Monday, April 4, 2011


This afternoon I was hungry. An 11:30 meeting, meant to be over in an hour, bled close to 1:00, which marked the start of a far from vigorous but still very enjoyable tennis match against a colleague. As that ended I was off to retrieve my daughter and a friend from their respective schools and home for a play date. In all, it was well past 3:00 when I finally wandered into my kitchen for a late lunch. I was a hungry historian.

When I’m very hungry, I feel it in my teeth. On very busy days like today, I’ll sometimes miss lunch at school. On days that are still rarer, I will also have skipped breakfast that morning, having begun work at 5:30 AM with a coffee and then failed to find time before the demands and routines of the morning for my own feeding. I usually first realize—as I’m scrambling to complete the budget justification on a grant proposal or reading aloud to myself in my office, for what feels like the dozenth time, an article manuscript that I’m hoping, finally, to send off by the close of the day (they don’t come often, but these are the days when a lunch will be forgotten)—that I’m loosing focus, that my mind is starting to spin. And then as I feel a pain emerging in behind my eyebrows, it dawns on me: I’m desperately hungry. Wait, did I skip lunch?!? And when my teeth start to ache I know my work is over.

This is a blog about enjoying great food in a place where it abounds. And in my life, hunger is a kind of a tamely masochistic game that I play on hectic days. But I’ve also begun to think lately about hunger, and I realize that I’m not even sure what it means. Recent estimates suggest that just under a billion people are chronically undernourished. About 1 in 7 people in the world are actually hungry, as a state of being. I don’t comprehend that kind of hunger, as a human and bodily experience. When a person lives in hunger, does the body cease to signal pain? Or does chronic hunger mean constant discomfort, a throbbing head, aching teeth?

Historians are accustomed to thinking of the world as profoundly and complexly stratified. We have intricate ways of conceiving and measuring the ways that societies have been and remain unequal. Some people have grasped more than others. Some of us have been granted a larger share while others have been denied. And yet, I’m not sure that we appreciate this fundamental division among people: luck, privilege, and the exercise of power open a chasm between those for whom hunger is a game and those for whom it is fundamental concern and life characteristic.

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