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Food: The History of Taste.

Food: The History of Taste, edited by Paul Freedman. California Studies in Food and Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2007. 368 pp. $39.95 US (cloth).

Home economists gained (a measure of) scientific legitimacy in the late nineteenth century by focusing on the nutritional value of food and scrupulously avoiding any mention of taste. Historians of food have followed a similar strategy: a generation of social historians, led by the French Annales school, meticulously counted calories to document diets of the past, but said very little about how any of this food tasted. Although such a cultural history of taste began only in the 1980s, with the work of the late Jean-Louis Flandrin, it has developed rapidly in the last decade. Paul Freedman's edited volume provides a thoughtful and attractive, if rather uneven, synthesis of this recent scholarship.

With its ephemeral sensations and subjective evaluations, the sense of taste has long defied philosophical definition, which, in turn, has contributed to the inferior status given to food compared with the supposed "high arts" of the eye or the ear. The word "taste" has at least three meanings, all of which compete for attention in the various chapters of this work. It refers, first of all, to the physical sensations of flavour and smell through which humans experience their daily sustenance, and therefore it has much to offer to the emerging history of the senses. A second meaning of taste indicates personal preferences for food, although economic considerations may make it difficult for many to exercise these judgments. Finally, because of this unequal access to food, taste has become an important marker of social status; as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it, societies judge people by the judgments they make.

In narrating the history of taste, the volume follows the traditional arc of Western civilization, in a culinary parallel to university survey textbooks. The chapters proceed from prehistory to ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Islam and Christendom, early modern Europe, industrialization, French gastronomy, the western restaurant, and finally postmodern anxiety. The one exception to this predictable trajectory, and one of the most interesting essays in the volume, examines late imperial China.

Sensory experiences are most fully developed in early chapters, which seek to recreate for readers the very different flavour principles that governed premodern tastes. Veronika Grimm devotes considerable energy to correcting misperceptions about ancient Greece and Rome that have appeared in popular literature and Hollywood spectacle. Garum, for example, a common flavoring made of fermented anchovies, tasted more like modern soy sauce than rotten fish. By her account, the seemingly bizarre spice combinations of the ancient gourmet Apicius appear as familiar blends of salt, pepper, nutty garum, garlicky asafetida, and parsley flavours of lovage. H. D. Miller provides an equally fascinating account of the regional cuisines of the Islamic world, based on cookbooks produced in Baghdad and Andalucia. He even describes modern experiments in reconstructing the flavors of murri, an Arabic counterpart to garum made from barley and wheat. C. M. Woolgar offers a similar sampling of elite foods in medieval Europe, emphasizing regional diversity in contrast to previous works that insisted on a pan-European haute cuisine. While these authors effectively convey the flavour of past foods, critical historians of the senses may be disappointed that little effort was made to place these tastes in social context. Overlooked, for example, were the Roman bonds of communal solidarity evoked by the smoky flavour of roasted meat during the convivium, or the foretastes of paradise provided by spicy foods to the Islamic faithful.

Other chapters examine historical continuities and changes in taste preferences. Archaeologist Alan K. Outram explains that a hunger for sweet and fatty foods provided essential balance to the high-protein diet of prehistoric hunter gatherers. The human body has great difficulty digesting lean meat alone--hence the risk of liver and kidney damage among Atkins Diet devotees but carbohydrates and fats can offset these dangers. Ethnographic and fossil evidence confirms the craving for marrow bones and berries among hunter gatherers. Unfortunately, such evolutionary reasoning is less useful in explaining the transition to agriculture and the conquest of taste aversions needed to incorporate dairy and alcohol into the diet. Brian Cowan revisits these primordial preferences in a chapter on the historic shifts in European tastes following the Renaissance, when the creation of tropical plantations growing sugar, tea, and coffee launched a veritable sugar revolution. But just as sweet and spicy flavors became more widely available to Europeans by the. eighteenth century, they were exiled to the margins of elite tables in a new course, dessert. French taste-setters focused instead on salt and herb flavors in the preparation of savory main dishes.

The culinary tastes of working people finally receive attention in two authoritative chapters by Hans Teuteberg and Peter Scholliers who survey the changes brought by the rise of industrial food. The former, while conceding that cheapness was pivotal in the adoption of new products such as margarine, concludes that nineteenth-century industrialization significantly improved the taste of food for most Europeans. Scholliers agrees that the postwar era accelerated the growth of choice and quality, while cautioning about the anxieties and health hazards resulting from such abundance. Controversially, in explaining the relative resistance of German consumers to the fashion for organic foods, Teuteberg notes that they believe taste to be decisive in purchasing decisions, thus questioning an article of faith among the gastronomic elite, who otherwise dominate the volume.

Virtually all of the authors discuss the hierarchies that societies have created around the consumption of food. For example, Alain Drouard describes the rise of French gastronomic culture, while Elliott Shore explains how elite restaurants helped to inculcate a taste for this haute cuisine in foreign capitals. Yet, these chapters celebrate gastronomic discourses and naturalize continental rules of fine dining without engaging recent critical studies like that by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, for example, on the social construction of culinary distinction. By contrast, Joanna Waley-Cohen provides an insightful account of the burgeoning consumer culture of late imperial China and the keen competition for status that played out in the gastronomic sphere. Poets waxed lyrical about the finest teahouses, and even sought to identify the particular springs from which water was drawn to make the tea, an interesting parallel to contemporary wine connoisseurs. Meanwhile, painters depicted gourmet treats such as crabs and fruit in the hopes of securing gifts of food from wealthy patrons. Presiding over the finest banquets of all, the Qianlong Emperor was actually a frugal Buddhist, but he nevertheless kept up dynastic appearances to assure Manchu supremacy over the Han population.

Literary and artistic representations of gastronomic culture were not limited to the Chinese, and this volume presents a splendid array of historical illustrations; indeed, it is as much a coffee table book as an academic tome, which may account for the reasonable price. Credit for these images goes both to photo researchers Georgina Bruckner and Josine Meijer and to the University of California Press for its outstanding production values. Woolgar's chapter demonstrates the rich insights that can be drawn from careful analysis of such images. It is a pity, therefore, that the other authors did not make equal efforts at combining art and food history.

Freedman's volume demonstrates the great advances that have recently been made in the cultural history of food, while also pointing to important lacunae that remain. The introduction opens by rejecting the notion that taste is a monopoly of the elite, but few of the contributors actually discuss the lower classes, and Europe continues to dominate the research. Yet, if a few tastes were neglected, the reader will nevertheless savor this rich banquet of historical scholarship.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher

University of Minnesota
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Author:Pilcher, Jeffrey M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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