Saturday, January 11, 2014

Rachel Laudan's "Cuisine and Empire"

Rachel Laudan is author or editor of half a dozen books spanning history of food, science, and technology. After a happy couple of decades in academia, she decided that it would be invigorating to work outside academia and in a different culture. So off she went to Mexico where she supported herself freelancing while she worked on her latest book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.

Laudan applied the “Page 99 Test” to Cuisine and Empire and reported the following:
Well, page 99 is both perfect and not so perfect. It’s half of a two-page map entitled “Ancient Imperial Cuisines, 600 B.C.E-200 C.E." The perfection is that the ten maps in Cuisine and Empire are essential to understanding how a small number of cuisines spread so widely that they have dominated world history.

It’s not so perfect because this is primarily a locator map. The others are thematic: what Buddhist cuisine gained and lost as it spread from India to Japan; meat dumplings and the Mongol Empire; the global spread of curry.

So let me take the liberty of quoting from pages 97 and 100 to explain what’s on p. 99.
By 200 C.E., a chain of interlinked cuisines stretched from the Roman Empire in the west through the empires of Persia and northern India and across the steppes to the Han Empire in northern China. In all of them, wheat was the favored grain for high cuisine, displacing barley and millet, now thought to be fit only for humble cuisine and for animals. Assuming a world population of about 200 million, the Han and Roman empires were probably home to around 40% of it, 20 percent each. If the other empires are included, then wheat eaters were probably ruling over half the world’s population.
And wheat eaters are still ruling most of the world’s population. But wheat (and rice and all the other agricultural products) can only be eaten once they have been processed and cooked, activities that take as much or more energy than growing and harvesting them.

So Cuisine and Empire gives cooking and processing their due importance in human history, shows that they were always shaped by ideas, and traces the big political, religious, and economic ideas behind the major world cuisines over the past 5000 years.
Learn more about Cuisine and Empire on Rachel Laudan’s blog or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue