(5) The Menial Art of Cooking: Archaeological Studies of Cooking and Food Preparation edited by: Sarah R. Graff and Enrique R. Rodriguez-Alegría
Ken Albala (University of the Pacific)
This book is highly recommended, particularly for food historians who want to step away from their musty old texts to imagine what it would be like to work in the dirt for a while. Archaeology is a closely related sister discipline, though not well represented among the myriad fields that make up food studies today. This is a shame, as it has much to teach us, not only about the prehistoric past, but even recent civilizations. As might be expected, methodologically the two disciplines are very far apart. Archaeology is a hard science, literally and figuratively, dealing with chemical analysis of food residues, dating of pots shards and examining faunal remains under high powered microscopes. In terms of interpretation of data, however, food history and especially anthropology are very closely related. Reading the essays in this book often felt like finding a long lost sibling.
The essays collected here are drawn from a conference of the Society for American Archaeology held in 2005. The introduction acknowledges the dearth of literature specifically addressing cooking; archaeologists have moved around the hearth, looked closely at feasting rituals and social structures, and of course agricultural techniques, but they have not peered into the pot as often, nor thought carefully about the daily habits of those who butcher, cook and prepare food. I was somewhat surprised that the editors felt it necessary to defend their choice to look at cooking per se, but I will accept their testimony that the topic has been seriously neglected. The introduction very cogently summarizes the many ways the study of cooking can enlighten current archaeological debates relating to health, the influence of technological change, social relations and expressions of power. The volume largely makes good these promises and in many cases dramatically revises the status quo in the discipline.
I am not entirely convinced that all the essays are about cooking itself: the topic might be the physical position of the cook, butchering technology, the logic of bone grease extraction, or merely what the diffusion of pots reveals about how groups expressed their identity. Or perhaps, to be more precise, the essays are not all about cuisine, what archaeological remains reveal about what people actually ate and what it might have tasted like. That veers more into what is called experimental archaeology or culinary history. Nonetheless the essays are captivating, and rarely dip into the minutiae of scientific detail to an extent that is likely to try the average reader’s patience
The first essay by Sarah R. Graff is fantastic. By closely examining seal-impressed pot shards from Western Syria in the third millennium BC, she deftly overturns previous arguments about their importance. In the past they were interpreted as decorated storage vessels and used to chart the trade networks and the redistribution system of the powerful city of Ebla. Instead Graff argues that they are pieces of cooking pots. Though charred food remains would have proven this decisively, as a potter I can tell you the argument made here is proof enough. The clay body of these pots contains a high percentage of calcite, which was intentionally added to loosen the tight structure of the clay, to temper it, to prevent cracking under repeating heating and cooling. Moreover the shape of the pot, with a thin walled, rounded bottom, would never be used for storage since it makes the pots tip over or break in transport. Instead it is especially designed to sit over coals, distribute the heat evenly up the sides of the pot, and again, prevent stress cracks. Look at the base of any medieval earthenware cooking vessel or Native American pot and you will immediately notice the rounded base.
The standard argument that the impressed seals indicate prestige, expense and a desire to show off is also neatly unraveled. As any potter knows, a little decoration with a seal takes an extra minute and is definitely welcome for quotidian ware. I am not sure the corrugated surface makes much of a difference as is argued here, but otherwise the evidence is very persuasive. It is also not clear why remnants of bitter vetch found at the sites of excavation might be important. Vetches are not in fact poisonous at all unless one eats nothing else for a long period of time, leading to a motor disfunction called lathyrism. For occasional consumption, as they still do in Italy and India, they don’t need to be soaked, and certainly not ritually. Now the only remaining step would be to replicate these pots and test them over a fire. One could easily make some interesting culinary observations as well. (I hereby volunteer.)
The second essay by Gil J. Stein on ‘Food preparation, social context and ethnicity in a prehistoric Mesopotamian colony’ examines a trading colony in Anatolia in the fourth millennium BC. There is some interesting speculation here: since artifacts in the domestic setting are Anatolian (i.e. local) in style while those used publically for consumption are Mesopotamian (i.e. in the style of traders/settlers), this suggests intermarriage of the outsiders with local women, who used traditional wares in the kitchen. The men however wanted their serving vessels, and managed to maintain their identity as a diasporic community through their use. I kept thinking, maybe they couldn’t get imported cooking pots or maybe the local wares were perfectly fine. Or maybe the Anatolians just bought these imported serving vessels and the traders never actually lived there, let alone cohabited? Moreover, the strict division by gender into private cooking versus public dining spheres, although common in many cultures, may not be the case here. The argument also hinges on the assumption that there were intercultural households. What if the pottery type is actually not a good indication of ethnicity at all?
Chapter seven, by Brad Chase, is similar in examining an outpost of the Indus River Valley civilization in Gujarat in the third millennium BC. This too was a border land, where different styles of material culture interacted. By looking at the different types of cut marks make by butchering meat with obsidian or metal the author shows how different cuts of meat were used by people within the walls compared to those without, and how this might align with ethnic identity.
Chapter three, by Christine A. Hastorf, begins with a broad introduction on the importance of food, drawing from anthropology and sociology (as do many of the chapters) and then focuses on Çatalhöyük, which anyone who has ever taught Western Civilization I or the History of Food, knows well. Much of the picture one has gotten from the textbooks is actually mistaken. For about a thousand years from c.7400 to 6200 BC, the foodways of these people did not change that much. They did not have cooking pots until fairly late but instead used clay balls, heated and dropped in watertight baskets or wooden containers, much as Native Americans in California used volcanic rocks to cook acorn porridge. They also lived in small snug houses with living space on the roofs. Though they did eat wheat, sheep, beans and nuts, a lot of their diet was still wild. The wheat and other grains were often eaten whole as well, not always ground and baked into bread. The most fascinating part of the chapter is situating the cook right in the centre of the household, with a kind of panoptical command of the space, separate from living and storage areas but offering the ability to peer into these other places. The oven is naturally the focus of the house, but as Hastorf argues, so is the female cook. Eventually when pots are introduced, it allowed these women to multitask, decorate the space, and probably take on ritual functions as well. The analysis here could easily be applied to any kitchen space, also revealing the social importance or lack thereof in any culture.
The next chapter by Nerissa Russell and Louise Martin is also about Çatalhöyük and like the previous debunks some misconceptions. The settlement was not centrally ruled and there was no public architecture. That means production took place at the household level, mostly around clay ovens. Even more surprising is the extent to which these people depended on meat, to such an extent that they smashed up bones and boiled them to extract marrow and grease from the joints.
The eighth chapter by Tiina Manne goes further into bone boiling, though for the Upper Paleolithic in Portugal some 27,000 years ago. It appears that either environmental factors limiting the number of wild animals or population pressure led the people of Vale Boi to undergo the arduous process of grease extraction to get every last ounce of nutrition from their catches. From a purely gastronomic perspective, the idea of people using the grease to preserve and store food, similar to Native Americans and pemmican, is the most interesting part. I wonder if the discussion here could be applied to any civilization? When do cooks take extra steps to get every ounce of nutritional value from bones and why and how does this influence their cuisine? Conversely, when is food so abundant that they can afford to waste food, tossing gristly bits? This is an excellent of example of the need for historians to pay closer attention to archaeology.
