Academic appetite for an historical analysis of food

Painting of fish stall.

Joachim Beuckelaer (1533–73) seems to have been the first painter to depict fish stalls. Joachim Beuckelaer, The Fish Market, 1568, Musée des beaux-arts de Strasbourg (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Food in history: forthcoming event at the IHR, University of London (11-13 July 2013) By Sara Pennell In 1660, the cook Robert May published recipes for one of the modish dishes of the day: the grand ‘sallet’ or salad. The Stuart ‘sallet’ was a spectacle, with its carefully arrayed mixture of fresh and preserved elements, and imported commodities (anchovies, ‘Virginia Potato’, almonds) alongside indigenous ingredients (mushrooms, samphire). Sallets -- the first dish to be given exclusive focus in any English-language food text (John Evelyn’s 1699 Acetaria) -- were dietetically fashioned to soothe and stimulate in equal measure. The current state of historical scholarship about, and of, food is arguably like a grand sallet. Much stimulates, yet much is familiar to the palate. A diverse array exists of research ‘ingredients’ -- occasionally exotic -- and yet how these ingredients combine to make a coherent ‘dish’, or area of shared theorisation and methodological harmony, might take some chewing over.

The first challenge is to establish what food history/food in history comprises. These word order and prepositional changes are significant, signalling shifts in scope and scale. Food history has (perhaps unfairly) a reputation of being exactly that: explorations of foodstuffs — their cultivation, preparation and consumption — in historical perspective.

It may sound limited but has produced everything from single-ingredient/commodity histories with global intent (Mark Kurlansky’s 1997 ‘biography’ of Cod and the global histories of potatoes, cake and whiskey in the Reaktion Books ‘Edible’ series), to evocative accounts of feasting and many modern editions of historic ‘cookbooks’ (more properly, recipe collections).

What some food history lacks is attention to food’s historical agency, its relegation to a table-dressing role. Paraphrasing the title of B.W. Higman’s 2011 book, doesn’t food make history happen? The issue of scale of approach in studying this subject — from the panoramic sweep of Felipe Fernandez Armesto’s 2001 Food: a History to the micro-historical (with pretensions to macro-historical) significance (can a cookbook really ‘change the world’?) — is a vexed one. Too small, and the tendency towards antiquarianism is apparent; too large, and the gallop from caveman’s fire to induction hob tends towards whiggishness among the wiggs and a sense that our current diet is inevitably healthier/more diverse/less exploitatively gained than what we ate ‘then’. The intellectual queasiness this might induce in us is now being further fed by accounts of post-industrial, globalised food insecurity from the likes of Michael Pollan and Joanna Blythman, as well as Slow Food activism worldwide.

By changing the preposition — food in history — do we indicate that, rather than simply focusing on the foods and their preparation, we choose a more elevated investigation into what anthropologists call the ‘foodways’ of the past: the processes, flows and impacts of food in economic, social, cultural, political and environmental/ecological contexts? This tension between the food itself and its processes (from raw to cooked, from agricultural production through to industrial synthesis, from local to global and back) might explain why food has yet to join ‘gender’ or ‘class’ as a fully-paid-up category of historical analysis.

* This is an edited extract of Food in History: ingredients in search of a recipe? first published in the spring/summer 2013 edition of Past and Future published bi-annually by the Institute of Historical Research. Sara Pennell is senior lecturer in early modern British history at the University of Roehampton.

* Hosted by the Institute of Historical Research, the 2013 Anglo-American conference on ‘Food in History’ will take place at Senate House from 11–13 July 2013. Our plenary speakers include Ken Albala, Susanne Freidberg, Cormac Ó Gráda and Steven Shapin and over 40 panel sessions will be held on the subject of food history. For details, see anglo-american.history.ac.uk.

*A policy forum will also be held at 1pm on Friday 12th July at Senate House, which will feature speakers such as David Barling (Centre for Food Policy, City University) and Annabel Allott (Soil Association) among others to discuss the politics of food in the past, present and future. This policy forum is free to attend and open to all. If you would like to attend this forum, please RSVP to the IHR Events Office at foodinhistory@lon.ac.uk.

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