The History of Food

history of foodWhen my friend Srikrishna and I started this blog, we were largely motivated by our shared interest in history and crime fiction, and a gravitational attraction to good writing. So the tagline for our blog required almost no thought — anything other than “Exploring history, mystery and writing” would have seemed absurd. In hindsight, I wish I had resisted that urge to commit so early in the game — because it’s clear to me now that I should have held out a little longer, to find some way to sneak “food” into the title. Over time, I found little ways to make up for that momentary lapse of judgment — by weaving in mentions of food into our podcasts, and writing the occasional blog post featuring cuisine from antiquity. But somehow, none of that ever seemed enough — and matters eventually came to a head yesterday when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class. Hearing the hosts, Tracy and Holly, talk about the history of pizza, finally sent me over the edge. There is absolutely no way my name is going to be associated with a blog site related to history, without food taking center stage. Not on my watch.

So here we go, with a question I should have asked, well, a long time ago: when did we start making and eating food? No, don’t laugh. It’s a serious question, deserving of more thoughtful answers than “Duh, we killed and ate the animals we hunted.” Fortunately for all of us, this is a subject of deep inquiry — food history is a legitimate field of study in its own right, which examines not only the history of food, but also the cultural, social and economic impacts of food through the ages. Just the sheer number of questions that food history attempts to answer is impressive. When and why did humans start cooking food? How did our ancestors know what to eat and what to avoid? Who came up with the first recipe? What is the origin of some of the foods we take for granted today? When were eating utensils invented? What is the origin of table manners (or lack thereof)?

Fascinating as these questions are, I doubt that many of us (including me, I’m ashamed to say) necessarily want to spend the next few years wading through the many thousands of pages that food historians have compiled. The key here is strike a balance between satisfying our curiosity and not spending so much time on the history that it affects our culinary pursuits in the present. So here’s what I think is a carefully calibrated compromise. I have compiled a set of resources below, for your reading pleasure. Before you start skimming (or clicking) through them, make sure to set yourself a sampling table of your favorite victuals and libations to accompany you on your quest.

And so, without further ado, here’s a top 5 list on a subject that I should have made a non-negotiable part of this blog:

The Food Timeline – an online resource with links to the answers to many of the questions we raised here, along with a timeline of significant food “events” from prehistory to modern times.

Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present — everything from the evolution of food habits to social and agricultural practices, to religious beliefs and dietary rules, to the origin of pasta and chocolate.

Food: The History of Taste – what is food, if we don’t understand how tastes have evolved from antiquity to the present day? From our earliest proclivities for the sweet and the fatty to our acquired sensibilities for spice, nuance, and subtlety — this well-researched tome has it all.

Hungry History – a delightful collection of vignettes from the History Channel on topics ranging from how the tradition of cookies and milk at Christmas originated, to the history of Tex-Mex cuisine, to the backstory of the humble pickle.

The New York Public Library’s Culinary History Section – no self-respecting listicle on this topic can be complete without this comprehensive resource. The history of everything that is anything to the palate — from baking to condiments to wine-making to gastronomy, with pointers to encyclopedias, reference books, collections and scholarly articles on the subject.

And, lastly, just to show how genuinely interested we are in dragging you kicking and screaming into this subject, here’s a recent article in the Washington Post that explores the relationship between food history, politics, society, and the rise and fall of civilizations — all in the context of the ordinary potato. Consider this our bonus 6th item in the Top 5 list!

One final bit of advice: sample this topic the way you would a well-prepared meal. It’s all about tasting, savoring and appreciating what’s been laid out for you. It’s not about stuffing your face, although you are totally free to do that if that’s what you’re into.

Let us know what you think.


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