The empire: The political unit that shaped and transmitted cuisines

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Food historian Rachel Laudan has a slightly different take on the usual food histories that we read about. She looks at how technology has shaped what we eat now and what we've eaten for the past 20,000 years. She is the author of Cuisine and Empire.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I always think that every book, especially a book like yours that's a book about history, has a question that it's trying to answer. What was your question?

Rachel Laudan: Mine was motivated by the realization that we are -- it's almost a cliché -- the only animal that cooks, the only animal that transforms natural products before we put them in our mouths. I wanted to tell the story of all these amazing transformations of grapes into wine, of milk into butter, and to see what difference it has made in human history.


Rachel Laudan

LRK: The subtitle of the book is Cooking in World History, but the title of the book is Cuisine and Empire. Where does the empire come into the picture?

RL: The empire comes into the picture because today we tend to think of cuisines as national cuisines. It's Italian cuisine, French cuisine, Vietnamese cuisine, Thai cuisine. But of course nations, even the oldest nations, have only come into existence in the last couple hundred years.

For most of history, the political unit that shaped and transmitted cuisines was the empire. One empire looked at another empire and if they thought their cuisine was great, they copied it.

LRK: Then there was all the trading, the exchanging and the conquering. There has always been a crossing of cuisines, a sharing of cuisines.

RL: Absolutely. One of the really striking things is that you can tell the story of the grand level if you imagine yourself flying over the earth and looking down, in terms of great spreads of cuisines, whether it's Buddhist cuisine in the first thousand years A.D., or whether it's Islamic cuisine, or then Catholic cuisine, and more recently modern Western cuisine.

LRK: You've given yourself an interesting span in this book. You start 20,000 years ago with man trying to master grains and trying to get them to be edible. But you bring us to today, and you talk about the myths and the romances of food today. What do you mean by that?

RL: That we have become accustomed in the last quarter century to thinking about food in a way that people have never thought about it really before in history. We tend to think that it has been produced in the past by small yeoman farmers, by peasants. We stress the fresh and natural. We downplay cooking at least in the public pronouncements because of the emphasis on fresh and natural. We assume that home-cooked is the best way to go. These are very recent ideas.

LRK: Really? I'm thinking that the model in a lot of people's minds is that people didn't have restaurants, they cooked at home, they ate what they had handy to them mostly. I don't understand where the myth comes in.

RL: I think the myth comes in because we have a very specific notion of the family meal. Ours assumes that it's mother, father and children seated around a table, which is both the source of physical and of spiritual or social nutrients or nutrition.

Consider for example Hawaiian society up until the middle of the 19th century. Sure, the food was prepared locally, but women were not allowed to prepare taro. Men and women were not allowed to eat together. If they did, the women were killed.

LRK: They were killed?

RL: Yes, the last person to receive this punishment was in the early 19th century. So yes, the food was local and it was prepared locally, but it was a long way from our notion of the nurturing family meal.

LRK: What about the idea of eating close to the ground?

RL: Yes, obviously people did have to eat close to the ground. But the trouble is that most of what the ground produces tends to rot, go bad and smell. It's absolutely essential since everybody has a season when food is not available -- whether it's a wet season, a dry season or a cold season -- to preserve food. The huge energy of societies went into trying to constantly preserve food so that they could survive through the difficult seasons.

People have always put their best thinking, their most ingenious ideas, into trying to find new ways to turn plants and animals into something that we believe to be good to eat. I don't believe we've reached the end of our ingenuity or our cleverness in finding new ways to make food good or raw materials good to eat. We obviously want to continue that.

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