Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History

Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History

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Food and cuisine are important subjects for historians across many areas of study. Food, after all, is one of the most basic human needs and a foundational part of social and cultural histories. Such topics as famines, food supply, nutrition, and public health are addressed by historians specializing in every era and every nation.

Food in Time and Place delivers an unprecedented review of the state of historical research on food, endorsed by the American Historical Association, providing readers with a geographically, chronologically, and topically broad understanding of food cultures—from ancient Mediterranean and medieval societies to France and its domination of haute cuisine. Teachers, students, and scholars in food history will appreciate coverage of different thematic concerns, such as transfers of crops, conquest, colonization, immigration, and modern forms of globalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277458
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/31/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Paul Freedman is the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination and editor of Food: The History of Taste.

Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. Her publications include Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit and Benjamin Franklin’s Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity.

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Eating Right in the Renaissance; Beans: A History; The Banquet; and The Lost Art of Real Cooking.

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Food in Time and Place

The American Historical Association Companion to Food History

By Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin, Ken Albala


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95934-7


Premodern Europe


In the two thousand year span on which this chapter focuses, there is scarcely a topic that cannot be discussed as essentially concerned with food. This is hardly surprising since growing, processing, and consuming food has been the preoccupation of most people on earth until very recently. Nonetheless, the traditional historical focus on topics such as war, the rise and fall of empires and great leaders, social strife, and great intellectual movements has obscured the fact that human history is at its very core about obtaining basic nourishment. This is true not only of ordinary people but even of powerful rulers whose attempts to expand borders, seek new trade routes for exotic goods, and conquer colonial outposts are more often than not motivated by the need either to feed people with common staples or to entice them with rare edible luxuries. The ancient Greek city-states spreading in search of fertile arable land on which to grow wheat, medieval merchants carrying spices grown halfway around the earth, or Portuguese colonists manning their sugar plantations in Brazil with African slave labor—all these can be told as food histories. When examining these topics through the lens of food, what might have seemed to be familiar terrain suddenly seems new, and new vistas are opened both for teachers and for students.

Consider first one of the most momentous events in European as well as global history: the encounter of Europeans with Native Americans beginning with Columbus. The story can be told many different ways: Columbus the explorer and expert navigator, Columbus the Christ-bearer carrying the cross over the ocean to civilize the native populations, or Columbus the inept greedy ruler whose cruelty led to the decimation of millions of humans. Each version is both politically charged and historiographically situated in a particular time and place with its own unique concerns. Since the publication of Alfred Crosby's Columbian Exchange, historians have increasingly seen these events as essentially a food narrative. Columbus was clearly seeking a westward route to Asia to trade in spices and other luxuries. His journal is filled with reports of culinary and medicinal plants he expected to encounter in Asia, and to his dying day he never realized he had discovered a new continent. More importantly, American plants and animals, rather than Asian spices, were brought to Europe: the tomato, chili peppers, maize, chocolate, squashes, and potatoes, as well as turkeys. Conversely European species such as wheat, pigs, cows, and chickens were brought to the Americas. Of course European diseases were also brought to the New World and had a devastating impact on native peoples.

Further research in the past few decades has complicated the story. Europeans did not immediately accept many American plants; it took centuries to adopt the tomato and potato. Moreover, European settlers in the New World were reluctant to give up their wheat bread and European recipes, and corn remained the staple of the impoverished Native Americans, creating social and ethnic divisions based on diet. It took much longer than might be supposed for cuisines incorporating ingredients from both sides of the Atlantic to develop.

This is merely the best known of subjects retold as a food story, and it has generally made its way into textbooks and curricula in grade schools and colleges. But there are many other narratives that can be recast in terms of food history to excellent effect.

The most profitable way to approach this vast expanse of time, from ancient to early modern civilizations, is by focusing on several interconnected themes. A useful first theme is the examination of how foodways and culture are shaped by the ways in which people interact with their geographical setting, how they exploit natural resources, and what technologies they employ in processing food. The gradual expansion of trade networks is a natural extension of this topic. So too is the social meaning of individual ingredients and recipes, and the discussion of cuisine as an expression of cultural, political, and artistic values. This might lead to examining the impact of ideas—philosophical, religious, and scientific—upon eating habits and prohibitions. What follows is achronological discussion of how these various food-related themes relate to successive periods in premodern history and how historians have dealt with these topics. Each section begins with a discussion of historiography then proceeds to pedagogy.

Most food historians speak of the relative newness of the field, how perhaps twenty years ago the topic of food history raised suspicious eyebrows or uncomfortable laughter. There certainly were people who did not consider it part of a serious curriculum. We can be grateful that that has changed, and dramatically—hence the proliferation of books and courses offered in universities across the country and abroad. But this narrative of sudden efflorescence can be countered with examples of what is undeniably food history written before the twentieth century, to show that current scholarship did not sprout up spontaneously without precedent, and that there have always been serious scholars writing about what undeniably has been a central concern to all people throughout history.

