Review Essay: Food and History

Article excerpt

Historians of food usually find it necessary to explain the significance of their subject. Lest the uninitiated think that food is simply planted, harvested, processed, transported, sold, and consumed, readers are alerted to the many and complex roles that food plays in human society. For the most enthusiastic, food is the ideal cultural symbol that allows the historian to uncover hidden levels of meaning in social relationships and arrive at new understandings of the human experience. The tug of cultural anthropology and sociology is strong here, and underscores food as symbol and metaphor, a cultural numerator essential to the human equation.

The transformation of food from a marginal subject of interest to a few agricultural historians to one recognized for its potential for exploring new dimensions of the past is now almost complete. A generation ago, propelled by the hope for a new direction for the discipline, the Annales. E. S. C. published a series of articles on food and nutrition, many of them concentrating on diets and using rations as evidence, that staked out the new terrain. (1) Much of this work drew inspiration and direction from still earlier studies, most long since forgotten. (2) From that point food studies began to gather strength and momentum, pushed along by an occasional best seller that drew an immediate and widespread following, such as Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange. (3) These early efforts established a framework for food history, and a growing recognition of its legitimacy as a field of study.

As the field has grown, it has become more specific and particular, and at the same time more general and comprehensive. Research criss-crosses time and space, race and class, society and culture, all with the aim of explaining and interpreting the not always clear meaning of food. This gives the field energy, but makes it difficult to summarize. Instead of an attempt at summarization, the following essay first discusses selected recent publications on food, concentrating on those that can serve as examples of the range of scholarship. It then describes the types of evidence and the themes and problems common to most of the research, emphasizing those that have the most promise for future research. It concludes with some generalizations on the present state of food and historical studies.


Three recent and very ambitious publications go a long way toward summarizing the current state of scholarship. All three are significant in their own right, and will long serve the scholarly community. They are indispensable for those interested in the history of food.

Food. A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present is the English translation of a work first published in French under the direction of Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari in 1996. (4) Albert Sonnenfeld did a fine job editing the English translation and imposing a uniformly smooth presentation. The result is an achievement of some forty essays, beginning with antiquity and carrying forward into the twentieth century. Taken together the essays give a good sense of the rhythms of food history through time, largely due to Flandrin and Montanari's introductions to each section of the book. With titles such as "The Humanization of Eating Behaviors," "Food Systems and Models of Civilization," and "Romans, Barbarians, Christians: The Dawn of European Food Culture," they give a direction and contextual richness to studies of diet, health, cooking, manners, social structure, food diffusion, production and distribution and much more. One difficulty with this approach is that some of the essays are so short t hat they lack introductions and conclusions, and fail to adequately develop their themes. Others lack balance, and in a few cases resort to a mere listing of foods. Furthermore, the book almost ignores the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Two other publications aim at more comprehensive contributions. …