No chapter here does a better job of linking the past to present cultures than chapter five by Enrique Rodriguez-Alegria on grinding corn in Mexico. We are given a full explanation of the manual processing of corn, or rather nixtamal, into tortillas and tamales and why Aztec rule and the tribute system demanded portable food, hence women made these more often for men working a distance from home. Equally as fascinating is why women abandoned the difficult process of grinding at home, to buy prepared masa or tortillas, very recently. It is not simply that technology intervened, but that the socializing while grinding together in groups, still done for holidays, was enjoyable in itself. Plus, other factors, like the unreliability of electricity and long distance to the mills, slowed this shift considerably. The point is, in both contexts, the changing nature of work drove changes in the kitchen.
Chapter six by Kay Tarble de Scaramelli and Franz Scaramelli does a meticulous job in periodizing changes that took place in the Orinoco basin in manioc processing, another extraordinarily labor intensive task. Here the changes are again due to colonial rule and shifts in the economy. Ultimately large scale processing for the sake of social prestige gave way to the need to accumulate wealth under the weight of private ownership of land and capitalism. The spit-fermented manioc brew likewise gave way to purchased alcohol.
The last chapter by Guido Pezzarossi, Ryan Kennedy and Heather Law is the sole example of US archaeology and fairly recent. It analyzes the remains of a farm owned by Nipmuc in late 18th- and early 19th-century Massachusetts, arguing that the use of European wares is not evidence of acculturation. Rather it should be viewed as a unique evolution of cooking and serving practices, a tradition actively created by the cooks in the household incorporating old and new elements whose meaning should be understood via those who used them. The number and elegance of serving wares, despite the fact that the family faced economic hardship as evidenced in the historical record, also suggests that their house may have been a gathering place for the Native community. Here we also get glimpses of what the family ate and how they cooked it – hoe cake is one example.
In all, this volume not only represents the formal self-admitted entry of archaeologists into the wider field of food studies, but it opens interesting new possibilities for further research by historians and archaeologists. Do we pay too little attention to material culture, to the alignment of cooking spaces and to the meaning of the daily act of cooking as physically experienced by the cook? Do we ignore what certain wares may say about people and the structure of households, who is included or not? Do we look close enough at the styles of pots and the cut marks or shape of broken bones to make sense of the culinary past? This book offers a welcome bridge to gather together scholars whose work is clearly closely related.
(4) The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes
by Hannele Klemettilä
It is possible today to admire reconstructions of medieval kitchens at several historical monuments across Europe. Many of these displays have been carefully researched and tend to provide a fascinating insight into aspects of everyday life in the Middle Ages. The subject has, however, not received an equal level of attention in the historical literature and I was looking forward to reading a whole monograph dedicated to the medieval kitchen. Once I had the opportunity to delve into this nicely produced book I soon realised, however, that it was not quite what I had expected. This is not a book about the ‘kitchen’, intended in its common English meaning as the room where food is prepared, but it is rather about diet and food consumption. The word ‘kitchen’ is here intended to mean ‘cuisine’, a more rarely used, but – according to the Oxford English Dictionary – not incorrect interpretation of the term. My discovery mildly disappointed me, not because of a lack of interest in the subject, but rather because, unlike the kitchen interpreted as a room, a rich literature already exists on medieval food consumption (this is summarised in chapter ten of the book). In reviewing this book I have therefore focused on the extent to which it adds something new and original to the current published output.
The book is beautifully illustrated with almost 200 pictures, many in colour; all are vivid representations of medieval life, many well-known, but others less so. It consists of three main components – the main text, a number of helpful insets included in each chapter to focus on specific themes, and a final section of suggested recipes in medieval style. The main text comprises ten chapters, which, in addition to an introduction and a conclusion, deal with the production and (mainly) consumption of bread (chapter two), vegetables (three), meat (four), fish (five), sauces and spices (six), dairy products and eggs (seven), desserts (eight) and beverages (nine). Over 60 suggested recipes are described at the end; they include a list of ingredients and some preparation instructions. The chronological focus is on the late Middle Ages (c.1300–1550), and the area covered is supposed to encompass the whole of Europe. The author is Finnish, undertook her doctoral studies in the Netherlands, and lives in England, therefore providing the kind of internationality this book could benefit from. The book was originally written (but not published) in Finnish, translated into English by Anne Strauss and then further edited by the author herself. Although she originally wrote the book in her native language it is clear that Klemettilä is very proficient in English as – at least to the eyes of this non-native English speaker reviewer – nothing in the prose betrays the fact that the text was translated. The writing flows nicely and it is very clear and accessible.
The book relies mainly on documentary evidence, though iconographic sources are also considered. There is also the intention, expressed in the introductory chapter (p. 8), to integrate the historical data with the archaeological evidence. This, however, remains mainly a hypothetical aspiration, as references to archaeological data in the book are few and far. The handful of examples in which the archaeological evidence is mentioned are all focused on the Baltic area and all that is provided is the odd reference to the occurrence of some animal or plant remains found at archaeological sites, rather than any interpretation of their presence there. These results are also without citations(an issue on which I will return later) and, considering that the only archaeological reference provided in the reading list is a PhD thesis (!) on medieval and post-medieval Turku (Finland), I must assume that this is the only archaeological source that was consulted. It does therefore seem that the inclusion of archaeology in the book only represents a small token gesture – severely limited in scope and geographic range – towards another discipline. This is partly understandable, as the author is a historian by background, and clearly more at ease with the deciphering of old texts rather than the material remains of our past. It is, however, important to make clear to the potential reader that, despite what claimed in the introduction, this is a book in which the archaeological evidence plays a negligible part.
The need to integrate history and archaeology partly stems from the fact that the two sources have their own gaps and biases and they can thus be complementary. The documentary evidence clearly privileges accounts of the life of the upper classes and has limited information about foodstuffs that were not sold and purchased and therefore did not make theirway in household accounts. Wild plants, mushrooms and vegetables from the garden could belong to this category, as well as any other food that was produced as part of a self-sufficient economy (which was much more likely to typify the lower classes). The author is aware of this issue and warns us, from time to time, of such potential biases. The vast archaeological literature on food consumption in the Middle Ages can contribute to fill some of these gaps, but for such accounts the reader will have to look elsewhere.(1) There the reader will discover that, although the archaeological evidence supports some of the claims made by historians, in other cases it alerts us to the danger of relying on a single source of evidence. For instance the claim made in this book that ‘pork was the most common type of meat consumed’ (p. 63) will in many areas be contradicted by archaeological data that provides information on the relative representation of different types of livestock. The claim that in Italy ‘beef had to be brought in from abroad’ (p. 63) will also be seen with great scepticism by archaeologists who will have studied innumerable cattle bones from archaeological sites across the region.
