History on the Plate: The Current State of Food History
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History on the Plate:
The Current State of Food History

The sudden and dramatic interest in food scholarship in the past two decades might lead one to believe that food history is a new and emergent field. The recent proliferation of monographs, studies of individual ingredients, and comprehensive encyclopedias is impossible to deny. But the roots of food history as a branch of the discipline are nearly as old as history writing itself. Athenaeus of Naucratis in the 2nd century A.D. set out to record every detail of ancient food habits in his Deipnosophistae and effectively founded a distinct genre in the Western tradition. The Food Canons (Shih ching) written in T’ang Dynasty China by Meng Shen, Athenaeus’s counterpart in the East, chronicle every food consumed at court, and when and how it arrived. One might even posit that the Hebrew Bible is essentially a narrative of successive epochs defining the relationship of the Jews to God based on their diet and is thus a form of food history, as is much of the mythology concerned with food around the globe. So, too, are the many chronicles of the Middle Ages, which record great feasts as a way of legitimizing royal power.

The modern academic study of past foodways, however, emerged decisively in the 16th century with several monographs discussing classical dining habits: Janus Cornarius’s De conviviis veterum Graecorum (1548), J. Guglielmus Stuckius’s Antiquitatum Convivialium (1583), Petrus Ciacconius’s De Triclinio (1588), Erycius Puteanus’s Reliquae convivii prisci (1598), and Cesar Bulengerus’s De conviviis libri quator (1627), just to name a few. These were all text-based studies using fairly sophisticated analysis, though they also began to incorporate data from material remains in ways that foreshadow the future field of archaeology. No less important was the appearance of the general food encyclopedia in the Renaissance with texts like Jean Bruyerin-Champier’s De re cibaria (1560), which incorporates a great deal of historical material and resembles current encyclopedias to a surprising extent.

In succeeding generations, writers began to turn their attention to more recent food habits, especially their own native traditions. An early example of this is Richard Warner’s Antiquitates Culinariae (1791), which reprints medieval English cookbooks such as the Forme of Cury. These works were often part of the process of nation-building, and went hand in hand with an interest in folklore, the preservation of historic buildings, native music, and folk dress.

The field at this point also split into two distinct approaches that still exist: food history, which covers the social, economic, intellectual, and cultural parameters of consumption, and culinary history, which focuses on ingredients, cooking methods, recipes, and the history of the cookbook, often accompanied by the reconstruction of historic cooking in situ. This form of culinary history still flourishes at historic sites such as Plimouth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, and Hampton Court, where people in historic dress work before a hearth, cooking old recipes. Academics by and large distanced themselved from this hands-on approach since the physical act of cooking was considered more appropriate for antiquarians than professional historians. This bifurcation has had long-lasting effects, namely that food history often neglects the kitchen, while culinary history often ignores the rigorous methods of textual analysis used by food historians.

It has become commonplace to trace the current scholarly interest in food history to the French Annales school of the mid-20th century. In so far as food history is a part of social history and material life, economic history and world trade, the history of private life and the caloric reconstruction of human diets, then there is no doubt that the Annales school had a major impact on the current interest in alimentation. Fernand Braudel’s work was especially influential, and Annales regularly featured essays on food history (an edited collection of these, Food and Drink in History, appeared in 1979).

In addition to the Annales influence, many people in the West became extremely interested in cooking during the latter part of the 20th century. This interest manifested itself in more and more magazines and television programs about food and cooking. But there was—and is...