Culinary History

Ellen Messer, et al. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Since the 1970s, historical studies of food in particular cultures have emerged as a new field,”culinary history.” Culinary history studies the origins and development of the foodstuffs, equipment, and techniques of cookery, the presentation and eating of meals, and the meanings of these activities to the societies that produce them. It looks at practices on both sides of the kitchen door, at the significance of the food to the cook and to those who consume it, and at how cooking is done and what the final product means. Consequently, culinary history is widely interdisciplinary. Studies make connections between the sciences—medical, biological, and social—and the humanities and draw heavily on anthropology, economics, psychology, folklore, literature, and the fine arts, as well as history. These multidisciplinary perspectives are integrated along geographic and temporal dimensions, and as a consequence, culinary history encompasses the whole process of procuring food from land or laboratory, moving it through processors and marketplaces, and finally placing it on the stove and onto the table. It emphasizes the role that food-related activities play in defining community, class, and social status—as epitomized in such fundamental human acts as the choice and consumption of one’s daily bread.

Culinary history can also be defined by what it is not. It is not, for example, simply a narrative account of what was eaten by a particular people at a particular time. Nor is it a matter of rendering entertaining stories about food, or telling anecdotes of people cooking and eating, or surveying cookbooks. But it is informed analysis of how food expresses the character of a time, place, society, and culture. Put plainly, culinary history goes beyond anecdotal food folklore and descriptions of cuisine and cooking at a particular point in time to incorporate historical dimensions.

Times, Places, and Themes

Culinary history can (and should) be part of a number of avenues of investigation, such as social history, women’s history, and anthropological analyses of food habits, systems, folklore, and material culture. There follows a brief examination of each of these.

Culinary History As Social History

In Europe, which has been the dominant geographic focus of culinary historians, there are basically three strands of investigation: First, there are the cuisines of the prosperous classes, including traditions of court and aristocracy; second, there is the food of middle and lower classes in urban settings; and third, there are the cuisines of rural societies of all classes. The presence or absence of haute (high) cuisine is itself a socially significant part of culinary history (Goody 1982).

Culinary history also plays an important role in regional and, later, national social histories, such as those of England, France, Spain, Germany, and Italy (Toussaint-Samat 1992; Brillat-Savarin 1995). French ” Annales School” publications on food in social history (Braudel 1966), annual Oxford Food History Symposia, and historical analyses of European food folk-lorists are examples (Fenton 1986; Teuteberg 1993; Mennell 1996).

Thematic studies examine such topics as the historical significance of agricultural stresses in classical Greece (Garnsey 1990); the culinary impact of sugar and cooking ideas brought by North Africans to Spain and Italy (Peterson 1980); the insatiable demand for spices, which led Portuguese and Italian explorers—and, ultimately, Columbus—to search for new sources of supply (Laurioux 1985, 1989); the importance of the North Atlantic fisheries and their related salt fish industries; and the determinants and consequences of European demands for exotic food items, such as sugar, coffee, tea, and chocolate (Lippmann 1929; Mintz 1985; Coe and Coe 1996).

The impact of the “Columbian exchange” on both sides of the Atlantic has been told through the histories of food plants, their agricultural modes of production, and the techniques of food processing (Crosby 1972; Long 1996).The new foods and their impact on production, processing, and marketing—and on regional, national, and local cuisines—have been traced by European historians and food ethnologists, who follow evidence of introductions and diffusions through herbals, agricultural or botanical histories, food trade records, and other literary or documentary sources (Arnott 1976; Fenton and Owen 1981; Kaneva-Johnson 1995).

The diffusion and adoption of New World foods such as potatoes, maize, and chilli peppers—and the cultural, social, nutritional, and demographic changes occasioned by this—also created new food economies and cultures in Asia and Africa as these foods supplanted numerous older ones (Miracle 1966; Anderson 1988; Hess 1992). The shifts from traditional coarse grains (such as sorghums and millets) to maize in East Africa and from yams to cereal grains or cassava in Central and West Africa, as well as the commercialization of livestock, provide fine examples of the ways in which social history can be traced in terms of culinary history. Colonization and subsequent internationalization of food economies permanently affected gender and age relations in production, consumption, and cuisine.

Another significant watershed is the Industrial Revolution, which in Britain was driven in part by a widespread availability of sugar calories from the New World (consumed in relatively new beverages such as tea, coffee, and cacao) (Mintz 1985) and calories from the highly productive New World potato, which also fueled wars of nationalism in Germany (Salaman 1985). A history of caffeinated beverages from this period can tie together vastly changing food patterns all over the globe as well as economic issues of social history, like changing landholding and cropping patterns, slavery, and imperialism.

