Writing about the history of food

I have previously posted a couple of blogs on food writing – the first was about writing a Foodoir (a food-related memoir) and the other included some tips on creating your own family recipe bookBoth of these types of food writing require looking back (either into your own family’s history or your own life) and so I thought I would introduce you to another type of non-fiction food writing – writing about the history of food. This not only involves looking back into the origins of foods but also discovering the significance different types of food and cooking methods had in history.

You don’t have to be an historian when writing about the history of food

You may be a cook or a baker with a keen interest in the history behind some recipes that have been handed down through your family. You may be someone who enjoys researching or travelling the world discovering the origins of different types of food and food preparation. Whatever your interests are in food, you already have what it takes to start writing about the history food history. For more information about food history take a look at An Introduction to Food History.

Bringing history to life through the study of food

Finding out about what people ate in the past and how they prepared it gives you the opportunity to present history in an interesting and different way. For example:

  • What did the Anglo Saxons eat?
  • Why did people in the past drink beer instead of water?
  • Why was the diet during WW2 considered healthier than it is today?
  • Were ‘sparrows on toast’ ever really eaten in Britain?
  • What dishes were served at a medieval banquet?
  • What did the early settlers in America eat?

What types of food history are there?

There are a number of approaches when writing about the history of food. For example, you might like to concentrate on recipes and their history or you may choose to write about the history of nutrition (i.e. the affects of a diet on health) or the history of dining etiquette and manners or the history of diets (i.e. what people ate in the past).

You could also consider the history of different types of food such as sugar, cocoa, rice and wheat or you could write about a specific aspect of the food industry. You could also study food traditions such as the very English afternoon tea or the traditions of the British pub.

If you are interested in the history of royal food and tastes and would like to learn more, Future Learn runs an online course called A History of Royal Food and Feasting which explores the history of royal food through the tastes of five key monarchs.

How much research is necessary?

Whether you are planning to build on existing research and knowledge or are starting from scratch, the main thing all history books and articles have in common is the amount of careful and detailed research that goes into them.

One that caught my eye, because of its meticulous and thorough research, is ‘Great British Bakes’ by Mary-Anne Boermans who was one of the finalists in the Great British Bake Off in 2011. From a library of nearly 1000 antiquarian cookbooks she has compiled a collection of traditional recipes some dating back 400 years.

A quick internet search will reveal a wide variety of food history books that are currently available. Here are some I came across while doing some online research for this blog (if you wish purchase any of the books mentioned in this blog, click on the links below):

The Oxford Handbook of Food History (edited by Jeffrey M Pilcher)
Dinner with Mr Darcy: Recipes inspired by the Novels and Letters of Jane Austin (by Pen Vogler)
How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables (by Rebecca  Rupp)
Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honore’de Balzac (by Anka Muhlstein)

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Writing about the history of food
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