The pedagogical discussion within each section briefly recounts the major themes and sources so that interested historians unfamiliar with food history can better incorporate it into the classroom. Teaching strategies per se are not discussed, but incorporating primary documents for analysis, looking at images, and discussing influential ideas are, as with any historical topic, paramount.


While the cultural, artistic, and economic accomplishments of ancient Greece are a well traversed subject, how these achievements relate to food culture is less familiar and rarely covered in the curriculum today. On the other hand, food in antiquity was among the first topics studied from a historical vantage point. As the father of history in the Western tradition, Herodotus recorded many of the food habits of places he visited, especially Egypt. His comments on the bounty of the Nile are justly famous. Even more important is the Deipnosophists by Athenaeus, written in Naucratis in the early third century C.E. and essentially a compendium of food references in ancient Greek literature. Many writers in late antiquity were concerned with the food habits of the past; particularly good examples are Iamblicus and Porphyry, third-century A.D. philosophers who described the vegetarianism of Pythagoras, who preceded them by seven hundred years.

The systematic study of ancient foodways with an objective historical bent really began in the Renaissance, as scholars recovered ancient texts and began to comment on them critically. The first editions of classical food texts, most notably the Latin cookbook of Apicius, were also published in this era, giving readers a direct glimpse at ancient cuisine. It was also in this era that the first food encyclopedias were written about food habits around the known world. Unlike works on most other food history topics, such world food encyclopedias have been in constant production for the past five centuries, reaching a peak perhaps in the late nineteenth century, though the flow of such works is by no means abated today.

To grapple in the classroom with this vast literature, the geography of Greece is a good place to start. Greece is a mountainous appendage dangling from the southeast edge of Europe and scattered on islands stretching across the Aegean Sea. Difficult terrain meant that political unification was correspondingly difficult, especially when compared with other ancient civilizations such as Sumer and Egypt. This may account for the development of independent city-states. More importantly, with the rise in population that preceded the classical era, finding enough arable land for growing wheat became a problem for most cities. On the other hand being situated near the sea meant that most cities developed naval technologies for fishing and traveling. Founding colonies was the natural solution to the problem of insufficient grain production. The Athenians founded cities around the Black Sea; other city-states spread to the southern Italian peninsula, Sicily, and as far as Massila (Marseilles in modern France). The Greek terrain and climate was also ideally suited to grape and olive production, both products that could be transformed into easily transported goods—wine and oil—and carried by Greek merchants.

The proliferation of wealthy citizens to a great extent necessitated the development of political systems that afforded them participation, democracy included. The interaction through trade with people across the Mediterranean gave the Greeks a cosmopolitan outlook. Most importantly, having wealth relatively evenly spread among the populace provided opportunities for patronage of the arts, theater, literature, and of course cooking. The professional cook was a stock figure in Greek drama. The Greeks also created the earliest known cookbooks, fragments of which survive in the work of Athenaeus. Principal among these is Hedypatheia of Archestratus, probably composed in Gela on the southern coast of Sicily. Archestratus's knowledge of where the best fish and bread could be found throughout the Mediterranean attests not only to wide trade networks and a Greek propensity to travel, but also to a certain connoisseurship among the Greeks. His criticism of those who ruin good ingredients with fussy preparation or overseasoning suggests that most people thought such dishes were a mark of distinction, but the true gourmand understood better.

In all cultures the appearance of culinary literature is matched by its ideological opposite: how to eat well in the interest of health. The dietary literature of the Greeks forms the foundation for all Western medicine. The Hippocratic authors devoted significant space to humoral physiology, but its fullest expression was in the works of Galen of Pergamum. Galen classified every known food according to its digestibility, usefulness for treating various disorders, and, most importantly, its propensity to increase particular humors within the body (blood, phlegm, bile, and melancholy). Since health was considered a balance of the four humors, diet was typically the first recourse for any distemperature. Food was considered an integral and essential part of the overall regimen for maintaining health in this holistic system. From these ideas about food we get a better appreciation for the Greek attention to the body, beauty, and physical strength since there are diets appropriate for athletes as well as dietary distinctions on the basis of age, gender, and occupation.

Even the great philosophers paid attention to food issues, most infamously Plato who considered cooking a form of pandering to base appetites, and much less noble than medicine, which as an art taught patients to eat well. Plato's denigration of the animal functions of the human body and praise of intellectual pursuits arguably left a long legacy to Western culture, in which eating has been considered mere maintenance, something one should not expend too much energy considering. The fact that Plato could take the normally raucous symposium, usually enlivened with naked flute girls and drinking games and turn it into a philosophical discourse, gives some indication of his influence over ideas about food and drink. Other philosophical schools were equally influential. The Stoics maintained that remaining dispassionate in the face of life's travails gave one inner strength and virtue, and therefore detachment from pleasures such as food made one stronger: the sober and abstemious life was to be preferred. The Epicureans too, despite their reputation through the ages, thought of happiness in life as characterized by maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. This translated into a lifestyle that was exactly the opposite of sybaritic, since luxuries make one dependent. We can never be sure of finding them, the Stoics concluded, thus the greatest happiness is found in a simple diet.