In the Western Hemisphere, European colonization resulted in the blending of foods of New and Old World origins. Later watersheds in the culinary history of the United States include the Civil War and its aftermath, with the growth of large industrial agribusinesses (Levenstein 1988); ethnic migrations from Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and from Asia after the 1950s; and post-World War II migrations of African-Americans from the predominantly rural southern states to the urban northern states (Jerome 1980).The resulting cuisines have been analyzed in terms of “acculturation” or “changing food habits” of the ethnic populations (Mead 1964; National Research Council 1981) and in terms of their food components, formats, and cycles (see Goode 1989). In the case of Jewish-Americans, for example, their use of food is seen as a principal element in struggles either to maintain or reshape identities (Joselit, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and Howe 1990; Roden 1996).

All such phenomena, however, are presented within the larger context of a changing American culinary mosaic. Such national and regional analyses of culinary practices in relation to significant changes in the social order can also be found in the literature of the food habits of Europe (Fenton and Owen 1981; Rotenberg 1981), India (Katona-Apte 1976; Appadurai 1988), and China (Chang 1977; Anderson 1988; Simoons 1991). All interlink major temporal divides or points of transition with the construction of new cuisines.

Culinary History As Women’s History

Culinary history, especially in the United States, has emerged, albeit slowly, out of women’s history. In the past, feminist historians’ analyses of women’s domestic work (private sphere)—as contrasted with wage work (public sphere)—tended to focus more on child rearing and other household tasks (Strasser 1982; Cowan 1983).These scholars avoided looking at cooking, allegedly because the kitchen symbolized submission to the oppression of patriarchy, whereas their goal was to elucidate the historical sources and contexts of women’s empowerment.

Important linkages of kitchen concerns to the public sphere, however, are found in Catharine Beecher’s writings (and schools) of domestic science (Beecher 1869; Sklar 1973) and in the New England Kitchen, established by Ellen Richards and her Boston associates as a place where immigrants could learn to cook and enjoy Yankee cuisine as one dimension of their American assimilation (Levenstein 1988). In their eagerness to hasten the assimilation of immigrants, the New England Kitchen reformers overlooked the reluctance of groups to give up traditional foods in exchange for unfamiliar ones. As a result, this “noble experiment” was a failure.

Serious scholarly attention to domestic culinary arts has grown with the maturation and acceptance of women’s history as an academic field and with the recognition that cookbooks, diary descriptions of food acquisition and eating events, and kitchen material culture are important dimensions of that history. Gender analysis, applied to the preparation and consumption of food, reveals cultural differences influencing what male and female cooks prepare, as well as changes over time and place. As a case in point, nineteenth- and twentieth-century cookbooks provide evidence that men and women were expected to eat differently. Such books make distinctions between “men’s” (heavy meat dishes) and “women’s” (lighter) foods. They also show that gender biases against domestic cooking by men have tended to lessen in later suburban contexts of backyard grilling. Moreover, connections made between meat and fat consumption and heart disease have significantly altered notions about the appropriateness of the “heavy” foods for males (Shapiro 1986).

Cookbooks published by women’s voluntary associations often provide obvious links between women’s history and culinary history. The tradition of these books began in the United States just after the Civil War, when women formed groups to aid veterans or their widows and orphans (e.g., Ladies Relief Corps 1887). Since that time, thousands of such books have been published by groups of women all over the United States and sold to support churches, synagogues, schools, museums, and other community institutions, or to memorialize the favorite recipes of multigenerational families or groups of friends. In most cases, such books are the only records these groups left behind. They offer a unique resource for examining women’s roles as community builders, especially where they contain chapters on the history of their communities, with particular attention given to the history and accomplishments of their own organizations (Brown and Brown 1961; Cook 1971; Wheaton 1984).

Culinary History As Nutritional Anthropology

Culinary history has also grown out of (but goes beyond) the study of cultural cuisines, defined as the culturally elaborated and transmitted body of food-related practices of any given culture. The latter includes descriptions of characteristic foods and their flavorings and textures, along with their symbolic combination in meals, menus, formats, and seasonal or lifetime cycles of ritual foods and eating (Rozin 1973; Messer 1984; Goode 1989). Nutritional anthropology, however, considers the distances and means by which food ingredients travel over time; the origins and diffusions of processing techniques; and the routes of commercial or customary distribution of foods from sites of production to final consumption destinations. The discipline adds to historical studies a biological dimension that probes the significant coevolution of cultural culinary components and cuisines and human populations. Evolutionary biocultural studies of the consumption of milk (McCracken 1971) and sugar (Messer 1986) are two examples of the types of anthropological studies of foodways that also fit the category of culinary history (Ritenbaugh 1978).

