Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Taste for Books on Food

Since Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World became a hit book in 1997 many authors have tried to emulate this concept. Main characters for example have been nutmeg, tea, potatoes and salt and similarly books have appeared about related goods like indigo or conservation methods.

The success of Kurlansky’s book goes further than the popularity of its protagonist. The book came heavily spiced with anecdotes and historical recipes. The chapter on the Founding Fathers is hilarious and the Cod Wars between Great Britain and Iceland challenge our ideas about peaceful diplomacy in post-war Europe.

The great thing about books on food is that they give a unique platform for storytelling. Providing almost every possible angle on history and touching on many parts that fire the imagination and interest.

I’ve put a few of these angles in mind maps arranged about the three stages of the food chain: production, distribution and consumption.

What is immediately apparent is that food is closely connected to culture and identity, from the peasants’ close connection to the soil, to the religious rules on which products you can eat. In some cases ethnic of social groups were closely tied to trade of certain products. Think of Jewish in the 19th century European cattle trade. However, their identity seemed to be more important in determining their trade than the other way around, as in the case of production and consumption.

The economy of food is fundamental to any story. Almost all foods covered in these books are tied to agriculture or horticulture. Fishing and hunting are less universal in appeal and perhaps therefore not as popular as subjects (although the craze was set off by cod). This evolves in first instance about the means of production such as labour, land and capital.

Production in certain places becomes based on certain types of labour, with far reaching long term social consequences. The landed gentry and yeomen farmers of England were a major factor in its political development, while slavery still casts a shadow over the Caribbean. The high risks of the local climate and social restrictions prevented South East Asian peasants from devoting more land to profitable export crops.

Production was also determined by land ownership and quality of the soil. The shift to cheese production in medieval Holland was partially the result of the loss of arable land. The land owning nobility was the motor behind Romania’s grain exports in the late 19th century, whereas at the same time Danish farmers started export cooperatives for bacon, butter and eggs. The Irish famine could become as devastating as it did because of farming marginal lands and high rents.

Trade seems to be less of a subject in these books. Trade ties in to important questions about international networks, transport and conservation technologies and access to markets. In the 19th century it becomes linked to cooperative production and export, chain retail and accessibility of products to new groups of consumers.

The specific location of production can determine distribution. The Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was a vital element in trade and the profitability of the East India Company, the first modern multinational (semi-)private enterprise.

But social subjects are also in very much scope. Hunger, obesity and health are intimately related, while most tropical products have a history of plantations and slavery or migration and indentured labour. As such they are also related to imperialism.

Women’s and men’s roles in food production, distribution and consumption are very different. In some cultures men till the soil, while women focus on the smaller animals nearer home, cheese production and selling products on the market. Anorexia nervosa is an almost exclusively female condition, while masculinity is stressed by eating red meat and spicy food.

A field that I think is fascinating is the relationship between food and emotion. We eat different foodstuffs at parties than when we’re in need of comfort. For many people certain products have become closely identified with liberation (chewing gum), freedom and progress.

Lately eating healthy has become a quest for some (eg the boy who is only allowed to eat uncooked food by his mother) which goes beyond the immediate health issues and is now part of a broader health culture that takes on obesity, genetically modified crops and professional health organisation. Is a glass of wine each day good for longevity or not? What about garlick? And chocolate?

You can probably come up with things I haven’t even touched on in these mind maps, so feel free to come up with suggestions. Alternatively, you could help me coming up with similar mind maps for military history.


  1. Interesting topic indeed. I personally wonder if people always eat different food at parties than when they're comforting themselves. I could well imagine that it both involves fatty and sweet stuff.

    Also I think the current interest in food also involves environmental (the physical space needed to eventually have a steak on your plate, or food miles, for example) and animal wellbeing (free range eggs, biological pork, and so on) issues and some sort of need for authenticity. Think about the biological apples you may buy at your local greengrocer. Lately this involves the photo of the farmer who has grown these apples, whom, in my case, is more or less from the area I live in.

  2. Hi Sippy,

    Good points! Environmental impact is something to look at. Not only in the present, but also in the past as change from arable farming to dairy in the medieval Netherlands and early modern Denmark have been linked to salification and loss of top soil.

    Animal well being seems a current preoccupation, just like questions of authenticity, which I would argue should be considered as developments on the consumption side.

    Regarding the similarities of comfort and party foods, I think there is an overlap in fat and sweet stuff, but there are considerable differences in which they are presented. Party food is displayed and dressed up, while comfort food is eaten straight out of the bag. Also, champagne is not comfort food.


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