What is Food History?
Entry from The Cambridge World History of Food
Since the 1970s, historical studies of food in particular cultures have emerged as a new field, “food or culinary history.” Culinary history studies the origins and development of the foodstuffs, equipment, and techniques of cookery, the presentation and eating of meals, and the meanings of these activities to the societies that produce them. It looks at practices on both sides of the kitchen door, at the significance of the food to the cook and to those who consume it, and at how cooking is done and what the final product means. Consequently, culinary history is widely interdisciplinary. Studies make connections between the sciences – medical, biological, and social – and the humanities and draw heavily on anthropology, economics, psychology, folklore, literature, and the fine arts, as well as history. These multidisciplinary perspectives are integrated along geographic and temporal dimensions, and as a consequence, culinary history encompasses the whole process of procuring food from land or laboratory, moving it through processors and marketplaces, and finally placing it on the stove and onto the table. It emphasizes the role that food-related activities play in defining community, class, and social status – as epitomized in such fundamental human acts as the choice and consumption of one's daily bread.
Culinary history can also be defined by what it is not. It is not, for example, simply a narrative account of what was eaten by a particular people at a particular time. Nor is it a matter of rendering entertaining stories about food, or telling anecdotes of people cooking and eating, or surveying cookbooks. But it is informed analysis of how food expresses the character of a time, place, society, and culture. Put plainly, culinary history goes beyond anecdotal food folklore and descriptions of cuisine and cooking at a particular point in time to incorporate historical dimensions.
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