Jesse Browner's Podcast History of Cooking
Sponsored by Oxford University Press
The Podcast History of Cooking

Introduction    Imagine that you’ve been invited to participate in a strange new culinary quiz show. You’re blindfolded, a clothes peg is placed on your nose, and then you’re led into a restaurant that you’ve never been to before. You don’t know its name, its location, how it’s decorated. You are given no clue about what kind of food it serves. You’re seated at a table and a typical dish offered at this particular restaurant is placed before you. The clothes peg is removed and you’re allowed to smell the food in front of you, but not to see or touch it. Chances are pretty good that you’ll be able to identify the ethnicity of the cooking with some degree of accuracy just by its aroma. If not, once the blindfold is removed, you’ll almost certainly – and instantaneously – be able to name the country, or at the very least the region, that the dish comes from. And that will be true even if, like me, you’ve never been to China, Vietnam, India, Algeria, Peru, Norway, Ethiopia, Hawaii or any of the many places who’s traditional cooking can be found in the ethnic restaurants that jostle for attention on our city streets. 
    You and I somehow take it for granted that we know exactly how dozens of distinct national cuisines are supposed to look, smell, taste and feel. Considering that the vast majority of the six billion human beings on Earth eat pretty much the same basic things, with only a few distinctive variations of flavor, grain, meat and technique to differentiate between us, that’s an incredible state of affairs. In relation to the full span of civilized history, it is also a very, very recent phenomenon. 
    How did we get to the point where cooking traditions that were developed in isolation over thousands of years, half-way around the world, by people who had no idea of or interest in our existence, are as familiar to us as the contents of our own refrigerator? How is it that, of all the countless varieties of cultural and ethnic identity, we can most readily identify a nation by its cooking? Somehow, while the world’s peoples are more connected to each other than they’ve ever been, the way our cooking tastes has come to define us even more clearly – and perhaps more rigidly – than our politics, our literature and even our very language. Think of all the many robust dialects of Spain, France, Italy or China. Unless you’re a professional linguist, chances are you won’t recognize most if not all of them. But their regional dishes are familiar to any of us who pay attention to what and where we eat. They act as reliable cultural ID cards even when they’re only indifferently executed. 
    It wasn’t always that way, any more than it was always the case that people identified themselves primarily by their national identity. Five hundred years ago, for instance, you’d have had a very difficult time determining what Western European country you were in from the meal that was set before you, and that holds true for most of human history prior to the Renaissance. Sure, you could identify your host’s social estate and status. If your host was poor, you might expect bread, cheese, salted meat or fish; if he was wealthy, endless game meats bathed in sauces rich with Asian spices imported through the Near East. Maybe you could tell if you were in northern or southern Europe by the use of olive oil over butter. If you were very clever, you might recognize the local variety of cheese. But that was it: rich people all over Europe ate essentially the same way, as did the poor. In the winter, rich and poor alike were reduced to eating preserved flesh. The country and culture of origin hardly entered it into the equation. Several centuries after Dante, after the construction of the leaning tower of Pisa and the Duomo of Florence, Italians had yet to start eating pasta. Ask yourself this: Could it really be said to be Italy at all if there was no pasta on the menu? 
    Cooking evolves and changes with history, of course. But more than that, because changes in trade routes, wars, alliances, technological and scientific progress, agricultural policies, fashion and the arts all affect the way we shop and cook, the kitchen may often be the very first place where important historical developments are felt. After Atlantic and Pacific trade routes were opened up in the sixteenth century, for instance, one of the very first casualties was the Venetian monopoly on spices. As the prices for such exotic seasonings as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves fell, they ceased to be indicators of status and fell out of fashion. Long before most people came to see that their universe had been changed forever by the discovery of the New World, chefs all over Europe had felt the seismic shift and responded to it with far more creativity and agility than the politicians and diplomats. 
    We’ve experienced such a sea change in our own lifetimes. Just think of the difference between what the phrase “American food” meant thirty or forty years ago and what it means today. At best, when people spoke of American cooking back then, they were referring to regional idioms that rarely strayed beyond the pages of the church ladies’ community cookbook; at worst, and more likely, they meant frozen tv dinners, processed cheese, canned ravioli and Coca Cola. Today, the rediscovery of quintessential American ingredients; the reborn emphasis on freshness, seasonality and locality; and a certain Puritan insistence on simplicity of presentation are all hallmarks of our proud new national cuisine. 
