Toppings & Trenchers & the End of History

The Recipe – Trencher with Grilled Kudu and Greenbean Salad


Back in medieval times the rich had their food served on flat, stale, bread called a trencher. After the rich gorged themselves on the food, the trenchers were given to the poor, perhaps as a show of generosity.

One source, The Book of Courtesy (1460), describes the ritual as follows:

“The Almoner not only said grace before the meal but was responsible for making sure the alms-dish was set upon the table. The Carver was responsible for placing a ‘cheat’ (wholewheat) loaf of bread into the bowl before serving the guests and following it with the trimmed crusts from the trenchers. The Butler was directed to pour any wine left undrunk into the alms-bowl, and place there some of every meat dish served. The Almoner was charged with taking all the ‘broken meats’, that is the variously partially served pies and dishes, plus the contents of the alms-dish along with any leftover drink, to give to the poor who waited at the gates of the rich men’s houses. The alms-dish itself, holding as it did some of the best foods, was supposed to go to the poorest beggar of all. These edible leftovers and unwanted scraps of food were what are known as ‘orts’”.


How little things have changed since then. The last formal attempt to challenge class-based ideology died – rather abruptly – during the late 1980’s when we, as Francis Fukuyama as aptly called it – reached the end of history. In short he argued:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

If Fukuyama is indeed correct, we have run out of ideas, and what we have now, is it: there will be nothing more and nothing less.

Some will have the food, and some, only the trenchers.

I believe it is part the human condition to always want more than what we currently have: never completely content, never completely happy unless we could have just a little more of something or the other. This is the one thing the rich and the poor have in common.

Off course, we all think that life is so much easier when we have the means to simply buy what we want: the better car, the bigger house, the more attractive lover, the imported duck pâté, the latest fashion, a better stove, more affection – you name it. We all have our shopping lists.

Food, like water, is a basic requirement for life. We can’t live without it, it is a very simple fact and easy to understand. Yet, the human species as a whole is running out of food.


This fact has put in motion a process that could only be described as the ‘Second Scramble for Africa’. Large private corporations supported by powerful governments are targeting Africa as their next food basket. Local African governments are facilitating the selling or leasing of large tracts of farmland to foreign (food) interests often in return for cheap loans to fund large infrastructural projects such as roads, ports, hotels and dams.

The food produced by these projects, are for the export market and very little, if any, are available for local consumption. Thus, whilst there might be increase in global food production, there is no improvement in local food security, hunger or malnutrition.

Where and when Africans are doing the actual farming, it is often at the cost of their own subsistence food crops. High value commercial crops such a soya beans and rice has replaced subsistence crops such as yams, cassava, bananas and maize. It is likely that labour intensive farming will eventually make way for mechanized production, meaning that African farmers will eventually lose their land. How ironic is it that the world’s hungriest continent is becoming the food basket for the rest of the world?

This trend is not confined to agriculture and food production only. Just think mining, oil and gas exploration, and dare I say it, tourism.

So, what is in it for us, the ordinary people of this continent: the stale, soggy trencher or the delicious toppings? Liberal economists would argue that we’d acquire much needed foreign investment and income that would eventually trickle down to the poorest of poor making their lives a whole lot better. Much like the medieval rich argued that at least the sauce from their delicious topping would flavour the stale trenchers given to the poor.

I remain skeptical however.

Consider this: after more than two decades of independence and billions of dollars in foreign investment and development aid, the UNDP reported in 2013 that 30% of Namibia’s children under the age of five years, are “stunted”, i.e. not growing or developing normally.

The cause: malnutrition – either of the child or the mother during fetal development.

At the same time as nearly one-in-three infants are “stunted” in their growth, Europeans are dinning on our finest food exports, and prices of locally manufactured food have sky rocketed due to Government’s Infant Industry Protection policy. It was made clear recently that both Government and Big Business expects local consumers to absorb the increased cost of this policy, in exchange for a few additional jobs.

From where I stand, we are asked to pay a hell of lot more for that little bit more sauce on our trenchers. Need I remind you that not too long ago, Mozambique- one the countries heavily targeted by foreign agri-business – experienced serious food riots. Food was simply too expensive for local consumers.

We all have our limits.

Recent events such as the Arab Spring and the continuous riots in Greece and Spain, shows that Fukuyama was wrong: we have not reached the end of history. Not by a country mile.


Given that this is an election year, and that politicians are falling over each other to show their commitment to the cause of the poor, I’ll leave you with some wisdom from Abraham Lincoln and a recipe for your own trencher with toppings and all.

He said:

“You can fool some of the people all of the time,

and all of the people some of the time,

but you can’t fool ALL of the people ALL of the time.”




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