Don’t know much about (food) history…

By: Ray Bowman

Mention food history in casual conversation and you might get a few blank stares. You might hear a few clever quips about that surprise that was found in the back of the refrigerator or the bottom of the freezer. Perhaps someone discovered a long-forgotten artifact at the rear of the pantry. (That’s really food archaeology, but why quibble about a good joke.)
The reality is that, as America’s fascination with their food – what it is and where it comes from – continues to grow, food history is likely to become a very important component of the conversation.
DSC_2165“You are what you eat,” may be a medically inaccurate observation, but our culture and society are, in many ways, shaped by our food choices.
Rachel Laudan is an astute observer and chronicler of food history and trends, having authored many articles on the topic and having two critically-acclaimed books to her credit.
Laudan was born in England and grew up on a farm before leaving at age 18 to do a year’s voluntary service in Nigeria, teaching at a girls’ school. Upon her return to Great Britain, she did undergraduate work in geology at Bristol University before earning a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science at University College in London. Since then, she has traveled the world teaching and writing about who we are and what we eat.
Often, modern observers bemoan the current state of food and dietary choices, longing for “the good old days” when food was purer and simpler. When asked about those romantic times, Laudan simply states “I don’t think they existed.”
“Clearly, some things may have been better, but by and large our food is much better today than it was in the past,” according to Laudan.
“It’s amazing to me how quickly people have forgotten what things were like in the past,” Laudan continues. “Growing up on a farm, the fruits and vegetables were wonderful in late summer. By March, my father was saying ‘I long for something green.’”
Laudan echoes a familiar observation, that today’s society has little or no exposure to farms and actual food production and may take for granted the ready availability of meat and produce year-round. “It’s an enormously appealing idea to think that if you are dissatisfied with the present that somehow there was a past that was much better.”
“I fear this may not be a carefully thought-out position,” Laudan observes. “The invocation of grandmother or great-grandmother (pertaining to food availability and choices) might perhaps be a fairy tale, a myth.”
As Laudan notes on her web site, “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize,” is an oft-repeated slogan.
Well, our grannies were born sometime from 1880 to 1970.  That may seem a pretty long period and so it is.  Historically speaking though, it’s massively unrepresentative of most of culinary (kitchen) history.”
The idea of remembering things better than they actually were is nothing new. In chapter 7, verse 10 of the book of Ecclesiastes, the writer admonishes his readers “Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.”

Rachel Laudan’s ambitious food history, Cuisine and Empire provides some of that necessary wisdom. Reviewing the project in the New York Review of Books, G.W. Bowerstock observes “Her bibliography and notes bear witness to her deep learning, and her book, in its scope and originality, gives deserved prominence to a long-neglected theme in world history. It is a triumph, pointing the way to a wholly new kind of historiography that can hold its own with more familiar work on political, economic, social, and intellectual history.”
The point being, things are not as bad as some might lead you to believe. All manner of food is readily available and safer than it has ever been in history. To borrow from an old Carly Simon song, “these are the good old days.”

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