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The Rise of the New Food History

Rick Warner


     As I transitioned from professional chef to graduate student in History in the 1990s, it occurred to me that I could combine these two interests to good effect in my upcoming career. As with all grad students I was the (sometimes unwilling) recipient of advice from mentor professors, who urged me not to follow that path since I would not be taken seriously as a scholar. As I was finishing the dissertation (which had very little to do with food) my advisor pointed to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that supported his earlier dismissal of my interest in food history. Witness the sub-title: "A Place at the Table: Food Studies Makes Inroads in Academe, but Critics Say it's Scholarship-lite."1

     Much has happened since the publication of the Chronicle piece. Food Studies has risen in multiple disciplines and as a multi-disciplinary field. Complementing the academic market is an explosion of food-related books on the shelves of Barnes and Nobles, and of course the expansion of food programs and even entire television networks have made the subject ubiquitous in the public sphere. There are countless food blogs, twitter feeds, social movements, and eating trends… or fads. Everyone is suddenly a "foodie."

Figure 1
  Source: A. Soyer, The Pantropheon or, History of Food and its Preparation from the Earliest Ages of the World. London, 1853. From Google Books.  


     A couple of decades prior to the rise of the new Food Studies, major changes in our own field sparked what Ross Dunn and others have called the New World History.2 With its emphasis on expanding beyond the West and developing inclusive stories of all the world's peoples and the integration of their communities, the New World History has become a welcome partner in the advent of the New Food History. This scholarship is moving away from the "lite" accusation, slowly finding its legs in the world of historiography. However, the mass of literature that has been produced in the past couple of decades does suffer from a certain randomness of purpose, and inconsistency in historical argumentation. This essay seeks to identify some trends in the recent historical literature about food, in order to suggest pathways for teaching and research that could very well become, well, delicious.

General World Food Histories

     Given the breadth of the subject, general histories of food must necessarily make choices about what content to include, as they face a challenge that is well-known to world history textbook writers. Earlier examples of general food histories include Reay Tannahill's Food in History in 1973 and Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's History of Food, originally published in French in 1987.3 Both of these are weighty door-stoppers, as the paperback editions spanned nearly 500 and 800 pages respectively. While both are quite comprehensive in their treatment of food in world history, their view of the global past is rather more Eurocentric than most world historians would prefer nowadays. Less ambitious yet still quite interesting is Food in World History by Jeffrey M. Pilcher, who authored two other more specific monographs on food.4 This short volume was produced as part of a series edited by the esteemed world historian Peter Stearns, entitled Themes in World History. Essentially the book provides an interesting taste of the subject, as Pilcher covers themes from the Columbian Exchange, the impact of the industrial and green revolutions, and the development of cuisine. It stands as a good primer for the subject of food in world history, and invites us to think more broadly on the subject. Finally, we have a food book by the inimitable Felipe Fernández Armesto, author of countless works on European and world history. Don Felipe's Near a Thousand Tables travels through history from the rise of the agricultural revolutions through the industrial present.5 The book reads like a fascinating conversation with the author, and anyone who has spoken with Armesto for more than a few minutes surely knows what I mean. The eminently readable narrative features lots of random details and interesting theories about how and why people ate as they did. Like the Pilcher book, this short work provides some excitement as an entry into the subject of food history.

     Fans of Big History will appreciate a general history that focuses on the Paleolithic. Kristen Gremillion's Ancestral Appetites follows the deep history of human eating prior to the agricultural revolutions.6 The growing diversity of eating habits, as revealed in the archaeological record, suggest a trend in human's relationship to their chosen diet. The interplay between biological constraints and cultural opportunities has influenced human eating for thousands of years, and like many other historical trends this evolution continues to the present in a more rapid fashion. Though we will have to forgive the use of the term "prehistory" as one that is starting to fall out of fashion in world history, the text does offer some interesting opportunities for analysis for food history that would work well with Big History.

Food Histories and Diasporas

     One of the fastest growing genres in Food Studies is that of the individual food history. Historical accounts of the origin and diaspora of many foodstuffs have been published over the past twenty years. This genre has made a strong impression in the non-academic market of bookstore readers. Among the foods studied in this way are salt, the potato, maize, cod, and rhubarb. Related to this genre are books on curry and spice, and now even "the taco." Clearly these books are of great value to world historians, since our work is so connected with the exchanges along trade routes and across oceans. The travel of these and other foodstuffs influenced the economic histories of individual colonies and states, as well as individual cultural histories across the globe through shifts in cuisine.