Biological anthropologists have tried to understand the evolution of favorable nutritional patterns—the mechanisms by which traditional peoples “unlock” potential nutritional values in their staple foods through cooking methods and dietary preferences. Studies have analyzed the significance of culinary techniques (such as the alkali processing of maize or the calcium/magnesium-salt processing of soy) in optimizing the nutritional quality of dietary food staples. Additionally, researchers have assessed the ways in which combinations of food components, such as maize with beans and squash seeds, or rice with soybeans, enhance nutritional values and have charted the distribution and diffusion of processing techniques, dietary combinations of foods, and dietary staple foods from their traditional areas to new locales (Katz 1987).

Moreover, anthropologists connect the history of diet with the history of disease. Their studies examine age- or gender-related dietary beliefs and practices, the impact of these practices on infant and child mortality (as well as pregnancy outcomes), and the circumstances under which such beliefs and practices change. Nutritional anthropological studies also analyze the so-called diseases of civilization (diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and various types of cancers) that seem to have accompanied dietary “Westernization” (including increased fat consumption) in most places where it has occurred (reviewed in Messer 1984).

Comparisons of recent with earlier ethnographic data on food systems and diets in Latin American, Asian, and African localities provide excellent opportunities for tracking changing relationships between food and the social order and elucidating the range of forces—from local to global—that influence such changes. One current of change has been proposed by cultural materialists, who view diet as shaped mainly (or exclusively) by ecological and political-economic (“material”) conditions (Harris 1979).

Another current has been illuminated by symbolic or structural anthropologists, who emphasize how food and cooking express ideological-structural dimensions of social groups and their interrelationships. Notions of “purity and pollution” dominate Hindu rules, regulations, and rites surrounding all aspects of food, its preparation and serving, and social behavior (e.g., Khare 1976). M. Douglas discerned a structural logic of “pure” versus “anomalous” categories operating as the basis of food avoidances among the African Lele and then extended that principle to “The Abominations of Leviticus” (Douglas 1966). She moved on to decipher the social meanings of meals in European society (Douglas 1972) and food and the social order across cultures (Douglas 1984).

Claude Levi-Strauss’s three-volume analysis of indigenous South American mythologies demonstrates how food and the “cooking” idiom are key to understanding social organization and cosmology (Levi-Strauss 1969, 1973, 1978). All of these analyses demonstrate that eating, cooking, and thinking are essentially philosophical operations, although most culinary studies tend to focus on sensory, technical, or instrumental dimensions of nutrition (Curtin and Heldke 1992).

In summary, anthropologists analyzing changes in foodways or food systems (culinary history) employ a combination of mental and material dimensions and approaches (Messer 1984, 1989). Anthropological approaches to understanding traditional cuisines and dietary change range from the social-structural, cognitive, and symbolic to the psychological, ecological, economic, and political, and to the relationships between nutrition and health. Studies go far back in time to elucidate culinary techniques beginning with elementary hunting, digging, processing, and use of fire (Gordon 1987; Stahl 1989) and extend forward through the present to the food of the future (Messer 1996b). Ethnographers, in the course of fieldwork, may increase their understanding by actively engaging in culinary activities of the past. Archaeologists, too, use experimental (“hands-on” or experiential) approaches, especially to increase their understanding of stone-tool manufacture, the use of such tools, and food-related artifacts in the archaeological record.

“Hands-on” Approaches to Culinary History

Culinary historians share some of the same pleasures and problems experienced by art historians and musicologists. Theory is an important dimension of such studies, but historical discussion must be tempered with a thorough understanding of the craft in order to interpret sources accurately. For culinary historians and the curators of living-history museums, this means researching and producing period meals that employ traditional techniques and authentic ingredients (within the limits of availability) (Noel Hume and Noel Hume 1978; Oliver 1995; Scully and Scully 1995; Dalby and Grainger 1996). Sometimes, substitutions must be made for ingredients no longer known or available, such as the replacement of silphium by celery seed in recipes for a Roman banquet (Arndt 1993). But the ingredients used must be appropriate to the period rather than to modern culinary conventions; for example, mushrooms or walnuts—not tomatoes—go into a catsup recipe from eighteenth-century North America. As with the written mode, such active culinary research compares food-related activities at different times and places using truly interdisciplinary frameworks and methods of analysis.

Museums have joined the enterprise with increasingly well-informed displays of their collections. Among these are reconstructions of cooking and dining venues such as the exhibitions of tables set in the modes of historical eras at the Historical Museum in Stockholm, the Alimentarium at Vevy in Switzerland, the Musée de l’homme in Paris, and the royal tables at Versailles (Musées Nationaux 1993), along with reenactments of cooking and dining, all of which illuminate the uses of culinary space and materials (see, for example, Deetz 1996).

Sources and Venues

Culinary historical scholarship draws on conventional documentary sources, such as diaries, letters, and travelogues, and also on less conventional sources, such as cookbooks and anthropological data.

