MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Food, Food, Glorious Food


The latest edition of YaleNews contains an intriguing interview by Amy Athey McDonald [aptonym!] with Paul Freedman, chair of Yale’s Program in the History of Science and Medicine and the teacher of a multidisciplinary course titled “The History of Food.”

Among the insights gleaned are how the history of the celebrity chef, how tastes in food — e.g., the late-Medieval hunger for spices — actually steered certain historical events, and how French innovations shaped the evolution of modern European food.

On the first restaurants:

The first restaurants arose in Paris before the French Revolution, around 1760 and 1770. The word comes from “restoration,” and they were places to get nourishment for hypercondriacal or “delicate” people. As these places evolved, they served other expensive and fashionable health foods for the middle and upper classes.

On the history of food critics in America:

Restaurant reviews in the United States came much later [than the early 19th century], and in a way, not until Craig Claiborne, who was food editor and restaurant critic for “The New York Times” for many years. Up until then, reviews were really puff pieces that were essentially advertising.

Freedman on his speciality, food in the Middle Ages:

The nature of banqueting was to create excess. The aristocracy had 50- or 100-course meals with a lot of color and pageantry. One course might be a chicken with a banner riding on the back of a glazed orange suckling pig. The point of being wealthy was to show off what no one else had, but in that era there was less food waste than now. Somebody would eat it all, like the kitchen staff, other servants, their families, and eventually the poor. They didn’t have our laws against giving away cooked food.

Peasants probably had a more balanced diet than the nobles, eating more vegetables and grains. It’s wrong to think peasants were on the brink of starvation all of the time. There was also a very prosperous commercial class that imitated the upper class in terms of food.

Filed under: cultural history

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