Is there an example in history where two leaders, or even just foreign travelers, who could not understand each other's spoken language, communicated by food?

I am not talking about very specific communication, just a general "Hi, I am a friend and I'm not going to kill you."

I would like a fairly verifiable example, but I do not need Harvard referencing or anything like that.

  • 4
    I think the custom of bread and salt is an example of the theory - the difficulty would be in finding a specific example.
    – MCW
    Dec 9, 2015 at 22:08
  • Usually, in a long overland travel a caravan would provide themselves with guides knowing the local languages (at least the basics). You should look for sea travels, which makes contact without mediators more likely (v.g. Colon arriving at the New World, first contacts at Philippines, Pascua, etc.). That said, a) the primary way of communication would be by gestures (showing bare hands is probably an universal we-come-in-peace sign), probably including presents and foods and b) I doubt anyone took care to detail (or even record in their iPhones) which specific gestures were used).
    – SJuan76
    Dec 10, 2015 at 13:37
  • Interesting question, may I ask why you want to know?
    – Ne Mo
    Dec 11, 2015 at 12:54

4 Answers 4


Tom Reiss, in his biography of Kurban Said, pp 58-59, provided an example of this. Central Asian nomads would leave caches of bread in the desert; how much was eaten would communicate to other passing nomads information about who had traveled through, etc.

Some points to consider:

It only says that Nussimbaum (Said's real name) speculated that the bread was used to communicate.

Diplomacy is official communication between two countries, I'm not sure if that applies here. We're told nothing about the content of the message or its intended recipient.

Nussimbaum was a fantasist. It is factual that he made this journey across the desert, but he made up a lot of the details. Whether this part is made up I don't know. If you want to dig deeper you'll have to read whatever book Reiss cited this from.

  • do you remember which book of his? Or chapter or page number? thanks
    – Jeremy H
    Dec 11, 2015 at 1:14
  • Is it The Orientalist? I've inserted a link assuming that's the case.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 11, 2015 at 9:47

During a siege, a food is throw over the wall by the defenders, obviously accompanied by some swearing. When the attackers see it, they think "these guys are not starving if they are throwing away food like that. Lets abandon our siege!"

I have heard stories like about a couple of places, and it is certainly the local legend of Monção, Portugal, where it is said that a woman baker called Deuladeu become the city hero in the middle ages by throwing the last bread, made from the last flour supply, over the wall, thus ending a Spanish siege. She is represented in the city coat of arms


Here is her legend in portuguese: https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deu-la-deu

this is an approximate translation of her supposed speech: To thee, who were unable to conquer us by arms, and who have tried to force our surrender by hunger, being ourselves more humane, and - why, thanks to god, being ourselves well supplied - and as we see that you are not well nourished, we send thee this succor, and we will send more, if you ask.

PS: There is also a green wine (Vinho Verde Alvarinho, the local delicacy) called Deuladeu, and she appears in the bottle. and her name appears to mean "God has given her to us"

  • First I thought "heard it couple of places" and was appalled. But this seems to check out, Spanish and German Wikipedia (why is Portuguese not linked?) have a short quip on this legend (although it seems not to be identical in both). Great find. Aug 24, 2018 at 19:24
  • I meant that I have heard similar legends about other places beside Monção. But I do not remember where
    – Luiz
    Aug 24, 2018 at 19:28
  • This was reported by Caesar when his men ate chara root bread during the Civil War. They would throw this bread at Pompey's mean who supposedly thought they were savages for eating such food.
    – ed.hank
    Aug 27, 2018 at 22:15
  • It is quite possible that your Ceasar version was the other one I heard. Thanks!
    – Luiz
    Aug 27, 2018 at 23:21

There are lots of examples of Native American communities offering food such as roasted roots to Spanish colonists, who would often give glass beads and packets of seeds to the natives.


This is not a case of using food to cross a language barrier, but rather of using food as a symbol for insisting on a diplomatic message: during the Whisky war, Schnapps and Whisky have repeatedly been offered by Canada and Denmark for making a territorial claim: "Hans island is part of my country."

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