Monday 25 April 2011

Why Does Food History Matter?

Dining room at Churchill Island, Victoria
‘Every vegetable has a history. … All have a tale to tell; all have incidents in their lives which reflect on humankind, on what we thought and felt, exposing our vanity and aspirations, our most intimate personal habits and beliefs, as revealing as any archaeological remains.’ Colin Spencer in The Vegetable Book

When most people tell us about a particular vegetable, they often talk about the nutrients, when it is in season, how to store and what to serve with it. But I want a broader picture. Since starting my food blog I have grown to love the stories about food. Which leaders have loved it, what poets have sung its praises, which cultural references has it influenced! As Colin Spencer articulates so beautifully, when we learn about food history, we learn about ourselves.

[Note: This is a long post with lots of resources for anyone (including myself) interested in food history.  I have been writing it off and on since 2008.  Over this time I have collected some photos of historic kitchens and quotes to add a bit of visual interest.  History seems a good topic for today's post, given it is ANZAC Day.]

'At that moment of tasting the mushroom, he had remembered home, and his mother, how their food was cooked and God knows what else about the place and then time in which he grew up.  Even in telling it, he was remembering both the eating of the mushroom and the memories they evoked.' Denis Cotter in Wild Garlic Gooseberries and Me (p 113)

Food is so much more than a fuel. It is comfort and company. It connects us to family, friends and culture. Food is a collective memory that bring our ancestors to life in a tangible way. It helps us remember a recent encounter, a childhood friend, a past civilisation. You only have to open a cookbook to see that history is integrally bound up with what we eat. Many food writers reflect on learning to cook with their mothers or grandmothers. Many recipes are named after people who gave it to us. We have a great need to know where we come from. Food helps to fulfill this need.

Treasury Museum, Melbourne
So much happens over food. The couple who lived in the above kitchen would tap morse code on their dinner plates when they wanted to say something they didn't want to hear. But mostly families have shared stories around the dinner table. Stories that become inextricably bound up with our food.  When I did oral history interviews for my thesis, I often found that a discussion of dinner gave an insight into people's lives. It tells us what life is like. For example this excerpt from my Great Uncle Des' letter during World War II give a sense of his day:

'Too bad the beer shortage hit over Christmas. Creamy soda made here is the best I could do but wasn't greatly worried as beer is only about sixth on my list of preferences these days. Some of the boys get stuck into their own brews of jungle juice - it's pretty potent stuff but so far I haven't tasted anything stronger than creek water, as bully beef can stir the old tummy up.'

Lord Kenneth Clark in Civilisation said that great artists are borrowers. So too are great cooks. They dig into the past and recreate it in ways that our peers recognise. A great example is Heston Blumenthal whose exciting creations rely on our memories of food. Michael Pollan says not to eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognise but the best modern food has elements that she had passed down to us. Of course, my grandmother would not recognise all the "foreign" cuisines I now eat but someone else's grandmother might. I guess that counts!

Ripponlea, Melbourne
Food history and blogging
'Every time I knead a loaf of bread I am aware that generations of women before me have done the same thing, thinking similar thoughts, dreaming similar dreams, praying similar prayers.' Quoted at Baking Delights blog via The Leftover Queen

I love when past and present meet on food blogs. Here's a few excellent examples: Lucy shared her grandmother's cookbook, Lysy had a series of posts on Passover and all the symbolism beind the food during this period, Ricki often reminisces about the people and experiences behind that dishes she makes, and Kim wrote a wonderful evocative post about her family plot of rhubarb that brings her closer to her family.  Brydie wrote a lovely post comparing the food of three generations in Australia.

Cooking traditional recipes is imbued with memories of family. They guide and nurture us through recipes passed from generation to generation.  So it is that food bloggers remember important people in their lives by their recipes and their favourite food.  Here are a few blogs dedicated to the history of food:
Monsalvat, Melbourne
My food history

'Biscuits are one of the first things we learn to cook when we are little - or at least roll and stamp out, get the feel of, which is just as important - and there seems to be a sense in which we're recapturing some remembered, no doubt idealised, past whenever we make them in adulthood.'
Nigella Lawson in The Domestic Goddess

I recently sat at a family event eating caramel tart with my sister Fran. "I just can't eat it without thinking of Nan," she said to me. Yes a simple wedge of pastry and sugary filling can release a flood of memories of childhood meals around my grandmother's beige laminex kitchen table.

