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What Does a Food Historian Do?

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Last week, Ken Albala, Director of Food Studies at The University of The Pacific in San Francisco, recreated a 400-year-old menu for a group of select diners in San Francisco. The recipes were all taken from a book called "Dello Scalco" by Giovanni Battista Rossetti that included dishes that were served at a marriage banquet in Urbino, Italy in 1584.

A write-up from the event described the dishes:

While some traditional plates could be identifiable in one way or another today across a multitude of cuisines, like the Prosciutto on Golden Toast with Fried Sage and Parsley and Tart of Little Beans, the Blancmange with Candied Almonds, served during our second course, could only be likened to a bizarrely sweet version of a modern chicken salad. Ground and tendril-like, gooey chicken was molded into the shape of a baguette and covered in pastel-colored candied almonds scaling its sides like Stegosaurus scales.

Which all sounds amazing. But my biggest question was just how someone becomes a food historian in the first place, and what exactly that entails. So, I called Albala up and had a long chat about the whole field.

How did you become a food historian?

Ken Albala: Pretty simply, I needed a dissertation topic, and my advisor said you should go across the park to the New York Academy of Medicine. And I said why, I never showed any interest in medicine or anything. And he said, well, they have comfortable chairs. And he was right. It'd be a very easy place to do research, I'd be very comfortable, and the only person there. And I found there a cache of books that were collected in the 1920s by a nurse, and it was basically every dietary text written from the earliest printed books through the end of the 17th century. So I sat down and read them for about three years. Then I became a food historian. [laughs] I liked food and I had always been into eating, so I guess it made sense to pick a topic I really liked. From there I kind of wandered into more culinary history, which is different. Food history could be about anything having to do with food. Religious ideas, scientific ideas, nutritional processing, distribution, whatever. Culinary is really about what's going on in the kitchen. What's being cooked, the aesthetics of eating practices. So, I'm both.

Are most people both?

Albala: There are not a whole lot of people who could claim to be both, in other words, who write about food history and also love cooking and write cook books. I do both, which is unusual. I find that a lot of food historians aren't actually into cooking, which is bizarre to me; I don't understand that. And then there are a lot of really very good culinary historians who are not professional historians, who work in places like Plymouth Plantation, who are, how should I say it, "advanced buffs," who are very good at what they do, but don't have academic positions.

How has the field of food history changed since you started?

Albala: It didn't exist when I started. There were a couple of food history books out there. Kurlansky's "Cod" had come out just about when I started. At that time, there were a few books on food history, but it wasn't really an established genre, and it certainly wasn't legitimated in academia. There were maybe a couple courses taught around the world but nothing serious, and then a lot of different things happened. One, food studies, which is a broader category, came about at NYU, and also a gastronomy program in Boston. That opened the door to taking food studies seriously. There were also the Association for the Study of Food and Society, and the University of California, Oxford, University of Illinois all started their own food series, as did Columbia. I think that created a presence for food studies in general, in libraries, and on Amazon, and in Barnes & Noble.

When I started I said I want to do a food history course, and my colleagues, who were all much, much older, they were a little suspect and didn't think that was serious enough, and didn't trust it. But since they all retired, since I became chair [laughs], I said I'm going to do this and I don't care, and made it a GE course. Over the last decade it's been the largest course in the department in terms of numbers. So, it was nice to prove them all wrong.

Do you think it's a general fascination in history that's propelling the interest?

Albala: It's not the popularity of history, per se. I think in history, a lot of topics got stale. No one's really interested in political or military history any more. There are still popular books, people still want to read about World War II, but among academics that kind of history has just gotten really tiresome. Even social history to some extent. So much was done in the '70s and '80s. This is just a whole new way of looking at things that no one has thought of before. It's completely virgin territory, twenty years ago. Some types of food histories have been saturated. The single subject food book, there's just so many of them, every single topic's been done. There's books on salt, peanuts, milk, saffron, corn, pizza, everything's been covered. And now, there's nothing left in that sub-genre of food history. But in food books in general, there's another book published every day.

What's the importance of looking to the past for food?

Albala: Several things. Like any history, it tells you about people's preferences and fears. Since most people made their living making food or processing food, it's a big part of history that's been left out since people were focusing on war and politics and things like that. Another, and this is more from the culinary history side, is that we study music and art history, but really don't think about what people ate and why. And I think that just understanding the aesthetic value of the past food is completely new territory. That also includes food in art, in literature, music. We're sort of missing that whole aspect of people's lives. For me personally, it's also like traveling to another country and finding new flavors and new ways of combining things and new cooking techniques that are, I think, very interesting if people follow the cookbooks faithfully. They don't, usually. To follow the recipes exactly, sometimes it's difficult because you don't have the same ingredients or heat source or cooking utensils, but the recipes always work when you follow them.

What was the most fascinating discovery you made while digging through the old food literature?

Albala: One that was a revelation for me was a recipe in a book called "The Good Housewife's Handmaid for the Kitchen," which was 1588, I think. There was a recipe for a rabbit cooked in a pipkin. And I tried it, it's basically just a cut of rabbit, onions, and raisins, and a little half cup of verjuice, which is the juice from red grapes. Put it into the pot and it cooks. And I remember saying, this is going to burn. With that little liquid, it's going to burn. And I tried it, and it burned. What I realized was I actually had to use an actual pipkin, a clay vessel which is rounded on the bottom with three legs and a handle that sticks out, and you use a stick to lift out of the fire. I made one of those, and then it worked fine. Like, how did this work? And the recipe specifically calls for the vessel. The result of this is that not only did it not burn, but it's an amazing recipe. It's exquisite. I would never had made sense of that recipe without following exactly what it said.

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