Please Pass the Blood

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Louvre, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Frans Snyders: Three Monkeys Stealing Fruit, circa 1640

Until recently food was largely of interest to economists, sociologists, and anthropologists, whereas historians have tended to view the subject as marginal, if not downright frivolous. Ever since Claude Lévi-Strauss drew attention to the symbolism of the raw and the cooked, allusions to cooking have made their way into social history. Major events such as famines, grain hoarding, and cannibalism have found a historical niche by drawing attention to the dependence of nations and individuals on growing food, as well as processing, cooking, and eating it. Social scientists have commented on what they call commensality, which includes all forms of communal eating at the same table (mensa), both for bringing people together and for keeping some of them out.

Still, cuisine, which Rachel Laudan defines in her new book, Cuisine and Empire, as “styles of cooking,” has been left to cookbooks, which have a long global history of their own, and to glossy publications, like the now defunct magazine Gourmet, which used to provide recipes and mouth-watering photographs, but rarely any historical analysis.

In the present age of celebrity chefs, who reach the public through television, personal appearances, and books, we have been made increasingly aware of the links between taste and agriculture. Changes in means of production—planting and harvesting—have partially eclipsed cooking itself in the culinary arts, as can be seen in the extraordinary success of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. She has been honored by such august organizations as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as a pioneer in the creation of new cuisines drawing on local produce. In 2010, France, a nation renowned for its cuisine, named Alice Waters a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

A few years ago Paul Freedman, a Yale medievalist of impeccable scholarly credentials, turned his attention from the study of Catalonian peasants to medieval cuisines, and he subsequently edited a lavishly illustrated volume on the history of eating.* It appeared in the same series of books, California Studies in Food and Culture, in which Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire is the forty-third volume. Her book, in its range and richness, is the historical equivalent of a menu at the old Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. It covers the entire history of cooking in the world from the first millennium, with a peek into earlier ages, down to the present.

To her impressively thorough research Laudan brings a lifetime that has included practical experience on the farm, in the kitchen, and in the classroom. This means that her exposition is as lucid as it is authoritative. 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 …

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  1. *

    Food: The History of Taste, edited by Paul Freedman (University of California Press, 2007).