“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
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • 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>