Food in history: forthcoming event at the IHR, University of London (11-13 July 2013) By Sara Pennell
In 1660, the cook Robert May published recipes for one of the modish dishes of the day: the grand ‘sallet’ or salad. The Stuart ‘sallet’ was a spectacle, with its carefully arrayed mixture of fresh and preserved elements, and imported commodities (anchovies, ‘Virginia Potato’, almonds) alongside indigenous ingredients (mushrooms, samphire). Sallets — the first dish to be given exclusive focus in any English-language food text (John Evelyn’s 1699 Acetaria) — were dietetically fashioned to soothe and stimulate in equal measure.
The current state of historical scholarship about, and of, food is arguably like a grand sallet. Much stimulates, yet much is familiar to the palate. A diverse array exists of research ‘ingredients’ — occasionally exotic — and yet how these ingredients combine to make a coherent ‘dish’, or area of shared theorisation and methodological harmony, might take some chewing over.
The first challenge is to establish what food history/food in history comprises. These word order and prepositional changes are significant, signalling shifts in scope and scale. Food history has (perhaps unfairly) a reputation of being exactly that: explorations of foodstuffs — their cultivation, preparation and consumption — in historical perspective.