Food in history: ingredients in search of a recipe?

Sara Pennell, senior lecturer in early modern British history, University of Roehampton

In 1660, the cook Robert May published recipes for one of the modish dishes of the day: the grand ‘sallet’ or salad. The Stuart ‘sallet’ was a spectacle, with its carefully arrayed mixture of fresh and preserved elements, and imported commodities (anchovies, ‘Virginia Potato’, almonds) alongside indigenous ingredients (mushrooms, samphire). Sallets – the first dish to be given exclusive focus in any English-language food text, in John Evelyn’s 1699 Acetaria – were dietetically fashioned to soothe and stimulate in equal measure.[1]

The current state of historical scholarship about, and of, food is arguably like a grand sallet. There is much that stimulates, yet also much familiar to the palate. The array of research ‘ingredients’ is diverse, and, on occasion, exotic, and yet the sense in which these ingredients come together to make a coherent ‘dish’, or area of shared theorisation and methodological harmony, might take some chewing over.

Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-73) seems to have been the first painter to depict fish stalls. Joachim Beuckelaer, The Fish Market, 1568, Musée des beaux-arts de Strasbourg (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The first challenge is to establish what food history/food in history comprises. These word order and prepositional changes are significant, signalling shifts in scope and scale. Food history has (perhaps unfairly) a reputation of being exactly that: explorations of foodstuffs – their cultivation, preparation and consumption – in historical perspective. Limited though that may sound, such focus has produced everything from single-ingredient/commodity histories with global intent (Mark Kurlansky’s 1997 ‘biography’ of Cod to the global histories of potatoes, cake and whiskey in the Reaktion Books ‘Edible’ series),[2] to evocative accounts of feasting and many, many modern editions of historic ‘cookbooks’ (which, more properly, are recipe collections).

What lacks in some food history is attention to the historical agency of food, its relegation to a table-dressing role. Paraphrasing the title of B. W. Higman’s 2011 book, doesn’t food make history happen?[3] This issue of scale of approach in studying food historically – from the panoramic sweep of Felipe Fernandez Armesto’s 2001 Food: a History to the micro-historical, with pretensions to macro-historical, significance (can a cookbook really ‘change the world’?) – is a vexed one.[4] Too small and the tendency towards antiquarianism is apparent; too large, and the gallop from caveman’s fire to induction hob tends towards whiggishness amongst the wiggs[5] and a sense that what we eat now is inevitably healthier/more diverse/less exploitatively gained than what we ate ‘then’. The intellectual queasiness this might induce in us all is now being further fed by accounts of post-industrial, globalised food insecurity from the likes of Michael Pollan and Joanna Blythman, as well as Slow Food activism worldwide.

By changing the preposition – food in history – do we indicate that, rather than simply focusing on the foods and their preparation, we choose a more elevated investigation into what anthropologists call the ‘foodways’ of the past: the processes, flows and impacts of food in economic, social, cultural, political and environmental/ecological contexts?  This tension between the food itself and the processes in which it is implicated (from raw to cooked, from agricultural production, through to industrial synthesis, from local to global and back) might explain why food has yet to join ‘gender’ or ‘class’ as a fully-paid-up category of historical analysis.

Looking to the relative scarcity of academic gatherings about ‘food in history’ in Britain until this century (with the honourable exception of the annual Oxford Symposium of Food, established 1981, and the Leeds Symposium on Food and Cookery, established 1985), it is clear that food as a historical theme in and about Britain has been a niche pursuit, and still mostly invisible in the undergraduate curriculum (with honourable exceptions again: see the courses currently on offer at York and Cambridge, for example). By comparison, European, north American and Australian universities have developed entire degree programmes, courses and research centres around the historical study of food, for example Boston University’s gastronomy programme, the University of Adelaide’s Centre for the History of Food and Drink, and IEHCA (l’Institut Européen d’Histoire et des Cultures de l’Alimentation at the Université François-Rabelais de Tours).

Such mainly non-British outputs map the differential impact of certain historiographical and theoretical traditions in which food/foodways have carried explanatory power. The Annales school – with Fernand Braudel’s uncharacteristically romantic statement that ‘the mere smell of cooking can evoke a whole civilisation’[6] its tagline – fuelled extensive and ongoing French and Italian scholarship, in the work of Jean-Louis Flandrin, Bruno Laurioux, Massimo Montanari and many others. In North America, cross-disciplinary currents between history and archaeology underpinned the influential focus on seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-century ‘foodways’ that has now extended to Australian and South African historical archaeologies.