Manuscript Sources

Diaries, account books, and letters are rich in data that can provide culinary understanding of peoples and periods. Samuel Pepys’s diaries abound in accounts of meals. Lady Mary Wortley Montague took note of what she ate. The letters of Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), too, show his tastes in food (and friends): Inviting a friend to dinner, he offered “a truffled turkey as tender as a squab and as fat as the bishop of Geneva.” Felix Platter, a sixteenth-century Swiss medical student at Montpelier, described the pungent foods served him and how he, a Protestant, evaded the rigors of the Lenten fast by cooking eggs over a candle in his room (Wheaton 1983).

Diaries and letters can be accessed by first consulting annotated bibliographies, then turning to specific texts or collections of letters. Examples with numerous food references include Jane Austen’s Manuscript Letters in Facsimile (Carbondale, Ill., 1990); Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (New York, 1936); Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (New Haven, Conn., 1981); and The Diary of a Country Parson: The Reverend James Woodforde (London, 1924-31).

In addition, unpublished correspondence and other personal papers of leading American culinary figures such as Julia Child, Irma Rombauer, and M. F. K. Fisher are available in the manuscript collections of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.

Printed Literature

Travel Literature

Travelers often describe food acquisition, preservation, and preparation, as well as meals. Such descriptions, however, should be used cautiously, because national, religious, class, and personal prejudices all work against dispassionate reporting. Sentimentalism, naivete, and ignorance are additional problems, because travelers without linguistic competence must frequently depend on interpreters and native informants who, whether reliable or not, may not be completely understood. Moreover, travelers have been known to copy from one another’s accounts and to exaggerate—if not lie about—what they have seen. To this we might add that the memories of travelers are not infallible, and they are sometimes very gullible. Marco Polo, for example, is credited with having introduced pasta into Italy because he speaks of eating noodles during his travels in China. However, vermicelli was being produced on a commercial scale in Sicily a full century before his birth (Perry 1981). Culinary legends, once started, are hard to eradicate.

The use of travelers’ accounts and diaries as sources for culinary history is usually a two-stage process. Annotated bibliographies are useful for pointing to accounts that contain relevant material. For descriptions of Russia, for example, one might begin with H. W. Nerhood’s To Russia and Return: An Annotated Bibliography of Travelers’ English-Language Accounts of Russia from the Ninth Century to the Present (1968).This in turn can lead to individual accounts, such as The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot (not published until 1934) and Russia … and the Interior of the Empire by Johann G. Kohl (1842), which are replete with descriptions of Russia’s nineteenth-century foods. Examples of such works for other locales are those by P. Gerbod (1991 edition) for eighteenth-century France; W. Mayer (1961 edition) for early European travel in Mexico; A.Tinniswood (1989) and W. Matthews (1967) for England; L. Arksey, N. Pries, and M. Reed (1983-7) for the United States; and J. Robinson (1990) on the subject of women travelers. The periodical La Vie Quotidienne (published in Paris since the 1930s) draws on travel diaries kept in many times and places.

Science and Medicine

Travel literature is also a useful entry point for exploring food and nutritional health beliefs and practices. From Herodotus and Pliny the Elder onward, classic travel or “natural history” accounts influenced medieval and later European “epitomizers” and “cosmographers,” whose often fanciful anecdotes of food customs lived on in the herbals and materia medica of both the Renaissance and the early modern period. Herbals and bestiaries contain information about how different kinds of plants and animals were believed to affect the human mind and body; they were one of the principal venues through which the nutritional and medical theories of antiquity and of the Islamic world were conveyed to a larger audience (Arber 1953, 1990; Anderson 1977).

Medical histories and encyclopedias of materia medica trace the diffusion of humoral health and nutritional theory from the classical and Islamic worlds into Europe (Siraisi 1990). Excellent comprehensive histories of the technology of the Old World are the eight-volume A History of Technology (1954-8), by C. Singer and colleagues, and J. Need-ham’sScience and Civilization in China (1954-88); both works include extensive information on agricultural sciences.

Agricultural and Cooking Technology

Farm books offer insights into household and commercial agriculture, food processing, and storage technologies and demonstrate how rural estates were managed (Serres 1804; Markham 1986). They provide one class of information on the larger topic of cooking technologies that controlled and varied the character of local cuisines over time (Toomre 1992). Cooking arrangements set limits on what could be cooked. Shifts from hearths to freestanding cookstoves and ovens, as well as changes in fuel types, provide historical indicators of social standing (Cowan 1983) and also show up as a nutritional constraint where the cost of fuel is a major cooking expense, as it continues to be in contemporary developing countries.

