From Columbus to celebrity chefs: How food helped shape history

Food: It feeds the soul, fuels the body, affects the environment, inspires artists, influences politics, and impacts just about every part of our lives. It has been a subject of fascination and entertainment for centuries, reflected in the beauty of a Dutch still life, the pageantry of a royal banquet, or even the latest episode of “Top Chef.”

While the subject of food may be fascinating to gourmands and gluttons alike, it turns out that the study of the history of food — and the numerous social, cultural, and political forces that shape our palette — is a relatively new field.

Paul Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History and chair of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, specializes in medieval history and teaches the only undergraduate course at Yale dedicated to the history of cuisine. He began teaching “The History of Food” in 2009, and his class draws students from disciplines ranging from environmental science to engineering to history.

YaleNews spoke with Freedman about celebrity chefs, medieval banquets, what the history of food can tell us about our culture, and his favorite cookbooks.

Why should we study the history of food?

Food can tell us a lot about a society in the past and the present, including what people lived on and how they managed to create a food supply, often in difficult circumstances. A number of major historical events have been dictated by changing tastes in food, like the “career” of sugar.

Tea in China is not drunk with sugar. It was the Europeans who decided to put sugar in beverages like tea, chocolate, and coffee. In order to increase the global supply of sugar, they established plantations, particularly in the Caribbean and Brazil, and they brought Africans over to be enslaved workers. So one of the most cataclysmic movements of people in the history of the world is the result of what might be seen as a frivolous or minor fashion. 

Similarly, it was the quest for spices in the Middle Ages that dictated attempts to find their source in India, the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Columbus.

How did you become interested in the subject?

I became interested in the history of food through work on a book about spices in the Middle Ages. I wanted to understand why these expensive products were so popular.

At that time I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, which had an exhibition of menus in the collection. They have something like 40,000 menus, mostly but by no means all from New York City, and I was fascinated by them, their design, and how much the food offered seems to have changed over time. I became interested in food in its modern guise.

In 2005, I was contacted by an editor in London for the publisher Thames and Hudson, who asked me if I’d edit a book on the history of food. My first response, which is typically academic, was “Actually, that’s not my field.” But I was intrigued. The project encouraged me to think outside the Middle Ages, and I agreed to do it. The book, “Food: The History of Taste” (2007) spans prehistory to present times.

You specialize in medieval history. Can you tell us a little bit about food in the Middle Ages?

Food in the Middle Ages was closer to Middle Eastern food today than to modern European cuisine. It featured a lot of spices, was rather perfumed with ingredients such as rose-water, and sweet, with sugar in main courses. Dried fruits and pine nuts were also main course ingredients. The most popular meats included game, and pork. Meat had prestige. The medieval Catholic Church had over 100 fast days per year, so there was also a lot of fish. Most people ate herring or cod or something that could be dried or salted for preservation.

The nature of banqueting was to create excess. The aristocracy had 50- or 100-course meals with a lot of color and pageantry. One course might be a chicken with a banner riding on the back of a glazed orange suckling pig. The point of being wealthy was to show off what no one else had, but in that era there was less food waste than now. Somebody would eat it all, like the kitchen staff, other servants, their families, and eventually the poor. They didn't have our laws against giving away cooked food.

Peasants probably had a more balanced diet than the nobles, eating more vegetables and grains. It’s wrong to think peasants  were on the brink of starvation all of the time. There was also a very prosperous commercial class that imitated the upper class in terms of food.

How is our food different today?

The food of the Middle Ages was very different from modern European food, which is based on French innovations of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Sauces in the main courses are now meant to intensify flavors, rather than cover them. A typical French sauce is a distillate and flavored with things like shallots, herbs, or truffles, rather than cinnamon or nutmeg. Such spices, along with sugar, are exiled to the realm of desserts.

All of the traditional French cooking is a reaction against the Middle Ages. The French chefs of the 17th and 18th centuries ridiculed earlier food as childish and inedible, based on spectacle and not on flavor.

There is a great emphasis in French culinary text on simplicity, not literally plainness, but in terms of making the flavor of the primary product come through. This remains the case today. Nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s was the same kind of reaction against over-complication or poor quality disguised by multiple ingredients.

