Why read a historian on food and food politics? I’d say to get some perspective on the romantic, nostalgic, nationalistic myths that pervade so much contemporary food writing.
“Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize,” is an oft-repeated slogan.
Well, our grannies were born sometime from 1880 to 1970. That may seem a pretty long period and so it is. Historically speaking though, it’s massively unrepresentative of most of culinary (kitchen) history.
These grannies all came into a world in which they could count on at least come industrial foods, in which they could shop for food on city streets, and in which their nationality shaped what they ate.
Behind the last three to six generations stand some seven hundred earlier generations. They toiled as hard to prepare food by hand as they did to grow the raw materials, they depended on the limited and precarious foods grown within a few miles from their dwellings, and their class did more to shape what they ate than their nationality.
My Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2013) analyzes how entire populations in the richer parts of the world today eat as well (better actually) than the greatest emperors of the past.
Yes, Cuisine and Empire is as ridiculously ambitious as it sounds. But what a privilege and a delight it was (at least when I wasn’t tearing my hair out) to have the opportunity to try to pull together a coherent story of how humans have created and re-created their food through political, economic, religious, and technological changes.
I was able to bring to Cuisine and Empire a lifetime of experience: an academic career as a historian and philosopher of science and technology (curriculum vitae pdf); a childhood on a farm that retained features of the seven hundred generations; and an itinerant lifestyle that allowed me to shop, cook, and dine on five continents.
My research on food history has made me an unabashed, though not uncritical enthusiast about modern food. Most of what I talk about on my blog revolves around that. Where they seem intriguing, enlightening, or just fun, I also add pictures, stories, and recipes.
I love comments, discussion, and criticism (constructive, of course).