“Food: A Culinary History” edited by Jean-Louis Flanddrin and Massimo Montanari

The Romans feasted more sensibly than you thought, according to a highly readable, scholarly anthology.

Topics: Books,

"Food: A Culinary History" edited by Jean-Louis Flanddrin and Massimo Montanari

There’s a riff in one of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books that reduces the progress of civilization, from stone axes to starships, to a journey through three basic questions. “How can I eat?” wonders the primitive. “Why do we eat?” muses the philosopher. And finally — eternally — “Where should we have lunch?” (The answer, which Adams neglects to give in the text, is almost always Bahn Thai, on Route 22 in Green Brook, N.J.) But these aren’t the only interesting questions on the subject. Somewhere in the middle of humanity’s long struggle out of the darkness and toward a nice order of beef with red curry sauce came a reckoning with these: What is it, anyway, that people like to eat? When did they start eating that way? And how do they go about getting it all on the table?

It’s taken us a surprisingly long time to begin answering them. Although for decades anthropologists have been trooping around the world, poking their noses into people’s huts, yurts and lean-tos and solemnly scribbling down what they’ve found bubbling in the cooking pots, it’s only recently that a number of academic subdisciplines have begun to deal with the culinary arts as a force of history and culture rather than simply as a means of sustenance or a point of philosophy.

“Food: A Culinary History” is a Franco-Italian anthology that sums up the progress to date from the historians’ end of the trenches. It begins with the Stone Age and travels through to the present day, devoting several chapters along the way to the cuisines of each of the major European and Near Eastern civilizations. This isn’t the only such collection to have come from the academy: Other food anthologies with colons in the title include Alan Beardsworth’s “Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society”; the interdisciplinary “Food and Culture: A Reader,” edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik; and “Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat,” by cultural geographer David Bell. (All three are published by Routledge.)



But “Food: A Culinary History” excels in its thoroughness, its epic sweep and its rootedness in culinary tradition. (The French and the Italians have, after all, always taken food seriously.) It’s also a pleasure: Once you get caught up in the story, the only signs that you’re reading what’s essentially a collection of academic papers are the occasional reference to the canonical structuralist theorist Claude Livi-Strauss and the occasional clunky academic pun. (The title of Livi-Strauss’ book, “The Raw and the Cooked,” apparently presents a constant temptation.)

So while it’s not often that one gets to say this, thank goodness the academics have arrived. Culinary history and sociology have traditionally been the preserve of gastronomes such as Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and M.F.K. Fisher, and amateurs such as Reay Tannahill. And while they’ve often produced brilliant, wonderfully readable books (Tannahill’s “Food in History” combines some of the encyclopedic wallop of Brillat-Savarin with some of Fisher’s unerring poise), a good deal of what they’ve written is, unfortunately, mucked up with centuries of hearsay, legend and other people’s bad research.

Fisher, the doyenne of modern food writing, fell prey to a number of culinary red herrings, including the misconception that Roman patricians ate stupendous ceremonial banquets every evening and the notion that a medieval aristocrat could eat many times what a modern person can. The old “Marco Polo brought noodles from China to Italy” legend has been repeated until it’s become accepted as truth; and the old story about the Greeks having two meals a day, one a kind of porridge and the other a kind of porridge, is more generally believed than what the Greeks themselves had to say about the issue.

“Food: A Culinary History” gives us a far more nuanced and common-sensical take on things. Marie-Claire Amouretti lets Hippocrates speak for the Greeks, who enjoyed a varied, fairly refined cuisine, especially in the cities. Florence Dupont describes a Roman vernacular cuisine with an Epicurean sense of moderation: Even the rich ate mostly vegetables, and meat was considered a pleasurable folly. Those lavish banquets, Mireille Corbier explains, were enmeshed in a complex system of social custom. Massimo Montanari describes the slow transition from the semiagricultural hunting and gathering diet of the early Middle Ages to the starchier menu of feudalism, in which meat and conspicuous gluttony became marks of status.

The essays are somewhat uneven (the clunky stylists here, Corbier among them, aren’t always well served by the translations), and the closer the story comes to the modern era, the more it comes to focus on issues of food production, economics and demographics — which are compelling enough, but not in the prurient, foodie way that spying on people’s kitchens and shopping lists is. Rather, they’re compelling in a negative way: After having explored what — and how — the world used to eat, the pitiless journey through the rise of processed food and into the era of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s leaves you wishing that you could go back and explore the “Where should we have lunch?” question further, with Hippocrates himself, over a bottle of wine and a big plate of whatever he’s having.

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>