Cooks used the heat of both kitchen fires and the sun to dry fruits and vegetables for winter storage and, occasionally, to preserve fruit in sugar. The milder warmth of the kitchen dried herbs, and the steady temperature of the earth preserved foods where cellars provided the only refrigeration. Even in the nineteenth century, ice houses were a luxury for most people. The culinary history of developing countries includes efforts by food technologists to overcome constraints on the seasonal availability of vitamin- and mineral-rich fruits and to encourage more economical food purchases through improved storage and preservation methods (Riddervold and Ropeid 1988; see also occasional publications of the Program against Micronutrient Malnutrition, based in Atlanta, Georgia).

Watersheds in the history of technology, in addition to enclosed-firebox stoves and gas-powered stoves, include running water, electricity, refrigeration, home freezing, the food processor, and the microwave oven (Drummond and Wilbraham 1991). The works by Singer and colleagues (1954-8) and Needham (1954-88) offer a treasure trove for exploring culinary technology the world over (see also Forbes 1955-65 and the following citations). Changes in European cooking technologies can be gleaned through histories of domestic science instruction (McBride 1976; Davidson 1982; Attar 1987) and also through histories of the changing roles of domestic servants (Maza 1983; Fairchilds 1984).

Legal Documents

Legal frameworks constitute another category of historical data revealing what were generally elite understandings of food qualities. From Roman times onward, governments usually attempted to supervise and control the quality and price of the principal staple—in the case of Europe, either flour or bread (McCance and Widdowson 1956; Kaplan 1976).

Governments also have regulated consumption of food and drink through control of the grain trade, sumptuary laws, and taxes on commodities such as salt, tea, and alcoholic beverages. Some regulations, such as the classical Athenian ban on speculation in grain, were intended to prevent hoarding of scarce food supplies. Others were meant to maintain class distinctions and to minimize trade deficits. Thus, in Renaissance Florence, wedding banquets of the bourgeois class were limited to three courses, and in eighteenth-century Sweden, coffee consumption was restricted to limit the importation of this expensive foreign product. Such efforts, however, were usually not very successful: The Florentine cooks invented delicacies that circumvented the course limit imposed, and the flavor of coffee became so desirable in Sweden that it was—and still is—used in making pot-roast gravy. In the 1560s, French sumptuary laws limiting the size of meals were simply ignored (Braudillart 1878-80).

Famine and food relief (or the history of hunger) is also a growing field of inquiry. The field includes global, regional, and period-specific studies (Newman 1990) that trace the ecological and political (trade and aid) causes of food shortages and analyze the motivations and relative effectiveness of emergency and other assistance. J. Drèze and A. Sen (1989) and R. Huss-Ashmore and S. Katz (1989, 1990) have produced analytical frameworks and case studies for the period during and following World War II. Although most emergency food aid is conceived to be humanitarian, M. Wallerstein (1980) has demonstrated how, during the Cold War, food aid was mostly political, intended to reward and to influence the behavior of friendly nations.

In developing countries, objectives of food aid have also included the development of tastes, and thereby markets, for the products of developed countries. This is a process connected to macroeconomic policies favoring the production of cash (export) over subsistence crops and the importation of cheap food (Lappe and Collins 1978). The recent history of food relief can be gleaned through the biannual Hunger Report of the Brown University World Hunger Program (Messer 1996b), the annual Disasters Report of the International Federation of Red Cross-Red Crescent Societies, and research publications of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex (Maxwell and Buchanan-Smith 1994).

Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Dictionaries, lexica, and encyclopedias are rich sources for understanding food names, distributions, and associated lore. In both the New and Old Worlds, many contain entries on both individual ingredients and cuisines as a whole (see Brokgauz and Efron 1898; Rodinson 1949; Lewis, Pellat, and Schart 1965; Yule and Burnell 1968; Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan 1983; Long 1996). New World “deadly nightshades” (tomato and potato) in Europe, for example, were labeled dangerous “apples” associated with lust, illness, or evil, which retarded their acceptance (Wheaton 1983).Word lists tend to highlight in special ways those foods that are most culturally important. For example, it was recorded—in sixteenth-century Spanish lists of words of the Aymara, a South American people—that the Aymara calculated time in terms of how long it took to boil a potato (Coe 1994).

Lexica also offer period-linked data on plant and animal food names, culturally recognized flavors and aromas, and other sensory or cultural qualities by which people in particular times and places ranked foods and food processing (see, e.g., Johns 1990). Word lists also document judgments of similarity and dimensions of difference between old and new foods; for example, New World “maize” was initially glossed “turkie wheat” (that is, foreign wheat) by the English(Oxford English Dictionary).


Folklore, myth, and legend also tend to feature food and the quest for it (Darnton 1984). The European story of Hansel and Gretel, in which children deprived of food become prey to some wicked monster but then are able to overcome such evil by trickery or the help of some animal companion, has variants the world over. Children’s literature instructs the young; cultural mythologies offer archetypes of how staple foods came to be and describe their cultural association with heroes or gods and their relationship with other cosmological elements, such as sun, wind, and rain.