Nan would be wearing an apron and checking the scones in the wall oven. My little brothers and sisters would be whispering and shoving each other. Grandpa would be finding some old tram tickets or trinkets from a cereal packet that he had saved for us. Dad would be discussing family and friends with his parents. Mum would be helping. Probably cutting iced sponge cakes into thick wedges with cream oozing out of the centre. The table would be spread with all manner of sweet treats: lamingtons, caramel tart, sponge cake with passionfruit icing, pineapple delight etc etc. After lunch I would sit in Nan's sewing room sitting on the well stuffed divan with my legs not touching the floor. I admired her cheval mirror as I flicked through her magazines and dreamt of creating the recipes.

It is not only my Nan who is linked to food in my memory. My mum always made a batch of mince pies to take to her father. I can't eat a liquorice allsort or a macaroon without thinking of my Grandpa. In fact one of my favourite stories is his horror at my Nan's "deviousness" when he discovered she had substituted margarine for butter after his heart attack. One of my early memories of my maternal grandmother in my mum's childhood house is of her sitting stirring a bowl of chocolate pudding by hand.

Motts cottage, Port Fairy
Food has been a way to nurture and love. Mum remembers her maternal grandmother, who always had a kitchen table full of baking when they visited. She baked apple slice, scones and sponges and never sat down because she was too busy bringing food to her family. They didn’t sit in the kitchen where she baked but in another room. My mum regularly makes apple slices, scones and sponges. It is a nice connection.

Of all of these I love scones most. I not only make scones a lot but it is one of the last things I remember my maternal grandmother baking for me - with home made strawberry jam. E too remembers the women in his family making many wonderful baked goods, especially treacle scones. A scone can mean many things! 

My childhood was full of cooking. Baking with my mum. Licking the beaters.  Pushing two fingers into risen bread dough to see if it sprung back.  Sitting around the family table sharing meals, trying to sneakily watch the telly at the same time, talking about our day. School lunches. Learning to cook in the home economics kitchens at school.

Finding out that not everyone ate like us. I remember my surprise at being offered a biscuit for "afters" or "sweets" because I was used to hot cooked desserts at home. Some kids were even allowed to have as much milo as they liked in their milk! Others got biscuits with funny faces made of lollies.

I've written a lot in my blog about food of my childhood and food history, so you can read more in these posts:
Kitchen at Churchill Island, Victoria
More food history on the web

'I have a lot of old cookbooks myself... But the really old ones (dating back to medieval times) are in online databases. Over the last few years there has been an explosion in the number of historic cookbooks that have been made freely available over the Internet, thanks to such organisations as Google Books, Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, as well as a lot of libraries around the world.'
From 2010 interview with Janet Clarkson aka blogger behind The old foodie

It will be clear from the above lists that I have taken quite an interest in food history since starting this blog.  Most, but not all, of my research is done online.  I have been fascinated to find just what a wealth of information is available on the humble internet.  Did you know that the IVU have a list of historic online vegetarian cookbook - mostly from the Nineteenth Century - that you can download in their entirety?  Were you aware that you can find where many foods came into use on the Food Timeline? Would you like to be a virtual tourist and visit an even online food museums such as the Carrot Museum?

It is amazing what you find when you put a topic into a search engine.  It can also be frustrating.  So to help you out - and remind me - here is a select list of some of the sites I have found useful when searching for information about food history.  Of course, these are only the tip of the iceberg.
Stamps from Australia featuring Australia's iconic recipes.
Food history offline

"It is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognized. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market gardeners."  George Orwell in The Road to Wigham Pier

If you walk into my favourite food book shop Books for Cooks in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy and look for books on food history, you will be overwhelmed by shelves of them. It is a topic of endless fascination.  Nostalgia is never goes out of fashion.  However you will find that it is not limited to books focused on the topic.  All manner of histories and memoirs (including George Orwell's) have choice bits that give an insight into food in our lives.  Cookbooks too are often a great source of history.

Food history is found in more places than books.  Museums usually have information about food.  I particularly love all the old food posters.  The built environment will yield information about food history.  The faded old painted advertisements on the sides of buildings are few and far between now but they always seem quite dignified to me compared to their flashy billboard counterparts of today.  Some of our food institutions preserve some of the traditions of the past: the Queen Victoria Market, the Hopetoun Tea Rooms in the Block Arcade in the city, and The Windsor Hotel's high tea, to mention just a few.  Films such as Julie and Julia or Babette's Feast also explore changing attitudes to food.