At its onset the book appears to have a core message to provide. Basically, the author claims that the notorious eating excesses of the medieval upper classes have been exaggerated and that there was an abundance of food (apart from times of famine) available to all social classes, including the peasantry. In her own words, ‘a peasant in the Middle Ages did not eat a great deal worse than his master landlord’ (p. 11) and ‘under normal circumstances the difference between the diet of lesser noblemen and that of their labourers was not particularly significant’ (p. 13). It is worth highlighting the caution of the author in leaving open the possibility that the diet of the highest echelons of the society may indeed have been substantially different. Even so, the basic argument is interesting and not entirely uncontroversial, and it would have been worth exploring it further. This is, however, a problematic aspect of this book on two different levels, which are both worth exploring in some detail.
The first problem is that an editorial choice was made not to include in-text references. This means that, despite the fact that there are no reasons to believe that the book is less than thoroughly researched, there is no opportunity to verify that there are any solid foundations behind any statements that are made. This does not necessarily weaken Klemettilä’s argument, but leaves it in the realm of generic opinions. Whether her statement is justified or not, we cannot say, as no verifiable evidence is presented in its support. To make things even more complicated there is some important literature on diet in the Middle Ages which does not necessarily contradict Klemettilä’s argument, but does not support it either. For instance Montanari’s work on the medieval peasantry in Italy (2) and Dyer’s work on the life of the lower classes in England (3) provide useful insights in the everyday struggle for survival that could characterise the less well-off from medieval society. At the other end of the social spectrum, Woolgar’s account of the diet of the English nobility (4) and Harvey’s complementary evidence of the clergy (5) indicate that a sustained wealth of food resources, beyond those that could ever be afforded by the lower classes, was indeed possible. Sumptuous banquets comprised of an endless list of exotic and unusual food items only represented occasional events, but the everyday consumption of food by the upper classes seems unlikely to have been modest, and included a remarkable amount of meat. This is another area in which the oversight of the archaeological evidence appears painfully evident. Results from excavations of high status sites, such as castles and manor houses, indicate that venison was regularly consumed, while deer bones are rare in towns and villages. The same applies for several species of wild birds and freshwater fish, whose procurement was also restricted by the law.(6)
The second issue with Klemettilä’s point is that, after having stated in the introductory chapter that there were no substantial differences in the type of food consumption across medieval society, this claim fizzles out in the rest of the book, where the presented evidence can even be used to contradict the original point. For instance, at different points in the book it is stated that some food items – spices being the most obvious example (p. 90) – would have to be imported and, as such, they were expensive and therefore only affordable to the wealthy few. This must have unquestionably contributed to a different taste in the cuisine of different social classes. Some foods (varying obviously across geographic areas) also appear to have been identified with the poor; these include porridge (p. 41), pasta (p. 44), cabbage, beans and lentils (p. 53). The overall more meaty diet of the rich is also recognised at various points in the book (for example, pp. 51, 54, 63). Cooking practices also varied and it is for instance pointed out that roasting on an open fire was mainly practiced in the kitchens of the upper classes, and ‘the handling of roasts was part of the education of upper-class youths’ (p. 72). The great cost of fresh fish (pp.78, 80) also means that preserved fish was all peasants could generally afford, while oysters, like today, were regarded to be a luxury item (p. 82). Returning to spices, it is interesting to read that the poor had their own surrogates, such as juniper berries and garlic (p. 92), while imported spices such as pepper, saffron, ginger and cinnamon were generally beyond their reach. Fruits and nuts were also often imported, particularly in northern countries, raising thus their cost and making them difficult to afford for the peasantry who, in the north at least, had to be content with apples and pears (p. 117). Almond milk is mentioned throughout the book as an important cookery item but, considering the high cost of almonds in countries where they could not be produced locally, it is difficult to imagine it being much used in the cuisine of the lower classes. In short, plenty of evidence is provided that is suggestive of substantial differences in the diet of rich and poor.
Although the book is slightly biased towards evidence from northern countries, this is at the same time its strength, as literature in Finnish is made available to a readership who would by and large find such sources inaccessible. Remarkably, the story that emerges from the Nordic countries is not that different from the rest of Europe, though northern regions would have had a smaller range of local products than the South. In the late medieval period Europe lived in an economic climate that was already much affected by market forces. Trade was widespread, and those who could afford them had access to a great variety of products. As a consequence, across Europe there were remarkable similarities in the diet of the upper classes (p. 28). This means that in order to identify regional cuisines it may be more promising to look at the food habits of the lower classes. Both historical and archaeological research on medieval diet requires greater efforts in international comparisons and this book provides some interesting leads that have the potential to be developed further.
All in all I consider this book to cover part of the same ground as other ‘semi-popular’ volumes on past food habits, but it also has a sufficient element of originality to make it stand out from the existing literature. The addition of recipes at the end of the book is probably a marketing strategy devised to make the book more appealing to the general public, and they probably add little of interest to the more academically inclined reader. The lack of references (apart from a generic reading list at the end), the insufficient integration of different lines of evidence and the oversight of some major academic literature on the topic (admittedly vast) are probably the major shortcomings of the book. In sum, if one is looking for a book on medieval diet that has nice pictures, many interesting anecdotes and a fluent and readable prose, this volume is ideal. For an in-depth and authoritative analysis of food consumption in the Middle Ages it is, however, necessary to look elsewhere.
- Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition,ed. Christopher Woolgar, Dale Serjeantson and Tony Waldron (Oxford, 2006).
- Massimo Montanari, L’Alimentazione Contadina nell’Alto Medioeveo, (Napoli, 1979).
- Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages. Social Change in England c.1200–1520, (Cambridge, 1989).
- Christopher Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England, (New Haven, CT, 1999).
- Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England 1100–1540: the Monastic Experience, (Oxford, 1993).
- Umberto Albarella and Simon Davis, Mammals and Birds from Launceston Castle, Cornwall: Decline in Status and the Rise of Agriculture, (York, 1996); Naomi Sykes, The Norman Conquest: A Zooarchaeological Perspective, (Oxford, 2007); Richard Thomas, Animals, Economy and Status: Integrating Zooarchaeological and Historical Data in the Study of Dudley Castle, West Midlands (c.1100–1750), (Oxford, 2005).
(3) Animal Encounters: Human and Animal Interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War I by Arthur MacGregor
Krish Seetah (Stanford University)
I must preface this review by saying that I feel the discussion of human-animal interactions has been lacking a book like this for some time. From the outset, this book is fundamentally more than historical in its impact. The topics discussed, and so vividly illustrated, are anthropological assessments for the modern world, using history as base data. There is an immediacy that will surely chime with a contemporary audience as we see our world increasingly sanitized of its non-human animals. For this reason in particular, the cut off point of the First World War is apposite given the subsequent mechanisation that impacted on both human and animal life. This schism marks more than just a break from ‘traditional’ roles, but in fact a transformation of human dependences on animals.
