Category Archives: Food and Culture

Food and Culture

We people are essentially beings of culture, which is engrained in every little aspect of our lives. And when speaking of culture we should understand it in the broadest sense possible: as a totality of beliefs, values, attitudes and practices of a group of people. These are passed on from generation to generation through different phases of socialization, which are a part of process of enculturation. Through this process, one could say, we become humans as it is culture which distinguishes us from other animals. Culture is a binding factor which links together individuals into a community and ascribes purpose to their lives.

Food on the other hand is more often than not considered a product of nature and although this may be true for the foodstuffs themselves as they occur in nature, it is a flawed assumption when we look at what humans actually eat. “A thing not of nature” is how Hippocrates viewed food and he was far from being a lone sheep in the flock of the thinkers of the past. As Montanari puts it: “The dominant values of food system in human experience are, to be precise, not defined in terms of ‘naturalness, but result from and represent cultural processes dependent upon the taming, transformation, and reinterpretation of Nature.” It is man who culturally chooses his food from a vast array of things suitable for consumption, and not only that, but he produces, transforms, creates and ‘performs it in a way known only to him, something other animals do not do. In this sense food is culture and it is culture when is prepared, cooked by means of fire and modified by other culinary practices . “Through such pathways food takes shape as a decisive element of human identity and as one of the most effective means of expressing and communicating that identity. ”

A well-known Ancient Greek aphorism ‘Know thyself! comes to mind when trying to understand food in the context of culture or as in the words of Massimo Montanari food as culture. If we truly are what we eat then food as a cultural element can be seen as an entrance into cultural learning and a stepping stone to a greater understanding of human nature. Or as Ken Albala writes in his history and recipe book on Cooking in Europe:

Growing and preparing food has also been the occupation of the vast majority of men and women who ever lived. To understand ourselves, we should naturally begin with the food that constitutes the fabric of our existence. Yet every culture arrives at different solutions, uses different crops and cooking methods, and invents what amount to unique cuisines. These are to some extent predetermined by geography, technology, and a certain amount of luck. Nonetheless every cuisine is a practical and artistic expression of the culture that created it. It embodies the values and aspirations of each society, its world outlook as well as its history. Fluidity is an essential cultural trait and therefore it is impossible to talk about cultures being set in stone: they are ever evolving. Food and cuisine being cultural elements evolve likewise through time. What today seems to be national cuisines or European cuisine is a result of many years of consequent change and improvements. In order to understand why we eat what we eat today is important to at least briefly look at historical background that has shaped the dishes consumed by nobles as well as commoners.

History of European Cuisine

European cuisine of today is in many ways different from what was eaten in ancient times and through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The techniques and flavourings in ancient Rome for example pose a stark difference to what is considered palatable today by a common European let alone mentioning the absence of the foodstuffs of the New World. Highly seasoned sauces and heavily spiced dishes were a common occurrence in those days:

The Roman comedy writer Plautus decried the habit of some cooks of overflavoring their dishes with sharp herbs and heavy spices, describing their seasonings as like “screech owls eating the entrails out of living guests.” The Romans certainly liked strong flavors, as attested by their love of garum, the ubiquitous salty sauce made from fermented fish, which they ate with virtually everything. The recipes of Apicius, probably dating from the first century AD, show how pervasive the Roman love of strong flavors was—for example, his recipe for flamingo includes vinegar, dill, coriander, pepper, caraway, asafoetida root, mint, rue, and dates. Romans used spices which have been completely forgotten in time such as grains of paradise – pungent peppery seeds with a hint of citrus or asafoetida – a widely used spice with a flavour and smell reminiscent of onions and garlic now still used in Indian cuisine.

Cookery of Middle Ages, Renaissance and Elizabethan Cuisine were still heavily influenced by an extensive use of spices and sugar even in savoury dishes. Many dishes were made sweet and sour with dried fruits and vinegar.

