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Hunger for Freedom: Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela

A "gastro-political biography" traces what the Nobel Laureate ate throughout his life

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Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela. Courtesy of Flickr user daveblume
Perhaps no world leader's eating habits have been more scrutinized than Barack Obama's. The guy can't bring home a bag of burgers without making the evening news.

But imagine having an entire book written about what you ate throughout your life. That's what food writer Anna Trapido has done with Hunger for Freedom: the Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela.

At first, it sounds a little odd to write about something as seemingly trivial as food in relation to a hero and Nobel Laureate such as Mandela, who spent years as a political prisoner for fighting against apartheid in South Africa. But, as Trapido explains, "We all reveal our most elementary social, economic and emotional truths in the ways that we cook, eat and serve food. So why not ask those who changed the world what they were eating while they did it?"

Trapido's "gastro-political biography" traces Mandela's life, starting with early reminiscences about the simple foods of his Mvezo birthplace, such as the corn porridge called  umphokoqo. She explores how apartheid and racial discrimination was manifested in what South African blacks ate. "In the 1950s," she writes, "parties given by anti-apartheid activists saw drinks served in very short tots so as to ensure that if the police raided the event black people would not be found engaged in the illegal act of consuming alcohol.... The racially discriminatory food conditions for prisoners on Robben Island and the prisoners' fights to improve their diet mirrored those of their broader struggle."

The book includes recipes, such as for the chicken curry smuggled in to Mandela in prison, where blacks were given smaller and lower-quality rations than prisoners of other colors. There are also happier dishes, such as the hearty casserole that was the first meal Mandela ate as a free man, after he was released from prison in 1990, and the sweet koeksisters, an Afrikaans cake, served to him in reconciliation by the widow of one of the architects of apartheid.

Trapido writes, "Mandela media coverage has a somewhat saccharine tendency to deify South Africa's most famous son. Asking what he had for lunch restores humanity to a living legend."

It makes me wonder, what other contemporary or historical figures are deserving of a gastro-biography? Any suggestions?
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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