Chapter one offers a lucid insight into a species, the horse, which has perhaps slipped furthest from our modern collective consciousness when one takes into account its role in the medieval period. What becomes clear is that the horse was more varied in terms of its role in society, as well as its actual physical morphology. On reading the chapter, as has so often been done, one can’t help but draw comparisons with the modern motorcar, which, as with so many material goods, made its way from luxury to mundane. With this transition both horse and car became more variable in form and function, could afford their owner great status, or none at all, and could command impressive price tags, or be more or less worthless and in fact incur financial cost for disposal. The chapter highlights facets of our attitude as humans towards an animal that was both essential and ‘ubiquitous’, spanning from an almost reverential respect for the racehorse to abject neglect for the nag. While this is neither novel nor surprising, the details in the book are the critical feature in bringing this message to bear: ‘Retirement was indeed a concept unfamiliar in the horse world, most working animals being driven until they dropped and buried where they died …’ (p. 23). The author weaves further complexity into the circumstances of British attitudes to equids by reference to the idiosyncratic aversion to horseflesh, not shared by those on the continent. Ultimately, this resulted in a lucrative business for British exporters of worn horses and specialist butchers and traders in places such as Belgium.
The multitude of roles played by the horse is a key aspect of this chapter; however, rather than present a laundry list, the author provides discrete and detailed accounts of the functional categories into which the horse found itself. Arguably as insightful and illustrative is the groundwork that precedes this section, with a number of lines of enquiry used to convey a more complete picture of how horse and human interacted. Firstly, we see the physical representations of a range of horse types, using such imagery as Fernley’s 1840 The Council of Horses, and going back to depictions from the Luttrell Psalter. Added to these are descriptive accounts and illustrations of the various paraphernalia associated with riding and other functional activities. The development of different riding styles and fashions, and the variation between the genders is intertwined into this mix. We then see how British horse breeding, the essential component in creating types which in turn served the range of functions, was hampered by a lack of appreciation for the role of the mare in capturing and fixing desirable traits in the offspring. This led to a coveting of overseas stock, particularly the Barbary and Arab. Indeed, horse breeding, its detail and intricacy is a strength of this chapter in that it illustrates the depth to which the problem of poor stock was confounded by high rates of export and misguided breeding practices. The fact that this led to legislative intervention ultimately demonstrates the dependence of crown and commoner on the horse.
As with the horse, chapter two provides an insight into an activity that few of us will actively participate in: venery. Yet, the extent to which this formed part of life for the elite provides an interesting insight into ‘them and us’. Of course, the commoner was often involved in the hunt, but in very different capacity and never taking part in the essence of hunting i.e. expressing power and control. As the chapter illustrates, the issue is far from a direct discussion of how humans hunt; the act of hunting is deeply social and has been widely used as a mechanism of social control for centuries.
Once again, it is the detail of the examples that is both illustrative and deeply thought provoking. The practice of effectively hobbling, through physical and permanent mutilation (the term used for this was lawed), the dogs’ of peasants prior to allowing them to accompany their master into forested regions, speaks not only of the degree of social control of human and beast by the elite, but that the punitive mechanisms used to exert that control took no account of the animal. Humans interacting with each other seemed to invariably cause animal suffering. While royalty saw little difference between poachers and murderers, meting out similar punishments, during periods of civil unrest the peasantry took out their revenge on game species, at times decimating populations of local fauna.
Legislative control forms the backdrop to this chapter, with insight into the various laws governing game and hunting. Game keepers were instrumental in developing ideas of land and animals as property, although regulation waned through time with regard to rigid control and enactment.
In parallel with the previous chapter, details of dog typology gives an insight into varying functionality and the work that both horse and hound played in the capture of a remarkable array of fauna. This last point in crucial as it illustrates an underlying issue: while for those dedicated to the risky act of poaching, the driver was sustenance, food was the least of the reasons for venery for the elite. One strength of the chapter is the manner in which the variety of hunting styles, through time, are aligned alongside the different species that fell to the hunter, the associated practices of the different hunting traditions, and of course, the assortment of living hunting aids in the form of different hound types and human assistants. The hunting loop is neatly and effectively closed, whilst other lines of investigation are opened up , in the form of associated trades that were involved in the processing and progressive distribution of the animal’s body following the initial and highly ritualised ‘unmaking’.
Of all the chapters, the third includes descriptions of those activities (though not limited to these) that we now see as most abhorrent to our modern sensibilities. This chapter not only lays out the trajectory of the whys and wherefores of the blood sports, but also how legislation and the common sense of the day aligned to the detriment of numerous species. The text does a very good job, through historic narratives, of illustrating just how dispensable dogs, bulls and bears were in Britain up to the 1800s and how society was seemingly inured to animal cruelty and suffering. This is well balanced with a discussion of Britain’s special role in the development of animal rights in that it was the first to enact prevention of cruelty laws in the modern period. As the author points out, this early act has had a lasting legacy for modern legislation around the world.
As before, important details are presented that paints a picture of the complexity of pit fighting, baiting etc. What might have been considered as the pastime of the few and far between in fact formed part of the fabric of everyday life: highly organised, involving all factions of society in one form or another and with a well-established place within the landscape of both town and country. This was particularly evident in the urban setting where extensive architecture was devoted to the blood sports.
The author takes us through the breadth and variety of fauna that formed part of these inhumane pastimes. One gains a rich impression of a set of activities with ardent followers who evidently devoted a great deal of time and effort in their pursuit. In tandem, we gain insight into the changing social psychology as it related to animals. In addition to a clear account of the development of each of the blood sports is an assessment of how the individual popularity of each came to wane, and ultimately how they all fell foul of the law. Given current estimates that certain blood sports, particularly dog fighting, have never been more popular on a global scale, this chapter provides a better understanding of the complexity of a set of activities that might have otherwise been consigned to history simply as an unpleasant and distasteful aspect of the past. While the chapter also includes balanced discussion on pastimes that do not focus on death and brutality, and in so doing adds important dimensions of the long standing role animals have played as part of our leisure time, what will remain with the reader is the bulk of the chapter: the cruelty humans can inflict in the pursuit of their own pleasure.
While the titles of the last two chapters are innocuous, ‘The living larder’ and ‘Animals on the farm’, they encapsulate both an incredibly diverse array of edible species, far beyond our modern palate, as well as arguably the most significant (at least economically speaking) strategy for faunal exploitation. These two chapters, discussed together here for the sake of brevity, both deal with consumption, but from different perspectives. In oversimplified terms chapter four focuses on wild species that are effectively managed to a greater or lesser extent, whilst chapter five deals with the truly domesticated fauna. I say this is an oversimplification because in both cases the author takes the time to tackle and detail not only the associated husbandry, but also facets of trade, exchange and commodification, and where appropriate, the rich ritual for each species covered.
Chapter four brings in aspects of social status, as evidenced through visual topography i.e. showing that you could, not just needed to, raise these food items, and illustrated with the example of siting of the dovecote and how this changed through time. One of the most intriguing cases discussed is that of the idiosyncratic and conspicuous royal consumption of swans, and their classification as private property irrespective of where they occurred in the landscape. In nuanced detail we are presented not just with the legislative control of swans, but the ritualised mechanisms by which they were managed, including the use of markings to distinguish between the stocks of different owners. The end point of the swan’s more intimate relationship with monarchy, though not quite completely dead, was the cessation of beak marking in 1997, drawing to a close what must be one of the most singular of British traditions. Chapter five is perhaps the most pragmatic in its stance; one particularly interesting aspect of this chapter is the early discussion of how agriculture and animal management developed. This section focuses on those involved in carcass processing, an established craft specialism, but which develops into a defined and lucrative trade; those involved in it serving as middle men between producer and consumer. The remainder of the chapter gives a species-by-species account of the main food domesticates, outlining how each provided primary, secondary, or both, products and was maximally exploited to this end.
