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  • Le Choix des aliments: Informations et pratiques alimentaires de la fin du Moyen Âge à nos jours ed. by Martin Bruegel, Marilyn Nicoud, Eva Barlösius
  • Sydney Watts
Le Choix des aliments: Informations et pratiques alimentaires de la fin du Moyen Âge à nos jours. Edited by Martin Bruegel, Marilyn Nicoud and Eva Barlösius (Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010. 257 pp. €18).

As the occasional food scare in the U.S. and Europe has shown, reliable information about the quality and safety of meat, produce and other perishables plays a major role in limiting exposure to contaminated foods and in regaining consumer trust. Educating the populace about what it should eat pertains as much to an immediate crisis of the public health as it does to the long-term trajectories of an “obesity epidemic” among the young. Whatever the message promoted by state agencies, private corporations or the many food and health lobbies, the consumer must weigh this information against individual tastes and customary practices, as well as beliefs about what is good to eat.

The historical nature of food choices informed by a wide variety of criteria that are socially, politically and economically driven have provided a common terrain for a group of academics at the European center for food history and culture (l’Institute Européen d’Histoire et des Cultures de l’Alimentation) in Tours, France. This collection includes the work of ten scholars whose paper topics range from the thirteenth century through the present. The congruence of their work attests to the plasticity of the subject—information can mean so many things and be derived from so many different sources. Yet, what unites the collection is that which informs food choice and the dynamics of social practices in the introduction, adaptation, control and resistance to food and foodways. Clearly, this type of project excels in a research center like the one in Tours, devoted to the advancement of food studies. Previous scholarship which had long examined the (largely static) cultural norms and local knowledge embedded in eating habits is now being revised with critical “turning points” in the food history. The field is reaching further into social complexity of dietary preferences to address the economic conditions, cultural fields and political forces that either help to embrace change or resist it. In this collection, the problem of choice is considered in response to specific information—whether accepted or rejected—about what is available in the marketplace and what may be served at the table. These papers critically examine the conduits of information about the safety, healthfulness, and palatability of food items, as well as scientific discoveries about human nutrition and efforts to educate the public about these discoveries. These scholars are interested less in the economic barriers of food prices that influence consumer decisions than in knowing how information about a vital commodity can be used to pull the levers of power, direct the flow of goods within defined circuits of exchange, and shape social life in distinct ways. As a whole, this work demonstrates how geographic discoveries, market expansion, industrialization, nutritional science, state and local regulation direct the pipeline of information about food to various social groups.

The editors Martin Brugel, Marilyn Nicoud, and Eva Barlösius have done the difficult work of arranging these diverse set of papers by their interpretive frameworks, giving greater coherence through short introductions to each of the book’s sections: 1) the interrogation of sources and methods; 2) the imaginary applications and daily uses of food; 3) the identity formation of products and [End Page 802] their quality; 4) the intervention (of social actors) to construct knowledge and guide practices. The editors’ introduction to the entire collection, plus a highly synthetic “Postface” written by leading food historian, Bruno Laurioux, offer a number of tightly woven historical problems and conceptual schemata that will inspire any scholar toward more rigorous thinking and innovative research.

In the first section, devoted to new methods of food history based upon unconventional sources, authors Philippe Meyzie goes beyond the food historian’s main repository for culinary facts (the cookbook) to the livre de raison or household account book and other...


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