Spain’s Hunger Culture: Picaros, Protestors and Cooks

Creative protest against Spain’s chronic hunger in modern times, from 1500 to the present day, has been expressed in enduring ways. Visual artists’ work has been realist, radical and highlighted physical suffering: Goya included images of starvation in his engravings The Disasters of War and Bunuel’s 1930s documentary Land Without Bread showed hunger as malnutrition. Novelists and dramatists, from the picaresque to the twentieth century, pinpointed the anger in hunger: Lazarillo de Tormes’s stolen sausage, nicked under the nose of a blind master in the mid sixteenth century, becomes Poncia’s sausage, stolen from her sadistic mistress at the opening of Lorca’s last play The House of Bernarda Alba. In our own time, Andalusian trade unionists’ symbolic food thefts from supermarkets have turned picaresque gestures into protest. Each of these works and episdoes may be pegged to particular historical circumstances. So, too, may two cookbooks: the first New Art of Cookery, by Juan Altamiras, a Franciscan friar who weighed in against court cookery ‘dictated by a silver tongue’ in 1745; the second Ignacio Domenech’s revindicative 1941 I Want My Food, published at the beginning of the ‘quiet famine’ that killed an estimated 200,000 people after the Spanish Civil War. Both books shaped an idea of cookery for the hungry, the first from friary soup kitchens, the second from Barcelona’s Republican war canteens. The authors, like earlier artists and writers, made no moral judgement against the hungry, taking for granted instead an idea now central for food scholars: that hunger is very often not ‘inadequate food availability, but rather impeded access and utilization’, to quote Stella Nordhagen of the US Congressional Hunger Center. But during the ‘quiet famine’ most cooks, pushed by necessity, found their own creative solutions, from existing dishes from “poor cookery”. Today, hunger has returned to Spain – an estimated three million Spanish families are estimated as living in severe poverty, on less than €307.00 a month (Caritas, December 2013) – and creative protest has resurged. But as Juan Goytisolo recently wrote in a piece on ‘The Strength of Hunger’ in El País, ‘What can writing do in the face of hunger?’ This paper will close by responding to that question through the ideas of José Esquinas, who holds the newly founded Professorship of Hunger and Poverty Studies at the University of Córdoba. His ideas emphasize the value of earlier creative protests, showing hunger as inextricably linked to war, agriculture, social inequality, cultural ideas of what is good to eat and political inertia, and the relevance of older land-based cookery for the hungry.