Today, I am happy to share something with you, a marvelous gift to the world of culinary history: Cuisine & Empire, by Rachel Laudan (University of California press, October 2013). I had the pleasure of reading some of the book while it was still in manuscript,* and that bit whetted my appetite so much that I counted the days until I could hold the book in my hands and start reading.
What I have read so far – I’m still reading, BTW – has confirmed the deep admiration I have for Dr. Laudan’s work, for she asks the penetrating questions and provides the ruthless analysis necessary for truly original work. She divides her topic – the history of world cooking – into categories in the same way that scholars of other type of history divide theirs.
But here I am going to let her words take over:
“Rachel Laudan tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of the world’s great cuisines-from the mastery of grain cooking some twenty thousand years ago, to the present-in this superbly researched book. Probing beneath the apparent confusion of dozens of cuisines to reveal the underlying simplicity of the culinary family tree, she shows how periodic seismic shifts in ‘culinary philosophy’ – beliefs about health, the economy, politics, society and the gods-prompted the construction of new cuisines, a handful of which, chosen as the cuisines of empires, came to dominate the globe.
“Cuisine and Empire” shows how merchants, missionaries, and the military took cuisines over mountains, oceans, deserts, and across political frontiers. Laudan’s innovative narrative treats cuisine, like language, clothing, or architecture, as something constructed by humans. By emphasizing how cooking turns farm products into food and by taking the globe rather than the nation as the stage, she challenges the agrarian, romantic, and nationalistic myths that underlie the contemporary food movement.” (Blurb provided by Rachel Laudan on Goodreads.)
*And I must tell you that I am mentioned in the Acknowledgements, too, but that in no way mars or changes my sense of this book as a groundbreaking study that will raise the bar in culinary scholarship for years to come.