     Typically these individual food history books focus on the deep history and biology of the product, the changing varietals through time, the movement of the substance across the globe, and technicalities as to how it is grown and processed in the modern context. In one book on maize or corn, for example, Anthony Boutard takes us from the early days in which Mesoamerican peoples used genetic selection to improve the wild teosinte plant into more preferable larger cobs that we recognize today.7 The author describes the various processes though which maize has been processed through the ages, from the metate to modern milling processes. History as a discipline takes a back seat in the analysis, but the biological and culinary details can be of use to historians. Maize goes on to move around the world, exerting an impact in virtually every region. An excellent treatment of the influence of maize outside the Americas comes to us from James McCann in his pithily titled Maize and Grace: Africa's Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000.8 Given its flexibility across climatic regions, maize seemed destined to spread widely.

     The potato has received a somewhat more thorough historical treatment, dating back to the pioneering work by Redcliffe Salaman, whose 1949 History and Social Influence of the Potato was surely ahead of its time.9 Others have worked in the wake of this early potato history, including John Reader and Larry Zuckerman.10 Both Reader and Zuckerman feature human agency more prominently in their texts, along with the agency they accord the spud itself in shaping history. Consideration of the Andean roots and impact of the potato improved over the narrative of Salaman, though more can be done with the South American background still.

Cooking and Cuisine Histories

     Mirroring the significant interest in the history of cooking in the public sphere, academics have now begun to write individual national, cultural, and global cuisine histories. For the most part these works do not engage wider historical themes, but they can be the "ingredients" for further analysis about the role that food plays in history. There are quite a number of these works that have been produced in recent years, so I will limit myself to several in this space.

     Amy Trubek's Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession might, on the surface, seem to be a parochial study of one particular cuisine, just the sort of Western Civilization-type narrative that world historians have struggled to move beyond.11 Truth be told, the book is indeed Franco-centric. But as a colleague of mine likes to remind me, Europe is also part of the world. More to the point, French culinary practices has had an impressive impact on nearly all other cuisines to one degree or another. Consider the classic Vietnamese dish, pho. Though considered a national dish of Vietnam today, pho was developed as the result of French involvement in "Indo-china," as they lent their technique for pot-au-feu to their suffering colonists. This is not the sort of example that will be found in Trubek's account, however. The focus is decidedly on the evolution of French cooking, especially haute cuisine. Admittedly, understanding the development of this influential cuisine can help us learn more about culinary changes across the world.

     Rebecca Spang is not any more global in her Invention of the Restaurant, but for the same reason it is worth reading this text.12 The French did not invent the restaurant any more than they invented cuisine, but their impact has been considerable. Jus as with the huge general histories of a generation ago, most of the information comes from the Western tradition. That said, there is not any better treatment of the restaurant as an institution to appear just yet. Furthermore, Spang spins a more tightly woven tale than in most food books, focusing on the restaurant as an institution, and limiting the analysis to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The impact of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era is significant, as Spang identifies social and political reasons for the rise of the modern restaurant. Thus, the book does pass over to more critical historical analysis than many others of the genre.

     More recently we have been saved from an overabundance of food books dominated by European history. The publication of Candice Goucher's Congotay! Congotay! represents a helpful shift in the historiography toward the non-Western world.13 Her laboratory is the Caribbean, where African influences dominate and are joined by indigenous "American," Asian, and European additions.14 The focus here is decidedly on the food itself, and secondarily on the agency of the people who create the meals. The "crucible" of Caribbean cuisine is revealed across time and cultures, as Goucher offers a wide array of examples of foods and their combinations that were used to make up the region's cuisines. The book travels beyond the haute cuisine so typically covered, and delves into the world of street food, cookery in slave quarters, and the work of hired and enslaved women of color. There are even connections made between the "hot pot" tradition in the eastern US colonies and African culture from the Caribbean and South. The story is told more deliciously still with a collection of recipes that pop up in each chapter. This book has turned a corner in Food Studies, in my opinion, calling for further investigation of cuisines from non-Western and developing areas with an eye to the global interactions that create these foodways.

History-Shaping Food

     All of the previously discussed works do have the potential of showing how food influenced key processes in world history. To one degree or another, however, many of these works are more descriptive than analytical in this regard. Historians are accustomed to seeking out secondary literature that features a strong argument, though I must stress that resources that do not fully accomplish this mission are often quite valuable as reference and for provoking further thought. I do think that the field of food history should move further in the direction of historical monographs that use food to justify claims about world historical processes. The following works are emblematic of that approach.

     A foundational book in the new food history appeared in 1985, the result of work by anthropologist Sidney Mintz. His Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History traced the development of the sugar business from its earliest days a couple of millennia ago, through the epic growth as a result of the 16th and 17th century Atlantic Slave Trade, into the industrial period.15 Thanks to work by Philip Curtin and his team of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, demographic information about the Atlantic Slave Trade has greatly influenced historical narratives of the colonial period sugar business. Most world history textbooks demonstrate this graphically with wide arrows pointing from Africa to Brazil and the West Indies, often surprising their U.S. readers that by far more Africans were uprooted to grow sugar. Yet until this book by Mintz there was not much attention paid to the critical question of why all this sugar was being grown. As he moves from chapters on production to consumption, Mintz effectively argues that the market for sugar exploded among Europeans of all social classes in the sixteenth century, creating an increasing demand for the substance. Thus, the economics of trade in the Atlantic context began to be explained from social and cultural levels in world history texts.