In drawing this review to a close, one aspect that is apparent is that the chapters are never straightforward, which is a key strength. With the exception of the last chapter, which is more directional, in general the book takes common topics but develops them using new angles of enquiry and well-sourced evidence: complexity of form and function (chapter one); legislative control (chapter two); role in community life of rich and poor (chapter three); and social facets of animal management (chapter four).
One minor reproof is this: the book makes reference to the reduced role and interrelationship of humans and non-human animals. Indeed, this literally starts on the inside sleeve of the jacket. However, I think that while the overt visual politics (there is and was always so much more going on then simply viewing) of human-animal interactions are clearly less explicit in modern Britain, the fact remains that the significance of animals has not diminished. Their presence is screened, but their roles have taken on a myriad of forms that have no historic parallel. They still play a critical economic role; however, their social place and context, how they intersect with the most intimate aspects of modern life, and the manner in which they serve as proxy, mirror and substitute is still quite remarkable. I bring up this point in conclusion as this book, despite suggesting a diminished role, does a very good job of contextualising just how significant modern human-animal relationships are. It is illustrative of something far more fundamental than the way animals and humans interact. It provides a lens through which to view the extent and scale of how commercialism and commodification have impacted on day-to-day life, the degree and manner to which social responsibility has moved beyond the sphere of protecting human rights to protecting those of non-human animals and our continued dependence on animals for food and sustenance, fulfilled in a way far removed from what we might arguably still conceive as ‘natural’.
(2) Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Paris, 1670-1760 by Emma Spary (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012)
Jennifer Davis (University of Oklahoma)
Over 40 years ago, Robert Darnton proposed to evaluate the Enlightenment from its authors’ perspectives. After all, he observed, they were ‘men of flesh and blood, who wanted to fill their bellies, house their families, and make their way in the world’.(1) But with what did they fill their bellies, and when, and how much? And what significance did these ‘enlightened’ authors give to the act of eating or preparing food? Did they perceive that enlightenment affected eating, or vice versa? On these matters, Darnton remained mute. The task falls to E. C. Spary, who promises to reveal how the high ideals of Enlightenment materialized in the sciences and commerce dedicated to food production, preparation, and digestion. Do not look for recipes here – instead, the author establishes that her subject is ‘the public construction of knowledgeable expertise’ regarding food (p. 4). She investigates who became food experts in Paris during the 18th century, and what were their claims to authority.
We 21st-century moderns have witnessed a similar transformation in food authority in the past generation. The expansion of celebrity chefs’ influence through television shows, cookbooks, magazines and product endorsements means they vie for authority over what we eat and in what quantities with medical doctors, nutritionists, and public policy analysts. Recently, the Food Network’s reigning queen of southern American cuisine, Paula Deen made a shame-faced admission that she had been diagnosed with type-two diabetes, requiring her to abandon her signature sugar- and butter-laden diet for Greek yogurt and unsweetened tea. In the United Kingdom, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has taken on the monumental task of reforming school lunches and initiating fast-food devotees into the wonders of home-cooked meals with his Food Revolution initiative, television show, and cookbook. Both Deen and Oliver contribute to a culinary public sphere crowded with experts extolling contradictory advice that seems to change daily: soy prevents cancer – eat more tofu! No, soy disrupts hormones – don’t eat tofu! It’s enough to make one wish for simpler days, but Eating the Enlightenment reminds us that those simpler days likely never existed.
What experts shaped enlightened eating in the 18th century? Spary introduces us to physicians, chemists, university faculty, cookbook authors, guild masters, theologians, renowned hosts and diners, all of whom made claims to alimentary expertise. However, over the course of this century, some professions won that authority, while others lost ground. While Spary provides illuminating detail on contemporary debates, it is sometimes difficult to see the consequences of the contests that she describes. The book’s six substantive chapters address four alimentary sites: digestion, coffee, liqueurs, and diet. This reviewer would have appreciated a brief discussion of why these particular topics provide such a good entry into enlightened eating. Why digestion but not mastication or excretion? Why coffee, not chocolate? Why liqueurs, not wine? Lacking the author’s rationale, the choices can seem random and only tangentially related to each other. For many readers, reading this book may feel like entering in the middle of a conversation. Spary assumes a high degree of familiarity with key figures and institutions. It will come as a relief to experts in these fields, no doubt, to sidestep some of the predictable tales of 18th-century medicine or French culinary lore. But it may put off many interested amateurs, as the text assumes a wide-ranging knowledge of theology, economic theory, and political philosophy.
Spary situates this research at the intersection of several historiographical fields. First, it contributes to book history, a field that has sought to ground accounts of European Enlightenment in the more mundane realities of producing and circulating texts. Second, it references the history of consumption, which has highlighted a ‘consumer revolution’ in the urban centers of early modern Europe. Third, Spary participates in recent trends in the history of science. Following the lead of such scholars as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, she combats a ‘great man’ approach to the history of science by exploring how networks of individuals from diverse backgrounds created scientific knowledge through decades of debate. Applying Bruno Latour’s powerful critique of the scientific method to food reveals how ‘[f]ood practices, like scientific truth claims, can become ‘black-boxed’ within cultures and thereby hard to reverse’ (p. 296). Recovering 18th-century alimentary debates promises to open the box, enabling us to imagine other possible truths created by alternative authorities. Lastly, Spary engages with French culinary history, rooting culinary transformations in broader social and intellectual movements. The research is truly comprehensive, resulting in a scholarly apparatus that is a testament to the author’s interdisciplinarity and rigor.
Early 18th-century debates over digestion mobilized some of the leading lights of the Parisian medical faculty to develop arguments of how the human body took nourishment from food. These physiological models then provided the foundation for ideals of consumption that influenced economic, political, and theological theories. Spary contrasts the dominant chemical account against a compelling new hydraulic model of digestion. Iatrochemical models of the human body ‘postulated the existence of multiple ferments in the body, controlling the various stages of digestion in the stomach, intestines, and bloodstream’ and dominated in the early years of the 18th century (p. 21). In contrast, the hydraulic account of trituration ‘portrayed the body as a continuous network of pulsating vessels’ (p. 29). Motion characterized this explanation of bodily functions. Food moving through the digestive tract became chyle, chyle moved into the blood, ‘and blood into a subtle vapor able to penetrate the brain substance’ (p. 29). These different accounts postulated very different results from food choices, and imagined very different sources of indigestion. However, digestion did not simply concern the body. Spary demonstrates how authors drew moral, social, and political conclusions from their proposals.
For example, both iatrochemical and triturationist models investigated how the ‘natural laws’ presumed to govern digestion accorded with Catholic dietary law. In 1709, the physician Philippe Hecquet relied on a triturationist account of digestion to argue that the lean foods (no meat or animal fats) required by Catholic dietary law on Fridays and during Lent were ideally suited to nourishment of the human machine. Spary observes that Hecquet, ‘presented lean foods and vegetarianism as elements of a great reformation of Catholic lifestyles, a return to an original purity of soul and body’ (p. 25). Spary finds convincing evidence linking Hecquet to Jansenist circles that supported the general reform of French Catholicism conceived of as a return to early Christian simplicity and piety. Extending this critique from the individual to the social, Hecqeut’s text also can be read as a condemnation of French elites’ consumption of luxury goods and exotic produce.
