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A Heapin' Helpin' of World History

Jonathan T. Reynolds


     Welcome to World History Connected's issue on Food in World History. We're delighted to be serving up a variety of historical and pedagogical flavors with this edition. We've got historiography, case studies, and a batch of syllabi for you to enjoy, digest, and apply in your own research and classes. And, from here on out I will try really hard to not make any other food puns. But be warned, I can't make this promise for our various contributors.

     Once upon a time, back around the early 20th Century, World History was a very different beast than it is today. Indeed, perhaps the word that best describes the World History of 100 or so years ago was that it was exclusionary. Only a small minority of the world's people was considered to even have history worth reconstructing, debating, and teaching. Put another way, pretty much only Europeans and their diasporic descendants were considered historical. This particular version of History was often referred to as "Western Civilization." People outside of "the West" were defined as uncivilized and living in a sort of permanent primitive state. In the words of Eric R. Wolf, these were "people without history." Interestingly, there was a culinary analogue to this lack of history. Agriculture and pastoralism were presented as originating in the "fertile crescent" and only later spreading to other parts of the world. Further, people without history were also people without cuisine. Yes, they ate, but they didn't really COOK. Their foods were assumed to be every bit as unsophisticated as the people themselves were imagined. This exclusionary perspective argued that while people in the West, especially the wealthy and powerful, made cooking and eating an art, pretty much everybody else in the world treated food as necessary sustenance

     But World History wasn't the only kind of history around in the early 20th Century. In fact, World History was second (or maybe even third) fiddle to the reigning model of history—National History. Historians of this time were mainly concerned with talking about the history of their own country and how super cool it was, though they did occasionally talk about other countries and how much less cool they were than their own. From this perspective, history in the early 1900s was about difference. Thus, the history of France was REALLY different from the History of Germany—because the French were REALLY different from the Germans. This ostensibly was because they spoke a different language, approached politics in very different ways, wore different clothes, and (you know it's coming) ate different food. Indeed, different 'national cuisines' became a marker of nationality and identity, and cookbooks were (and remain) distinguished by their nationality. Check the cooking section in a bookstore. French cookbooks over here . . . German cookbooks over there. And, it is true, the French and Germans (and for that matter the Italians and British and so forth) did indeed eat somewhat different foods during the early 20th Century. But I'm not done with this point and will come back to it in a little bit.

     As the 20th Century wore on, World History began to change. In particular, it became more inclusive. The growing weight of historical awareness demanded that historians recognize (thought often grudgingly) that there were other "civilizations" outside of "the West." East Asian, South Asian, Mesoamerican, and Andean civilizations gradually found their way into the World History narrative. From the 1920s on, Area Studies programs also challenged the notion of "People without History" in regions such as Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia.

     Interestingly, the growing attention to food history did not parallel this more inclusive approach to history. Yes, other foods such as Mexican, Chinese, and Thai, made it into the national historical lexicon as markers of identity and came to be recognized as "real" cuisines, but in general food continued to be a marker of "difference" or as evidence of an absence of sophistication. Africa, for example, may no longer have been considered "outside of history," but almost no cooks or historians outside of the continent took African foods seriously as a subject of interest.

     It was not until well into the second half of the 20th Century that food history and world history began to radically transform and, finally, dramatically interact. In 1972, Alfred Crosby published the first edition of The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, drawing attention to the very real role played by foodstuffs in world history. The first journal dedicated to food history was Petits Propos Culinaires, initially published in 1979. Shortly afterwards, a group of thoughtful world historians came together and founded the World History Association. Their goal was to create a "New World History" which focused not on the differences between nations, civilizations or societies, but instead on connections, comparisons, and shared historical experiences. In recent years, the history of food has also taken off, transforming the field from a tiny scholarly niche to an academic growth industry with a wide popular readership. And, as we shall explore in the course of this issue of World History Connected, this rapidly expanding interest in and scholarship on Food History is a perfect partner for a comparative and thematic approach to World History.

     So what is so great about Food in World History? Ah—Let me count the ways. First, it is a perfect means by which to challenge our assumptions about tradition and difference in World History. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned that French and German cuisines were different in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries? It's true they were . . . but there is more to the story than that. For example, a few centuries before populations in the region had shared a much more common diet—heavy on porridges, breads, and the occasional inclusion of vegetables, meat and fish.

