Many Hands Stirring Many Pots

By Sokolov, Raymond | Natural History, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Many Hands Stirring Many Pots


Sokolov, Raymond, Natural History


Short on recipes but long on learning, a vast history of food caters to every taste. Almost.

Some twenty years ago in this magazine, I chivied anthropologists for neglecting food in their research on the material culture of human societies. If scholars were willing to record the dimensions of canoe paddles, why not write down how canoe builders fed themselves? This might even have a practical result. Whereas it was improbable anyone would actually reproduce a Bororo paddle, many people might be glad to try an Amazonian recipe for manioc.

In any case, as one could see even then, what we now call globalization was inexorably overwhelming the culinary heritage of marginal-and even not so marginal-cultures. If the recipes of these groups and the lore underpinning them weren't saved, human diversity would be diminished. Something far more easily shared than literature or even music would be lost.

Starting in the 1970s, food historians emerged at the peripheries of academia and began to create an unofficial discipline, often at conferences or in covens of renegade scholars and serious-minded foodies. Epitomizing this intellectual back channel, the 1981 Oxford Food Symposium published its proceedings and sponsored a periodical, Petits Propos Culinaires. Oxford still has no chair in food history (nor does any other major university), but in 1999 Oxford University Press published the Oxford Companion to Food, by the learned student of fish and fish cookery and the symposium's organizer, Alan Davidson. Having contributed material to it from columns first published in Natural History, I hope that I (an admirer of the book) will be pardoned for not discussing it in detail. But I think anyone would say that its 2,650 entries marshal an oceanic amount of information for the thoughtful and curious omnivore.

The act of eating, as well as the acts of food production and cooking that subtend it, is the Oxford Companion's constant focus, from aardvark to zucchini. But the even weightier, brand-new, two-volume, 1,958-page Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F Kiple and Kriemhild Cone& Ornelas, is, so to speak, a different kettle of aardvark. Twice as big, far more scholarly and disputatious, it is for the most part as distant from eating in the ordinary sense from the flavors and even the facts of human eating-as a long book on food could be. So what is it about?

Kiple and Ornelas's history begins in the murky world of "our ancestors," with a technical yet fascinating set of extrapolations based on bones and middens and coprolites (desiccated or mineralized feces), the latter being, according to Kristin D. Sobolik, an anthropologist at the University of Maine, Orono, "a unique source for analyzing prehistoric diet because their constituents are mainly the undigested ... remains of food items that were actually eaten."

In the next and longest section, fifty-nine authoritative monographs combining biology, history, and contemporary socioeconomic analysis are devoted to domesticated plants and animals. The distinguished Capsicum plant authority Jean Andrews, of the University of Texas, Austin, for example, writes on chili (or, as she insists on spelling it, chilli) peppers. But in all this expert summarizing there is barely a recipe and usually only the sketchiest description of what things taste like. In the course of thousands of fascinating words on camels, anthropologist Elizabeth A. Stephens, of the University of Arizona, goes so far as to explain the method for making yogurt from camel's milk but omits to say how it (presumably) differs in taste or smell or texture from other yogurts more familiar to the (presumably) bovicentric reader.

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