Edited by Dr. Paul Freedman, “Food: The History of Taste” is an illustrated and comprehensive collection of essays on the subject of the development of food, from prehistoric to contemporary times. Divided into 10 chapters that consider food through the lenses of culture and time, the award-winning tome contains essays by international historians on a variety of subjects, from Chinese cuisine to the evolution of modern restaurant dining.
Freedman specializes in medieval European history as the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History at Yale University, and also serves as the chair of the University’s History of Science and Medicine Program. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Vanderbilt University for 18 years before joining the Yale faculty in 1997. The author of four books and two collections of essays, as well as many articles on food-related topics, his latest book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America,” will be hitting shelves in 2016.
In an era where technology is changing the way we think about (and experience) dining out and food trends are dictating menu changes at restaurants, we wondered how today’s culinary culture compares to that of years past. How will future historians characterize our tastes and habits when they’re writing about the food culture of the 21st century? With Freedman’s book and expertise in mind, we turned to him for answers.
The book considers the history of food and taste from prehistory through the present. What inspired you to pursue such a comprehensive undertaking?
That book was a very fortunate accident for me, because really I’m a medieval historian by training. I was working on a book about spices [“Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination”] so that’s sort of how I became interested in food. When I was working on that book, I was asked to review a book on tea for the Times Literary Supplement. After that, I was asked to review books on modern food topics. Having seen my essays in the TLS, an editor in London from Thames & Hudson asked me if I would be interested in editing a book on food. (The company publishes books that have beautiful images with intellectual content, so they’re not just coffee table books.) My response was, I’m not a food writer, I’m a medieval historian! But I changed my mind and I enjoyed it a lot, and I was able to make a contribution not only in terms of breadth, but also by dividing food history up in ways that are geographical, chronological and topical. Food is an expression of culture, in terms of class, gender and social positioning.
Did you come across any surprising consistencies in taste, flavor or food preferences across ethnicities or geographical locations?
I guess I was struck more by differences than by similarities. In our world, there are a lot of things that everyone seems to love: fast food seems to be very popular, or things with sugar in them, but historically many cultures have not had a lot of sugar available or emphasized sweets — China being a classic example. Meat is also very affected by cultural factors: in India a lot of people don’t eat meat; religious rules in Judaism limit the kinds of meat that can be eaten; Buddhism is basically vegetarian.
If you look at the influences of culture, they can change food more than you expect, even more than the physical environment. I expected when I started on working on this that people eat the foods that are most available to them: people in Ireland, an island, are going to eat fish, for example, but that just doesn’t really work. There are a lot of places with lots of coastline — like Denmark — where they historically haven’t eaten a lot of fish. On the other hand, in Madrid, at the center of Spain, people are mad about seafood, and for the last 100 years the restaurants there have had boats and trucks willing to drive to ports and pay a high price to consume fish.
Beyond survival, when you get to the level of cuisine, people’s preferences are not dictated strictly by environment. People do try to exercise choice when they have a chance. Historically and now, many people don’t have much choice and are living on brink of malnutrition or starvation, but when people do have a choice, they have strong — but not necessarily predictable — preferences.
The book has a chapter on the development of restaurants, on how they’ve evolved from utilitarian places to eat to social destinations. Why do you think restaurants have transformed from functional places to social spaces?
Some of it has to do just with what it means to eat with another person. Dining together is something that can take the form of business transactions, romantic transactions, friendship and companionship, or something associated with the family — especially now, since there are a lot of laments about the fact that families don’t eat together. The difference between restaurants and other kinds of dining out, like takeout or inns, is that the restaurant is a destination in itself, not just a convenience. It also offers a lot of choice: the ability to choose from a menu, you can choose the time you come, and you eat with the people you came in with. In other eating houses before restaurants developed in the late 18th century, you basically just sat down at a common table at an inn and ate with whoever was there.
Restaurants are really associated with the middle class, and so the rise of the bourgeoisie is what accounts for the rise of the restaurant. Historically, aristocrats dine in a kind of splendid and large group, and the poor don’t have enough time to regard dining as a form of sociability outside the family. Once you have enough people who have money to spend but not sufficient money to have servants, the restaurant is a natural place not only for companionship, but also to show people who you are: you’re sophisticated, you’re wealthy, you know what wine to order — whatever it is that makes you a success as a restaurant-goer, whatever the popular status is.
How do you see food tech companies — such as delivery services or restaurant reservation systems — impacting American food and dining culture?
I think there are some apps that are for convenience, and there are some apps that increase your access to knowledge that would’ve otherwise required a fair amount of research. And those overlap sometimes. But there’s definitely a focus on speed of information and sharing of knowledge. Certainly it has undermined the world of restaurant reviews in newspapers. But paradoxically now –– because there are only a few print publications that still review restaurants –– the power of someone like Adam Platt of New York Magazine or Pete Wells in The New York Times is magnified, because they’re the sole survivors of the print world.
The concept of foods “trending” — has this always been around, or is it a more recent phenomenon?
It’s always existed. The 1950’s had a lot of fads. It’s a little faster now. But, you know, chop suey was fashionable, and then not. There are always things that just appear for a couple of years and then just go away. Maybe the slider or short ribs will go away, or maybe not. Some things are no longer prestigious, but they’re still around: Caesar salad is everywhere, but no longer a feature of fancy restaurants and prepared tableside.
What do you think our modern-day food culture’s defining characteristics are?
I think the leading edge is farm-to-table: awareness of where food comes from, concern with quality over price, concern over the chemical inputs, environmental impact of food, the emphasis on local and seasonal. That’s the biggest trend in restaurants. The second trend is molecular cuisine, where the ingredients are not important; the importance is actually the ability to rearrange them and create things that people have never seen before. So I would say farm-to-table and molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine, and they are these two ideas of tradition and innovation. One of them is traditional and an attempt to get away from the impact of technology, while the other is embracing technology and the transformational and the rejection of tradition.
The Reserve Editorial Team