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, and intellectual history.
Oddly, the new book by Gary Paul Nabhan, with its alliterative title, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans, has appeared as the latest contribution to the very series that includes Laudan’s book. But it resurrects without any compensating novelty the old cookbook-style format and combines this with a travel narrative. It includes bright color photographs of spices together with recipes for dishes that few readers will want to cook or eat. The recipe for dates kneaded with locusts and spices begins with “4 cups live locusts” and advises the chef to find a swarm of locusts “resting after a long flight.”
Nabhan’s chapters and illustrations would be completely at home in Saudi Aramco World and will doubtless appeal to those who enjoy watching Anthony Bourdain on CNN. But readers who can appreciate the achievement of Laudan may not want to spend much time with it. Concentrating on the spice and incense trade, Nabhan, who incorporates far too much personal chatter about his own travels, provides anecdotal accounts of spice production and commerce without illuminating culinary history. For example, if he had given information on the use of aromatics in cooking, such as flavoring with myrrh, which the Romans added as a special treat at vast expense, that might have helped to fill in Laudan’s account of Roman cuisine.
Nevertheless, in another of his recipes, Nabhan does fill out interestingly a passing allusion that Laudan makes to poorer Muslims in Syria and Iraq who favored “dishes called Nabatean for the people of the region.” He provides a recipe for a hearty stew called nabatiyyat, made of chicken, pasta, and garbanzo beans. The Nabataean Arabs of antiquity, who are best known for their spectacular tombs at Petra, now in Jordan, never lived in Iraq but only to the west of it. However, from southern Syria to the northern Arabian peninsula, the survival of their name in a humble recipe of Islamic times is remarkable.
It is no less surprising than its recurrence in the title of an extant Arabic treatise called “Nabataean Agriculture,” which has about as much to do with the Nabataeans as the stew called nabatiyyat. The folk memory of a vanished people lingered on when no one really knew who those people were. Cuisine, like agriculture, has always been one of the sturdiest carriers of old traditions.
Unlike Nabhan, Laudan examines cooking across the whole span of world history. She frames her account by reference to the transmission of cuisines as empires rose and fell, and she reasonably argues that innovations in cuisine came mostly through elites and the luxurious tables at which they dined. Although empires did indeed foster the transmission of cuisine, not least with the expansion of the Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian, and Greco-Roman powers eastward into Central Asia, and from there into China, Laudan herself tends to describe the evolving cuisines more in terms of religion than empire. She writes of the “theocratic cuisines” of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, because belief controlled cuisine, just as it did (and does) for the Jews and was destined to do for the Christians. Her book is more often about cuisine and religion than it is about cuisine and empire.
She argues that the religious transformation of cuisine represented a widespread repudiation of an ancient incentive for cooking that went back to earliest times, namely sacrifice. The gods gave plants and animals to man, and in gratitude and reverence, worshipers felt that these bounties should be returned to the gods through sacrifice. The killing of animals of all kinds, including humans, would be followed by cooking, as well as the pouring of liquids made from grains and grapes. The residue after sacrifice would be made available to the celebrants.
Laudan stresses that sacrificial cuisine in antiquity presupposed a social hierarchy that would naturally identify proper recipients of the food. It also presupposed a cosmological concept of cooking that interpreted the blending of diverse ingredients with the help of fire as a kind of mirror of the world itself. All this took place in cultures that were dependent upon grain—wheat and barley in the West and millet in China—and upon the flesh of animals.
The Chinese learned to sacrifice by steaming millet and roasting lamb, exclaiming as they did so, “What smell is this, so strong and good?” In the eighth century BC, Hesiod instructed the Greeks about burning bones on smoking altars. Hebrews learned how to sacrifice from the Book of Leviticus, and the Indians from the Vedas. Laudan notes that with rare exceptions sacrificial offerings came from processsed plants and domesticated animals. Leviticus advised throwing in a little salt, and the Vedas recommended clarified butter (ghee) to enhance the flame. Wine, mead, and ale served for libations. Farther west, in Greece, where much of the soil was unsuitable for grain production, the cultivation of olives and grapes created different possibilities for cooking and for libations.
The arrival of Gautama Buddha undermined these sacrificial cultures through his prohibition on killing and eating animals. The spread of Buddhism out of India inaugurated major changes in cuisine all the way from India, through Southeast Asia, to China. When the Buddhists stopped their people from slaughtering animals and devouring their flesh, there was no turning back. The Confucians, who were meat-eaters, became more ascetic, and the Taoists even avoided all grains. It is still impressive today to read the edicts of one of the first Buddhist kings, Ashoka, as he inscribed them on rocks and in caves across his kingdom. These documents from the middle of the third century BC proclaimed his allegiance to the Buddha and imposed a prohibition, at first partial and finally total, on the killing of animals.
