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Book Review


Rachel Laudan, Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 464. Bibliography and Index. $39.95 (paper).


     Both popular and academic history has shown an increasing interest in food and foodways in the past few decades. Yet, culinary history exists as an underrepresented interdisciplinary study of food products, technology, social class, and, often, networks. In Rachel Laudan's new book, Cuisine & Empire, she treats food, specifically prepared food, as "an artifact, like clothes or dwellings, not natural but made by humans" (10). She follows migration patterns of cuisines as they were disseminated by merchants, soldiers and missionaries along the routes of imperial conquest from ancient times to the modern period. By her own assertion, she seeks to situate herself within the global food historiography created by the likes of Michael Symonds and Linda Civitello.1 But where their works study the culture of cooked food either thematically (Symonds) or discretely as part of nation-building (Civitello), Laudan elaborates on the transfer points between states, penning a narrative that explores how culinary philosophies create culture, not just define them.

     The concept of cuisine encompasses not simply food, meaning ingredients, but foodways—the manner of eating (including positions, furniture, utensils), methods of preparation, and other food associations. The book demonstrates how the cuisines of ancient Europe and Asia elaborated upon one another. At the root is Persia's Achaemenid Empire, whose opulence the Greeks imitated during and after the Macedonian conquest. The Romans succeeded the Greeks, and their more republican fare evolved into something recognizably Greek-influenced and stratified. It is in emulation of, or sometimes in contradiction to, this Greco-Persian extravagance that modern cuisines evolved. East and South Asian food cultures evolved in much the same way and often overlapped with the cuisines of their Western neighbors. The congruence of East Asian and Greco-Roman cuisines was rooted largely in China's and Europe's shared humoral theory of medicine that persisted until the Early Modern period.

     Laudan's most intriguing argument pertains to the spiritual associations ancient peoples made to food. She describes an ancient culinary cosmos rooted in the concepts of alchemy or transformation, societal hierarchy, and a "sacrificial bargain" between humans and gods. The excesses created by this bargain were eventually repudiated by worshippers and replaced with the practices of ritualized feasting and fasting, like Lent, and "preferred ingredients," like fish or vegetables (104). Fundamentally, cuisines were absorbed or adapted according to prevailing religious and philosophical debates on humanity's relationship to the divine, and to each other. Food preparation remains inextricably tied to health, medicine, spirituality, and the relationship between the individual and their environment.

     Laudan uses philosophical texts, cultural idioms, art and images, anecdotes, and cooking utensils themselves to round out more traditional historical texts and create a conceptual framework. This allows her a certain latitude to incorporate culinary traditions, such as they are, of the poor and working classes. The habits associated with "humble" or low cuisines are not terribly well articulated, but this is not the fault of the author. As she points out, a study of cuisine tends to be a trickle-down analysis of the wealthy, who can afford to experiment with food. Poor people take no risks with their food, so it seldom rises to the level of cuisine. They are content to emulate their societal "betters" and adopt the rich's food traditions as their own, in time. Not until the modern period, with its reliable trade networks and affordable foodstuffs, do the "middling" cuisines of the upwardly mobile emerge. The book's last chapters are accordingly devoted to the rise and spread of middle and high cuisines in the twentieth century.

     Laudan sets herself an ambitious goal, and her work is informative, exhaustive, but not expansive. What issues and regions she chooses to canvas, she covers very well, but she has not written a global study of empire or cuisine. She limits her focus to grain-based food economies "because they were to be so much more important [than root vegetables] in the history of cuisines" (30). Thus, by omitting cultures who ate roots as their staple food, she consigns most of the western hemisphere and large portions of Africa to footnotes in her global study. Laudan further focuses only on the cuisines of cultures whose religions gained global appeal. As such, she excludes empires built around maize, potatoes, taro, or cassava because she believes the prolific migration of New World and African foodstuffs to Eurasia did not include a corresponding migration of the technologies by which these foods were transformed into cuisine. She disavows the concept of the Columbian Exchange, calling it "a one-way culinary transfer" of technology and grain-based foodways from East to West. (202). In essence, this argument dismisses the worldwide impact of a staple food like corn because Europeans failed to adopt Mexican religions and did not add the proper alkali agent to render cornmeal nutritious.

     By adhering so strictly to the symmetry between religious ideology and food consumption, Laudan miscalculates the importance of those foods that transferred between cultures without their attendant foodways. The idea that cuisine attains globality only with the intact transfer of the accompanying technology and spiritual associations is directly refuted by her earliest chapters, in which she shows that all humans cook food by either baking, boiling or frying it. By the time Europeans—and everyone else—encountered new ingredients during the Age of Exploration, they already possessed the universal technology to transform them into cuisine. There are only so many ways to safely cook and consume a potato, and Europeans discovered those ways through trial and error, just as their ancient Mesoamerican counterparts had. Furthermore, the preparation and consumption methods of chocolate and tobacco passed between American and Eurasian cultures intact, proving that Europeans and Asians could and did appropriate New World culinary technologies when necessary. It is true that Europeans never learned prepare corn in the traditional way, but that does not negate its importance nor invalidate the culinary aspect of the Columbian Exchange. Europeans treated maize like wheat, the original "corn," which is rather evidence of its wholesale absorption into their existing foodways, not proof that such a transfer did not take place. These exchanges may have been unbalanced, complicated by colonial dominance and food distribution determined by racist ideologies, but they were never one-sided.

     As an articulation of the spread of Eurasian cuisine through religion, this book succeeds, not least because Laudan spends a great deal of time elaborating on the ancient networks of cuisine transference, as well as the modern one. As a study of global cuisines, and their associated empires, however, it falls short. The brief examinations of American, African and Oceanian cuisines feel inserted, rather than incorporated into an expansive narrative of empire. There is virtually no discussion the appropriation of cuisine beyond the Eurasian center. Because of her narrow focus, Laudan omits several important processes in the global culinary exchange, such as how North American food transformed the cuisines of Oceania and Africa, or, say, how the wholesale duplication of African foodways in the Americas made the slave trade successful. Cuisine and Empire is, in essence, a history of the proliferation and spread of culinary culture across the Eurasian continent over time, and Eurasians' appropriation of "foreign" foodstuffs. Such a study has value, especially in a European or an Asian history course. However, I cannot recommend it as a stand-alone text in any course, due to the author's stance on the food aspect of Crosby's important articulation of the Columbian Exchange, which deserves to at least be refuted by evidence presented in other texts, and due also to the short shrift given "peripheral" food economies.

Tara M. Dixon is a PhD candidate at Northeastern University. She has used food as a focus in her American and world history survey courses and has also taught courses devoted to food history. She recently received a dissertation completion grant from the American Association of University Women, and is currently at work completing her dissertation, "The Paradise Paradigm: Commodities and the Evolution of the Pacific World, 1780–1900." You may contact her at


1 See Linda Civitello, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, Third Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2011; and Michael Symonds, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Cilivilisation and Daily Life. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998.



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