The most abundant, and oft-replenished source for food history/food in history in Britain is popular print, radio, television and now the internet.[7] Since last autumn I have watched Clarissa Dixon-Wright tackle ‘Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner’ in historical perspective (BBC4, autumn 2012), read William Sitwell’s A History of Food in One Hundred Recipes (Harper Collins, 2011), and received Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: a History of Invention in the Kitchen (Particular Books, 2012) for Christmas. And these are only the cherries decorating a much larger cake. Alongside them, energetic heritage engagement with ‘life below stairs’ serves forth a feast of food re-enactment, or ‘experimental archaeology’, depending on your point of view. Hampton Court Palace’s Tudor kitchens draw large audiences on the ‘live’ cooking weekends, while the historical ‘inserts’ in The Great British Bake-Off (BBC2, 2010-present) leaven the melodrama of collapsing sponges with snippets about baking BMB (Before Mary Berry). That serious, seminal scholarly research underpins some of this output is not in question – leading lights in this field, Ivan Day and Peter Brears (significantly freelancers both) effectively created it – but questions about authenticity remain. Modern food industrialisation, commercialisation and technologies of preparation, as well as health and safety and visitor engagement agendas, conspire to make these routes into food history no less fraught with interpretational problems than text-based scholarship.

Recipes are not the only food and drink ‘texts’ that can be interrogated, as this 1860 advertisement for Bourbon shows. La Sylphide Bourbon, A.M. Bininger & Co. Bourbon advertising label in the shape of a glass showing a man pursuing three sylphs. © Rufus Watles & L.C. Sanger, lithograph by Sarony, Major & Knapp, New York (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Sources for historical investigation of food are of course crucially problematic. The history of food is NOT in the ‘recipes if we but had them all’, as the pioneering independent food historian Karen Hess once proclaimed. Yet, while food texts are more diverse than simply recipes – everything from state papers to chip paper ephemera – the recipe text still enchants, continuing a pedigree of food history research that launched with early antiquarian interest in the ‘ancient’, medieval texts of elite food ordinances and recipes.[8] But, as 2013’s Oxford Symposium of Food acknowledges in its theme of ‘Food and Material Culture’, we do need also to ‘consider the fork’…and the hearth, the cooking pot, the table, the kitchen and the restaurant dining room, as necessary material routes into more nuanced accounts of food in whatever history we seek to write. Material food history is rather fashionable right now (see Bee Wilson’s book), but let us not be blind to its limitations, especially the reading off of food practices and more problematically still, tastes, from proxy objects: how many of us have that unused juicer in a cupboard, from which future historians might read off our non-existent juice obsession?

More of a challenge still is the ephemerality (more or less) of what goes in the pot or on the plate: a challenge that only archaeology can confront for the distant and not-so distant past, before film and photography as documentary sources. The integration and interrogation of archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological and palaeographic deposits for the historic era with text and artefactual data is a crucial development, allowing scholars to test how prescriptive food texts (say, cookbooks or public health guidelines) are borne out in practical bodily and waste matter. Exploratory work in this area has tended to be multi-disciplinary, but there are some exciting interdisciplinary possibilities in this area, and interdisciplinarity is arguably what will produce a richer vein of ‘food in history’ research.[9]

Yet, if archaeological techniques and data are providing the piquant ‘new’ in our grand sallet, other themes are more familiar. My recent reading of the sadly-neglected children’s tale by André Maurois, Fattypuffs and Thinifers (first published in French in 1930) has shaped what follows. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, the Fattypuffs are cheerfully obese, life-embracing constant eaters, whose mantra is ‘one must live to eat’; the Thinifers rule-bound, ruler-thin workaholics, mouthing ‘one must eat to live, not live to eat’ before each sparse repast.[10] These two tribes wage Swiftian war for territorial supremacy.

