Food: A Culinary History.
This translation of an important 1996 French publication edited by two specialists on food history, Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari, comes with high praise. Nicely produced (although rather poorly illustrated), it will be a useful sourcebook for the burgeoning field of food studies. At the same time, the book will almost certainly frustrate many of its scholarly readers in the English-speaking world. Its title is misleading. Precisely because French and Italian scholars pioneered in food history (an unsurprising development given the centrality of food in their national cultures), this is a food history focused--as general editor Albert Sonnenfeld freely admits--on Mediterranean culinary traditions over the long evolution of western civilization.
A tension between the universalizing reach of editors Flandrin and Montanari and the more limited grasp of most essays in the collection lead general editor Sonnenfeld to discourage readers from reading A Culinary History of Food as a regular historical narrative. Sonnenfeld suggests that readers should first acquire a "superb historical overview from the caveman and antiquity to the democratic dream fulfilled today as a nightmare of universal fast food" in Flandrin and Montanan's sequence of introductory essays. Then they should proceed to "pleasureable grazing" in the collection's sections on Prehistory, The Classical World, The Early Modern Ages, Westerners and Others, The Late Middle Ages, Europe of the Nation-States, and The Contemporary Period (pp. Xvii-xviii).
While editors Flandrin and Montanari "made an effort to avoid the narrow national outlook" and clearly urged contributors to write "from a European perspective," (p. 7) the geographical range for reader "grazers" remains narrow in Food: A Culinary History. Here is a culinary history of Europe in which the Balkans, Finland, Norway, Russia and Germany together merit fewer index references than the United States. In their introductions, Flandrin and Montanan duly note the formation of colonial empires that "subjected European cuisine to influences from the four corners of the globe" (p. 7). Yet neither Mexico nor China appears in the book's index, and an index entry on Africa refers the reader to just three pages in the text.
Can the general introductions written by Flandrin and Montanan actually provide a "superb historical overview" given this narrow geographical range? For scholars of European civilization, their introductions are, in fact, a "must read." The two scholars succeed in threading particular themes--notably dietary balance, conviviality, and connections among food, cooking and identity-- throughout their seven introductions and concluding chapter. The reader gets a good sense of the emergence and evolution of a single culinary tradition (the problematic Mediterranean triad of "wheat, wine, oil") from classical times through the later middle ages. The introductions also go a long way toward establishing a useful periodization for a changing European balance in grain and meat consumption and for the development of sharp European class differences in dining habits that accompanied increasing dependence on agriculture by the late Middle Ages. Flandrin and Montanan are quite sensitive to cross-cultural exchanges as an im portant source of both culinary innovation and identity-formation in the classical and medieval periods. They describe contacts among civilized, barbarian and Christian peoples and the later, complex, interactions of Jewish, Moslem, Byzantine and Roman Catholic food
influences. In their history, western civilization appears often as a culinary cross-road of cultures.
Food: A Culinary History might even help establish the early modern period of European imperial expansion as the single most significant era of cultural transformation in western civilization. The introduction of American foods and "colonial beverages," the dispossession of the peasantry, the turn to trade rather than agricultural innovation to guarantee sufficient foodstuffs, and the emergence of a politicized "bread question" are only a few of far-reaching developments covered in Flandrin's fascinating and complex introduction to "The Europe of the Nation-States." The early modern period saw the development of a science of dietetics, the emergence of pronounced national differences in cuisine, drinking habits, and dining hours, the spread of gourmet dining, and the creation of a new literature for lovers of fine dining and conviviality.
A final general introduction to the modern transformation of the European diet in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is far less satisfying. It focuses almost exclusively on changes in the composition of diet, notably declining consumption of starches (including potatos and beans) and increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, sugar and sweets and meat, fish and milk. It might usefully have been replaced by Hans Jurgen Teuteberg's and Flandrin's essay on the transformation of the European diet which--together with other essays in this section--provide better clues to sources of change over the past 200 years. Other essays trace new industries to preserve and process food, to the rise of regional cuisines, to the development of new (American) theories of scientific eating and to "McDonaldization" and fast food imported from the U.S. There are few surprises here. None of the authors seems on entirely sure footing in this final section, and Americanist readers will quickly catch mare than a few, a lthough generally minor, errors.
Food: A Culinary History is essential reading for students of the rich and influential culinary tradition rooted in the Mediterranean. It is provocative in providing a framework for a more general history of European food ways. "Grazing" readers who believe that Catherine de'Medici popularized artichoke hearts in France or that Claude Lorrain invented flaky pastry dough before becoming a painter (p. 1), and who are excited to have such myths abolished through careful case study, may also enjoy the book. Scholars looking for an historical introduction to world foodways, or even to European culinary history more broadly, must wait a while longer for a book they can recommend to their students.
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|Author:||Gabaccia, Donna R.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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