower rate) to 8.9 billion in 2050 (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Life expectancy for the world’s population is also expected to increase to between 66 and 97 years (depending on region) by 2100. Of course those living longest will be in the highest consuming developed countries. The increase in population will lead to an increase in population densities and a consequent reduction in land available for production (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs).

Thus, the United Nations data presented above suggests that at least on a quantitative basis, the paradox central to this discussion would appear to be made out. Not only do we face the Malthusian crises of environmentally finite (food) resources and an ever increasing population[2] but the societal response to the crisis is for each individual to consume more not less!

Making more from less?

Rather than concluding the discussion with that rather bitter taste it is worthwhile to consider some of the strategies that are being proposed to deal with the paradox. Two of these will be explored. Technology is central to both strategies although each takes a diametrically opposed approach to the role of technology.


In the technocratic model technology provides solution to both the Malthusian crisis and the gastronomic decadence paradox. In this model increased reliance on technology allows for increased food production in sufficient quantities to overcome both crises and paradox. The approach is often popularly labeled the “green revolution” (Gaud 1968). In summary the notion is that improvements in technology around insecticides, fertilisers and crop design allow for significant increase in food production enough to satisfying growing demand (Fisher, Byalee & Eadmedes 2009). These elements of the green revolution have been the basis of increased global food production since the 1960s. Genetically modified crops are perhaps the bes5t contemporary example of a technocratic approach.

The other “Green Revolution”

A completely different view suggests the solution lies in reducing the level of resources required for the production of food. This approach suggests that measures such as reduction in the consumption of resource intensive proteins, greater emphasis on local production to reduce the costs of transport and a reduction in the use of fertilisers and other additives as well as an overall reduction in the levels of consumption are necessary. The model does suggest though that an increase in expenditure on food production research is necessary. In summary this model suggests that if the Malthusian crisis cannot be avoided at least the gastronomic decadence paradox can be. The science writer Julian Cribb in his book The Coming Famine: the global food crises and what we can do to avoid it is perhaps the best known recent advocate of this anti-technocratic approach.

An interesting twist to Cribb’s minimalism is provided by the local organisation Sustainable Table whose activities focus on the gastronomy of minimalism.

No doubt the debate between advocates of these two schools will continue for as long as there is a Malthusian crisis to be resolved. Rather than one or other approach providing the solution, perhaps the way forward is likely to lie in the ongoing dialectic between them.

Donna Storey

List of Academic References

Cribb J 2010, The Coming  Famine, University of California Press and CSIRO Publications

Duncan C 2011, The Sustainable Table, The Sustainable Table Melbourne

Fischer R A, Byerlee D and Eadmedes G O 2009, Can Technology Deliver on the Yield Challenge to 2050?, paper delivered to FAO Expert Meeting, June 2009, available at <ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/012/ak977e/ak977e00.pdf> accessed on 12 November 2012

Gaud W S 1968, The Green Revolution: Accomplishments and Apprehensions, available at < http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/topics/borlaug/borlaug-green.html> accessed on 10 November 2012

Kentucky Educational Television, The Roman Cookbook, available at <http://www.dl.ket.org/latin3/mores/food/cooking02.htm> accessed on 10 November 2012

Malthus T.R. 1798, An essay on the principle of population, Oxford World’s Classics reprint

Meadows D, Meadows D, Randers J & Behrens W 1972, The Limits to Growth, Universe Books

Middle Ages Food, author unknown, available at <http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/middle-ages-food.htm> accessed on 12 November 2012

Turner G 2008, A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality, CSIRO Publications

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population to 2300, United Nations, New York 2004,available at <http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf> accessed on 12 November 2012

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, Hunger Portal, available at <http://www.fao.org/hunger/en/#jfmulticontent_c130584-2> accessed on 12 November 2012

United Nations World Health Organisation, Nutrition Health Topics, available at <http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/3_foodconsumption/en/index.html> accessed on 10 November 2012

List of Media References

Music: “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve

Images sought from the following websites:















































[1] In fact though the “Hunger Portal” suggests that 868m or 12% of the world’s population are undernourished. Table 1 above suggests that this need not be the case. The issue would apparently turn on distribution within global regions.

[2] In fact the World Population 2300 suggests that global population will essentially stabilise by 2045 -50



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