Saturday, February 27, 2016

From Columbus to Celebrity chefs: How Food Helped Shape History

"Parrots and Fruit with Other Birds and a Squirrel," Tobias Stranover, c. 1710

Food. Food is essential to sustain life, has had a massive impact on the planet's environment, caused conflict between peoples and nations throughout history, and been a source of inspiration for artists and a source of entertainment for modern television audiences tuning into the latest episode of "Cutthroat Kitchen." Despite the undeniable and overwhelming importance of food, the study of the history of food remains an emerging field. It was with this in mind that Paul Freedman, a professor at Yale University, began teaching a course entitled "The History of Food" in 2009.

Freedman believes that studying the history of food can tell modern historians a lot about societies of the past, including what their diets looked like and how they produced food to feed their populations. Additionally, he points out that a number of historical events have been caused by changing tastes, exemplified by demand for sugar. The growing European taste for sugar, which was used in tea, coffee, and sweets such as chocolate, motivated European nations to establish plantations in colonies in Brazil and the Caribbean, which were worked by African slaves sent there for that purpose. Thus, Freedman argues, sugar was a driving factor behind one of the most "cataclysmic movements of people in history." In a similar fashion, expeditions like that of Columbus in 1492 were also motivated by food, this time the desire for spices from India. It is possible to conjecture that European colonization of North America may have been delayed, had Columbus not been searching for the mouthwatering flavor of Indian spices.

Outside of being a driving factor behind the colonization of the Americas, food has been featured prominently in art throughout the ages, particularly in Dutch still life paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Within a still life, food could have allegorical meaning, referring to stories from the Bible or acting as a memento mori, or could function as a symbol of wealth. Depictions of exotic, expensive fruit and nuts were status symbols that reflected the wealth of the owner of the painting. This practice could be compared to how a photo of a bottle of costly cold-pressed juice on Instagram is intended to reflect the wealth of its poster. Food is also an extremely popular source of entertainment for modern television audiences; the existence of the scores of food-related shows that are seemingly always available are evidence of the powerful ability of food to entertain.

Perhaps generations of the future will look back at television shows and Instagram posts to determine how food impacted the lives of those of the 21st century, much like how Freedman have used the historical record to track the effects of food on global history. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the study of the history of food is one that holds great importance for both the past and the future.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing art of Parrots and fruits.