FOOD IN HISTORY

Something that never fails to amaze me throughout the years is the synchronicity of articles or ideas that come to my attention.

Do you remember COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS,” by Betty Wason? My article about Ms. Wason first appeared in the Jan-Feb-March, 2002 issues of the CCE (Cookbook Collectors Exchange, a cookbook newsletter for which I wrote articles and cookbook reviews throughout the 1990s—it folded, regrettably,  around 2003.)

Wason’s book, “Cooks, Guttons & Gourmets” came to my attention particularly while I was working on “PEEK INTO THE PAST”, which I posted on this blog recently.

“This is the first and only book,” claimed Doubleday, the publishers of Cooks, Gluttons & Gourmets “which traced the history of cookery “from the days of primitive man up to the present day of the Four Seasons Restaurant and gourmet supermarkets…” After searching through my bookshelves of food-related non-cookbook publications, I concurred. Betty Wason may have been one of our first authentic food historians. But I can tell you with authority that quite a few food history books have been published since Betty Wason opened that door. When I first read COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS nothing else was available! (Betty’s timeless history of cookery is still available on Amazon.com and there are hardbound copies available starting at $1.00 each, with 20 copies available from preowned sources).

And since then, numerous other food history sources have become available–from A HISTORY OF FOOD published in 2008,  to the Cambridge World History of food, a two volume set  with many copies available, AND  THE  OXFORD COMPANION TO FOOD, a best seller in 2000.

I was working on a review of  a book titled “FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES” by Barbara Haber and what the author had to say about the history of food struck a chord.  Haber acknowledges that food history is a relatively new and unexplored field. At the risk of sounding repetitious for I’ve written about this before, Haber explains that this field took off at the end of the 1960s, when academic women who have been activists in the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights movements came to realize that women in general had been excluded from the historical record. By way of setting the record straight, the resources of the Schlesinger Library, where Barbara had been Curator of Books for many years, were called upon by faculty members, students, and independent researchers from all parts of the country and abroad who came to research and write about women’s history.

However, the cookbook collection of the Schlesinger Library was generally ignored during this period. Haber explained, “Women’s studies specialists were more immediately intent on bringing visibility to the public activities of women and downplaying their kitchen duties, which seemed to symbolize women’s subordination and oppression by the patriarchy….”

All of this began to change when women’s history came of age. However, she states, scholars in the traditional fields such as literature, psychology, and sociology were late to the scene of culinary history and the important part women have played in this field.

“Well before food became a legitimate and exciting area of investigation in colleges and universities,” explained Barbara, “groups of nonacademic culinary historians were laboring in the vineyard of food history”.

Barbara recalls that it was these groups, especially, which had been using the library’s cookbook collection for years, that nurtured her inclination to see food as a way of understanding not only individual and group behavior but whole civilizations and major world events…”

While digging through my files for material on the history of fruitcakes, (which, incidentally, many culinary history books completely ignore), I happened to come across an article by Times Staff Writer Charles Perry, which appeared in the February 21, 2001, issue of the Los Angeles Times food section. The title was “OLD FOOD, NEW BOOKS”.

Perry explains how, twenty-five years ago, he realized that a lot of Indian dishes had the same names as Persian, Arab and Greek dishes, concluding there must have been a medieval cuisine extending from the Mediterranean at least as far as India. And he wondered where could he go to read about it?

It occurred to me that perhaps Elisabeth Rozin was on a similar trail…her cookbook “THE UNIVERSAL KITCHEN” wasn’t published until 1996, however, Rozin admits, as a food historian, she has long been fascinated with the universal activity called cooking.

In “The Universal Kitchen” Elisabeth Rozin focuses on the similarities rather than differences on the structures and techniques shared by cultures throughout history. Her publishers write, “Rozin takes us on a gastronomic odyssey…to show how the food of people all over the world has evolved along similar lines…”

Recalling how his search began years ago, Charles Perry writes, “At the time, I found,” “about the only people writing about food history were flaky journalists and cookbook writers* who happily quoted each other’s Marco-Polo-brought-spaghetti-to-Italy stories without ever thinking to check their accuracy. (*Italics mine – sls)

But it turned out there were also some inquisitive souls out there with higher standards of food scholarship, and over the years these once-marginal amateurs have become almost mainstream….”

Perry notes that “The Oxford Companion to Food” made it to the [Los Angeles Times] Food section’s best seller list in 2000 despite being a “daunting 900 pages and costing $60”. WELL!!!

I ordered food historian Andrew F. Smith’s 2009 book for $1.99. – so you can look for an update on this topic.

Not to be outdone, in 2001, Cambridge University published a two-volume “World History of Food” that runs more than 2,000 pages and originally cost $150. (*Note that on Amazon.com, this book STILL costs $50.00 for new and pre-owned copy but there are a lot of listings so you might want to do a little shopping around.

