Hunger March Party

The problem of hunger rarely plays a significant role in food blogs. The genre inclines toward fantasies of plenty rather than narratives of need. There are blogs devoted to cooking on a budget, but even they emphasize pleasure not deprivation. (And of course there are blogs about hunger as a social and political problem, but they don’t have much to say about cooking.)

This disconnect between the celebration of consumption and the reality of hunger can make food blogging, as a genre, appear trifling. At least, that’s the complaint that the self-critical voice in my head lodges against my blog, which is so clearly about celebrating gastronomic indulgence rather than dissecting global power inequities. Can there be any excuse for blogging about the history of truffled turkey when there are over 870 million chronically hungry people in the world according to the United Nations World Food Programme?


It’s an old question, as I was reminded by my recent reading of Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed, a 1934 novel set among lefty intellectuals in Depression-era New York. Marketed as a black comedy by the New York Review of Books, which re-releases lost classics, The Unpossessed isn’t as funny as Mary McCarthy’s The Group, set in the same time and milieu. But The Group is a historical novel, published thirty years after its Depression-era setting, at the height of America’s postwar prosperity. The Unpossessed, on the other hand, was written at the nadir of the Depression, when every day brought new evidence of suffering before the public eye.

The central characters in The Unpossessed, three old college friends and their wives and lovers, struggle between the call of conscience and their own appetites, mostly unsuccessfully. The novel’s climax drives this hypocrisy home, as the characters gather at a rich patron’s house to launch a new politically radical magazine and to hold a fundraiser in support of the National Hunger March. Hunger marches were held throughout the United States during the early years of the Depression (and in Europe as well). In 1931 and 1932 thousands of unemployed Americans joined hunger marches to Washington D.C., organized by the American Communist Party, where they sang “The Red Flag” and “Solidarity Forever.” Marches were not limited to committed party members or radicals; they brought together a wide range of delegates, including women as well as men, people of color as well as whites, and youths as well as adults. Hunger made for common cause.

The characters of The Unpossessed do not join the marchers, but they do speak out in support. “I ask for hunger consciousness … before it is too late,” the group’s handsome spokesman, Jeffrey Blake (modelled on Max Eastman, editor of The Masses) begins his speech to the wealthy crowd at the Hunger March party. His own consciousness as he delivers the speech, however, is not directed outside to the hungry marchers but inside toward a sexy young woman wearing a “lettuce-green” dress, whom he hungers to make his newest conquest in a long series. It’s not that the characters don’t want to practice hunger consciousness, it’s just that they can’t help being caught up with their own hungers first and foremost.

At a planning meeting the characters vociferously question whether to launch their radical magazine at a party and they debate the ethics of using such an event to raise funds for the hunger marchers. The vulgar businessman whose beautiful wife is funding the magazine (while flirting with Jeffrey Bake) insists on supplying champagne at the party: “the refreshments are on me. I want ’em to cost more than the whole Hunger March expenses.” In the cacophony of voices that follow his offer, no one notices that one of the passionate young students in attendance at the meeting is nearly fainting from hunger until she actually falls to the ground with a crash. Her collapse deeply disturbs the other characters, but they interpret her collapse more as an assault on their own feelings than as a crisis afflicting another person. “Oh oh,” sobs the rich patroness, “I’m going to faint myself. I never can bear the sight of someone suffering.”

Miles Flinders, a character based on the author Tess Slesinger’s first husband, the editor Herbert Solow, scorns Jeffrey Blake’s shallowness and philandering. But his insistence on not feeding his own hunger seems equally self-indulgent. Miles withdraws from his wife Maggie and the creature comforts – the home cooked meals – that she offers him. He steels himself against her love with the thought that “she offered him oblivion, an entirely personal world of vegetables; in which only a vegetable could endure.” Miles’ asceticism leads him, at the novel’s end, to pressure Maggie into aborting a much-desired pregnancy. His hunger for moral purity causes the greatest emotional distress of the novel.

Tess Slesinger (1905-1945)
Tess Slesinger (1905-1945). She based the story of Maggie Flinders’ abortion after her own experience.

The third member of the triumvirate planning the magazine, Jewish university professor Bruno Leonard (based on editor Elliot E. Cohen), vacillates between Jeffrey Blake’s tendency toward self-indulgence and Miles Flinders’ insistent Puritanism. Caught between impulses, Leonard is paralyzed by the inability to move forward, to write, to love, to commit himself to any cause. Hoping to put his squandered years behind him by launching the Magazine and finally going to bed with his long-loved young cousin Elizabeth (she of the lettuce-green dress), Leonard instead loses everything at the Hunger March Party, which turns out more disastrous than any of the characters could imagine. “Down with revolutions, resolutions, Magazines, and all attempts to put this country on its feet,” he shouts to the crowd, “We believe in nothing but aspirin and sex.”

At least Leonard, Flinders, and Blake express worry about the problem of hunger as they struggle with their own appetites. I can’t really say the same for myself. Certainly I can’t claim to be contributing anything productive, just the same feeble moral outrage as most people who claim to be right-thinking, and the occasional monetary contribution.  (You can donate to the World Food Programme here and right now every donation to the current crisis in the Central African Republic will be tripled by Howard Buffett – a great name for someone aiming to help the global hunger problem, it must be said.)

I’ve made my donation, so now I will end with the other dart in my quiver: a little moral outrage. French restaurant Bagatelle in New York City has recently announced the addition to its menu of a new thousand-dollar sundae made from ice cream, brownie, truffles, Dom Perignon sorbet, macarons, and 24-carat gold leaf, accompanied by a ring from the jeweller Maubussin. What sort of crazy world do we live in where millions starve while the wealthy eat gold? Think on that.

Bagatelle's thousand-dollar sundae
Bagatelle’s thousand-dollar sundae


Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

One thought

  1. Your style is so unique compared to other people I’ve read stuff
    from. Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity,
    Guess I will just book mark this page.

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