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An Ideology of Food: Ken Albala Talks Culinary History

February 18, 2014

Last month at the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, Ken Albala’s latest book, Grow Food, Cook Food, Share Food: Perspectives on Eating from the Past and a Preliminary Agenda for the Future, recently published by OSU Press, won in the category of Culinary History. Today, Albala, a Professor of History at the University of the Pacific, joins us on the blog to offer his perspective on the potency, and the palatability, of cooking from the past. 

The Cookbook as Historical Source

People often ask me how to do historical research using cookbooks. There are several different approaches, all legitimate. On one level, it’s interesting to see what people liked to eat in the past. Their preferences were very different from ours. In the Renaissance, they used a much heavier hand with spices than we would and they liked food finely pounded and sieved–mostly because they ate with their fingers. Sugar also appears in places we find surprising, on a roast chicken, or sprinkled on a plate of pasta. They also ate a much wider range of game animals and in one of my favorite cookbooks by Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to Pope Pius V in the 16th century, there are even recipes for hedgehog and bear.


Rather than gawk at these strange dishes, my inclination has been to cook them, whenever possible using the same cooking utensils, over an open flame and of course meticulously sticking to the written directions without substitutions. As it turns out, cookbook authors knew what they were doing. I have never made a dish from the past that didn’t turn out right, nor one that was anything less than delicious. From this kind of historical research we get a glimpse not only of the taste preferences of our forebears, but also an idea of what daily life was like for a good proportion of the population, both the professional male chefs as well as the women who cooked for households.


In reading and cooking directly from old cookbooks, most importantly, we get a sense of the aesthetic values of the past, much the same way listening to Bach on an original harpsichord or looking at an old painting in person tells us exactly what people valued. I think it is a shame that we don’t have a large literature and critical vocabulary for culinary history of the caliber that art historians and historians of music have long enjoyed. People in the past ate pretty much every day, so why not try to understand their culinary arts with the same depth that we study other arts?   

There are other ways to read cookbooks without getting your hands dirty though. Much as any historian is trained to read between the lines and look for clues in any primary source document, cookbooks are also a remarkable resource. For example, if an author instructs to start by killing your chicken, you can be fairly confident that it was written for a rural audience. The number of people served, although rarely specified, can also be guessed from the proportions called for. If it is one chicken this would have been a small household, perhaps a family. It’s very clear when chefs are writing for professionals working in noble or royal households; they use huge proportions and exotic expensive ingredients.

Sometimes an explicit food culture will be apparent in a cookbook. Some focus on national dishes as a matter of patriotic pride. Some recommend spare and frugal foods as a means of attaining health, longevity or sometimes piety. Others may suggest avoiding animal products as a way to be penitent during periods of official fasting. In other words, recipes often reveal an entire worldview, a social and political outlook, even an ideology of food. For example, a cookbook written in the late Middle Ages known as the Menagier de Paris was composed by a wealthy elderly townsman for his young bride. The author assumed that he would die first and that his widowed wife would need extensive household skills, including cooking, to attract a new husband. While very revealing about patterns of marriage and the structure of families, the recipes themselves were often borrowed from a much more famous royal cookbook, the Viandier of Taillevent. What this suggests is that this man was not only of middling ranks, but he was a social aspirant, trying his best to teach his young bride how to make elegant dishes so she could pass as a woman of stature.

Take a look at this recipe which comes from Hugh Plat’s Delightes for Ladies (London: H.L. and R.Y., 1628, pp. 71-2) and see what you can discover between the lines. And if you are adventuresome, try cooking it. A beef brisket works very well, it’s corned (salted) beef.

How to keepe powdered beefe five or sixe weeks after it is sodden, without anie charge.

When your beefe hath beene well and thorowly poudred by ten or twelve dayes space, then seeth it throroughly, dry it with a cloth, and wrap it in dry clothes placing the same in close vessels and Cupboards, and it will keepe sweete and sound two or three moneths, as I am credibly informed from the experience of a kinde & loving friend.

–Ken Albala

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and author or editor of sixteen books, including Eating Right in the Renaissance, The Banquet, and Beans: A History (2008 IACP Jane Grigson Award). Albala edited the Food Cultures Around the World series, the 4-volume Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, and is now series editor of AltaMira Studies in Food and Gastronomy, for which he wrote Three World Cuisines: Italian, Chinese, Mexican (Gourmand World Cookbook Awards best foreign cuisine book, U.S.). Albala also co-edits the journal Food, Culture and Society and has co-authored two cookbooks: The Lost Art of Real Cooking and The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home. He lives in Stockton, California.

You can order Grow Food, Cook Food, Share Food here.

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