Tuesday, April 08, 2008

History of Food: A Review

This weekend I finally finished History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (ISBN 9780631194972), as translated by Anthea Bell. I've mentioned this book before as I began it, and covered the development of societies and the gender roles that were naturally created from the hunter-gatherer society.

but the book is more than that, it began to weave in and out of history and legend as each new food source was uncovered. It became less of a history of man's development with food than the history behind the French development in each area (starting on page 365 "Part V Luxury Foods" in a 763 page book). It moves in and out of history, with little need for chronology. The central theme is, after all, the food itself.

Perhaps the most disappointing move in the book is the Franco-centric focus. Little is mentioned of the Asian development of food, other than it's differing characteristics from those of the Gauls. German development is only mentioned when similar to the French, and Italians are only mentioned in conjunction with pasta. Americans, I'm afraid, are nothing more than ridiculed for their concepts of food, and only mentioned positively when the tomato, maize, and potato are introduced to Europe.

There are whole dimensions of food that are left out in the cold to wither and die because it doesn't fall within the Gallic centerpiece. Now, I know that French cooking is supposed to be the pinnacle of the culinary world. I know that all the prestige of the culinary arts are tied into the French way of doing things. But there are too many facets of food to tie to just one culture.

I have long contended that culinary excellence has everything to do with the cultural heritage that it represents. Culture is alive in food, it thrives, and it spreads. And we in the United States have a unique position, if we can but grasp it: We have all these gastronomic adventures within reach, if we are but willing to try them. Greek, Italian (not canned, please!), French, British, Japanese, Chinese, Creole, etc. They are all there, all waiting for us to step out of our comfort zones and experience. And at the same time, learn a little respect for a culture that created this wonderful experience.

If it were not for the beginning of this book which covers the first development of food in society (which the French cannot with any hope of sincerity claim as their own), the book would have been immediately relegated to the shelf and never looked at again. The beginning is it's one saving grace.

Now, I can't fault Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat for his focus on French cuisine. After all, he is French, and therefore has a predisposition to the French development of food. His focus is also primarily within his home town, which I think actually declares his bias rather well. But it would have been more accurate to say "A French History of Food", or perhaps "A Gallic History of Food", rather than just "History of Food".

Anyway, it is till an excellent read, though if you are not interested in the specifics of French cuisine you may end up skipping several sections. But for nothing else, read the first four sections. That is where development of food in multiple cultures (at least in this book) is at it's most pure.

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