Are there any dishes from the Middle Ages that you would like to see make a comeback?

I don't understand why game hasn't come back. The United States is teeming with deer. There are certain species of wild animals — of which there are a lot and quite edible — that people ate in the past and for some reason don’t now. 

Also, various kinds of ducks and pheasants. There are things that people loved in 19th-century America that are no longer common, like terrapin, or  canvasback ducks, which were prestige dishes in the 1800s.

You’ve lectured on the origins of celebrity chefs. How long have they been around, and why do we celebrate them?

Like any art or craft, there are some people who do it better than others. They achieve fame because nobody else seems to be able to make certain dishes so well. In ancient Rome we know of one surviving cookbook attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius. There were also great chefs who worked for the Islamic caliphs in Baghdad, emperors in China, and officials in the Ottoman Empire.

One of the first celebrity chefs in the Western world that we know anything about is Guillaume Tirle, known as Taillevent, a cook in the court of France in the 14th century. He was ennobled, and his name was put on a collection of recipes, “Le Viandier.” To this day, one of the greatest restaurants in Paris is called Taillevent, so his name is a household word.

There's a difference, however, between celebrity chefs today, like Dan Barber or René Redzepi, and those from even a few decades ago. Nobody asked Taillevent, Antonin Carême, Auguste Escoffier, or Alexis Soyer their opinions on the environment or social issues. The idea that chefs are supposed to take leadership in these areas is a new phenomenon.

When did the first restaurants open?

The first restaurants arose in Paris before the French Revolution, around 1760 and 1770. The word comes from “restoration,” and they were places to get nourishment for hypercondriacal or “delicate” people. As these places evolved, they served other expensive and fashionable health foods for the middle and upper classes.

Part of what defined a restaurant was that you could get food at any time, unlike at an inn or table d’hôte. It wasn’t done family style. You could sit down and dine with the people you came with, and choose what to order.

Restaurants in the United States start around 1830. Delmonico’s is considered the first real restaurant in New York City. It lasted from 1835 to 1923. The original closed with prohibition, as many restaurants did. 

What must naturally follow restaurants are food critics. Was that also a French invention?

Alexander Balthazzar Grimod de la Reynière was the first food critic — he was a strange character — and wrote the multi-volume “L’Almanach des Gourmandes” in the early 19th century.

Restaurant reviews in the United States came much later, and in a way, not until Craig Claiborne, who was food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times for many years. Up until then, reviews were really puff pieces that were essentially advertising.

Is food a more complicated subject today than it was even 50 years ago? 

It's always been complicated. There has always been a difference between what the upper class and the lower class eats. For a very long time America has been unusual because of the popularity of immigrants’ food. But we’ve tended to emphasize variety over quality. We’ll offer poor-quality burgers, but “have it your way.” It’s hard to do quality in an industrial economy.

So it’s always been complicated, but people now are more inclined to think it's a subject worth studying. The reason it has not been studied very much from this point of view is that it's both ubiquitous and invisible. You have to make food all the time, and it therefore it seems a necessity. But it’s still considered by some people a dubious academic subject because it's both everywhere and nowhere. 

Do you like to cook?

Yes, I do. I wouldn’t say that I'm a very skilled cook, but I do most of the cooking in the family.

What are some of your favorite cookbooks?

Like many people, there are three or four cookbooks that I use all the time. One is by Viana La place and Evan Kleiman, “Cucina Fresca,” which features Italian food that can be served at room temperature. I still like the Pierre Franey books that came out when I was first married, called “The 60-Minute Gourmet” and “More Sixty-Minute Gourmet.”  I love the fact that in the 1980s, an hour appeared to be fast. Today nobody would boast that it only took them 60 minutes to make dinner. I like the “Plenty” and “Jerusalem” cookbooks by Yotam Ottolenghi. And I like to make Chinese food and comfort food. 

What’s next for you?

My real interest in terms of my own food-related scholarship is American restaurants. I’m working on a book called “Ten Restaurants that Changed America,” which is due out in 2016 or early 2017.