Knowledge of fermentation and associated culinary techniques are also embedded in folklore. Indigenous Mexican folklore celebrates (and people imbibe) the effervescent products of fermented maguey in weddings and saints’ rituals (see essays in Long 1996). In the Near East, wheat and barley—leavened into beer and bread—also leavened social life and carried their own mystique. The festival of the unleavened bread separated the new from the previous year’s grain in ancient Middle Eastern cultures, a ritual later transmitted to modern times as the Jewish Passover. Unleavened bread (matzo) lately finds its greatest folkloric elaboration in factories in Brooklyn, New York (run by ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects), that squeeze operations for each cake of matzo into a magical 18 minutes to avoid any (unlucky and forbidden) fermentation (Jochnowitz 1996). Folklorists also record and analyze food ceremonies marking yearly and human life cycles and map distributions of food usages and terminologies (Hoefler 1908; BächtoldStäubli 1927-42; Gennep 1927; Wildhaber 1950).

Fiction, Plays, and Poetry

Since the time of Homer, descriptions of food have been used in literature to advance plot, characterize place or setting, and describe characters. Greek and Roman writings depict eating by both gods and humans and are mines of useful culinary information (Gowers 1993). Gastronomy appears as a major theme in Molière’s comedy Jean-Baptiste Poquelin(Tobin 1990) and in Dead Souls, the work of Gogol. Careful descriptions of what people were eating are also part of the great literature of Charles Dickens and James Joyce (Armstrong 1992).

Visual Materials

Moving Pictures

A modern media analogue to folklore, although more for entertainment than moral message, are films featuring food. Although many earlier films (such as Gone with the Wind and Tom Jones) featured blockbuster food-preparation and eating scenes, the 1980s and 1990s have witnessed an explosion of films principally devoted to the sensory and social dimensions of culinary arts. Tampopo, Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman are four key examples. Even the violent satire Pulp Fiction, although principally a gangster story, interspersed some of its bloodier episodes with eating scenes that spoofed commercial food advertising and restaurant scenes from other films.

Food documentaries are the other major category of video that depict food culture. Special topics in the United States include the economic significance of restaurants and markets for immigrant groups (e.g., Cambodian-run donut shops) and documentaries about authentic preparation of ethnic foods (chicken soup, gefilte fish, Italian bread, Asian noodles). Food films increasingly are collected and shown at “ethno-graphic film” festivals, and food preparation is a growing theme for television. Public television stations around the country devote considerable airtime to cooking programs.

Still Pictures

More conventionally, “still” pictures—drawings, paintings, photographs, and prints—provide period records, although, as with written sources, they must be used with care (Fare 1976; Henisch 1985; Bergstrom 1989). Sources include cookbooks and herbals, as well as more conventional art. Unfortunately, until the nineteenth century, most cookbooks did not include illustrations; exceptions are Bartolomeo de Scappi’s Cuoco Secrete di Papa Pio Quinto (Cooking Secrets of Pope Pius V) (Venice, 1570), and Marx Rumpolt’s Ein Neu Kockbuch (Frankfurt, 1581). From the seventeenth century, herbals offer increasingly naturalistic plant representations, and at all times there are eating scenes in ritual texts and paintings. Culinary historians who use works of art as source materials must be aware of the many conventions that dictate what is represented. For example, European still-life paintings focus in loving detail on foodstuffs both raw and prepared. Meats, fish, and the humbler vegetables appear in kitchen and market scenes. More luxurious vegetables, as well as fruit, confectionery, baked goods, and game, are shown in dining rooms and out-of-doors on terraces. Usually, readily recognizable foodstuffs are depicted, such as poultry roasting on a spit in eighteenth-century English genre scenes or pancakes being fried in the seventeenth-century Low Countries.

Some iconographical themes are especially good sources for pictures of food and food uses. Among Biblical topics, one finds everything from the miraculous fall of manna in the desert and the first Passover in the Old Testament to the wedding at Cana and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand in the New Testament. The “Seven Works of Mercy” (from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount) include feeding the poor, caring for the sick, and giving drink to the thirsty. Secular subjects feature public rituals such as the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London, coronation feasts, soup kitchens, and, by the nineteenth century, restaurants and genre paintings. Family portraits and conversation pieces often show gatherings around tables. Vincent Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters (1885) is one of a number of household eating scenes by European oil painters that document the increasing significance of the humble tuber (Tilborgh 1993), and art criticism surrounding this and Jean-François Millet’s earlier Potato Planters reveals much about the lingering snob appeal of bread versus potatoes in European diets and class structures (Murphy 1984).

Kitchen representations can be supplemented by works on architecture that offer ideas about how kitchens were laid out, as well as by examination of surviving cooking rooms, kitchens, and equipment (l’Orme 1567; Musée des Augustins 1992; Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg und der Stadt Zürich 1992).Archaeological and anthropological evidence also contributes useful findings that can amplify or modify evidence from visual and written sources.

