Unless you're over the age of 30, you probably haven't lived through, or don't remember, the Cold War, a decades-long ideological battle between the American-led West and Soviet-led East. But regardless of whether you recall the Cold War or not, its legacy lives on in some unexpected ways, including in the way we eat food across this planet. Here are just a few of the ways that the Cold War shaped our foods today.
Ever heard of a Chinese Gooseberry? No? As it turns out, the Chinese Gooseberry is the original name for the kiwifruit, or kiwi for short, the fruit many commonly associate with New Zealand. But the Chinese Gooseberry a.k.a. kiwifruit didn’t actually originate in New Zealand, but rather in China, the place for which it got its original name. It wasn’t until 1904 that a school principal brought Chinese Gooseberry seeds to New Zealand, and the fruit really took off. Decades later in the 1950s, New Zealand growers faced a major PR problem when exporting to the American market: in the thick of the Cold War, America was staunchly anti-communist, China had recently undergone a communist revolution, and the fruits America was importing bore the Chinese name, despite coming from New Zealand. Enter Jack Turner, of Turners & Growers, in 1959, with a proposed name change (and a legendary case of rebranding) for the PR-troubled fruit: melonette and kiwifruit were both put forth as options. In the end, Turner opted for the kiwifruit after the kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird, which coincidentally is brown and furry like the fruit. And the rest is history, thanks to the Cold War-driven business concerns of New Zealand exporters who chose the kiwifruit’s now widely familiar name.
2. Chicken Kiev
It’s likely that without the Cold War, we wouldn’t have the global popularity of the well-known meal Chicken Kiev—a pounded chicken breast stuffed with butter and herbs—today. However, despite the popular misconception that the dish is Ukrainian, it, in fact, originates from Russia. There is disagreement on whether it is a traditional dish, or whether its modern incarnation originated from St. Petersburg in the early 20th century. Food writer Lesley Chamberlain has called Chicken Kiev a “Soviet hotel and restaurant classic,” that gained popularity only after the tsarist era. Regardless, it was not on the radars of Western foodies until after it was served to diplomats from around the world at a dinner thrown by the Soviet Ministry of International Affairs in Kiev in 1947, in the formative years of the Cold War. Chicken Kiev was adopted by Soviets as a convenience food, but also quickly spread to the West, reportedly by diplomatic staff who had been fans of the dish in 1947. In 1976, during the Cold War’s detente era, Chicken Kiev became the first ready-made meal sold at the British department store Mark’s & Spencer. The name Chicken Kiev has grown to encompass more than just the original butter and herb-stuffed chicken, but also ham and cheese, leek and bacon, and other variations of stuffed chicken.
In the 1950s, an American banana grower called United Fruit Co. (which today you might know better as Chiquita Bananas) grew their bananas primarily in Latin America. Around that time, when Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman offered to buy the company’s unused land in that country for peasant farmers, the United Fruit Company turned to the US government claiming that Guzman was a communist. Bear in mind that this was the height of the Red Scare in America, so in 1954, the CIA backed an invasion of Guatemala to depose the purported communist Guzman. This operation sparked a civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives, while subsequently giving Chiquita Bananas significant power in the fruit growing industry. Years later, Chiquita once again approached the US government claiming that European countries were violating international trade agreements by sourcing their bananas from their former colonies; the result was a dispute at the World Trade Organization that the US won, further allowing Chiquita (along with fellow banana giants Dole and Del Monte) to dominate the banana market and sell their bananas for cheap. While on the surface cheap bananas would appear to be a good thing, they come at a cost: the rights and human dignity of those growers employed by Chiquita in Latin America, as well as the sovereignty of those countries. The interests of Chiquita were advanced by leveraging Cold War fears in the 1950s, creating a dynamic of dominance that still exists today.
4. Burger Chains
Though burger chains like McDonald’s and Burger King gained popularity throughout the US the 1960s and 1970s, Cold War dynamics in the 1980s provided a new dimension to the way these chain operated. In the Cold War’s final decade, there was a relaxation of tensions between the American-led "West" and the Soviet dominated "East," and even a movement of Western food outlets into the East, which for decades had been off-limits. McDonalds’ first outlet in a communist country was in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, followed by Budapest, Hungary, and finally in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, today the world’s busiest McDonald’s, in 1990. This opened the floodgates for Western fast food outlets across communist Eastern Europe, and not just from McDonalds, but also other outlets including Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It also created immense competition amongst businesses seeking success in a foreign market, leading chains to get creative to gain the upper hand. Such gimmicks included children’s toys, chain-wide mascots, and in-restaurant play areas. There was also an effort to further drive down prices and undercut competitors. These initiatives ultimately transcended the competitive Eastern European market, and made their way home to the West. So technically, we have the 1980s Cold War era "Burger Wars" to thank for fast food’s low prices and all the extras that accompany meals.
5. Development Aid
Jimmy Carter, US President during the Cold War from 1977 to 1981, once said “a peaceful world cannot long exist, one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.” World hunger and poverty are clearly global issues that most could identify, but these issues are often misunderstood. Cited by author Tony Weis, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that there is actually enough food to feed everyone on this planet a nutritious diet two and a half times over. This means that rather than there not being enough food, there is simply a breakdown of channels that get this food to those who need it. Incidentally, Cold War dynamics sparked a key international innovation that aimed to directly address this issue. This idea was development aid and involved sending foodstuffs and monetary assistance to countries in the developing (then third-) world. However, this idea was driven by a post-World War II need for America to maintain allies in the face of its rivalry with the communist Soviet Union. The US first implemented the Marshall Plan to help the war-torn countries of Western Europe rebuild following the devastation of the war. But these efforts soon spread. The idea was that if the US provided aid to developing or war-ravaged countries, then these countries would not feel the need to turn to communism. The American idea of development aid soon grew, with Britain, France, and later Canada and Australia following suit. Today, most—if not all—developed countries offer some form of development aid to the developing world, attempting to deliver food and financial support to those who need it most.