Much food history is unseen.  One of my favourite assignments as a student was a history of market gardens.  There was very little architecture left but it gave me a fascinating insight into just how some of our Melbourne suburbs were used, not so long ago.  Even our houses carry their own histories.  If only the walls could talk, imagine the food that might have been cooked in our kitchens before us.  One of my favourite food history stories is of members of the Ephemera Society who saved a bread roll from Pope Paul VI's visit to Melbourne in 1970 and nailed it to the wall.

Old advertisement for Bushells tea - Park Street, North Carton
It seems a bold move to attempt to give a select list of all the books focusing on food history but below are a few that I have found useful and enjoyable.  I own most of these books and still plan to get my hands on a few.  If you wanted to read about food history, you could do worse than starting with this list.

One quirky way of reminding ourselves of how much our approach to food has changed over the past few generations is the humble retronym. A retronym relates to terminology that has been created to differentiate new concepts from old ones. Foodie examples of this include: free range eggs, fruit in season, real ale, unsliced loaf, unpasteurised milk organic fruit and vegetables, vine ripened tomatoes, cold water tap, conventional oven, full cream milk, whole meal (whole wheat) flour, corn on the cob, plain flour, all purpose flour, tap water.

A vintage sign in Brunswick, Melbourne. 
I don't think Peters ice cream would get away today with claiming ice cream was the health food of a nation. I guess things were different way back when!
Why does food history matter?

History must be protected.  Why?  People need connections.  They need to know where they came from.  I partly say this to myself as a food blogger.  Blogging has sent me off in search of the new.  I delight in innovation.  Recipes that I used to make over and over are no longer so frequently seen in our kitchen.  I don't want to lose sight of the old because I am dazzled by the new.  However, the blog has also given me space to reflect on why some of my traditional recipes are important to me.  So I thought I would write a list:
  • History is a great teacher.  Look at how our foremothers made it.  They often have insights and tips to pass down to us.  Many recipes have generations of learning in them.  We don't always need to be reinventing the wheel.
  • History recognises diversity.  Barbara Kingsolver in Animal Vegetable Miracle really made me think about how dreadful it would be to lose the diversity of vegetables and fruit.  What a dull world it would be that didn''t recognise different tastes as well as different geography.
  • History can made sense of our lives.  I have read about vegetables changing over the years.  such as , eggplants becoming less bitter so they don't need salting.  I was also fascinated to read that Americans use cup measures because scales were not reliable in the past.  History explains why condensed milk was necessary and not just a sweet treat.
  • History recognises geographical differences.  In the world of the interwebs, it seems that we are one big happy family.  Yet coming from Australia, I am aware of how many differences there are in our cuisines to our British and American cousins.  It is important to keep our culture strong in cooking to remember where we come from.
  • History appreciates aesthetics.  Our foremothers appreciated the need for food to be pretty, to tempt, to celebrate.  They created traditions that are still a sight to behold today.  A flaming Christmas pudding.  Ruby coloured jams.  Wobbly plates of jelly.  Even the names of dishes hold an old world charm.  Toad in the Hole.  Spotted Dick.  Knickerbocker Glory.
  • History nourishes the soul.  Food is about more than nutrients.  It is nursery suppers and nostalgia. It is comforting because it reminds you of your mum's hot cup of soup on a cold night, or flat lemonade when you were sick, or warm tea cake on a lazy afternoon.  Food from our past reminds us of love and care.
    • History is fun.  It is fetes and festivals.  It is barbecues and banquets.  It is quaint and quirky.  It is remembering our childhood dishes that made us smile, the treats our grandparents bestowed upon us, the lolly bags we took home from kids parties. Our foremothers made food to please and tempt and wheedle.
    • History knows how to cope.  It surprised me to find that there is a long history of vegetarian food.  We are not the first to find ways to eat without meat, or in times of poverty, or when items of food is scarce.  Our ancestors knew a lot about eating locally and frugally.  We can learn a lot from them.
    • History puts life in perspective.  It reminds us that others have also failed or succeeded in recipes.  We are not the first to have a sponge sink on us and continue to bake them until they are fluffy as a cloud.  Reading about the shortages during war, makes me feel grateful for the abundance of food we can buy locally.  Even being able to buy a carton of milk seems like a luxury compared to having to milk the cow.
    'I cooked with my mother, I leafed through her cookery book collection and appreciated great prose, I helped in the garden, I listened to her explanations of a dish or a meal, I gloried in her special dinners complete with fancy touches from the garden or carefully-chosen plates, and I came to understand that an interest in the food of the world meant an interest in the culture of the world.'
    Stephanie Alexander writing about her mother (online)


