Food: The History of Taste

January 31, 2008

In our liminal Essex landscapes, where malaria was last a threat in these isles and where land and water daily intersect, the marshes and saltings bring a distinctive character to some 350 miles of coastline.

It is land full of food and potential tastes. Here are burbling calls of curlew, piping of redshank, clamour of geese and whistling of wigeon. All these birds were once regularly eaten, but today only the wigeon is unprotected and can be quarry for the few remaining wildfowlers. In the creeks are oysters, once food for the masses but now exclusive fare, and migratory eels, swimming free as tastes have changed and now no one wants to eat them. On the mudflats and sea walls are sea beet and purslane, crisp and tangy in salads, and glasswort (marsh samphire), now resurgent in fish restaurants and "redolent of iodine and sea breezes", as nature writer Richard Mabey has written. On reclaimed grasslands are wiry marsh sheep, and behind the borrow dykes, modern wheat and lucerne fields.

These remote places are defined in part by their wildness, but also by the foods we obtain from them. And over time tastes, values and prestige associated with foods have shifted. Our identities are thus partly linked to the food that eventually appears on our plates, and also to the places where they were harvested or raised.

In this richly illustrated book on the history of taste, historian Paul Freedman has assembled ten chapters that span cultures from across the world and through history. His idea is to reveal a society's soul by investigating its various cooking and food choices. The selections made by different cultures are not always easily understood: why are seafoods rarely eaten on some Sicilian islands, yet in Madrid, far from the salt, has there long been a craze for them?

Today, just as we in industrialised countries have relaxed after conquering hunger, we have become remarkably anxious about foods again, both the good and bad ones. Again, why should this be? Freedman's clear overview chapter explores how food restrictions in different cultures arise, especially from religious norms, and also how some foods become particularly charged with emotional intensity. He also explores social status and food, a theme that recurs elsewhere in the book. Before the 19th century, lobsters and caviar were low prestige, but now they are high. And, of course, there was the tale, possibly apocryphal but certainly very durable, of politician Peter Mandelson's mistaking of northern mushy peas for guacamole, indicating at the very least his isolation from the social classes who had given him their votes. Another theme is the international movement of taste and the decoupling of food from place, which has become so much more common today.

Elliott Shore's chapter on the development of the restaurant shows how these have emerged as destinations as well as places to acquire calories over the past 250 years. Of course, restaurants seem normal today, yet we take it for granted that they do not open for breakfast. Elsewhere, Peter Scholliers explores the tensions between novelty and tradition in gastronomy, focusing on what has been called the omnivore paradox. We need food diversity for nutritional reasons, but at the same time we tend also to be fearful about unfamiliar foods and tastes. Food innovations were once the exclusive preserve of the elite, but now are available to most social classes. However, there remain odd conflicts: we seem to like to try new foods, especially in restaurants, but then expect other foods, such as certain hamburgers, always to taste the same.

Other chapters sweep broadly across pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer, Greek and Roman, medieval Europe, Chinese and Muslim cultures, and then food fashions after the Renaissance, and the essence of French cuisine. This all makes for interesting reading but at times it lacks a depth of common analysis of how foods and food cultures emerge at specific places.

Some chapters also seem to stop at arbitrary points. Joanna Waley-Cohen's contribution focuses on imperial China, but I was left wondering about what happened after the end of the 19th century. How did food and taste change when the emperors were replaced, and how did they evolve under Mao and then in the final two decades of the 20th century? One theme that seems entirely to be missing is how environmental change affects taste, and how sometimes we do not have a choice. After all, those Essex rivers and creeks were once full of salmon, but only after cleaning up centuries of pollution have these fish now returned.

Unlike that of other animals, human food is not just calories and nutrients. It also carries stories. We eat every day and vote only every four or five years. Yet eating is a vote for one food chain over another, thus affecting land management, transportation, manufacture, supermarkets and jobs, and so determining whether some will succeed and others fail. Those votes also affect our health, and statistics show that whole populations have recently been making wrong choices, or have succumbed to the siren voices of fast foods. In industrialised countries, we have never had such an array of food choices from almost every part of the world, and as a result so many cultural and status constraints are evolving rapidly. Still, the tension between trying something new or sticking to the known remains central to all our eating experiences. If we thought more about food, as this book urges, perhaps we might find healthier ways to consume and at the same time become more aware of the places and people that produce it.

Food: The History of Taste

Edited by Paul Freedman
Thames and Hudson
ISBN 9780500251355
Published 5 November 2007

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