Getting back to Charles Perry’s article, both books were selling quite well, Perry observed, and notes that at the time of this article (2001) both books were outselling the latest version of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook. Personally, I think this is like comparing apples with oranges—Fanny Farmer’s book is a cookbook while the other two books are works about the history of food….in any event, back in the 1970s, Perry continues, “academic historians just didn’t consider cuisine worthy of study. It wasn’t a serious subject—not like, say, 14th century toll road records…”

The remainder of Charles Perry’s article deals with his searches and travels abroad; in 1980, he scraped together as much money as he could and went to Cairo and Damascus to collect medieval manuscripts, and he describes early symposiums on food history as “pretty chaotic”. He says that most people who present papers at the symposiums are not academics—for that matter, writes Perry, “The academic world continues to doubt that food is worthy of its attention…”

However, he continues, “This sort of event (the symposiums) couldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a widespread burgeoning interest in food—not just in cooking or nutrition but in every aspect of food. It was going on before the Symposiums and it has flourished independently of them as well…”

And, while I suspect Charles Perry’s article contains a trace of snobbery with condescending comments about “flaky journalists and cookbook writers”, the subject matter is nonetheless vitally important to us—would he have even written this article (much less found it published in the Los Angeles Times) ten years earlier?

What conclusions we can draw from all of this is that the subject of culinary history is going mainstream, as more and more books, such as Barbara Haber’s “FROM HARDTACK TO HOME FRIES”, Janet Theophano’s “EAT MY WORDS”, James Trager’s “THE FOOD CHRONOLOGY” OR Michael Symonds “HISTORY OF COOKS AND COOKING”—not to mention the Cambridge World History of  Food and others like it finding publishers and an appreciative market.

The Los Angeles Times article presents a respectable list of “Recent Works of Note” which includes the following:

Food: A Culinary History,” edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari; English edition by Bert Sonnenfeld (Columbia University Press, 1999-$39.95);

“The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy” by Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban and Silvano Sirventi, translated by Edward Schneider, (University of Chicago, 1998; hardcover $32.50, paperback $16.20);

“Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece” by Andrew Dalby (Routledge, 1996, $24.99;

“Art, Culture, Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy” by Phyllis Pray Bober, (University of Chicago, 2000, $50.00)

“Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789” by Barbara Wheaton (Touchstone Books, 1996, $21.00)

“All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and Frances from the Middle Ages to the present: by Stephen Mennell (University of Illinois; 1996, $17.12)

If the history of food interests you, don’t over look some of the older books published in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; these are the authors we really have to thank, for pioneering in this field when no one else was interested in something like “culinary history”. Some titles to search for at your favorite used book stores or on the Internet would have to include:

(I should also note that Reay Tannahill’s “Food in History”, published in 1973, for many years was my “bible” and can be found on Amazon for many different prices, including $1.92 and up for new and preowned copies with 122 copies available.

You can also look for the following:

“SIX THOUSAND YEARS OF BREAD,” by H.E. Jacob, Doubleday, 1944

COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS/a History of Cookery” BY BETTY WASON, published by Doubleday in 1962

“THE DELECTABLE PAST” by Esther B. Aresty, published by Simon & Shuster, 1964

“SEVEN CENTURIES OF ENGLISH COOKING” by Maxime de la Falaise, published 1973 McGraw-Hill, Inc.

“TO THE KING’S TASTE” (Richard IIs book of feasts and recipes adapted for modern cooking) by Lorna Sass, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975

“TO THE QUEEN’S TASTE” (Elizabethan feasts and recipes adapted for modern cooking) by Lorna Sass, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976

“THE JOY OF EATING” by Katie Stewart, published 1977 by Stemmer House Publishers

“AMERICAN FOOD/THE GASTRONOMIC STORY: by Evan Jones, published by Random House, 1981

“FOOD/AN OXFORD ANTHOLOGY” edited by Brigid Allen, Oxford University Press, 1995

“THE FOOD CHRONOLOGY” by James Trager, copyright 1995, Henry Holt and Company,

“RARE BITS/UNUSUAL ORIGINS OF POPULAR RECIPES” by Patricia Bunning Stevens, Ohio University Press, 1998

“AMERICAN APPETITE/THE COMING OF AGE OF A CUISINE” by Leslie Brenner, Avon Books, 1999

“A HISTORY OF COOKS AND COOKING” by Michael Symons, University of Illinois Press, 2000

You may have other titles in your collection. If not, you may want to look for some of these books, as well as the titles listed by the L.A. Times in Charles Perry’s article. And you have only to type in one of the food history titles, such as the Oxford Companion to Food on Amazon or Alibris for their computer system to begin listing other volumes they are sure you are going to like and want.

Isn’t it exciting to realize that we have been on the thresh-hold of an awakening in culinary history? Those of us who have collected cookbooks and books about the history of food for decades realize how momentous it is for historians to “discover” this fascinating field.

Bon Appetit! … and Happy Reading!

Sandy

 

Sandy

 

 

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