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Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500–1760 (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 43, Number 2, Winter 2009
pp. 476-478 | 10.1353/jsh.0.0280

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Joan Thirsk, the foremost scholar of English agrarian history, has written another remarkable book. In many ways, this latest work stands as a companion to Alternative Agriculture: A History of the Black Death to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 1997), her startlingly original long view of English agriculture as an oscillation between convention and innovation. That volume argued that alternative crops and stock animals, introduced as stop-gap activities generating luxury items during good times, later served as more widely diffused sources of income during periods of hardship. Viewed together, these books prove the interdependence of histories of consumption and production, and more than that, the rich rewards of a seasoned scholar’s willingness to ponder and pursue the suggestive traces of food history that mingle with documents of the early modern period.

In Food in Early Modern England, Thirsk’s point of departure is the remoteness of the English palate and table from our own perspectives and, we might add, from those of early modern continental Europeans. Every region was bound by its particular climate and vegetation, while trade supplied novelty and variety to a limited clientele. Yet we are not to assume that ordinary people were unimaginative in finding and preparing food. Thirsk makes clear at the outset that she will guide us through fields, forests, and kitchens in much the way a contemporary of the period might, offering bits of knowledge about plants and cooking customs along the way. This is food history at its best: a varietal mix of the natural and social worlds, culled from texts and documents in agricultural, botanical, medical, and culinary history. We learn when rosemary and lavender were tithed, when the “pulse revolution” occurred in the mid-seventeenth century, and the gradual adaptation of the English palate to acidic tastes that came with the increasing use of vinegar. Just as important, personalities emerge from between the lines of published works, sometimes in amusing ways; for example, a scurrilous tell-all account of the recipes of Mrs. Joan Cromwell, the Protector’s wife, yields some laudable truth about a woman who boycotted Spanish oranges during the war in the West Indies and, refusing to bend to urban snobbery, served a “rustical” sort of food, cream cheese dusted with nutmeg, to perhaps disgruntled guests. (115) Thirsk ferrets out marginal commentary and chatty asides that invariably illuminate her subject. She also interjects her own reflection or knowledge obtained from relatives and friends, mirroring the gestures of her recipe book authors, so that we know that bread with dripping actually tastes good, or that people in Greece today preserve meat in fat, just as the English did in the 1660s. The book never fails to keep the human dimension of food in full view, underscoring our awareness of variability, ingenuity, and even the bit of elbow grease involved in bringing food to the table.

Thirsk situates much of her account in evidence gleaned from the print revolution of the sixteenth century. With the explosion of learning in the late renaissance, English interest in food received a boost from the circulation of texts on agronomy and health. From 1500, gentlemen farmers cultivated new interest in their estates, encouraged by a fashion for following classical authors urging careful methods and wise supervision. At the same time, a renewed interest in health inspired a wish to follow the proper diet as a means to a long and pleasurable life. The repercussions of both impulses were immediately evident on English tables. Horticulture blossomed as a profitable and enjoyable enterprise; pasta, pastries, and dried mustard balls made their appearance; and new ideas about what constituted a healthful meal became topics of passionate debate. Particularly fascinating is the paradoxical rise in the status of dairy products, formerly the fare of country bumpkins and laborers in need of cheap food. By the seventeenth century, specialty cheeses strove to compete with cheeses imported from Holland and Italy. English cooks learned to melt cheese and mix new forms of it into dishes. These lessons would contribute to a considerable rise in dairy farming for profit by the eighteenth century.

Circulation of texts provided only one of several sources of innovation and expansion in...