Nicolas Andry de Boisregard attacked Hecquet’s thesis on both physiological and theological grounds. The iatrochemical account of digestion imagined that lean foods – such as beans, grains, and fibrous vegetables – increased the bad ferments within the digestive system. There could be no doubt, argued Andry, that the period of Lent weakened the body and disordered its usual ferments. But this was the point, theologically speaking. Spary notes that Andry ‘argued that God had ordained the Lenten period precisely in order to humble the body by weakening it’ (p. 31). Spary links Andry with the Molinists, those Catholics who advocated a more moderate reform of the Church by stressing ‘good works and self-denial’ rather than the Jansenists’ emphasis on individual piety and salvation through faith (p. 24). Somewhat paradoxically within the ‘Most Christian’ French king’s domains, rigorous adherence to Catholic dietary law became entwined with opposition politics through the 1750s.
Spary next evaluates debates over coffee as a key site in the production of Enlightened knowledge. Indeed, what would a history of the Enlightenment be without reference to coffee? Spary digs past the facile pleasantries regarding how many cups Voltaire swilled to survey the economic and cultural transformations that opened French society up to this exotic beverage. Coffee entered France in the 17th century and symbolized the new exclusive trade agreements negotiated between Louis XIV and the Ottoman Empire. The French extended cultivation of coffee to their American colonies, resulting in cheaper beans perceived as inferior to the Arabica varieties available through Ottoman trade. As a result, over the course of 50 years coffee went from an exotic luxury comestible to a relatively cheap beverage accessible to nearly everyone within the urban marketplace.
Coffee required specialized equipment to optimally roast, grind, and filter the beans for consumption, resulting in the proliferation of cafés throughout European capitals. The development of cafés and café culture has featured prominently in Enlightenment historiography, particularly since the publication of Jurgen Habermas’s thesis establishing the coffeehouse alongside salons, academies, and Freemason lodges as sites of the 18th-century public sphere.(2) Spary complements this existing scholarship, adding information about the incorporation of the limonadiers guild in Paris, the master lemonade distillers who ran cafés throughout the 18th century. She reviews the connections between specific cafés and social/intellectual circles, investigating how café owners cultivated their learned patrons, and relied on intellectual reputations to enhance business. However, many café-goers dismissed cafés as sites of learning – these public sites admitted ‘Nobles & Commoners, well-formed & flat-faced Adolescents, wits & fools’ without distinction, observed one contemporary (p. 116). Sceptics argued that although literary debates might be rehearsed in the ‘performative space’ of the café, no genuine advances in knowledge occurred there. Spary presents convincing evidence from three café owners whose own participation in the Republic of Letters was fraught with presumed conflicts of interest between art and science on the one hand, and commerce on the other hand. This fundamentally challenges a central tenet of the Habermasian thesis. In both French cafés and British coffeehouses, contemporaries perceived that the ‘public’ and commercial nature of these sites actually limited the possibilities for rational-critical discourse.
Scientific debates return to the forefront of analysis in a chapter dedicated to distillation. Contemporary advances in chemical theory transformed distillation processes and commercial distillers represented their work as participating in a bold new science. The limonadiers’ guild sold a wide range of hot and cold beverages in addition to coffee in their cafés, including lemonade, chocolate, cider, brandy, and ices. House-prepared liqueurs proved to be very popular among consumers, and represented the master limonadier’s expertise in distillation, as well as human ingenuity in making use of Nature’s bounty. Spary juxtaposes contemporary distillation manuals with advertisements, and treatises in chemistry to advance her argument that liqueurs ‘became the focus of debates over what it meant to be enlightened’ (p. 193). Part of this argument is semantic – the term esprit referred to both distilled spirits as well as mental spirit or wit – and contemporaries made much of the relationship between the two. But mostly, these sources testify to the extensive reach of the 18th-century ‘chemical revolution’ into daily life in European cities. Advances in chemistry promised to transform food, drink, and medicine immediately and the master distillers provided access to these new products.
Finally, Spary turns to a wide array of sources to establish the contours of 18th-century debates on diet. She investigates ‘how the models of learning, expertise, and embodiment expressed in cuisine and alimentary chemistry related to attempts to craft philosophical identity between the 1730s and the 1750s’ (p. 195). What was the relationship between mind and body? What diet would best support cultivation of the mind and support the pursuit of reason? She surveys cookbooks, correspondence, and contemporary essays to establish some important parameters of the philosophical diet. Coffee, naturally, figured prominently, but so too did an ideal of rational moderation. What this meant provided fodder for decades of debate.
Delving into the correspondence of the Swiss physicians Tronchin and Tissot to their illustrious patients, Spary finds evidence for how medical ideals translated into dietary advice for men and women of letters. This population faced particular challenges, combining lack of exercise with anti-authoritarian attitudes, and regular rich food and drink at the tables of elite patrons. Indigestion was the writer’s central ailment as a result. Both Tissot and Tronchin advised their patients to cut down on coffee consumption, increase milk consumption, and to generally adopt a policy of alimentary abstinence. Spary terms this an ‘impoverished image of Nature’ that warned against any food beyond the most basic necessities (p. 252). Such recommendations revealed broader political and religious agendas, Spary argues, linking the abstemious diets to Protestant theology and republican politics. However, the links between physiology and politics, so convincingly established in the digestion debate, remain circumstantial in this chapter. Moreover, Spary convincingly established that an abstemious diet could point to Catholic reformist sentiments and anti-absolutist politics.
Over the course of the 18th century, medical advice replaced religious dietary law for men and women of letters. This signals a monumental shift in French society, begging the question of urban secularism so directly addressed by the recent work of Reynald Abad and Stephane Van Damme. This reviewer would have welcomed more direct analysis of this shift, which surely had profound consequences for what was eaten, when and in what quantities. Did an enlightened eater consider Catholic dietary law when dining, or dismiss it as mere superstition?
Spary’s admirable research into the history of food sciences opens many avenues for future inquiry. This reader is particularly curious to determine if Spary’s research enhances or undermines the dominant historiography advancing French culinary exceptionalism. Was this story of enlightened eating unique to Paris? To what degree did alimentary authorities shift in Vienna, Berlin, London or Philadelphia during the 18th century? The Republic of Letters was a transnational phenomenon, and very few discoveries remained within national boundaries thanks to correspondence and publication networks. Did trituration fare better in Moscow than in Paris? Did Venetian or Roman artists and intellectuals embrace coffee with the same fervor as their French counterparts, and did they draw similar conclusions about the political significance of meat consumption during Lent? Spary has charted a powerful methodology for reexamining the history of food and foodways that will have long lasting consequences throughout the field.
