Friday, Jan 27, 2023

Book review: How Food Makes Us Human

Taste is inextricable from ideologies and imaginations — it raises important questions about culture, power, hierarchy, gender relations, ecology and nutrition

cook-book-759 An Encyclopaedia Britannica entry in the 1760s described the potato as a “demoralising esculent”

Cooking cultures, Convergent Histories of Food and Feeling
Edited by: Ishita Banerjee-Dube
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Pages: 254
Price: 750

An Encyclopaedia Britannica entry in the 1760s described the potato as a “demoralising esculent”. Two hundred years after it was introduced from the New World, the potato was yet to find a home in Europe, with some savants even associating it with leprosy. Yet, less than a century after the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s uncharitable description, the potato had become so much of a staple in some parts of Europe that a shortage of it precipitated the Irish Famine. The spud’s early tryst in Europe is indicative of the unpredictable associations of food and human beings.

Cooking Cultures, Convergent Histories of Food and Feeling tries to unravel such associations that we make with food. In his broad-brush account, Near A Thousand Tables (also published as Food: A History), the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues that food history has either been seen as a subset of social and cultural history or as the key fixture in the history of nutrition. Social science’s engagement with food is arguably recent, despite the forays of Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jack Goody, Sidney Mintz and some historians of the Annales school. Yet, as the essays in the volume under review show, food need not be an underling of social and cultural history. What we eat is informed by social and cultural factors and it, in turn, influences what is treated as the “social” or “cultural”: Taste is inextricable from ideologies and imaginations.

It is apt, therefore, that this volume is sub-titled “convergent histories of food and feeling”. The volume’s editor puts it well when she says that “change in attitude and taste enable a convergent history of the globe kneaded by food and cooking that tells us about being and belonging, pride, identity, hospitality, sociability, class, power, nation and culture that are ever ready to be cast in different moulds”. While food sharing and exchange has been part of human societies since the earliest times, we have also set taboos and rules that govern what to eat and with whom to dine. As the initial fortunes of the potato in Europe show, food history is about introduction of new species as well as resistance to what is seen as non-indigenous culinary endeavours.

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The volume under review examines such questions around the questions of indigeneity. Duncan Brown’s essay on the trout in South Africa charts out the uneasy fit between what is seen as a foreign species and the impulses of culture and gastronomy. In recent times, the picture has been complicated by a section of environmentalists who view with suspicion the introduction of what they see as non-indigenous species. Brown uses the debate on the trout in South Africa to question notions of what is indigenous, what is alien and which species should be seen as alien.

The indigenous/alien binary is not the only way in which food is the marker of resistance. The hummus wars between Israeli and Lebanese chefs shows how a shared culinary passion — hummus — could become the site of a political contest. Nir Avieli’s essay shows how gastronomy can jump over from the cultural sphere into the political sphere and go on to define national identities.

The intertwining of food with national identities gets a little more complicated because gender norms are also a part of the spool. Banerjee-Dube’s essay shows how nutrition and gender norms were implicit in some of the debates over the nuclear family in 19th century Bengal. She points out that these debates were also inextricable from contemporary political discussions around the cultural ingredients of a healthy nation.


With cuisines, ingredients and flavours from India, South Africa, West Asia, Mexico, China, Mozambique, Japan, Australia, France, the US, Vietnam, Senegal, Morocco and Malaysia, Cooking Cultures presents a lip-smacking smorgasbord. Over a hearty meal, it asks important questions about culture, power, hierarchy, gender relations, ecology and nutrition.


First published on: 23-07-2016 at 04:01 IST
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