There is a noticeable heritage from Roman style of cookery which continued through Early Middle Ages onwards. “There were of course changes, shifts in taste preference and techniques and many geographical variations. Some ingredients came into fashion or slowly lost favour through this period. But it is nonetheless safe to say that someone eating in the fourteenth century would enjoy much the same basic repertoire of dishes as someone 300 years later. ” A major factor influencing the development of cuisine of the time was global travel and trade, which introduced a wide variety of new foodstuffs, however, not many (for example nowadays much adored potatoes) except the spices were welcomed at first. One of the more significant breaks in culinary history was a purely consequential one: due to higher literacy rate people demanded different kinds of recipes: “They could not afford whole porpoises or venison and they wanted recipes for fewer guests and less expensive ingredients. This accounts for many of the changes in European cookery. So too do purely economic factors such as the profitability of dairy cattle and the increasing prevalence of milk products in cuisine after 1500. ”

To a great extent this cuisine was inherited from or was an adaptation of Middle Eastern and Persian cuisine. Just as spices, sugar, and dried fruits were bought from Muslim merchants in the eastern Mediterranean, so too were cooking techniques and flavour preferences. This was a cuisine that used many spices together in dense clusters of flavour. Sugar and sour ingredients were often used in combination, along with nuts. Food was often pounded into fine smooth textures. Interestingly, it was this cuisine that was carried with Muslim expansion into India with the Moghuls where it remains today. It was also carried into Spain and flourished under the Abbasid Caliphate of Cordoba after the eighth century. The Muslim settlers brought with them many new ingredients, too; for example, eggplants, spinach, artichokes, rice, lemons, and sugar… The spice repertoire of the average medieval cook was far more extensive than any used today in the West. Along with those mentioned were cassia, which is a relative of cinnamon and is actually what is sold today in the United States [and Europe] labelled cinnamon, cassia buds, as well as grains of paradise or meleguetta pepper from the West Coast of Africa, long pepper and what was called tailed pepper or cubebs. Cubebs have a tiny pointy spike, but otherwise look like black pepper. All these have very subtly distinctive flavours and aromas. Ginger, always in dried form and ground, was also a major spice as well as its cousin galangal, which is spicier; some modern cookbook authors describe it as mustard-like and pungent.

What one can easily notice examining the cookbooks of the European past is that the elites feasted on a wide variety of foods, of plant and animal origin alike. Cookbooks tend to focus on meat because it was the most expensive and prestigious of foods, and the most complicated to cook, but there are many recipes for vegetables and lowly starches as well. These, of course, made up the bulk of ordinary peoples diet, but aristocrats and wealthy townspeople, the readers of cookbooks, were not above eating them. Every meal at every level of society included bread and wine, or beer in the north—even in the morning.

The mentioned new foods of the New World appear seldom in the cookbooks until the end of 17th century and we can only guess how they were cooked if they were at all. As noted the rich enjoyed an ample variety of expensive and complicated dishes, however the majority of the population in the Middle Ages and long after as well depended mostly on simple soups – the most popular mainstays of the European diet.

The poorer the family, the greater their dependence on soup—in which could be put any type of vegetable, grain, or meat. In fact, it was often customary to just keep a soup pot over the hearth, continually adding ingredients at hand, indefinitely. Beans could be added, cabbage and leafy greens, practically anything. Soups were also eaten any time of day, in the morning in the rustic farmhouse, or as an evenings supper, made of left over ingredients. Soups also varied according to thickness, and recipes usually distinguish between thin bouillons and broths and thicker pottages—or what in Italian were called minestre, as in the modern word minestrone.

As the years progressed the dishes became less complex in flavour profiles and more clean tastes were preferred more and more. Instead of using up to a dozen spices to flavour a dish cuisine of later 17th century onwards centred more on a single herb or spice or a combination of a few. But it was up until 19th century and in some countries even late 20th century when industrialization of agriculture and mass production of food significantly changed food habits and through cookbooks somewhat standardized the Western cuisine. Most of the once much loved dishes and widely used ingredients were forgotten or replaced by those which in the past only the wealthiest could afford. These recent changes are presented country-by-country in detail in the European Cuisine section.