After surveying 18th-century debates over digestion, coffee, taste, and diet, Spary concludes that ‘[u]ltimately, this book is less concerned with how enlightened eaters consumed food than with how they stomached learning’ (p. 295). Physicians, pharmacists, chemists and even cooks and café keepers struggled to establish authority over new alimentary knowledge and new modes of knowledge production. Spary explains that her own use of the term ‘enlightenment’ derives from 18th-century usage in which it signalled less ‘membership of a coherent intellectual movement, but rather indicated that a person had publicly acknowledged expertise in some domain of knowledge’ (p. 3). This definition throws the doors open, considering Voltaire and Rousseau’s regimens alongside those championed by their physicians and their cooks. All who participated in the production and consumption of food and drink in 18th-century Paris, and who self-consciously referenced the novelty of their methods or the enlightenment of their practice, figure in this history of enlightened eating.
- Robert Darnton, ‘The High Enlightenment and the low-life of literature in pre-Revolutionary France’, Past and Present, 51 (May 1971), 81–115, 82.
- Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1962; English ed., London, 1989).
In a sense, this approach also prohibits a good answer to Davis’s first question about the consequences of such contestations. Many knowledge controversies were never fully settled: even in the 1810s, the physician Armand Jenin de Montègre defended an iatrochemical view of the digestive process, long after there had seemingly been consensus on a mixed model of digestion which united the two rival explanations on offer in the 1710s. Today’s views about food, similarly, are palimpsests: new claims, new nutrition science are inscribed over a plethora of older advice which has passed into the domains of general knowledge, tradition, custom or popular culture. Often the historical origins of such claims are completely lost over time. The St Dalfour brand, for example, claims to utilise a ‘traditional’ ingredient in its fruit preserves. That traditional ingredient, grape syrup, so far from embodying tradition and artisanship, is one of the first French industrial foods, manufactured on the large scale since the 1800s. It is thus by looking both forwards and backwards that we can understand how exceptionally rich is the tapestry of inventing, borrowing, defending and resisting food choices at any moment in modern societies. The French Revolution would shatter and then reinvent the relationship between different types of expert (culinary, medical, chemical), the State and the public. Thus it is not that contestations over diet necessarily provide definitive answers within any given period; it’s more that they establish the range of possible positions a consumer might adopt on a particular dietary issue. To address these multiple viewpoints for Paris was a vast undertaking which I feel I have barely adumbrated in Eating the Enlightenment. It would be marvellous to extend this approach to other countries, and (needless to say) I hope that there are historians out there who may take up the challenge.
A final point raised by Davis should be articulated, since it bears on her question about the wider picture underlying the study, though Eating the Enlightenment was perhaps not the ideal place to discuss this. French opposition movements to the Crown from the late 17th century onwards have been treated piecemeal, not in a single continuous study. Yet from the work of Dale Van Kley, we know that, for example, the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism broadened into a general political debate over the state of the nation in the second half of the 18th century. Others have explored the importance of opposition much closer to the Crown, in researching the history of the Dauphin’s circle in the very early 18th century. And studies of the Huguenot diaspora have developed a convincing portrait of opposition journalism and print culture throughout the century, stemming from England, the Dutch Republic and the Swiss cantons. In a rather incidental way, Eating the Enlightenment supports the existence of a close connection between all these opposition movements, from exiled Protestants to reformist heirs to the throne. Though we are more accustomed to thinking of authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the principal critics of the Old Regime, Rousseau’s native city, Geneva, was a site where the implications of the tension between reform and tradition were already apparent in a bourgeois uprising of 1766, put down by armed representatives of the French Crown. In this sense the turn towards dietary austerity occurring in the 1760s was already political, and had been for 50 years. The common ground shared by political opponents of the Bourbon dynasty centred on material culture: against Court life with its rigidly controlled forms of ostentatious consumption, from dress to banquets, they advocated naturalness: simplicity, transparency and austerity. Insofar as French cuisine in the 18th century emulated courtly standards, it therefore subscribed to a particular political position – something of which contemporaries were well aware. The study of a highly symbolic activity like eating is a good way to link innovation to continuity, individual choice and the disciplinary society.
(1) The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, by Rachel Duffett (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012)
Kyri Claflin, Boston University
Rachel Duffett has written a fine social history of British rank and file soldiers, or rankers, and their experiences of food during the Great War. She states, ‘The ranker’s relationship with food was a constant thread, woven throughout his army experience … every day, wherever he was, a man needed to eat’ (p. 229). Since rankers were overwhelmingly from working class and lower-middle-class backgrounds, Duffett argues that food and eating for these soldiers carried particular meanings and associations and evoked feelings and reactions that were different from those of the officers, who were typically from the middle and upper classes. Further, social class was a strong determining factor in perceptions of army food and in the ways in which rankers used talk of food to express their emotions about the war.
Duffett draws on rankers’ letters, diaries, memoirs, and other papers gleaned from six different archives plus private collections, printed primary sources from the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum, as well as published diaries, letters, and memoirs. The number of individual soldiers represented in this research is impressive and appears ample enough to allow good generalizations. The sources, as Duffett uses them, also demonstrate that while these men belonged to the same social class, they did not experience the conditions of army life uniformly. Of course, as she points out, not all working- and lower-middle-class families lived in exactly the same conditions in prewar Britain, but many generally held values and common experiences in civilian life undeniably affected how large numbers of rankers responded to the conditions of their new lives.
In the introductory chapter, ‘Food and war’, Duffett rehearses the principal theories of the big-name food scholars in disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, and history: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, Jack Goody, Sidney Mintz and Marvin Harris, to name a few. Along with studies of British social history and leading work on Britain in the Great War, Duffett lays the groundwork for her argument that food both provides physical sustenance and allows emotional connection and expression.
In chapter two, Duffett provides the background story of British army food provisioning during the 19th century, depicting it as pitifully inadequate. The army was, in fact, the employer of next-to-last resort, slightly preferable to the workhouse. The men who did enlist in this low status job were already malnourished and physically underdeveloped; the army conceded this when it lowered the height requirement, first by three inches (to 5 ft. 3 in.) and later by another two inches, in order to let enough men into the ranks. Army rations did little to improve the health of rankers. Officers, most from the middle and upper classes, were rarely subjected to army rations, and certainly not regularly. While rations had improved by the start of the First World War, eating in the army still replicated the entrenched British class system. Duffett demonstrates the ways in which class, rank, and diet, by and large, remained related throughout the war.
Chapter two also gives us a comprehensive review of the literature on working-class eating habits and family dynamics around meal preparation and consumption in the pre-war era. Dietary conservatism as well as the hierarchy of food entitlement within the family structure would affect how rankers adjusted to army life. For example, husbands and older sons received the choice morsels, often the only cooked hot food; wives and other children ate what was left. Sometimes calories were adequate, but not in every family. In the army, while calories might well be ample, all soldiers were men. Preferential treatment was no longer accorded to men who had grown up knowing only that dynamic. Thus they faced the humiliating prospect of assuming the role that represented the woman’s subaltern status. As a result, mealtime could become a free-for-all with fellow soldiers behaving aggressively to secure their shares. Duffett also argues that working-class families did not eat with neighbors or other families, unlike the dinner-party-giving middle and upper classes, and therefore taking meals in the mess hall with large numbers of men would have been unappetizing and unsettling on a cultural level. Many rankers from lower-middle-class homes would have been raised to value the outward appearances that signified their families’ aspirations to middle-class respectability, such as a properly set table and appropriate manners. Being forced to eat unfamiliar foods in a rough and dirty army mess served up daily reminders of what these men had lost: the comforting rituals of domestic meals, whatever their inadequacies, and even their freedom.
