Guest Post: Is Food History a Field?

As part of our series on teaching food history and food studies, Brian Cowan discusses his experience of teaching food history for the past decade. For more about teaching food history and food studies, check out our previous posts here and here.

Is Food History a Field?

The history of food has developed rapidly in recent years. When I began writing and teaching in the field a little over a decade ago, I was not entirely convinced that food history was a real field. There were plenty of legitimately historical topics that focused on food of course, and these topics have always been central to other well-established fields, such as social and economic history, environmental history, or the not-so-new-anymore cultural history. For European historians, the history of dearth, famine, and food riots have held a longstanding place in early modern social and economic history; the history of feasting often figures in the history of court culture; and the impact of the ‘Columbian exchange’ has figured prominently ever since the environmental historian Alfred Crosby Jr. introduced the term in the early 1970s. Cultural historians have also looked at the meanings attributed to foodstuffs and drinks by people in the past. But these topics never came together to form a clearly defined field of scholarly enquiry in the way that social and economic history, court studies, or environmental history did. 

Food history has existed as a longstanding topic within historical problematics that have been set by other fields. The very ubiquity of food history within historical studies paradoxically left it without a set of unifying problematics that can turn a collection of discrete topics into a proper field of inquiry. The popularity of food historical topics may have in some ways impeded the development of a field that could lay claim to be working towards answering key questions.

I didn’t let this deter me from teaching courses with the title ‘food history’ however. At the least, a course of this kind can use an enticing title to draw students into studying topics that might otherwise appear to be rather boring or old fashioned. Social and economic history remains alive and well, but courses titled as such appear dry as dust, especially when compared with sexier sobriquets such as the history of sexuality, the history of emotions, or the history of food. The course has evolved over time, but this year’s version finally found something like a textbook that could reasonably serve as a useful overview of something that is starting to look like a field rather than a congeries of topics. 

That book is Food, Politics and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System, (University of California Press, 2018) by Alejandro Colás, Jason Edwards, Jane Levi, and Sami Zubaida. Food, Politics and Society shows that questions about food have played a central role in the articulation of modern social theory from its eighteenth-century origins to the present day. This is a take that finally promises to bring the field of food history together, albeit in a way that turns the field into something like a subfield of a broader history of social thought. Colás, Edwards, Levi, and Zubaida address the ubiquity problem of food history by tackling it head on and turning the problem itself into an answer. If food and drink are everywhere in history, then how can we do food history without doing the history of everything? The answer it seems is to look at how social theorists have thought about the role of food in the structures of social relations.

Food, Politics and Society also uses food history to rethink the history of modernity, as it shows how some of the key developments in modern history were integrally related to questions of food and society. European contact with, and often the colonization of, non-European lands is hardly comprehensible outside of an understanding of the ‘Colombian Exchange’; one of the key functions of the modern state has been the regulation of eating and drinking practices, as well as ensuring the provision of food and drink for its population; culinary practices and customs have been key elements in the making of modern forms of personal identities, be they national, ethnic, religious or otherwise. Perhaps most importantly, Colás, Edwards, Levi and Zubaida posit the emergence of a ‘modern food system’ that is coterminous with the process of globalization that has been a fundamental aspect of the modern age.

Food, Politics and Society is not a particularly easy read, and students who are not already familiar with basic works of social theory (especially the key contributions of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber) may struggle to see how the disparate problems addressed in the book are all part of a larger story about the emergence of modern social theory and indeed the problem of modernity itself. It doesn’t offer a grand narrative and it doesn’t pretend to do so. It does however show how one cannot begin to understand modernity without understanding the role of food within societies and it makes it clear that food has always been central to modern social theory. It also makes it clear that any new field of food history must be conceived of as part of the new global history. 
The problem that this new food history addresses is simply put and answered only with difficulty – what is the ‘modern food system’ and how did it come to be?

It has taken some time, but I am beginning to be convinced that food history really could be a proper field of historical inquiry. Like all fields, it has developed out of concerns and problems that have been addressed in other ways by scholars who preferred to conceive of their work under different labels, perhaps as social or economic historians, perhaps as environmental historians, gender historians, or as historians of national experiences. But the new food history is not limited to these perspectives, and it promises to offer new answers to old questions as well as, perhaps even more importantly, to pose new questions as well. 

I will keep teaching and writing about this new food history for as long as it keeps evolving.

 Dr. Brian Cowan teaches food history along with courses in the history of sociability, celebrity, and emotions in the Department of History & Classical Studies at McGill University. He is the author of The Social Life of Coffee:  The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse,  (Yale Univ. Press, 2005); the editor of The State Trial of Doctor Henry Sacheverell, (Wiley-Blackwell for the Parliamentary History Yearbook Trust, 2012); and a co-author of the Multigraph Collective's Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in an Era of Print Saturation, (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2018). He is currently editing A Cultural History of Fame in the Enlightenment (1650-1770) for Bloomsbury Academic and is working on several aspects of the history of celebrity in the early modern era.