My three favorite reading topics are history, religion and food. Rachel Laudan’s book Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History provides insight into all three of these topics. Unlike most books on the history of food, this one is definitely NOT boring. From the opening page Cuisine & Empire engages the mind. I am not sure what I was expecting when I picked it up, but I was not prepared for what I found. It sets a fast pace as it takes us a tour around the world introducing new concepts about food on almost every page. A major theme in the first few chapters is the interrelationship between religion and cuisine. Of particular interest to readers of this blog are the evolution and history of processed foods.
Laudan does not focus on raw materials derived from plants or animals. Rather, her emphasis is on how cooking and processing make these raw materials more edible and more desirable. Although it is a common belief that processed foods descended on us like a plague in the not-to-distant past, food processing dates back to the drying of meat, fruits and vegetables at the beginning of civilization. Even before the Sumerians, however, residents around the Sea of Galilee were grinding seeds some 19,000 years ago! The Greeks, Persians and Romans found it necessary to process foods to feed their troops, improve palatability and prevent food waste as early as 500 BCE. Meanwhile, the Chinese were avoiding any food that was uncooked or unprocessed. Until the past few hundred years there were basically only two types of cuisine: high for the royalty and aristocracy and humble for anyone else.
Although the purpose of Cuisine & Empire is not to trace the history of food processing, it does provide a nice narrative about the emergence of processed food and its role in society. As civilization developed, peoples become more dependent on processed food. For example, beer and bread (both processed foods) were among the early staples in European culture. Most food in humble cuisine was grain based making the masses very vulnerable to poor grain harvests. Cheese and salt herring became available to the more fortunate consumers of a humble diet. We learn that in the mid-1800s humble cuisine in the USA was upgraded from salt pork, molasses and corn mush to beef, sugar and wheat bread. Thus, most of our great-great-great grandparents subsisted on such fare. Surprisingly, city residents tended to eat better than those in rural areas.
Laudan points to a key advance in the history of food in the development of a middling cuisine. Throughout much of the history of civilization, families were either filthy rich and ate well or dirt poor and living on a subsistence diet. In Western society high cuisine was essentially synonymous with French cooking. During the Renaissance the merchant class found an alternative between the two extremes. It was not until the rise of salaried professionals and successful, wage laborers that a significant portion of the population in Great Britain and later in the rest of Europe and North America were able to adopt a middling cuisine. Increased wealth in the expanding middle class led to home cooking, a surprisingly recent development. As a child of the 50s and 60s with a stay-at-home mom who catered to my culinary desires, I had assumed that home-cooked meals had always been with us.
Processed food gets a more mixed review in modern times in Cuisine & Empire. In general, the author considers food processing to have been beneficial to humankind. She credits processing for making food safer, more palatable and less prone to spoil. She also presents evidence that it has improved the nutritional well-being of the population, particularly those eating at the lower end of the culinary ladder. Having said that, the author acknowledges that readily available, modern products are contributing to obesity and chronic diseases. It is here that I make the distinction between processed and formulated foods analogous to the difference between cooked, raw materials and foods prepared from recipes in a cuisine. I contend that the rise of obesity and chronic diseases in modern society is the result of overeating in general in addition to increased snacking on calorie-dense formulated products and home-made comfort foods.
Cusine & Empire should be on the reading list of anyone who is interested in what we eat today as derived from the rich history of preparing, cooking, intermixing and processing of raw materials from plant and animal sources. Contrary to my typical reviews, this one was more about what I learned than what I liked or disliked about the book. I have merely scratched the surface of what Rachel Laudan has to offer us, however. I recommend that you come to the book’s pages with an open mind and ready to have your preconceptions challenged. Her world maps that trace the spread of specific culinary traditions are particularly useful. This book is clearly the best one of the more than thirty I have read this year. Do not pass it up.
During July I will focus on the rationale of food processing.