     While the Mintz book still teaches well in some classrooms, we have been fortunate to witness the production of newer texts that use food to describe key world historical concepts. Jeffrey Pilcher's Que Vivan Tamales! (don't fret, it is written in English) was a key addition to this literature.16 Using a variety of primary sources including nineteenth-century cookbooks, Pilcher argues that a "tortilla discourse" was active in the years that Mexico was discovering its sense of nationalism. The question has now become familiar to diners: "flour or corn tortillas?" In nineteenth-century Mexico the question of wheat versus maize corresponded to important historical memories for the citizenry. The eventual winner of this debate was maize, as Mexicans choose to privilege their indigenous past, just as they do with the Aztec image of the serpent-clutching eagle on their flag.

     I view the Goucher book discussed above as a hinge between the two genres of culinary history and the impact of foodways on broader historical processes. Though perhaps more valuable in its voluminous collection of culinary details drawn from archaeological, linguistic, and written records, Congotay! raises some interesting questions regarding the process of cuisine development. In a sense, the book points us in a theoretical direction that parallels an interest in integration of cultural analysis in world history generally. Recent world history textbooks (too many to review here) have moved in the direction of suggesting cultural reasons for historical causation to complement the traditional economic and political forces that normally undergird our narratives. That is, how do these Caribbean and other "ordinary" cooks in the home and on the street both reflect and cause historical change? That is a question that has only begun to be opened, and has good promise for future historiography.

     Just as Pilcher has wedded the study of nationalism to foodways, more recently Rachel Laudan has taken on a wider project in her Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.17 At nearly five hundred pages, this is a solid world history of food, with strong influences from the major themes seen in textbooks and courses. I am not sure that the word "empire" is always applicable, however. There are some excellent maps that will show familiar empires and complex societies from the early years of grain production into the modern period. I am not convinced that these political, and in some cases, religious entities actually defined cuisines. That said, the device of imperial cuisine does work to show how foodstuffs and techniques are shared through both trade and domination through the longue durée of history. The level of detail is quite impressive, and the intention to move toward a more complex thesis about how and why foodways change over time is quite clear here. Furthermore, the book has a fairly global reach, at least through the broader Eurasian world. As with the Goucher book, this one will have a strong impact on future scholarship.

Conclusion: Scholarship Lite?

     The books considered here constitute only a minority of those that are now beginning to fill the bookshelf of the food historian. We have indeed come a long way since the challenging Chronicle article of 1999. Still, those of us who write food history must remain vigilant against the strong tendency to privilege detail over historical argumentation. I would like to suggest that this is a challenge similar to other cultural historiographies, such as sports history. For the moment, however, teachers of world history will find ample information at their fingertips for class presentations and activities. Many of us are finding that teaching food can open up an interesting window on the past. Food captures the attention of students as it has increasingly drawn the attention of the wider public. The possibilities in the classroom are endless. Let's get cooking!

Rick Warner teaches Latin American, African, and World History at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He has authored and edited various journal articles about food history in World History Connected, the World History Bulletin, and elsewhere. Rick worked as a professional chef for over a decade and continues to cook and teach students the culinary arts in his history classes. He can be reached at


1 Jennifer K. Ruark, "A Place at the Table: Food Studies Makes Inroads in Academe, but Critics Say It's scholarship-lite," The Chronicle of Higher Education, XLV:44 (9 July 1999, A17–A19.

2 Ross E. Dunn, ed., The New World History: A Teacher's Companion (Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 1999).

3 Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Stein and Day, 1973); Maguelonne-Toussaint, History of Food (Oxford: Blakwell, 1992).

4 Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History (New York: Routledge, 2006). Pilcher also wrote Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (New York: Oxford, 2012) and ¡Que Vivan los Tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998). Recently he also edited the excellent collection Oxford Handbook of Food History, which engages key themes in the emerging field and is a good place for aspiring food writers to find their place in the historiography.

5 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (New York: Free Press, 2003).

6 Kristen Gremillion, Ancestral Appetites: Food in Prehistory (New York: Cambridge, 2011).

7 Anthony Boutard, Beautiful Corn: America's Original Grain from Seed to Plate (New Society Publishers, 2012).

8 James McCann, Maize and Grace: Africa's Encounter with a New World Crop (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007).

9 Redcliffe Salaman, History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949).

10 John Reader, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Larry Zuckerman, Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (New York: North Point Press, 1998).

11 Amy B. Trubek, Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

12 Rebecca L. Spang: The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

13 Candice Goucher: Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2013).

14 The African roots of Caribbean cooking are nicely detailed in James McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009).

15 Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking Books, 1985).

16 ¡Que Vivan los Tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

17 Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

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