The British, like the French, believed that the best food for the fighting man was meat, preferably red, and lots of it. The early rations in both armies were over a pound per man per day. When Marcel Proust’s butler, Monsieur Albaret, was mobilized in the early weeks of August 1914, his first assignment was to drive a vehicle filled with freshly-slaughtered meat every morning from Paris to the front.(1) In the Christmas 1915 issue of the culinary journal L’Art Culinaire, the great French chef Auguste Escoffier referred to ‘recent complaints by the troops about the overuse of meat in their rations’.(2) (After the army medical corps blamed a variety of health problems among soldiers on their meat-heavy diet, a French parliamentarian proposed a law that required the army to provide at least 200 to 300 grams – or about 7 to 10 ounces – of fruits and vegetables for each soldier every two days.(3) This is approximately the weight of two good sized apples.) Duffett gives us insights into the toll on British soldiers’ bodies of endless meals of tinned beef and too few fruits and vegetables: indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, as well as tooth decay and early stage scurvy. Even the dubiously named army recipe for ‘Sea pie’ contained tinned beef, not fish. Duffett writes that, by spring 1917, vegetable gardens had been planted behind the lines in the British sector in order to help meet the target of eight ounces of veg per day, but adds that the soldiers’ accounts do not substantiate the official record that this was met. ‘Vegetables’, Duffett writes, pretty much meant potatoes. Official ration tables indicate that soldiers were to receive over a pound of bread per day, but often what they really got was hard biscuits. Duffett tells us that the pre-war working classes could not have afforded any kind of meat with regularity and were unused to eating so much of it (4), were suspicious of tinned foods (with the exception of milk), and used vegetables for flavoring rather than for stand-alone dishes. Calorie intake was highly reliant on bread and jam, which was the primary form in which the working classes consumed fruit. This diet, supplemented by tasty fried fish and chips plus other highly-flavored foods such as pickles, herring, and cheese, was far from what the army served up.
As Duffett turns to food in the home camps followed by food on the Western Front in chapter three, she digs into much of what the book is meant to convey, which is perhaps not so much about army food itself as it is about how food served as a vehicle for self-expression, particularly of emotion. A soldier might write of his wretched and insufficient rations compared to the fineries of officers’ meals. Upper-class officers received baskets of foods from the up-market London emporium Fortnum and Mason and pheasants shot on their country estates. Many rankers’ families had to sacrifice food from the family table to be able to send even a humble homemade cake. Putting together a package became even more of a burden as prices on the home front skyrocketed. Duffett writes, ‘Food became a metaphor for wider injustices in an environment where the ranker’s life, not just his diet, lay in the hands of others’ (p. 180).
While eating is a physical act, food is charged with memories and feelings. Food represented caring: poor quality food, monotonous meals, and rations that sometimes did not even make it through to the fighting men at the front constituted evidence that the army did not care about them. Every meal, Duffett argues, reminded the ranker of better times. Complaints about the food, too, may have been ways to express feelings of boredom, discomfort, and fear. It is not clear how much army provisioning was botched from incompetence or whether this was simply a very complex operation responding in real time to the unforeseen. Duffett remarks on the absence of official army accounts of provisioning logistics and the food itself. Her research turned up little more than ideal goals in terms of supply line operations, calories, and foodstuffs rather than information based on the reality of how the army handled troop provisions between 1914 and 1918. However, based on other evidence, the author argues that ‘the widely held opinion amongst historians of the war that the men were far better fed than in their civilian lives, and therefore pleased with army provisioning, is a belief that has only a limited basis in reality’ (pp. 232–3).
The Stomach for Fighting is quite specific in its focus. The author exhausts one particular set of source materials. As a result we now have a comprehensive view of the typical rank and file British soldier’s experience of the war seen through the lens of food and the meanings attached to the upheaval in eating that he experienced every day of the war. This is also a significant story about class and war. Much of the well-known writing that came out of the Great War provides an educated middle- and upper-class perspective and deals with different concerns. The Stomach for Fighting gives expression to the voices of many ordinary conscripts. This is an important addition to Great War history, but by the fifth chapter out of six the narrative becomes repetitive on a number of points, perhaps owing to its thematic rather than chronological organization. Chapter five (‘Eating: the men and their rations’) continues to explore feelings, food ‘as emotional litmus paper’ (p. 147), and we start to feel like we’ve been here before.
The abundance of statements of food theory occasionally feels like the exercise is a bit forced. In discussing the rankers’ dislike of chaotic mess hall dining, noted above, the anthropological theory that Duffett references – that this preference may be linked to feelings of vulnerability sensed by our prehistoric hominid forebears that still linger in the subconscious mind of modern humans – seems superfluous, particularly after her thorough discussion of domestic meals in working-class culture. Presumably the middle and upper classes came from the same hominid stock but they did not have such inhibitions. In at least in one instance, the author’s theorizing on the meaning of a specific food seems to go off the rails. When rankers at the front had the opportunity to take meals in local French villages, home cooked by French women in their own kitchens or impromptu eateries, the most popular dish was eggs and chips. Duffett spends the next two pages parsing why rankers would have considered eggs good to eat. Besides the practical reasons (including her own statement on page 52 that eggs were central to the working class diet), which in this instance would have sufficed, eggs provided ‘childlike solace’, they were ‘a taste of maternal care’, their ‘natural packaging’ was assurance of their safety and goodness, and there was ‘the reassuring femininity of the egg’ (pp. 216–17).
That said, we are convinced that even if army provisioning had been better, rankers’ dissatisfaction with army food would have persisted becuase it often reflected more deeply held class-based notions of the complex meanings associated with food and eating formed during their pre-war lives. Moreover, we understand how men who had little or no experience of writing about their emotions could use ‘the language of food’ to talk of war to their families. The Stomach for Fighting offers other researchers a rich resource to begin to make transnational social and cultural comparisons of army provisioning and the food of soldiers of different combatant nations on the Western Front. Being published so close to the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, this book could also have a wider appeal, particularly in Britain, but the high price will likely discourage many potential readers.
- Céleste Albaret, Monsieur Proust: Souvenirs Récueillis par Georges Belmont (Paris, 1973), p. 39.
- Auguste Escoffier, ‘De l’alimentation économique et hygiénique des classes laborieuses et du soldat’, L’Art Culinaire, December 1915, xv.
- Proposition de loi tendant à ravitailler les troupes en légumes et fruits préparés’, Chambre des Députés, 1022, 17 June 1915.
- There was clearly a spectrum of working-class experiences in terms of meat in the diet. John Burnett writes that the large amount of frozen and chilled beef that Britain was importing had, by 1902, made cheap and good meat much more available to the working population. Plenty and Want: A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present Day (Harmondsworth, 1966), p. 135.