Thursday, November 24, 2011

The History of Food

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I celebrated by eating giant quantities of food, and chasing my nieces and nephews around the yard. Later, alas, it began to rain. Fortunately, video games were there to save the day!

Pretty much a fantastic day.

In case you hadn't heard enough about food today

I have a new favorite website.

I was mining through the fabulous list of articles over at the SFWA website, and I came across this website regarding the history of food.

The main feature of a site is a timeline with the most basic origins of food and recipes, with articles giving the details of each. Who knew, for example, that mozzarella sticks have been around since the 14th Century? Or that chocolate covered potato chips pre-date chocolate covered pretzels? Or that it took humanity until the 16th century to figure out that you could use eggs as a raising agent (such as meringue)?

The very first thing on the timeline is water, which cracks me up. This addition of water seems to hint that there was some point in human history in which water was not consumed. But I suppose that the creators of the site just wanted another excuse to link to the articles on food at the Cambridge site.

The good folks of Cambridge have written a large number of articles for a book called The Cambridge World History of Food. I'm sure that all of them are extremely fascinating, if they weren't clogged with the worst use of jargon I've encountered in a long time (and I read a lot of scientific journal articles). For example, the following passage on rice: "The origin of rice was long shrouded by disparate postulates because of the pantropical but disjunct distribution of zzzzzzzzzzzz"

That, of course, being the point where my eyes glazed over. The article on water is even worse:

"Even earlier ideas of water as one of the four (or five) elements will mislead us, for in many such schemes elements were less fundamental substances than dynamic principles (e.g., in the case of water, the dynamic tendency is to wet things, cool them, and dissolve them) or generic labels for regular combinations of qualities. In one strand of Aristotelianism, for example, water can be understood as matter possessing the qualities of being cold and wet…."

Uh, right. As my lawyer friend commented, "This article can be understood as possessing the qualities of being obvious and stupid." That’s right, folks, this passage makes even her brain hurt.

But I digress. I was particularly fascinated by some examples, like the fact that ketchup has its origins in Asia. My lawyer friend tells me that I should spell it as "catsup," because "ketchup" is a trademarked brand that has fallen into general usage, and I told her to stop reading over my shoulder. Anyway, ketchup at its origins could really be made with any vegetables, and apparently, it was at one time a close race between tomato and eggplant ketchup. I, for one, am relieved.

Seriously though, there's a lot of really great information there. It is in no way a complete or thorough guide to food history, but it's a good starting point, and as all good websites will be, lots and lots of fun. It's certainly inspired me to look more into the topic.

Or to try my own vegetable ketchup recipe. Brussel sprouts, your day has come at last.

Let us close with another passage from the Cambridge water chapter:

"It is probably right to see this linkage of macrocosm and microcosm as something more than analogical; such linkages would remain a part of popular understanding even after the rise of a mechanistic cosmology in the seventeenth century."

For the rest of this holiday season, may both your microcosm and macrocosm continue to be so much more than analogical.


  1. I didn't know there was a reason to prefer catsup over ketchup! The latter is the more common spelling these days, I think, which makes it all the more fun to be both contrary and right :)

    As a certified picky eater, I always get a little nauseated reading historical novels, especially those that take place in Scotland. Not to put down my ancestors, but the Scottish eat some weird crap.

    This was a fun post. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Thanks for the link on the history of food. Very interesting. Can't wait to try brussel sprout catsup, yummy.

    Fun post, Sabrina. Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. I wonder what eggplant ketchup tastes like?

    Probably eggplant.

  4. I don't know, Sheena... I mean, my sister harassed me for years for not liking tomtoes and loving ketchup. My defense was that they tasted nothing alike.

    Today, I love tomatoes, but someone else is going to have to test eggplant ketchup in the name of science. Lawyer Friend apparently has mushroom ketchup in her kitchen, so I'll volunteer to give that a go. In the name of science, of course.


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