Food history shows generally fall into two categories: those that focus on cooking with a side of history, and those that focus on history as told through food. I’d like to recommend three series that focus on history with a side of food.
First, is The Supersizers (hat tip to Lafe Long), available on YouTube. It seems to be two series, The Supersizers Go and The Supersizers Eat. The hosts are Giles Coren and Sue Perkins. The show is focused on food culture throughout British history. There are a few partial cooking demonstrations (watch a chef sew a bird’s head onto pig’s body), and they do discuss changes throughout time. For example, shifts in food due to the introduction of spices like nutmeg or the increased availability of sugar.
The hosts eat the diet of a particular era, such as Roman or Edwardian, for a week. Like Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, the two get checked out by a doctor before and after embarking on their new diet. (What should they expect from drinking all that booze during the Elizabethan era?) They dress in period costumes – Sue Perkins continues to wear her nerdy, black, hipster glasses even when wearing a toga – and sit down to eat a table set in period style. They eat off trenchers (a piece of bread) in a number of episodes because plates weren’t in use yet. The series is silly and fun and full of bite sized pieces of culinary history.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner with Clarissa Dickson Wright is more substantial fare. This three part series is also available on YouTube. Each episode focuses on a different meal and she explores how trade and technology have influenced and changed what and how we ate each meal. As in The Supersizers, the show has little in the way of cooking demonstrations, but we do see what a meal would look like and she gives a more erudite discussion of the culture surrounding food. It defintely kept my interest.
Food: A Cultural Culinary History is a banquet of information. It is available through the Great Courses channel on Amazon Prime (you can get a trial membership to binge this series). I had never watched a Great Courses series before and I’m not sure what I expected. Perhaps a Ken Burns style documentary with pictures and voice-over, or maybe something more like the History Channel with its badly acted re-enactments. Nope.
It is just a chubby guy in a suit, standing there talking. And I was riveted. This a survey of the history of the world told through food and culture. It covers the impact of trade and technology on what and how we eat from pre-history to modern times. Ken Ablala is master lecturer. He does throw in the rare, amateur food demonstration; charoset, penitent’s salad, and sushi. If you watch no other series, watch this one.
So, what did I learn? Well, two things I’d like to share. First, no matter what time period you consider, or what diet people followed, someone will passionately insist it’s wrong. And, not only is that diet physically unhealthy, it is morally unhealthy and anyone who eats that way is a bad person. (Shakes finger.) This, of course, creates an opportunity for the governing institutions of church and state to intervene. For example, during the middle ages, the Catholic Church designated nearly half the year as ‘fast days’ which meant eating fish. Even after England’s break with the church, the government (particularly the Elizabethan government) continued to require fast days – mostly to support the English naval fleet. By fishing, they retained their seaman skills and supported themselves, without the crown having to pay for a navy – thrifty. So, when someone tells you that people used to eat a lot more fish, just remember that it wasn’t necessarily by choice. The weird categorization of things as fish (beaver tails) demonstrates that people were not necessarily excited about eating fish, fish, and more fish.
Second, I have long considered cooking to be a basic life skill. I confess to being a bit condescending to those who complain about having to cook. To me, its not that hard, and how else are you going to feed yourself? Do you expect someone else to cook for you? Well, actually, for much of history, yes. Most people didn’t cook. Cooking for one’s self or one’s own family is a relatively modern practice. And, as an economist, once the reasoning for why this was dawned on me as I was watching these shows, I felt pretty stupid.Cooking utensils (especially metal utensils) and a hearth designed for cooking (or later a stove) were expensive. The Roman populace couldn’t afford to have their own ovens. They took their grain to the baker, who would mill the grain and bake the bread for them. During medieval times, if you worked for the king, or even a local lord, you didn’t cook. You ate in the hall and someone else cooked for you. Peasants working in the field would bring their grain and vegetables to the field with them and it would be cooked in a communal pot.
In colonial America, Abigail Adams and her husband were wealthy people. She didn’t have her own bread oven. It was too expensive, and not just because of the capital investment, but because of the cost of fuel. Instead, she took her dough to the baker and rented time in his oven.
During industrialization, dormitories with eating halls were common for workers. Well into the 1950s, unmarried working people who moved to the city for work lived in boarding houses that provided meals. Even today, we largely expect college students to live in a dormitory and eat in a cafeteria. Mostly due to the cost of renting and furnishing an apartment.
Education should always change us and my foray into culinary history has made me even more willing to ignore the ever changing diet advice. It has also tempered my attitude toward those who don’t cook. In the big picture of history, not cooking isn’t that odd.