    1. This is a lovely post :) I also can't think of liquorice allsorts (or tomato sauce!) without thinking of my Grandpa, and have many foods that are intimately linked with childhood experiences and memories. Food is a powerful substance!

    2. A beautiful, thoughtful and informative post Johanna. Some of my best memories throughout my life involve food - not just the pleasure of eating itself, but baking with my Mum or enjoying laughter and conversation with friends over a meal, or celebrating a special occasion.

    3. What a beautiful and comprehensive post! I've always felt sad about being unable to continue with history in university, as I think I may well have ended up doing my thesis on food had I gone down that route! I particularly love your thoughts on why history is important - I agree completely. It's also interesting how different our individual food memories are, although we all share the sense of connection to food and personal histories in a general sense :)

    4. Johanna, such a wonderful post. I adore reading of the history of food. How trends and necessities have changed. Such a well researched post, I'll enjoy reading through some of your links....thank you.
      (if you are interested I did a post last year on the evolution on frugal food within my family.)

    5. This was a great post Johanna. Food and history are two of my favourite subjects and not more so when tied together, int eh greater context of history or in the context of your own personal history, down to your very own tastebuds.

    6. Thanks Kari - food is indeed powerful, yet we so often take it for granted - I think of my mum when it comes to tomato sauce because she has always made her own!

      Thanks Cakelaw - amen to the best moments in life involving food - yet it is as ephemeral as the memories itself which is one reason it fascinates me

      Thanks Hannah - I loved studying history and have really enjoyed reviving the love in a bit of food history on this blog - I think our personal food memories are linked like venn diagrams - everyone is individual but we all overlap and can find connectons

      Thanks brydie - yes it is fascinating to see how necessities once drove trends and now I don't think that is true which says a lot about our world today - thanks for pointing me to your post - it is great the way you talk about the generational differences in your post - have added a link in the above blogging section

      Thanks Lorraine - I always love how you talk about your family connections to recipes in many of your posts - and agree that history is interesting on so many levels.

    7. I love love love this post! One of my favorite parts of food, and why I care about it so much, is just how much memory can be enmeshed in it. It is pregnant with meaning and thought and love, and is so much more than just sustenance. I think that if more people paused to think about this, then convenience foods like Twinkies or frozen meals would become relics and outdated, and the home cooked meal would become more of the norm. Which would make for a much more delicious, healthier world!

    8. Thanks Joanne - if only home cooked were more the norm I would be very happy - because the preparation means a lot to me - though I agree not to some - and I worry that the more we have convenience food, that it becomes part of a happy memory for some which helps to perpetrate its presence. (In fact I confess I am guilty of this with condensed milk, though I like to think it is a cut above pot noodles)

    9. I LOVED this post. I am such a food history nerd. I savoured every word you wrote (found you through Lisa at bakebikeblog). Our food history is so important. Love the old kitchen pics too - especially that gorgeous oven at the Treasury Museum.
      Heidi xo

    10. What a wonderful post! This made me happy today. :) And it's amazing how much information you've carried together here!

      I believe that history is very important for our feeling of identity. If you don't know where you come from, it's hard to figure out who you are. Also, food has always played a crucial role in bringing people together, as long as mankind extists, and I think it's very important to have this going on (instead of people eating individually in front of the TV or at their desks).

      I'm astonished how many memories are tied to food. Recently, I've asked my grandmom to tell me some of the recipes she used to make so I can save them and pass them on. I hope she'll write them down for me. I also want to recreate some of them and post them on my blog. :)

      Thank you again for this beautiful post!

    11. A very interesting and thoughtful read Johanna. Food and history are so intertwined and I always want to know where a food came from more because that tells you a lot about the culture and setting in which it came from.


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