Recognisably ‘Thinifer’ and ‘Fattypuff’ tendencies are not difficult to identify in current ‘food in history’. Tending towards economic and ‘techno-physical’ topics, ‘Thinifer’ histories focus on food supply systems and their resilience (or food security studies: for example Frank Dikkötter’s 2010 Mao’s Great Famine) and histories of the corporeal consequences of dietary (in)sufficiency.[11] These studies have historicised concerns of modern economists, politicians and ecologists with what is robust and what is less so in contemporary food systems. Slightly less ‘Thinifer’ in tone, work inspired by E.P. Thompson, while not necessarily being particularly concerned with the food itself, has reached beyond the purely quantitative, to think about the social and moral ramifications of food shortage and food entitlement. This produces histories – like those of John Walter for early modern England – that not only enrich the notion of food and access to it as ‘a system’, but one in which individuals and communities, as much as states, supply lines and global commodification, have agency.

The emergence of the history of medicine as not only a sub-discipline within academic history, but as a well-funded area of research, thanks to the Wellcome Trust, has also brought seemingly Thinifer concerns – diet, nutrition and health – front-stage. But understanding modern challenges to dietary equilibrium and nutritional equality (a current Wellcome Trust priority) is not simply about physiological and biomedical issues. Cultural dispositions of communities to particular tastes, food customs and ideas of corporeal wellbeing are historically contingent, as well as often resistant to authoritative and public health agendas, as Keir Waddington has recently shown for the Victorian sausage.[12]

Here we are edging into ‘Fattypuff’ territory. One of the consequences of the late twentieth-century cultural ‘turn’ saw foodways emerging as a cultural player, from the ‘civilising’ of behaviours and collective identities around food (in Stephen Mennell’s seminal historical sociology) to literary engagements with food, to the roles played by food-in-space, for example the later Stuart coffee house or the Revolutionary French restaurant.[13] But, like the Rabelaisian Fattypuffs, cultural histories of food have recently been all-consuming: as in so many other areas of historical research, everything (economics, diet, ecologies) feeds the cultural ‘stomach’. A case in point is the recent series from Berg. While each volume covers food systems, food security and ‘body and soul’, they are nevertheless marketed under the general series title A Cultural History of Food, a decision that might narrow readership and does not reflect the different methodological and theoretical standpoints of contributors.[14]

So what happens between the Fattypuffs and Thinifers? Although the latter quickly overrun the Fattypuff realm, deposing king and government, the colonisers and colonised undergo mutual accommodation. Fattypuffs see the virtues of eating less (but not all slim down), while Thinifers realise that functionalist eating may not be the only way to flourish. Historians interested in ‘food in history’ likewise need to be open minded about what methodological tools and sources to deploy in using the study of foodways to answer some of our larger historical questions: questions about dietary (and thus physiological and ecological) change and adaption; food and thus geopolitical security, on the ground as well as at policy level; and cultural formation of individuals as well as of states, nations and civilisations. We need historical vantage points that complicate approaches assuming shared knowledge, shared experiences, and indeed shared tastes. These vantage points in future might need to be as much ‘glocal’ in scale and tone, as they are either now local or global and with many more ingredients, combined in unexpected ways, than even the grandest of Robert May’s sallets would admit.

[1] Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery (London, 1660), pp. 158-65. J[ohn] E[velyn], Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets(London, 1699).

[2] (accessed 24/1/2013).

[3] B. W. Higman, How Food Made History (Wiley-Blackwell: 2011).

[4] T. Sarah Peterson, The Cookbook That Changed the World: the Invention of Modern Cuisine (Tempus, 2006).

[5] A yeasted bun appearing in later Stuart and Georgian recipe collections.

[6] The Structures of Everyday Life (first published in French 1979; this edition University of California Press, 1992), p. 64.

[7] See Ken Albala’s ‘Food Rant’, at; and Ivan Day’s ‘Food History Jottings’ at (both accessed 24/1/2013).

[8] Gilly Lehmann, The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (Prospect Books, 2003) and Janet Theophano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote (Palgrave, 2002).

[9] C. M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron (eds), Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition (OUP, 2006), esp. pp. 1-8.

[10] A Ciceronian epigram popularised in Jean Baptiste Molière, The Miser, act 3, sc. 1 (1669).

[11] E.g. Craig Muldrew, Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness: Work and Material Culture in Agrarian England, 1550-1780 (CUP, 2011).

[12] Keir Waddington, ‘The dangerous sausage: diet, meat and disease in Victorian and Edwardian Britain’, Cultural and Social History, 8:1 (2011), 51–71.

[13] Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Blackwell, 1985); Joan Fitzpatrick, Food in Shakespeare (Ashgate: 2007); Rebecca Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard, 2000).