Originally published in quality newspapers the week of February 27, 2011
"Koshari El Tahrir is passing out free food.” This is just one of the millions of “tweets” sent during the 18 days Egyptian demonstrators were gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Reports of the actual numbers of demonstrators range from 100,000 to 2 million. Even on the low side of those estimates, that’s a lot of people and one of the ways they organized and communicated with one another was by using social media like Twitter and Facebook.
These methods of communication were used to help tend to those who were injured or became sick during the protests, to spread bits of news, and to help each other find where they can get their basic needs taken care of – location of operational restrooms, drinking water, and food.
The free food served by Koshari El Tahrir, a restaurant near one of the campuses of the American University in Cairo, is also called koshari. If Egypt has a national food, this is it. Recognizing an entrepreneurial opportunity, many restaurants and even home cooks prepared koshari and bicycled it into Tahrir Square to sell to the masses.
Koshari has lots of variations but its basic components include a starch (often elbow macaroni or brown rice), lentils, chickpeas, a spicy tomato sauce, vinegar, then topped with fried onions. This is a perfect food to feed a revolution – complex carbohydrates, protein, bold flavors, and enough different textures to keep things interesting. It is also a food that is probably equally delicious hot and when it has cooled off a bit.
Whether its civilian demonstrators or soldiers, masses of people on a mission, usually can’t accomplish that mission without food. Napoleon said, “armies march on their stomachs” and offered a reward of 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a better way to preserve food for his troops. Nicolas Appert, who had experience as an innkeeper, brewer, and chef came up with a method, collected the reward, and set up the world’s first bottling factory. Appert is known as the “Father of Canning.”
Feeding the Continental Army during the American Revolution proved to be a considerable challenge. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, each of the colonies took on the responsibility of feedings its own militia but as the army grew, that function became centralized and the Continental Congress created new post, the Commissary General of Stores Provisions. James Trumbull, the first to hold this position, oversaw the process of putting the system into place.
During these war years, the ration for each soldier changed a bit, but much of the time it included a pound of bread, a pound of meat, a gill (4 ounces) of dry beans or peas, and a gill of rum. The bread was made with just flour and water so it was very hard and needed to be soaked in water before it could be chewed and the meat was salted pork or beef. Most soldiers cooked their salted meat and beans or peas together over an open fire to create a hearty stew. Often extra rum was provided on holidays and to celebrate significant victories.
Even demonstrators closer to home get hungry. Teachers assembled at the state capital in Madison, Wisconsin have been well fed thanks to hundreds of supporters from all over the world, including Egypt, calling in and paying for pizzas to be delivered from Ian’s Pizza, located near the capital.
The instances of democracy at work in our own country have been inspiring. Union members voicing their concerns, legislatures fleeing their own states, Tea Party rallies – these events have been peaceful and the fact that their greatest physical needs of the people involved have been for pizza, rather than stretchers, is yet another reasons to be thankful we live where we live.