     So what changed? Just about everything, and that is the key point. From a World History perspective, human diets (and cuisines) are always changing. They change because of new cooking techniques and because of the introduction of new ingredients, either via trade or ecological exchange. Indeed, the advent of the Columbian Exchange changed the diet of almost every person in the world. The Germans and French of the 19th and 20th Centuries were eating foodstuffs which were fundamentally different from that of a few hundred years before—because they had not previously had access to corn, potatoes, tomatoes, hot peppers or a host of other ingredients. The same is true for the diets of Southern Chinese, West Africans, and the Amerindians of the North American Southwest at this same point in time. Our mistake was that we let the national histories and cookbooks of the late 1800s and early 1900s trick us into thinking there was such a thing as a "National Cuisine." Instead, what these histories and cookbooks did was take a brief moment in an ever-changing culinary (and cultural) history and (mis)represent it as a fixed culture or tradition. It's time we move beyond this deeply flawed perspective.

     A better way to look at food is to do so in terms of coming to grips with how it (like so many other aspects of human culture) is always moving and changing. As populations gain access to new foodstuffs and cooking techniques, they combine them with existing ingredients and recipes in new and creative ways. Food moves because people transform living things into food, move food and living things around, and also because our global environment is also always changing, forcing people to adapt with new crops, livestock, and foodways. Human cuisines are not just a global buffet of different dishes to be sampled and enjoyed, they are also different parts of one giant global cooking pot, a pot which is constantly getting stirred in new and creative ways. From this perspective, everything people eat is already "Fusion Cuisine."

     Examined from a perspective of thematic comparison, exchange, and interaction, instead of exclusion and difference, food is a great way to engage and teach world history. Indeed, food is a great way of getting at shared humanity. We all eat, after all. And every bite we take has a complex history of environmental modification, cultural exchange, and technological innovation behind it. We may prepare, cook and serve our rice differently, but pretty much all of us eat rice (and potatoes, and tomatoes, and lets not even get started on Kentucky Fried Chicken).

Figure 1
  Source: Mike Linksvayer, Flickr #P1020946, public domain.  

     The essays that follow will touch on a host of issues, including how food history helps us to learn about identity, politics, and economics. And there is more. As the syllabi here show, there is a host of ways to organize a World History course taught with or around food. Individual foodstuffs (such as potatoes, coffee, or black pepper) can offer a diversity of windows into World Historical themes. You could even teach chemistry through food, but we couldn't find a food historian with those sorts of scientific chops. Sorry—maybe next time around.

     What we do have is a fascinating historiography, "The Rise of the New Food History" presented by Rick Warner, whose essay takes us on a tour of the meteoric rise of food history and its growing partnership with World History over the past few decades. In the process, Warner introduces a number of texts which teachers and scholars alike can use in their courses and research. In "The World On a Plate: A Guide to Consuming World History" Candice Goucher introduces us to and instructs us in the variety of ways food can inform our understanding of not only history, but the history of agriculture, power, identity, gender, and globalization. With a shift to a regional focus, Hongjie Wang studies the introduction of peppers from the Americas and their transformation of the cuisine of Sichuan as a means to examine the ways these new flavors were used to represent regional and national Chinese identities in the 20th Century. For those seeking pedagogical examples, Urmi Engineer provides us with a number of syllabi which place food at the center of World History, complete with insights from the original instructors about the strengths and weaknesses of the ways these classes were organized. Finally, an interview with Chef and Historian Michael J. Twitty provides insights into the ways food in popular culture is increasingly can be used to help people uncover and more deeply understand the complexity of their own histories and memories.

     We hope this issue of World History Connected helps you to look at your own food, world history, and perhaps your classroom differently. Enjoy!

Jonathan T. Reynolds is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University, where he teaches African History, World History, and Food History. His most recent works include Sovereignty and Struggle: Africa and Africans in the Era of the Cold War (Oxford, 2014) and the 30 Second Twentieth Century (Ivy, 2014). With Erik Gilbert, is has published Africa in World History (3rd Edition, Prentice Hall, 2012) and Trading Tastes: Culture and Commodity Exchange to 1750 (Prentice Hall, 2006). At NKU he has received the "Strongest Influence" Award and the Milburn Outstanding Professor Award. He can be reached at


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