Anthropological Evidence

Archaeological reports and dietary reconstructions detail histories and movements of food components and associated modes of preparation, storage, and distribution. Recent findings and analyses of the intestinal remains of well-preserved human “bog” specimens provide spectacular information about the diets and nutritional deficiencies of yesteryear. More routinely, skeletal and bone mineral analyses indicate seasonal or chronic malnutrition, particularly over periods of transition from foraging to farming (see essays in Harris and Hillman 1989).To determine culinary histories of particular sites and regions, archaeological reconstructions use the material remains of plants and animals, along with cooking and storage implements and architectural remains.

Ethnographic reports include descriptions of dietary life that become benchmarks for historical and cross-cultural comparison. Anthropological studies also draw on linguistic and literary sources, matching them to material remains and documentary evidence, which together allow the reconstruction of cuisines at particular points in and over time. Semi-otic analyses of symbol, myth, and ritual, such as Levi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked, provide particularly rich metaphorical constructs for linking culinary practices to cultural transformations and patterns of migration, along with the ways in which the significance of particular food plants or animal species, or specific manners of preparation, are marked in myth and ritual and change over cultural time and space.

Ethnographic data also document changing food preferences and tastes and link them to major changes in food and political-economic systems and nutritional-health beliefs and practices. Anthropologists extend the dicta “tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are” (from the French) and “you are what you eat” (from the German) from the food itself to its preparation, distribution, and consumption, which are cultural and social markers as well. Recent studies explore how major transformations in agricultural technologies and available plant varieties, such as “Green Revolution” grains and the expansion of world agricultural trade and aid, can influence nutrition, health, and culture in developing areas. Among the results of such changes is increasing worldwide literacy and, consequently, the availability of written recipes from nonlocal sources (Appadurai 1988).

Cookbooks and Cooking Journals

Cookbooks provide specific information about ingredients, equipment, and techniques that cannot be found elsewhere. Some also contain information about daily life, gender roles, regional and economic differences in diet and literacy, and the development of a culinary language. They must, however, be seen in the context of the time and place in which they were produced and in the context of their relationship to other cookbooks (Toomre 1992). For example, most cookbooks published in the United States in the early twentieth century were addressed to women cooking at home, whereas most published in France before the middle of the nineteenth century were addressed to men cooking for patrons from among the wealthiest segments of society.

Bibliographies of cookery books from Europe and the United States include Theodor Drexel, Katalog der Kochbücher-Sammlung (Frankfurt-am-Main, 1885); Georges Vicaire, Bibliographie Gastronomique (Paris, 1890); Katherine Golden Bitting, Gastronomic Bibliography (San Francisco, 1939); Arnold W. Oxford, English Cookery Books to the Year 1850(London, 1913); Elizabeth Driver, A Bibliography of Cookery Books Published in Britain, 1875-1914 (London, 1989); Virginia Maclean, A Short-Title Catalogue of Household and Cookery Books Published in the English Tongue, 1701-1800 (London, 1981); Dena Attar, A Bibliography of Household Books Published in Britain, 1800-1914 (London, 1987); Eleanor Lowenstein, Bibliography of American Cookery Books, 1742-1860 (Worcester, Mass., 1972); Richard M.T.Westbury, Hand-list of Italian Cookery Books (Florence, 1963); and Jacqueline Newman, Chinese Cookbooks: An Annotated English-Language Compendium Bibliography (New York, 1987).

Scholarly Societies and Symposia

Culinary history is being pursued on a worldwide basis in many different venues—in museums, libraries, and universities, and by scholars working outside of any formal academic institutional framework. Petits Propos Culinaires(essays and notes on food, cookery, and cookery books) and Food and Foodways are publications dedicated to culinary history, as was (to a lesser extent) the Journal of Gastronomy, which was published for several years by the American Institute of Wine and Food. In addition, the Foodways Section of the American Folklore Society, with partial support from the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, publishes the biannual journal Digest: An Interdisciplinary Study of Food and Foodways. Scholars of culinary history meet at conferences, the most long-standing of which is the biannual or triannual International Ethno-logical Food Research Congress.

Oxford Symposia on Food and Cookery have been published by Prospect Books (London), and the proceedings of one-day conferences held at the Brother-ton Library in Leeds were published in six volumes of Food and Society by Edinburgh University Press. The Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College and the Culinary Historians of Boston (CHB) cosponsored and published proceedings from a conference, Current Research in Culinary History: Sources, Topics, and Methods(Cambridge, Mass., 1985).

