Why Bother with Culinary History?

Photo credit: Wendi Dunlap
Photo credit: Wendi Dunlap

A friend recently asked me, “Why is culinary history important?”

Actually, her words came out of her mouth a little more harsh sounding than that:  “Why are you wasting so much of your time on that stuff? Why don’t you just write up some recipes, like how to make that great bread you always make?”

Momentarily speechless, I realized she asked me the question that I periodically ask myself.

What difference does it make if we know about French chefs and their cookbooks from the 18th century? Why does it matter to us today if the elite of Britain hired French people to work in their palatial houses? Who cares?

First of all, the subject is endless in its permutations. Having a deep fascination (obsession?) with the details of the kitchens of the past guarantees that boredom keeps at bay.

Secondly, for cookbook lovers and collectors, culinary history provides opportunities for wallowing in the riches of recipes and receipts.

Cookbooks, however valuable as primary sources, must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. According to Tom Jaine,* of Prospect Books, there’s a gap between what the cookery books portrayed versus what people actually ate every day. This trend has been around since the beginning of cookbook printing and continues to this day.  Monthly glossies  have readers drooling over the pages of glorious photographs of dishes that no one will make more than once, if ever. And the Food Network reminds us of our shortcomings in the kitchen at the same time it empowers us to throw in a pinch of chile pepper in the chocolate cake batter. I mean, if Rick Bayless can do it, so can I!

But back to the questions.

William Anne Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

A third reason for pursuing the subject of culinary history lies with learning how we got to where we are today. In the case of studying the history of French cuisine, the association of the kitchen with power and diplomacy is very telling, because history explains (or at least attempts to!) the ways in which French cuisine influenced more than just stomachs.

I am appalled that there’s no more interest in the questions of food and food history in academia, the Congress, and even the White House. Here we are, at a tremendous junction in history, and we’re arguing about local food, feeding people with money, while people with no money are starving, even here in the United States. History can teach us what questions to ask, give us the courage to ask them, and insight into the solutions.

So what questions DO we want to ask about food and cooking in the past? Or the present, for that matter? What do we want to know about how we nurture ourselves? How can we practice hospitality in an often hostile world?

That’s the key word, everybody. Hospitality. And not just the proper napkin or the right fork. How do we truly nourish each other?

I’d like to end with a famous quote from Virginia Woolf, as pertinent today as it was when she wrote it and certainly relevant to the 18th-century English nobility so taken with all things French:

The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

From A Room of One’s Own (1929), Chapter 1, p. 18


*Tom Jaine, “Do Cookery Books Tell the Truth?” In: Culinary History, A. Lynn Martin and Barbara Santich, eds. (Brompton, Australia : East Street Publications, 2004, p-. 87 – 96).

© 2011 C. Bertelsen


  1. Nancy Carter Crump says:

    Great article, Cindy! You really do super stuff.

    Has La Chappell (not sure I’m spelling that right!) been published in facsimile? Since I spent an inordinate amount of time studying Lord Chesterfield, I have been interested in his cook/chef.


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