Should the subject of food be served with an academic garnish, or is it best eaten with a dollop ofamateur scholarship? Anne Sebba reports on the emergence of a discipline
Food studies, a popular subject on campus in the United States, has yet to make its debut on the menus of British universities. But the signs are that it might do soon. Culinary history is an increasingly respected field of study among academics, although opinions are sharply divided over whether it should be an undergraduate degree course.
While some believe it is a scandal that food history lacks the stamp of academic approval, others insist that it is a complex and diverse subject best treated by people outside universities.
Food historian and former diplomat Alan Davidson has spent the past 23 years compiling the Oxford Companion to Food, a scholarly, though not academic work. He is confident that the study of food will soon be formalised and has put forward a proposal as to who would make an excellent first professor of food history - the medieval historian and author of a history of Irish food, Regina Sexton.
Sexton, an "important and enthusiastic" contributor to the Oxford Companion, wrote entries on subjects such as "Ireland and the potato", "Irish feasting" and "blaa", a special bread from Waterford. Next year she is presenting a television series on Irish food.
Davidson first became interested in food when, posted to Tunis as head of chancery, he made a typewritten list of local fish to help guide his wife, Jane, through the local markets. This he expanded into his first book, Mediterranean Seafood, in 1972. As ambassador to Laos he wrote two more books on food, and then, three years later, resigned from the diplomatic service and turned his attention to food history full time.
With his wife, a translator, he established the journal, Petits Propos Culinaires, which included contributions from Elizabeth David, Richard Olney and his daughter, Caroline Davidson, the author of a history of housework. And with Theodore Zeldin, professor of French at Oxford, he established the city's "Symposia on food history" at St Anthony's College. These took off in 1981 and are now annual events attracting some 200 people - few of whom are academics. Recent subjects include staple foods, fasts and feasts, public eating and flavourings.
Davidson believes that the present situation, where culinary history is open to anyone, has many advantages. "It is exhilarating to feel you are freewheeling. And, with no label on, can freewheel into any area without danger of trespassing."
These include sociology, anthropology, nutrition, chemistry, history, economics, geography, botany and ecology, all of which have some bearing on food history.
"There is full licence to experiment and improvise and no potentially frowning 'establishment' such as might discourage and inhibit the work of amateurs," Davidson says.
But he sees disadvantages in the way universities exclude such wide-ranging studies. "I am aware that many colleges that prepare students for a profession such as chef or caterer or hotelier offer some instruction in what they term gastronomy and that this often has a historical context. But in my experience the existence of such courses is typically confined to the tradition of classical French cuisine, rather than research. There is also a risk that the present agreeable but informal pattern of activity, lacking the rigor that an academic discipline imposes, may sometimes be vulnerable to critics who think the present approach too haphazard.
"As I see it, one is amassing information and making comparisons between cultures and seeing how foodstuffs have developed, but not building up theories, rather recording and suggesting that there may be room for a theory here or there."
Zeldin believes that the way food is prepared and eaten could be studied, just like politics and economics, as part of the broader picture. A chapter entitled "Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex?" in his recent book, An Intimate History of Humanity, emphasises the importance of studying culinary history not in a vacuum "but putting it in the context of all the passions that stir people's minds and influence their conduct".
Now that food history is becoming so fashionable in the US, Zeldin recognises that several academics are busy producing monographs. "This may be a necessary preliminary and some are doing excellent work," he says. "But it is not useful unless complemented by a broader approach and an attempt to digest their findings for a wider readership so that when people eat they know what they are doing. If we just eat traditional foods from our own region we are making a political statement about what is worth doing in life. If we are partaking of food of every country we are breaking down barriers. Food is one of the principal methods of overcoming national prejudice. "The fork," says Zeldin, "is much more powerful than the gun."
Laura Mason is a food historian and freelance writer with a particular interest in Britain's regional foods. "I grew up in a traditional farming family in Yorkshire and I've always wanted to know why some customs survive and others don't. Why, in Yorkshire, is oatmeal used to make parkin - a kind of sticky gingerbread - and why are oatcakes in this part of the world thin and floppy, but thick in Scotland? I'm just curious to know why people eat different things in different ways. Sometimes the differences are very informative."
The British, she feels, have either sidelined regional foods or else packaged them into something rather sweet and Christmassy, whereas the French and Italians view their local foods as something much finer and bourgeois and take a greater interest in them.
Mason has a first degree in home economics followed by a further degree in food technology, which she found invaluable for her recent book, Sugar Plums and Sherbet: a History of Sweets. But she laments the death of home economics in schools and universities. "I needed to know something about research methods and the science of nutrition. You don't just pick that up osmotically."
It is a point well made and one that the Royal Society of Arts-backed organisation Focus on Food is trying to address. "Without good food education back on the national curriculum a whole generation of children is leaving school unable to buy or cook food properly, let alone go on to a degree in food or further research into food history," a spokesman explained.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, has recently introduced the UK's only masters degree in food policy, a broadly vocational course with historical elements. He is flooded with applicants from all over the world and his 20 students include journalists, environmentalists, government employees and food retailers.
"The thing about food studies is that no one discipline can claim it. Here we specialise in public policy, which is in such a mess, because it is assumed the scientists have got it right or the agriculturists or the economists. The truth is you need all of them and that's why we set up the MA course, to try and put all the pieces of the jigsaw together."
The specialists have, collectively, enabled the state and the companies to miss the point, Lang concludes. "The old home economics degrees have turned into consumer studies, courses on which some nutrition and dietetics is taught. But no one is putting everything together, which the country, industry and above all the public interest needs. We're doing our bit to develop a more appropriate way to look at the role of food studies in higher education."