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Culinary Arts: A Guide to the Literature (April 2016): Food History

By Jeffrey P. Miller and Jonathan Deutsch

Food History

Writing at the intersection of food and history has become a genre of its own, and this essay can highlight just a few of the many titles.  From broad historical overviews to narrow treatments, titles in this genre cover virtually every aspect of food and eating.  Linda Civitello’s Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food & People provides a succinct, accessible introduction to food history.  Covering everything from prehistoric food to food television, Civitello does an excellent job of demonstrating how major world events affect culinary tradition and practice.  Another excellent overview is Food in World History by Jeffrey Pilcher, who uses a sociopolitical lens to examine the human relationship with food.  Among the worthy titles on cuisines of the West is Felipe Fernández-Armesto's linear history Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food.  Arguing that food is central to the human sacred experience, Fernández-Armesto points out that culture evolved hand in hand with food supplies—food once drew people together (though as people develop more elaborate personal eating habits, dietary restrictions, and pride in regional cuisines, it may also separate them).  Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari, and Albert Sonnenfeld, and Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades, and Apulia provide valuable insights on Mediterranean cooking.  The former, which focuses heavily on the countries of southern Europe and the Mediterranean rim, begins with hunter-gatherers and concludes with present fast-food culture.  Gray’s book, which is as much a look at the disappearing world of peasant life around the Mediterranean as a culinary text, is an elegant example of how beautiful food writing can be.  The recipes Gray offers vary from the easily reproduced to elegiac offerings that give a picture of vanishing ways of life.  Descriptions of the lives and labors of the people go far in placing cucina povera—i.e., peasant cooking—in its proper context.

Works Cited