Food History Is Kind of A Big Deal

“I came here to cook,” I heard a classmate say sourly. “I didn’t come here to sit through all these lectures. I’m paying for this?”

This kind of attitude absolutely kills me. I think its because the intellectual part of me is utterly fascinated by food history, and a lot of intellectual types just don’t attend culinary school. I work with lots of hands-on doers with ADHD, adrenaline junkies who like the rush of the line and want to spend their time banging out dishes with speed and precision. I think I’m wired differently–I want to work with the food slowly and touch it and poke it around and smell it and taste it and ask questions about it. Why is that color? Where did this spice come from? Who discovered this? Who first cultivated it?

I like to hold onto the facts of a dish, learn about the storylines behind who invented it, who named it, what wars were fought over it. Empires rise and fall and food is a history that records all of that. Take Catherine de Medici, for instance, the Italian noblewoman who became Queen of France in the 1500s. She is credited with a slew of French food innovations, having brought her own entourage of cooks to France with her. They introduced many food revelations like cream puffs and zabaglione as well as encouraging the use of the fork.

Food is so reflective of culture I could spend all day studying it. Did you know that chai tea was discovered while searching for a healing beverage? It was the closest thing to a miracle beverage, heavily spiced black tea and milk becoming a favorite for royals and kings.

And don’t even get me started on salt. Without salt, this world would be a very different place. We based our monetary system on it, we coined phrases from it (“Salt of the earth” and “A man worth his salt” come to mind immediately.) The word ‘salary’ is based off of the Latin root, ‘sal,’ and refers to the ancient practice in Rome of paying people in salt. Slaves were traded for salt. Salt was used for medicinal purposes as well as preservation, and governments imposed salt taxes because of its immense value. The first patent written in the US was to allow a certain method of salt making. Essentially, the history of the world is built on a saline cornerstone. The world runs off of salt.

I could spend days studying the spice trade, and I could talk your ear off for days about ceviche alone. Mention quinoa and I’m off like a racehorse, chatting away as if you’ll never hear the facts otherwise.

Food is more than just sustenance! It’s more than just something you purchase at a grocery store. Don’t just pick up a tomato and plop it in your basket, take just a few seconds to appreciate that the fruit, native to Central and South America and brought to Europe by Cortez, was considered poisonous for a very, very long time. They were feared members of the nightshade family. For many years they dangled off of plants as beautiful ornaments, but were not considered edible. In fact, they were associated with belladonna and other poisonous plants with hallucinogenic properties, and therefore considered contributions to witchcraft.

So you see? Food is more than just dinner. It goes beyond a belly-filler, it’s a living, breathing history that connects the future and the past in a very tangible, delicious way. People connect over food. Food is deeply personal because it’s a necessity. It’s comfort.

There are foods you’ll never find anywhere else–in the Middle East, where so much conflict divides the nation of Israel, an extremely historic and well-known dish can only extend within a two-mile radius. Travel to the next town over and the locals will have never heard of it.

Its based off of culture, family, history, availability, locality, time, environment, peace and war.

There’s a great big world out there with thousands of foods and dishes that haven’t even crossed your mind yet. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that inspiring?

Perhaps you, unlike me, don’t have the mad desire to run to the nearest library and bury yourself in books about Escoffier’s invention of the modern kitchen brigade system and how that builds the foundations for today’s restaurant scene. And that’s totally normal if you don’t care.

But don’t just mindlessly fork your food in your mouth without at least a split second of appreciation of what it took for you to enjoy that cuisine.

Don’t just carelessly sprinkle your cinnamon into your cream-of-wheat in the morning–smile at the fact this stuff was a status symbol in Europe, brought and traded by Arabs who would deter the competition and justify the ridiculously high prices with tall tales of bird nests made of cinnamon, perched atop unclimbably high mountains. Legend said people would leave large and heavy pieces of meat at the base of the mountain, which were too heavy for the nests to support when the birds attempted to collect it, allowing the cinnamon to be collected when it fell to the ground. Pliny the Elder told tales of cinnamon being carried on rafts from Ethiopia with no oars or sails, powered by “man alone and his courage.” (If you’re interested in more, check out this site on cinnamon history!)

Am I the only one enchanted by the fascinating history of cuisine? Perhaps I should become a food historian. I would really love to live among books about food, sharing my fun facts.

If there are any food histories you’re interested in, or perhaps want to learn more about, comment below! I’m itching to learn more about any and everything, and I’ll use any excuse to study the history of everything from donuts to hominy.

I think Tom Brady put it pretty well when he said, “I could talk food all day. I love good food.”

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