Rachel Laudan has given us an important and ground-breaking book. There is profit in it for the general reader who is just curious about the main topic, cuisine; but also for more specialized readers of social history, philosophical anthropology, the history of ideas, and the sociology of religion.
The farmer does not give us food. “A sheaf of wheat is no more food,” she asserts, “than a boll of cotton is a garment.” It is a major theme of the book that farming may give us raw materials, but techniques (and importantly, ideas -- “culinary philosophy,” as she has it) of cooking are what give us food. It is, thus, futile to go on about how “natural” this or that foodstuff may be; we no more tear meat from bone with our teeth than we use them to grind the grass seeds that became our corn (maize, or wheat, or whatnot). Human labor, and ingenuity, stand between Nature and dinner. (This is even true of “raw” foods.)
Laudan suggests that, by definition, all food is processed food -- from developing the techniques of settled agriculture to the promotion (or prohibition) of certain foods according to ideas (nicely summarized in tables 1.1-1.5) about such things as the four humors, the four or five elements, maintaining harmony in the universe, and sacrality -- and, more recently, as the songwriter said, while “We Are Eating Foods for Health.” (Modern theories of health and diet turn out to be just the latest in a whole series of fashions which change with the checkered changes of ideas in science and cosmology, since Babylon as it were.)
Food may be “good to think,” but in any case it is not just material fuel, it is a thing shaped by ideas and their changes. One particularly interesting thesis is that there was a broad movement, across different civilizations, from eating meats in religions of sacrifice, to different sorts of diets under religions of individual salvation. So one will read about Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and Catholic cuisines. It would be mistaken to think such changes are merely the direct product of sect or dogma; for the religious cuisines followed differential patterns already set within their respective empires (hence, the title). Thus there are also Roman, Achaemenid, Mauryan, and Han cuisines. Empires need armies; armies, notoriously, march on their stomachs; and so empire as well as urbanization will drive innovation in foods, especially those that can be produced in bulk and transported over long-haul.
One of the chief general merits of Cuisine & Empire is that it provides welcome relief from the usual sort of decline from Eden narrative -- often in support of the new new diet fad du mois: the Paleo, etc. -- about the evolution of foodways, the sort which leaps easily from an undifferentiated primordial past to the industrial present. (There is a similar problem with much sociobiological speculation about the evolution of sex.) The book starts, not with some presumed human psychology, but rather with historical differentiation of foodstuffs then goes on to trace convergences, driven by factors like urbanization & military growth which involve empires; though with due attention to continued differentiation in the long process of globalization (major empires converged upon wheat, but did so in different ways; what “Chinese food” is depends at least as much on what the locals’ foodstuffs and preferences are, as what the immigrant Chinese restauranteurs may bring to the table in Lima or Manhattan or London).
If our foodways have not declined from Eden, they have not exactly ascended to paradise either, though Laudan thinks that overall we have made reasonable improvement. She is equally critical when it comes to Romantic agrarian nostalgia for an imagined pre-industrial past, and to the thesis that all is converging upon a bland uniform McDonaldization.
The scope of the narrative (from the origins of settled agriculture -- particularly grain cultivation -- to the present, and across a range of civilizations) as well as its attention to the secular consequences of major religious change, and the importance of empire army and city, put me in mind of Max Weber. Likewise, Laudan ventures some generalizations: for instance, about the decline of sacrifice; or in the observation that the vast gulf fixed in empires between high cuisine for the few but humble cuisine for the many now survives mainly in the developing world, while in the developed world, since the 19th c., practically everyone eats a “middling cuisine” of one sort or another. The book’s emphasis on the decline of sacrificial religion puts me in mind of Robert Bellah’s theses about religious evolution. Its critique of nostalgia for what were actually quite harsh conditions in the pre-industrial past is reminiscent of C P Snow.
The book is well-organized, with clearly-written summaries at transition points. (Here it bests Weber.) Nonetheless it will repay close and slow reading.
All this is not to say it is not a fun read, for it is. I learned lots of neat little tidbits of history: high table was a secularization of the altar as banqueting became a secularization of the mass; it was once believed in India that sweets and unripe fruit could poison children; the words for recipe & prescription had been identical; “flour” was “flower;” Jews bought Crisco as an alternative to lard, while Quakers flogged chocolate as an alternative to alcohol (followed by Milton Hershey, a Mennonite); some experts in 19th c. America agreed that fruits and vegetables would cause fever and even cholera, and that pickles should be prohibited as a gateway drug (leading children down the pathway to demon rum); chicken-fried steak is but the baser form of Wiener Schnitzel. My breakfast tamale this morning was actually a “maize dumpling” -- well, yes it is; can’t regard tamales the same way again.