Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.

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