The fact that so many thinkers recommended abstemiousness suggests that at a certain point the simple Greek diet based on grain, vegetables, pulses, dairy, and olive oil gradually grew more luxurious and wealthy people were eventually able to use food as a mark of distinction. This was certainly true in the Hellenistic world, in the wake of Alexander's conquests, when a common language and currency facilitated trade across a much broader region. Most importantly, trade routes with the East opened up, new fruits such as oranges, peaches, and apricots appeared, followed by the trees that produce them, including trees that require grafting such as the apple. Spices too arrived from India, pepper as well as cinnamon and a new sweetener which remained a rarity in antiquity but would have an enormous impact in later centuries—sugar.


Food scholarship on ancient Rome, like food scholarship on ancient Greece, was pursued by later historians of later times, including the Renaissance, though Rome was given precedence, given their greater familiarity with Latin. Thus early editions of the primary sources discussed below were among the first books in print, notably the cookbook of Apicius; the medical works of Celsus, which were rediscovered in the Renaissance; the agricultural manuals of authors like Cato, Varro, and Columella; and the Satyricon of Petronius, rediscovered in the seventeenth century. These works and many others, including Virgil's Georgics, Juvenal's Satires, and Martial's Epigrams, laid the foundation for an excellent understanding of Roman foodways among scholars. Starting in the Renaissance, archaeology added to this, though it did not reach a scientific stage until the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, new approaches to history in general had an effect on the study of food in ancient Rome, most notably social and economic history, the history of women, and culinary history.

In the classroom, discussing the history of Rome through food offers countless possibilities. Imperial Rome engulfed the Hellenistic world and adopted its values alongside its luxurious imports. But in the early Republican period that preceded the conquest of Greece, Roman culture was quite different. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to characterize the early Romans as a fierce people, concerned mostly with conquest and farming. It is nonetheless true that the earliest prose work in Latin is the farming manual of Cato the Elder. It is essentially a guide to investing in land and exploiting it to maximize profits, which in his day meant concentrating on value-added crops like grapes and olives that could be processed and sold in cities. Valuable fruits and vegetables were cultivated as was anything that could turn a profit. The farms Cato describes are not the massive slave-run plantations (latifundia) that would later supply the army of the Roman Empire with grain, but rather fairly small operations using a few slaves and hiring workers for the harvest.

With the expansion of the empire, great fortunes were to be made, especially in grain production. Huge latifundia using slave labor produced grain, which was then ground in great quantities to feed both armies and growing cities. As Juvenal quipped, bread and circuses (i.e., chariot racing) were enough to keep the masses contented. Juvenal's Satires are an excellent way to introduce the social meaning of food in later Roman culture. In one, Juvenal berates his friend for accepting an invitation to a dinner where the host eats fine delicacies and drinks excellent wine while the friend is given scrappy leftovers. Presumably the insult was intentional, to demean the guests. In another satire, Juvenal invites his friend to his country house to eat homegrown natural and rustic foods of the finest quality. This is a type of gastronomy that devalues the extravagant and elite, in favor of true good taste.


Excerpted from Food in Time and Place by Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin, Ken Albala. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Paul Freedman
Introduction: Food History as a Field
Warren Belasco
Part One: Regional Histories
1. Premodern Europe
Ken Albala
2. China
E.{ths}N. Anderson
3. India
Jayanta Sengupta
4. Out of Africa: A Brief Guide to African Food History
Jessica B. Harris
5. Middle Eastern Food History
Charles Perry
6. Latin American Food between Export Liberalism and the Via Campesina
Jeffrey M. Pilcher
7. Food and the Material Origins of Early America
Joyce E. Chaplin
8. Food in Recent U.S. History
Amy Bentley and Hi’ilei Hobart
9. Influence, Sources, and African Diaspora Foodways
Frederick Douglass Opie
10. Migration, Transnational Cuisines, and Invisible Ethnics
Krishnendu Ray
Part Two: Cuisine
11. The French Invention of Modern Cuisine
Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
12. Restaurants
Paul Freedman
13. Cookbooks as Resources for Social History
Barbara Ketcham Wheaton
Part Three: Problems
14. The Revolt against Homogeneity
Amy B. Trubek
15. Food and Popular Culture
Fabio Parasecoli
16. Post-1945 Global Food Developments
Peter Scholliers
List of Contributors

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