Madison, Wisconsin, was the site of the 1997 joint meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Value Society (AFHVS) and the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS)—the latter a 12-year-old international interdisciplinary organization dedicated to studying the complex relationship between food and society. The meeting attracted several hundred food scholars—organic farmers, sociologists, chefs, medical historians, anthropologists, and nutritionists. Occasional conferences on specialized food topics have multiplied in recent years. In 1982, the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife chose “Foodways of the Northeast” as the topic of its annual conference and later published the papers as its Annual Proceedings 1982. The Russian Research Center at Harvard University sponsored a conference in 1993 entitled “Food in Russian History and Culture,” the papers of which appeared in a book of the same name (Glants and Toomre 1997). The University of New Hampshire held an interdisciplinary conference on food and culture; Boston University sponsored its sequel in 1995.

Additional venues are “living-history” museums, pioneering examples of which are Skansen in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Netherlands Open-Air Museum in Arnhem. In the United States, Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, and Colonial Williamsburg regularly sponsor programs in culinary history that include both lectures and demonstrations of culinary implements and hearthstone cooking. In conjunction with the Quincentenary (1992), museums on both sides of the Atlantic sponsored exhibits and conferences on the “Columbian exchange,” such as the Smithsonian Institution exhibit and conference “Seeds of Change” (Viola and Margolis 1991). In Texas, the George Ranch, outside of Houston, emphasizes the history of black cowboys and chuck-wagon cooking, whereas the Jordan-Bachmann farm in Austin focuses on nineteenth-century German influences in the area, including regional foodways.

Scholarly and professional societies publish various materials of interest. The London Classical Society hosted Food in Antiquity: Studies in Ancient Society and Culture (Wilkins, Harvey, and Dobson 1995). Food and nutrition panels are featured at the annual meetings of major academic professional societies such as the American Anthropological Association (Huss-Ashmore and Katz 1989, 1990; Sharman et al. 1991), the American Studies Association, and the American Sociological Association (Maurer and Sobal 1995; Whit 1995). Food history panels are also found at the Eighteenth Century Society, the French Language Association, the American Historical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, and the Society for French Historical Studies. The breadth of interest in the field is shown by the wide range of scholarly and trade journals that publish food articles emphasizing cultural, social, historical, or literary themes, with special issues devoted to food topics in history, art history, regional food-ways, literature, or films.

Since 1980, Boston has become a center for the study of culinary history. The Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College, which is devoted to women’s history, houses a growing culinary collection of over 12,000 volumes on food and, since 1990, has hosted monthly meetings of the CHB and a professional chefs’ forum. Other active groups of culinary historians in the United States are located in the cities of Ann Arbor, Michigan, New York, Houston, Texas, Honolulu, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C., as well as in various cities of California. Activities are also expanding in Mexico, where scholars from the fields of history, anthropology, and biology orchestrated a symposium marking 500 years of European-New World food encounters (Long 1996), and where ethnobiologists and food anthropologists sponsor lectures and publications predominantly on food history topics, including an “Antropologia y Alimentacion” section ofAntropologicas, a periodical of the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).


Culinary history is emerging as an academic specialty. Programs at Boston University’s Metropolitan College, courses taught at the Radcliffe College Seminars, and courses within the New York University (NYU) Food Studies Program combine culinary history with cultural studies and, at NYU, nutrition. Apart from these more humanistic approaches, histories of crop plants, agricultural and food processing technologies, and food commerce offer a growing literature on food within the history and sociology of science and technology. Ingredients and technology play off each other to create change in cuisine. Illustrative are the modern varieties of grains and tubers that since the 1970s have been changing the basic foods people eat in developing countries. Another example is the new enzyme processing, which is leading to the replacement of cane sugar by corn syrup in processed foods and, consequently, is influencing sugar- and corn-based economies all over the world. Yet another example—about which much will be written in coming years—concerns the history of foods formulated and aggressively marketed by transnational corporations such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s, along with the nutritional and cultural consequences for populations that consume these products rather than other foods. These are but three illustrations of the ever-expanding list of aspects of food and nutrition that culinary historical perspectives help elaborate.

In addition, we can expect growing interest in culinary history on at least four fronts. The first is a growing medical interest in the history of food, diet, and nutritional health, prompted by concern about the extent to which diets play an etiologic role in coronary heart disease, hypertension, cancers, and diabetes. This avenue of investigation seeks to understand the sources of dietar y variation and the circumstances under which food habits have changed in the past. The second is a growing agricultural-biological interest in the diversity of food species (and varieties) and their histories. This interest forms part of a global effort to conserve biodiversity. The third is the growing interest in culinary arts in the humanities, both as a part of women’s history and also as a special area of literature and the fine arts. Finally, many with political-economic and ethnic-studies perspectives within anthropology, political science, economics, sociology, and history are becoming increasingly interested in the history of food and cuisine for the ways these shape—and are shaped by—social forces. Culinary history will continue to have numerous disciplinary voices.