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Food, Drink and Identity: Cooking, Eating and Drinking in Europe Since the Middle Ages.

Edited by Peter Scholliers (New York: Berg, 2001. xi plus 223pp. $65.00/cloth $19.50/paper).

Peter Scholliers's Food, Drink and Identity: Cooking, Eating and Drinking in Europe Since the Middle Ages is a refreshing addition to the field of food studies. The collection includes a number of essays from different fields including history, sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies. The topics are equally broad, including perceptions of the elderly's relationship to alcohol from 1300-1700, nineteenth-century French working-class sugar consumption, rebuilding German consumer society after World War II, and the construction of the Italian working class based on its diet in the early twentieth century. Moving beyond Claude Levi-Struass's and Mary Douglas's earlier structural analysis of foodways, the authors here seek to answer the difficult question of how food forms identity. The particularly historical bent of many of the articles allows readers to understand how food habits and identity were actively constructed at particular moments in the past. By exposing the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings of how food habits help to form individual, group, and regional identity, the authors reveal the complexity of identity formation and food's role in it.

The three sections of the book offer several different connections between food and identity. The first section, entitled "Overture", is largely a theoretical examination of food and identity, the second focuses on class and group identity formation through food, and the third concentrates on food's role in forming national identity. Although these essays discuss a wide range of historical periods and many different countries, most of the essays touch on the importance of food as a marker for identity during unstable times. The authors show how various political and cultural groups used food to either bring people together or to drive them farther apart. During periods of instability, war, and revolution, food was a way to express identity without having to articulate it. The authors' ability to unpack food's ubiquity is what makes many of these articles so interesting.

In a historical article, Kolleen M. Guy uses Champagne as a case study for conflict over regional identity. The article, entitled "Wine, Champagne and the Making of French Identity in the Belle Epoque," begins with an allegory which pitted two beans from different regions against each other at the market. The dispute between the beans eventually erupted into a civil war with asparagus, cheese, and other regional commodities fighting for their rightful place in France's pantheon of distinctive foods. The real-life counterpart to this war was a dispute over the limits of Champagne's Appellation d'Origine. As Guy argues, the war of the beans was not over market share as business and economic historians have suggested, but rather over "claims of authenticity, history, and patrimony." (p. 165) She argues that at the heart of the debate over the boundaries of the Champagne wine district was a discussion of the cultural identity of the "essential" or "true" France. This turn of the century dispute could only be settled through national bureaucracies, which would decide what was authentically French and what was not. In this case study, Guy shows how protection of regional agricultural products in particular, and French agriculture more generally, enabled the French government to forge a nation at the turn of the twentieth century.

In a more theoretical article, Claude Grignon's essay, "Commensality and Social Morphology: An Essay of Typology," examines the reasons why particular groups eat together. In attempting to create a more nuanced understanding of communal eating, Grignon suggests several binary typologies: domestic and institutional; everyday and exceptional; and segregative and transgressive. Although these typologies are not mutually exclusive, Grignon uses them to understand the situations when people dine together. In developing these categories, Grignon encourages scholars to move beyond family holidays to understand the social dynamics of eating in a wide variety of situations such as the exclusivity of the executive dinning room or the desperation of a homeless shelter. While Grignon's essay is more suggestive than empirical, his typology allows historians and food scholars to expand their analysis by thinking more critically about why and where people eat together, especially as a backdrop to changing social relations. Grignon's categories are useful for thinking about historical events like the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s. In this case, transgressing the social taboo of eating with whites is a protest against larger racial inequality. This overtly political action shows that where and with whom one eats is far more complicated than simply sitting down and eating together. By examining and deconstructing eating patterns in various situations, historians can explain and contextualize larger social, cultural, and political changes.

Collectively these articles illustrate how something as mundane as food has produced such far-reaching effects at all levels of European society since the Middle Ages. Although the authors examine case studies that vary greatly across time and space, they demonstrate that food and identity are often inseparable. Each society or social group used food to define itself, and thus food can be employed for both building and sustaining relationships or for differentiating and alienating others. This book makes an important contribution to food studies by placing food in the foreground of identity formation as well as explaining how various groups have used food at various times.

Gabriella M. Petrick

University of Delaware Gabriella M. Petrick
COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History
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Author:Petrick, Gabriella M.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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