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Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan (review)
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World history and food studies are both relatively new disciplines. The study of world history comes at a time when people are trying to understand today’s global hyper-circulation of commodities, ideas, and power. Work in food studies gravitates toward the intimate and commensal, whereas new food-history encyclopedias tend to present global facts without sufficient analysis of global context. World histories of particular foods, though astute and informative, generally avoid analysis of the global systems in which they circulate. Meanwhile, mega-theory books, like Mann’s 1491 and 1492, have popularized Crosby’s notion of the Columbian Exchange—the era when geographical boundaries began to shatter for plants, animals, and humans. Notwithstanding Laudan’s occasional disagreements with Crosby, her Cuisine and Empire—a tour-deforce of both erudition and analysis—is certainly closer to his work than to the encyclopedias. It not only shows what kinds of cuisine moved around the globe; it also offers a clear explanation of how and why. Laudan knows more about the world history of cooking than any other scholar alive, but she also does more with her knowledge than just filling pages with facts. Cuisine and Empire is organized by a theoretical framework that structures her argument about how world history works.

Laudan’s answer to the how and why questions revolves around the notion of power. Cuisines moved with conquest, whether accomplished with swords, powerful religious ideas, or both. She follows the history of how Greek and Roman conquest led to the spread of animal sacrifice and then moves to the more complex history of how Buddhist monks’ ideas about food affected rulers who wavered between Buddha and Confucius. Upon this foundation she layers the influence of Islamic expansion, such as the Mughal conquest of India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In all of these cases she follows the threads of how soldiers and priests helped to determine what people ate. When Laudan refers to the creation of “empires,” she means how people with certain ways of cooking were able to extend their spheres of influence—by conquest, by conversion, or simply by immigration.

In her framework, those who exercised power used a “high” cuisine to display their might and status, with retinues of cooks and slaves, run by master courtiers, at their service. Laudan compares this elevated fare to the meals of the humble, most of which had little nutritional value. One can imagine a parallel history detailing the diseases of malnutrition and stunted growth, and the epidemics of early mortality based on some of these diets. Laudan also reveals where and when peasants, slaves, servants, and humble workers tended to eat better, as well as how subjects often rose against those feasting in the castles when they did not have enough to eat.

The second half of the book begins by detailing the sharp turn that cuisines took with the arrival of modernity. The major change was what Laudan calls “middling cuisines”—food prepared and eaten by the newly emerging middle class, a lighter version of the high cuisine, centered on the consumption of wheat and beef and accompanied by an entirely different set of culinary habits. She shows that what nutritionists now disparage as the Western diet (also called the standard American diet) was in fact a step forward in terms of providing the protein and other nutrients that many of the humbler diets of antiquity had lacked. She defends foods that have become anathema in the healthy food discourse—roast beef, white bread, sugar, and fat—and the industrialization that made these foods available and that helped to overcome such nutritional diseases as pellagra and kwashiorkor.

Contra Crosby, she argues that, unlike the plants and animals that circulated throughout the globe after the Columbian exchange, cuisines were not always mobile: Sometimes they remained in place or moved in only one direction; sometimes they transformed, as did the pickled pork of Portugal that became the vindaloo of India; and sometimes they receded into the background, like the rich sauce-laden Islamic cuisines that were overtaken by the more ascetic rice-based cuisine in parts of Buddhist Asia. In all of these cases, Laudan explains exactly what happened...

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