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


11 thoughts on “Why Bother with Culinary History?

  1. Well, we wouldn’t question an art historian who wants to study Michelangelo, or a music historian who studies Bach. Likewise we would want it performed. Why not food as well? These are magnificent artistic accomplishments of the past, to be appreciated. Nor must it always be “great” and High Art. The simply homey stuff is equally fascinating and delicious.


  2. very well worded.
    If we are what we eat -we eat heritage foods-, and history is where we come from, then history if very much part of who we are and what we eat.
    BTW, I saw your post in the food new journal today


  3. I also squirrel away cards, letters, and so on inside cookbooks. One of the most famous annotated cookbooks came from the library of poet Thomas Gray, who marked up his copy of William Verral’s “A Complete System of Cookery” (1759). Hopefully, a post about Verral will appear here soon.


  4. I love this! Thank you for writing it. My favorite part of buying old cookbooks is finding handwritten notes on recipes (my favorite is one on a cookie recipe, “Not Good”.), not to mention the little bits of paper stashed inside. Reciepts, notes, invitations…
    I use old cards as placeholders myself.
    Currently, my favorite cake recipe is from my early 1950’s Betty Crocker cookbook, which also comes with some very helpful tips on how to be a good housewife.


  5. Brava! Well written article/argument for food history. It is important, I certainly enjoy learning about it but I’m fearful that most people interested in food don’t seem to be. Keep doing what you’re doing. I am in the middle of reading a small book “The Taste of the Fire: The Story of the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.” A fascinating account of food, cooking, and eating of that time period. Amazing how advanced they were in so many areas. Daily meals for 600, 2 seatings of 300!!!


  6. Don’t listen to your friend! Your blog is invaluable and should be required reading in culinary programs. I don’t know how you have time to conduct that much research (and believe me, I did quite a bit for A Biblical Feast: Ancient Mediterranean Flavors). What I realized in the end, is that we haven’t invented much of anything in cooking terms. Many of the ingredients we use now were available then, just combined in different ways. It seems there have always been adventurous cooks!


  7. 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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s