Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food ‘through the lens of science and history’.
Rachel Laudan takes the idea that we ‘are the animals that cook’ (p1) and looks at how cuisine – how we cook – has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I’d never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn’t mean you’ve adopted a particular cuisine, or in anyway integrated a part of a culture. Cooking is the key bit and cooking has always been hedged about with culture and taboo and expectations and so on. She also deliberately looks at the idea of ’empire’ as hegemonic political units can do a lot to spread, enforce, and encourage the adoption of cuisine through a whole range of methods. The point of the book therefore is not to consider regional differences but to look at broad similarities in the way that food is treated, and how those similarities came to be.
There are chapters on the development of grain-based cuisines, and what that meant for cooking in general. She looks at Buddhism and its spread and influence, at Islam and Christianity, and how their morals and philosophies and taboos influenced the way food worked. How shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism in parts of Europe changed things, as well as how industry and increasing globalisation changed modern cuisines.
I love that Europe is not entirely the centre here; that the Mongols and the Islamic empires have a significant impact (on Mexico, via Spain, for example). I am intrigued to think about how political and moral questions have shaped some of the ways that I, and my food culture, think and perceive food. I’m also fascinated by how early decisions, sometimes made consciously and sometimes not, have continuing impacts on the way the world acts.
Honestly, grasses have a lot of responsibility in the development of world cultures.
This book was a lot of fun – well, it was a bit of work, because it’s not always a straightforward narrative. But that was usually fun too. It has made me think about why we do things the way we do, and the cascade of consequences through history. It’s so easy to think of the way we make food as just… passive, somehow; unconnected to politics or anything else. Actually, that’s probably only possible for me because I am a part of the ruling elite, so I don’t need to think about the consequences of my food choices – and I live in a place and time where choosing to eat outside of my particular food culture is totally acceptable. So I am privileged. But I am still constrained, too, by the things I have been taught. And this book helps me think about some of those things.