Food for Thinkers: Everything You Think You Know About the History of Food Is Wrong

Rachel Laudan boldly flips culinary history on its head—and makes a strong argument against artisanal food while she's at it.

The best part of writing Edible Geography, and now GOOD's Food hub as well, is the way that they have helped put me in touch with people whose work I admire. In turn, one of the things I'm most excited about during this week-long online festival is the opportunity to introduce you to some of my favorite food writers and thinkers. That's why I'm not republishing posts in full for the most part, but instead linking out to this wonderful networked universe of blogs and websites, so that you can get trapped in their archives, sign up for their RSS feeds, and otherwise enrich your internet diet.

Thus far, we've heard from folks who don't usually write about food—but as it turns out, food writers also approach the topic of food from very different perspectives. For Food for Thinkers, several of them have responded to my original question—What does it mean to write about food today?—in the form of manifesto.

For example, for culinary historian Rachel Laudan, food matters because "it has been a major driver of human history." In support, she puts forward a radical argument that flips most contemporary writing about food and history on its head:

My theory is that changing ideas about good food changed the world. Change from pagan to Christian, from monarchist to republican, from believer in the humoral theory to believer in modern dietetics: your ideas about good food will change, and your cuisine will change. Decide that processed food is unhealthy. Your cuisine will change.

Sound innocuous? Not really. It runs in the face of most writing on food history, which puts change down to change in domesticated plants and animals (e.g. Jared Diamond or the Columbian Exchange) or to commerce (trade in grains, spices, cod, salt, beans, or bananas that "changed the world.")

Those histories, I hope to show, are back to front. Change happens in ideas or culture first, [which] then changes your cuisine (that is what you do to food between farm gate and plate), and then changes in trade and farming follow.

Laudan follows that train of thought to reach what will seem to many to be a counter-intuitive conclusion: "Far from being a disaster, modern food is, for all its faults, more equitable, safer, healthier, and tastier than any in the past."

Whether you agree or disagree (and I am torn, myself), this sort of well-researched, thought-provoking opinion about what the history of food can teach us about its future are exactly why I read Rachel Laudan's blog religiously, and can't wait for her forthcoming book.

Visit her blog to read her argument in full, and then jump into the debate yourself. Next up: food waste and lunch matters!

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.


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