The Roman Empire has been notorious among moralizing historians for the extravagant cuisine of its affluent residents—above all imperial officials and wealthy former slaves. Petronius’ depiction in the first century AD of a banquet at the house of the pretentious parvenu Trimalchio remains one of the great satires of gourmandise in Western literature. A cookbook of the time, which makes Nabhan’s recipes look modest, has survived in later copies under the name of Apicius, and I cherish the account I had many years ago from Barbara Flower, the translator of this work, about her efforts to establish a sound Latin text. She prepared each of the recipes herself in the presence of the great textual critic Paul Maas, who, when the preparation was obviously in trouble, would emend the Latin original on the spot until the dish appeared to be in order. This was editing of a kind such as not even that formidable editor of Latin authors A.E. Housman could have imagined, and it illustrates the unexpected consequences of culinary studies of the past.
The transition from sacrificial cuisine to theocratic cuisine encountered obstacles when it came to the consumption of blood as food. Laudan rightly observes, “Few societies were neutral about blood as food: some valued it highly; other prohibited it.” Sacrifices spilled hot blood, on which the life of the victims had depended. We learn that nomads harvested it, and that pagans and Christians alike used it to make sausages, although Christians were enjoined to avoid sacrificial blood, and reportedly mothers in Hong Kong today give their children blood soup to sharpen their minds. Both Jews and Muslims drain away all blood from slaughtered animals. Laudan, who casts her net very wide, mentions that the Cocoma people of Brazil answered the Jesuits who reproached them for eating their dead and drinking alcohol “laced with ground bones” by claiming that being inside a friend was better than lying in the cold earth.
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, and his suppression of sacrifice, although slow in taking effect, had an impact on Byzantine and European cuisines that was directly related to the symbolic consumption of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. The cuisines of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches had different breads for the ritual. In the East it was leavened and raised, whereas in the West it was unleavened and baked as a thin wafer between hinged irons. The culinary influence of the Eucharistic wafer appears to have launched a variety of nonsacral baked goods, including waffles. What Laudan calls Catholic cuisine embraced pork and blood. In doing so it was conspicuously different from contemporary Jewish and Islamic cuisines, which did not.
Innovations in culinary techniques followed the spread of Buddhism in China, including the use of newly adopted wheat in place of millet to create pasta in the form of noodles and stuffed dumplings. One of Laudan’s most arresting maps shows the spread of stuffed boiled dumplings both westward and eastward from China under regional names such as pel’meni, manti, and the familiar ravioli. When Marco Polo went to China he would have seen that the Chinese were already making pasta from wheat flour, as the Italians had been doing for centuries, but also from gluten, or seitan, which was wheat flour with the starch washed out. This provided a substance that could be cooked, pickled, and smoked to create a substitute for meat. More significantly, the Chinese had introduced tea to the Buddhists and through them to the entire world.
The culture of tea-drinking led to sociable teahouses, which, at their most exalted level, were among the earliest restaurants. Just as tea was spreading from the East to the West, coffee arrived out of western Ethiopia by way of Yemen. It gradually spread throughout the Islamic world after some drinkers, perhaps the Iranians, discovered how to roast and grind the beans, and to brew them in hot water. The three innovations of pasta, tea, and coffee transformed the cuisines of many world cultures and were arguably as fundamental in altering global cuisines as the invention of bread.
The coffeehouse in the early modern West replicated, though in a more boisterous way, the sociability of the teahouse in the East. Laudan correctly points out that it marked a transition from the spiritual to the secular realms, “as had happened earlier with tea in China.” Coffee drinkers discussed politics together, and could be suspected of seditious plotting by anxious state officials, but theirs was normally a festive company that sang, danced, and played chess. The spread of coffeehouses across the Muslim nations of the Ottoman Empire dwarfs the better-known places in eighteenth-century England, where cuisine was famously dominated by beef but intellectuals congregated over coffee.
In the nineteenth century the British predilection for tea-drinking was complemented, in more humble circles, by the ubiquitous fish and chips, which, according to Laudan, may have originated in London’s East End when traditional Sephardic fried fish was combined with deep-fried potatoes. This minor revolution in Britain’s cuisine was only made possible by an exchange of foods that came with the opening up of the New World in 1492. From that time onward an extensive transfer of culinary resources, as well as of communicable diseases, dramatically altered the cuisines of both the Old and the New Worlds.
There had been no wheat in the Americas, where maize, with the addition of alkali, had served for making a kind of bread known as tortilla. Suddenly, maize appeared in Europe and wheat in South America. Cassava, though toxic if uncooked, also crossed the ocean. Then from the New World came the twin sensations of the potato and the tomato, without which European cuisine today would be unimaginable. In exchange for such foods the New World received not only wheat but citrus along with animals such as sheep, goats, and pigs. This transfer, which Alfred Crosby named the Columbian Exchange, encapsulates the theme of Cuisine and Empire as perhaps nothing else since the Buddhists reached China.
