Thursday, March 24, 2016

Condiment Empires of the Eurasian Steppe

Author's Note: I performed this piece in The Encyclopedia Show on Sunday, March 20, at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. This month's theme was "Condiments."

While the Tartars were spreading a mixture of violence and terror across the steppes of Central Asia, they were also spreading a mixture of mayonnaise and green sweet relish on their fish. Their namesake sauce is just one of many condiments invented by the nomadic peoples of the steppes. But this truth has been buried by the “lame-stream” media at the behest of Big Catsup. The Powers That Be are afraid if people knew the exotic origins of their favorite condiments, it would rend the social fabric asunder, and the nation would be engulfed in an orgy of violence. Thankfully, I have no such qualms. Therefore, I will now correct this oversight, and may God help us all.

We know them merely as nomads or barbarians, savage brutes who subdued most of Eurasia through their superior use of the horse as a military vehicle. But the historians of previous eras called these groups the “Condiment Peoples” and referred to their period of preeminence as the age of the “Condiment Empires.” The nomads had a long-established tradition of flavoring their food after it had been cooked, and they imparted this knowledge to their vassals, who were equally terrified by their conquerors’ ferocity and intrigued by their seasonings. 

The administration of the Condiment Empires was lax in every area except condiment application. That was the one sphere in which the regimes had no tolerance for foreign traditions. As wave after wave of Condiment Peoples overwhelmed the civilized realms of China, India, the Middle East and Europe, they swept aside the old order and imposed their seasonings on the beleaguered citizens.

The variety of their condiments encompassed the full width and breadth of the human palate, but it was often their subjects who found new uses for them. The fishmongers of Persia were actually the first to apply Tartar sauce to seafood. What the Tartars lacked in culinary imagination though, they more than made up for on the battlefield. They are generally considered the fiercest of the Condiment Peoples, far outstripping the Worcestershires and the Grey Poupons in both archery and horsemanship. 

Many of our favorite condiments were championed by history’s greatest warriors. While establishing the largest contiguous land empire of all time, Genghis Khan simultaneously launched the world-conquering phenomenon of ranch dressing. His grandson, Kublai Khan, is credited with developing the formula still used in A-1 steak sauce. It is also believed that Marco Polo stole a jar of honey mustard from his court. And, despite its name, no one has done more for the popularity of Buffalo wing sauce than Attila the Hun.

The nomadic lifestyle lent itself to condiments and what we know today as “fast food.” Most contemporary fast-food franchises offer menus that would be startlingly familiar to the descendants of the Condiment Peoples. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Double Down” sandwich is actually a modern interpretation of the Seljuk Turks’ signature dish, “oghuz,” which means, literally, “I’ve given up.”

But the Condiment Peoples’ reign of tasty terror came to an end in the 15th Century. Condiment penetration had achieved maximum saturation in the Asian market, and Europe had recently rediscovered flavor after the bland, tasteless misery of the Dark Ages. The invention of the condiment-dispensing station by Giacomo Boiardi in 1471 brought flavor to the masses. This democratization of taste broke the monopoly of the Condiment Empires, and they soon faded from the scene.

They were succeeded by the Furniture Empires, foremost among these being the Ottoman Turks’, whose sole proviso was that their subjects place a cushioned stool in front of their chairs and rest their feet on it every once in a while, in the interest of “taking a load off.” The so-called “Edict of Relaxation” was naturally popular and contributed to the longevity of their empire. 

Some would say that the diffusion of condiment knowledge came at too great a cost. To them I would say, “Eh. Whatta ya gonna do?” Perhaps too many had to die, too many were orphaned or emotionally scarred for life so that we may know the joy of wolfing down a McRib, slathered in what I assume is barbeque sauce. But I fear to contemplate the alternative. What substandard, uninspiring fast food and condiments might we have inherited from our timid ancestors if not for the nomads’ bloodlust? The mind reels at the possibilities.

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