In the last few weeks as I have been preparing a couple of papers and a presentation, I’ve been thinking a lot about cuisine as a way of understanding the history of food. What follows are a few things that I’d like to share, nothing systematic, just good stuff.
French Cuisine: Gastronomy Paired with Industrial Food
French cuisine is probably the archetypal cuisine. It’s aristocratic dining, spawning of gastronomy, the aesthetics of food, and high end restaurants at the beginning of the nineteenth century are usually depicted as a world away from today’s “mechanized, processed, standardised” foods.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Emma Spary, Reader in Modern History at Cambridge University, and long-established expert on French culinary history. In the politest of academic ways, she tears into this utopian view of French cuisine in Feeding France: New Sciences of Food 1760-1815.
Instead “gastronomy and industrialisation, connoisseurship and chemistry, proceeded in parallel, more, in dialogue with one another.” From staples such as bread and potatoes, to more luxury goods such as broths, health foods, gelatin and chocolate, scientists turned businessmen in making French food. Nor was this blind entrepreneurship. As Spary shows, the debate about the political and economic theories underpinning scientific research and business enterprises was as lively as food politics today.
It’s a wonderful, revisionist book that if you’re a regular reader of this blog you won’t be surprised to hear I love. I recommend tracking it down on inter-library loan because Cambridge UP priced it out of sight and then allowing yourself plenty of time because it’s a really dense read. I will never think of French cuisine the same way again.
A Cuisine Not Rooted in the Land: Hakka Chinese Cuisine
I first encountered Hakka cuisine nearly thirty years ago in a little restaurant on River Street on the edge of Chinatown in Honolulu. It sounded intriguing and I remember that we enjoyed a dish of salt-baked chicken. What was it though? Linda Lau Anusasananan provided the answer in the The Hakka Cookbook in 2012.
The Hakka are that group of Chinese who speak the language for which they are named. no group of Chinese has moved more within and without the country. Anusasananan traces their cuisine from China to California (her family), Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, Peru, Hawaii, Tahiti, India, Toronto and New York.
So much for the idea that cuisines have to be rooted in the land to retain their identity. Transplanted around the world, modified to fit local circumstances, Hakka cuisine remains recognizable. Interesting doable recipes, including the salt-baked chicken, and the best of stories.
A Cuisine Invented in a Generation: Chinese-American Cuisine
You’re a Chinese migrant in the United States in the early twentieth century. You are not wanted in the country, you can’t get citizenship. Your cuisine is totally strange to, indeed threatening to Americans because unlike the cuisine of most of the other immigrants it is at odds with everything they are accustomed to about cooking and serving food.
What do you do? Within a few short years, you invent a Chinese-American cuisine that appeals to American palates and you create a niche for yourself as a Chinese restaurateur. That’s the story that Anne Mendelson tells in Chow Chop Suey, which should be out any time soon.
Mendelson’s history puts pay to the idea that there is a single way in which immigrants deal with food in their new land. Fascinating and thought-provoking.
A Cuisine Used for Political Ends: Cuisine and Politics in the Ottoman Empire
The janissary organization was based on the model of a kitchen. High-ranking commanders were called çorbacı, the soupier or soup maker; perhaps soup was the core of the Ottoman cookery. Other military ranks were designated by culinary terms: Aşçıbaşı, the chef; karakullukçu, the scullion; çörekçi, the baker; gözlemeci, the griddle bread maker, and so on. The entire corps was known as ocak, the hearth of fire, and was commanded by an ağa, the master. The emblem of the whole janissary corps was a cauldron called kazan-ı şerif, the honorable cauldron, and the janissary headgear was ornamented with a spoon.
If you were the Sultan, you did not want to hear that the janissaries had overturned the cauldron. That was a sign of revolt.
From Aylin Tan’s weekly column for Hurriyet Daily News, an English-Language newspaper for Turkey, always interesting on Turkish food matters, and particularly so during recent events.
Homegrown, Naturalized and Invented Cuisines: Hawaii as an Alternative Model of Cuisines
And to round this out, I recently re-visited my earlier research on the cuisines of Hawaii for a special issue of Food, Culture and Society on the topic that should be out shortly. Since that’s so impossible to access, here’s a link to the final draft of Home-Grown Cuisines or Naturalized Cuisines?
I explain why I hated going to Hawaii, why I found the cuisines in Hawaii (much more complex than just Hawaiian cuisine) so fascinating that I wrote a book about them, how this led to writing a book on world food history, and how that in turn led to new insights about the cuisines of Hawaii itself.
Along the way, I distinguish three meanings of local: biologically local, agriculturally local, and culturally local. I also talk about why the naturalized and invented cuisines of Hawaii show (continuing a theme above) that the assumption that real, true, authentic cuisines are homegrown, rooted in the land, is questionable. Well, actually, rubbish.