When Laudan comes to the modern era she moves inevitably into the effect of technology on cuisine. But even in her earliest chapters she recognizes that grindstones, which had been essential to grain cultures, evolved into rotary grindstones that transformed the back-breaking operations that were traditionally women’s work. The role of women in cooking as well as in grinding had only accentuated the gender difference in early cuisines. The rotary grindstone ground faster and freed women from doing the grinding with the weight of their upper bodies. The feeding of Roman legions depended upon the manufacture and mobility of these new, heavy, and expensive mechanisms for providing flour to feed the troops. As Laudan observes, “a millennium and a half was to pass before any other European army was as well fed.”
The world had to wait until the industrial age before technological improvements of comparable magnitude eventually altered cuisine. Mechanized farming, grain mills, bakeries, and sugar refineries, all powered by fossil fuels, led to an industrialization of food processing that, in Laudan’s analysis, created something between the luxurious high cuisine of the elite and the humble fare of the peasant and poor. This she calls “middling cuisine,” and it is the cuisine on which most of us survive today. Refrigeration and canning have greatly increased the durability of perishable foods. Sophisticated packing and transport have made it possible to have fresh fruits and vegetables from remote places. Only kitchens within range of a farm can work with truly fresh ingredients, but as Laudan observes of the late twentieth century with a certain irony:
Far more fresh, or apparently fresh, foodstuffs were now available compared to the salted and dried foodstuffs that had prevailed throughout much of history.
Yet this situation ultimately provoked a backlash, in which the nutrition business was seen as an ally of corporations and governments that were more concerned with profits and self-promotion than healthy eating.
In reaction to this backlash new trends arose, which Laudan calls countercuisines. They introduced and advocated what we now know as organic, or in European languages, biologic foods, which were part of a larger movement that embraced at the same time feminism, ecology, and, with the help of an additional neologism, artisanal produce. Artisanal cheeses, which suggest individually crafted products, were soon followed by artisanal beef.
Before long almost anything could be called organic and priced accordingly. If organic and artisanal produce were to be banned from upscale groceries, there would not be much left, and profits would certainly be much lower. A transition to “Slow Food,” as conceived by Carlo Petrini in Italy, elevated peasant products to the elite international market, as a consensus seemed to be emerging that modern Western cuisine was unsafe and unhealthy. Laudan invokes the food critic Corby Kummer as describing these latter-day developments as “doing good by eating well.”
All these changes have had a devastating effect on traditional gourmet cooking, which had been widely, if perhaps snobbishly, understood to be French. The dizzying demise of the great French restaurants in New York tells the story better than any theoretical disquisition about organic or artisanal foods. Le Pavillon, Lutèce, La Caravelle, and La Côte Basque are among the most famous to have closed their doors. An interconnected network of some two hundred national cuisines, by Laudan’s count, has encouraged audacious combinations of foods and flavors that draw eclectically from kitchens around the globe.
Yet with so much striving for novelty in high cuisine, the motor of middling cuisine has continued to rumble on unimpeded, as profit-seeking corporations offer unhealthy fare in larger and larger portions. The proliferation of obesity in modern Western populations scarcely needs emphasis, because it is so grotesquely visible everywhere. The history of cuisines, which always reflected regions and social levels, and which the upheavals of religion and empire had propelled into innovations from the rotary grindstone to tofu, now runs the risk of succumbing to mindless globalization.
Laudan is well aware of what is going on and describes it better than anyone I have read. She takes a very long view: “Industrialized food processing was as necessary to the weakening of social hierarchy as the mastery of grains had been to its appearance.” She knows that gender differences in both cooking and eating have mostly disappeared, that real men can eat quiche instead of beef, and that real women can drink whiskey. She notes that princes can eat noodles and presidents hamburgers, and that once in a while consumers of middling cuisine can have a treat and dine on high cuisine.
The diseases of modern middling cuisines cannot be avoided. Yet Laudan is absolutely on target when she argues that any acknowledgment of the troubles with modern food must not lead to romanticizing earlier cuisines. Women no longer break their backs in grinding grains, nor are they confined to kitchens. The celebrity chefs of today are both male and female, and in private households a man is almost as likely to cook the middling cuisine for a family as a woman. Laudan, with the clear-eyed intelligence that characterizes her book, sees the worst in modern cuisine but views it from a perspective that recognizes the enduring splendor of what preceded it and the potential for what will follow.
The history of cuisine is, and always has been, a mirror of the changes in the societies in which the various cuisines take shape, and so it has been for several millennia. If the rise and fall of states, empires, and dynasties have left their traces in food and cooking, perhaps the single most powerful force in the evolution of cuisines has been religion. Buddhism in China and Christianity in the Mediterranean area have had an impact on eating and drinking that is very much with us today. Jewish and Muslim prohibitions of pork and blood determine what can and cannot be served in the realms of the faithful. If grains of wheat delivered bread and pasta for peoples around the globe, the religious scruples of those peoples were the engine of diversity and innovation. Who would have thought that the communion wafer would lead to the waffle?