    These changes are not insignificant and they are most certainly not about the finicky eating habits of some ill-defined cultural elite. On the contrary, they reflect the deepest shifts in geopolitics, demographics, economic globalization and communications technologies; they reflect the United States’ shifting perception of itself in the world, our fear of urban sprawl, the relationships between our native-born and immigrant communities, our disgust with our polluted natural resources; they reflect the falling value of the dollar and the rising cost of keeping the baby boom generation healthy; they reflect the end of the Cold War and the continued subsidization of American corn and soy farmers; they reflect the Internet’s atomization of society into distinct, identifiable sub-niches and sub-markets, each of which can now be catered to with laser precision. And while our elected officials continued to mouth the clichés of obsolete political alignments, our chefs felt the changes coming decades ago, almost at the very moment they arose, and painted for us a lovely, irresistible picture of the future as it could be. That is why culinary history is so important, and that is the historical drama that we’re going to explore in the Podcast History of Cooking. 
    When we think of the history of Western Civilization, we tend to picture a straight line that somehow links our contemporary world directly to a cultural genesis somewhere in the Fertile Crescent or the Eastern Mediterranean. That is essentially true from Norway to Spain, Poland to Greece, and equally true for Christians, Muslims and Jews. We know the Romans were cruel and ate dormice, yet we feel a kinship with their early Republican virtues. We know that the Greeks’ democracy was not exactly universal, yet we continue to use the same word they used for our form of government, as if it were a baton that had been handed down to us. As far back as Hammurabi the law-giver, we find inspiration in the antecedents we claim for ourselves and infer longevity for our so-called immutable inner nature. 
    It’s a useful fiction shot through with glimmers of truth, and historians have latched onto it to give a kind of narrative impetus to the history of the Western World. This is where we began; this is where we are; this is how we got here. It’s all one story. It’s not a very nuanced story, true, but it’s extremely helpful when we want to step back and see the big picture. And for better or for worse, it’s the story you’ll be hearing in this Podcast History. It’s the story of the evolution of cooking in the Western World, from Babylon to Alice Waters, passing through Mesopotamia, the Persian empire and the ancient Middle East, Greece and its colonies, Italy, the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the voyages of discovery, the contributions of the New World, the emergence of national cuisines in France, Italy, England and others, the industrial revolution, the apotheosis of French cuisine, colonialism, and the rise of the United States. 
    The first thing you’ll need to decide in a history of cooking is what, exactly, you mean by “cooking.” Is cooking the application of heat to raw food, or is it the effectuation of any chemical change in food by any means? The ancients preserved meat and eggs by burying them underground to dry. Is that cooking? We still use salt, dry wind, smoke and canning to preserve our foods – is that cooking? What about pouring cold milk on breakfast cereal, brewing beer and making wine? 
    For the sake of coherence and narrative, we’re going to have to define cooking quite narrowly. For our purposes, it will be an action requiring the conjunction of four elements: ingredients, a heat source, a medium and a technique. In other words, food, fire, frying pan and a minimal understanding of how to combine them usefully. When those four elements are brought together in a thoughtful, predetermined manner, they create a recipe, and that is cooking. By this definition, boiling an egg or making a cup of tea is cooking, but salting a herring is not; baking bread and boiling fruit for jam is cooking, but making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t. Some people will find cause to argue with this definition, and that’s fine, but the point is to focus on cooking as a cultural activity, as distinct from the scientific, economic, and logistical activities that make it possible. 
    There’s one more point I’d like to bring home before we launch into the substance of our historical investigation. We have to understand history not just as the story of how our differences have separated us in the past or brought us together in cooperation or dispute; history is just as equally the story of our shared ideals, aspirations and delusions, the common thread of human nature and folly that unites us vertically with our ancestors and descendants, and horizontally with our contemporaries. That holds just as true for the history of cooking as it does for political history. We have so much more in common with our ancestors – even our most distant ancestors at the dawn of civilization – than we can grasp or care to acknowledge. That is especially true when it comes to what we eat. As we’ll see in the very first episode of the Podcast History, the differences between what we eat today and what our hunting and gathering forebears ate 20,000 years ago are much less significant than the similarities. It’s the smallest of leaps from your iPod to their campfire, and I hope you’ll take it with me. Because if we can understand something about them as they engage in one of the very first activities that distinguished humans from the rest of the animal world – that is, cooking our food – then maybe we can understand a little something about ourselves.

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