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Food: A Culinary History



3 out of 5 stars=    An Intellectual Endeavor

Reviewer: The Rebecca Review.com

This is an academic study filled with essays by forty contributing authors. “FOOD: A culinary History” has been compiled by two of Europe’s great food historians. This is more of a textbook than a book you can simply enjoy reading one afternoon on the couch. It is a hefty 553 pages plus Index. This is for the serious student or overly ambitious cook. I read it because I’m darn curious.

This book took me about a week to read. It is extremely well written and yet somewhat dry in places with the occasional oasis. You cannot skim over the pages, you have to analyze the sentences at times and then look up a few words here and there. I also thought the organization of the essays could have been greatly improved to provide more interesting reading. I wanted maps, timelines and perhaps more pictures of actual food from the time periods. There are a few pictures of famous art displaying food.

While reading, you will soon realize how fortunate we are to live in America in the present day. In general, the world has not eaten very well according to the descriptions in this book.

Some comments on the essays:

Some of the authors neglect to take religious beliefs into consideration when they discusses why man became an omnivore although he does touch on some facts about the Ancient Hebrews.

Evolution is presented as a “fact,” while creation is presented as a “myth.” I feel we have more evidence that points towards a creator and evolution seems somewhat illogical to me at least.

Cooked meat is a natural byproduct of forest fires? Oh, I had a good laugh over that one. Sure, it could have happened, but what about considering what we do know about the past.

What about cooked meat being a natural result of sacrifices to the creator or even a goddess? I guess it is just a different way of looking at the past. I’d say you should take the first few chapters with a grain of “Fleur de Sel/French Sea Salt.” Has anyone heard of the flood or God? One author stated that Jesus’ death was “cruel” and I think he basically implied God was cruel.

Francis Joannes writes a wonderful essay on “The Social Function of Banquets in the Earliest Civilizations” and mentions the epic of Gilgamesh and explains some details about a marriage in Assyria. There are also many references to Homer's writing

Jean Soler writes a fascinating chapter on “Biblical Reasons: The Dietary Rules of the Ancient Hebrews.” I had never understood the concept of “culinary incest” which completely awakened my curiosity and Jean Soler provided well-thought out explanations as to why prescribed rituals had to be observed. I didn’t realize that many cultures in history actually only consumed meat after ritual sacrifice. The taking of an animal’s life takes on an entirely new meaning after reading this chapter. There are reasons why humans did not originally eat meat and they are very complex and have to do with a Creator having the power over life and death. In a way, humans were given the right to take away life in certain instances.

I enjoyed reading Chapter 18 which deals with “Mediterranean Jewish Diet and Traditions in the Middle Ages.” Here you can learn the basics of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, Purim and Passover.

If you are especially interested in Medieval Life, then you will love this book for the content on Medieval Cooking. It really is extensive.

Things you might learn from this book:

That the sycamore tree has fruit. Who knew.
How beer played a role in the invention of yeast breads
That the Etruscans had cheese graters
What “Dionysiac possession” means.
How we have the luxury of avoiding wheat while the Romans embraced it
as a buffer against famine.
That ale was used in pagan rituals since wine was sacred to Christianity.
That the cultivation of oats and other wild grasses began in Medieval times.
The reasons why peasants boiled meat and the nobles preferred roasting methods.
How the Arabs contributed to Medieval European culture.
Why Byzantine cuisine was mostly found in taverns.
Insight into why Muslims don’t consume alcoholic beverages.
How Persia’s culinary traditions influenced Arab cuisine.
How the European conquest of the Seven Seas influenced cooking.
How the tomato, potatoes and corn transformed European cooking.
Lists of Table Manners from the past.
That chestnuts are ground into flour and can be used to make polenta.
That the bread in Europe contained “peas.”
Why people needed a kneading trough.

It does seem that in the past, many ate to live while today we have the luxury of living to eat. The way we cook does seem to be a result of lifestyle choices. If you like to study and read, you will more than likely spend less time cooking and have simple methods of combining foods without recipes. If you want to spend time reading this book, may I suggest Lean Cuisine? I did not have as much time to cook while trying to read this book. It was intense.

However, you have to have a good laugh at all the “forbidden” foods and drink. Even today, this trend continues. One day we are told not to eat fat, the next not to eat as many carbohydrates. I’ll say eating more protein and less carbohydrates does seem to have some charm and I’m seeing results. Bread = Bad in my present world of weight loss. At least, with certain diets, you are not supposed to eat bread or highly processed grains. They are also doing studies that point towards skin conditions caused by the way in which we process wheat. Time will tell. In the past, humans relied on bread in a big way. Today we have the luxury of saying no and reaching for a soy protein shake.

If I learned anything from this book it is that most of us have slowly freed ourselves from “culinary” tradition and regulation. While still clinging to some semblance of food preparation, we are advancing into a world where food preparation seems less important than getting a meal on the table fast. We freely make use of canned foods and boxed mixes. I think the new term is “Semi-Homemade.”

Compare this book to “The True History of Chocolate” ISBN 050001693 and you will know the difference between a focus on food and a focus on history. Try ISBN 0764112589 if you just want to read about food.

Recommended for Serious Food Writers and Serious Students of Culinary History.

Reading Level: Intense.



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