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Book review: “Food in History” by Reay Tannahill

When Reay Tannahill began working on the book that became “Food in History,” she was entering virgin territory. No one before her had attempted to chronicle the relationship of humans and their food from before the dawn of history down to modern times.

The result, published in 1973, was a surprise bestseller. Tannahill came back with a revised and expanded edition in 1988, and, despite many later books on the subject, “Food in History” continues to sell well.

There is much to praise in the book — its erudition, its wit, its common sense, its utter lack of snobbishness, its lively writing. Tannahill does a bang-up job of taking the reader along on an adventure as she, using the findings of historians, sociologists and archeologists, describes the food of people across the globe and down the centuries.

It’s an adventure because she is writing not so much about food, but about people. Why do people choose to eat what they eat? What did food mean socially? Politically? How much is too much? Not enough? Food as ostentation. Food and religion. Food in the city. The railroads and food.

Tanahill mines hundreds of texts for zesty quotes and anecdotes, but it’s her own turn of phrase that most often gives “Food in History” its verve.

Consider these:

The importance of bread: “Instructively, the word ‘lord’ is derived from the Old English hlaford, meaning ‘keeper of the break’ or loaf, i.e., master of the household. ‘Lady’ comes from hlaefdigge, meaning ‘kneader of the dough’ — equivalent to ‘second-most-important person. [NOTE: Until the word became obsolete in the nineteenth century, the German for ’employer’ was Brotherr, or ‘bread-master.’ In contrast, no doubt because the extreme north was livestock rather than crop country, Swedish women used to be addressed by their servants as maimoder, or ‘meat mother;’ it was the same in Denmark and Iceland.]”
Classical Greece: “The Greek ideal of food can be seen in a passage from Telecleides’ ‘The Amphictyons,’ which reconstructed an imaginary golden age. ‘Every torrent ran with wine, and barley-pastes fought with wheaten loaves to be the first to men’s laps…Fish would come to the house and back themselves up at table. A river of soup, swirling along hot piece of meat, would flow by the couches; conduits full of piquant sauces for the meat were close at hand for the asking…and roast thrushes served up with milk cakes flew down a man’s gullet.’ ”
At a 19th century slaughterhouse: “Since the keeping quality of meat depends largely on there being no blood in the carcass, and since the only way to drain a carcass thoroughly is to utilize the pumping action of the victim’s own heart, the animal destined for the table has to be stunned first and then bled before it dies. the slaughterhouse is no place for the soft-hearted meat-eater.”
Food and social judgments: “As Alice B. Toklas neatly put it, ‘If you wished to honour a guest you offered him an omelette soufflé with an elaborate sauce. If you were indifferent…an omelette with mushrooms or fines herbes. But if you wished to be insulting you made fried eggs.”
In Argentina: “From as early as the 1840s meat was so plentiful that even the chickens and turkeys were fattened on it, while sheeps’ skulls were used to fill up quagmires so that roads could be built.”
Mark Twain in Europe in 1878, dreaming of what he would eat upon his return to the U.S.: “Buckwheat cakes with maple syrup, hot bread, fried chicken, soft-shell crabs, Boston baked beans, hominy, squash and, of course, ‘a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample country of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in its place.’ ”
Winter food supplies for the rich of imperial Rome: “It was also possible, within limits, to control the timing of fresh supplies by setting slaves to tasks that could be slowed down or speeded up as the situation required — feeding snails on milk until they were too fat to slither back into their shells, stuffing dormice with nuts until they were plump enough to satisfy even the most demanding chef, clipping pigeons’ wings or breaking their legs to immobilize them, and then fattening them for the table on chewed bread.”
In the Dark Ages: “The diet of the rural poor in the less favoured northern regions of Europe was certainly less monotonous than the usual catalogue of ‘bread, porridge, herbs and roots’ suggests. Rivers and lakes gave up their fish, and coastal communities continued to gather shellfish as they had always done. Only the most incompetent countryman would fail to trap (legally or illegally) an occasional hare for the pot, while in many areas peasants were able to fatten their pigs on the acorns and beechmast in the local woods, and the domestic fowl pecked for provender in every hamlet.”
Blood-drinking: “Marco Polo’s detailed description of how the thirteenth-century Mongol armies went on campaign would probably have been equally apt hundreds of years later. Every man had a string of eighteen remounts, he said, and they travelled ‘without provisions and without making a fire, living only on the blood of their horses; for every rider pierces a vein of his horse and drinks the blood.’ An animal could afford to lose half a pint every tenth day — quite enough to sustain its owner — without its strength or stamina being impaired.”
The importance of food in Chinese culture: “The origins of the Chinese cuisine are obscure, but society was already uniquely food-oriented when it emerged into the light of recorded history in the first millennium B.C. Just as an ancient Athenian was expected to be politically aware, and a medieval German knight to have acquaintance with all the rules of chivalry, so a sensitive knowledge of food and drink was, from the very earliest times, one of the essential qualifications of a Chinese gentleman.”
Salt: The contexts in which the word itself crops up are an index of salt’s fundamental importance. The word ‘salary,’ for example, is derived from the Roman for ‘salt rations.’ In Russia the term for hospitality (khleh-sol’) literally means ‘bread-salt.’ To the Arabs, eating a man’s salt creates a sacred bond. The salt of the earth, being true to one’s salt, if the salt have lost its savour … Phrases of this kind can be counted almost ad infinitum in every one of the world’s languages.”
North America: “In the backwoods [of the future U.S.], until into the nineteenth century, the visitor still found himself eating plain-cooked possums, raccoons and other unexpected beasts, although on nothing like the scale of Canada, where he might have been offered stuffed moose heart, lynx stew, paupiettes of buffalo, woodchuck casserole (with biscuits) or roast polar bear. [NOTE: Never eat the live of a polar bear. It contains so much vitamin A that it is toxic to humans.]”
Britons in India: “The visitor from ‘Home’ would have been — and sometimes was — shocked by the serious and often successful attempts made by Europeans in India to eat and drink themselves to death. Sitting down to dine at one or two in the afternoon, they would spend three hours over an immensely heavy dinner washed down (by the abstemious) with five or six glasses of Madeira. The mortality rates were appalling. Even in the space of a year, between 1756 and 1757, one newly arrived army continent lost 87 of its 848 men, not from ‘epidemical nor malignant disorders’ but from irreparable liver damage caused by over-eating and alcoholism.”
Cannibalism during famine in Europe during the Dark Ages: “Demand produced supply. In some of the more isolated regions killer bands roamed the countryside, waylaying travellers, cooking their flesh and selling it to the highest bidder. They may have claimed that it was pork (which cannibal communities of the modern world say it resembles), or mutton — even ‘two-legged’ mutton, which was what the twelfth-century Chinese called it when there was famine in the northern provinces.”
Specialized use of salt as a preservative: “Before being put on public display pour enourager les autres, the heads of villains who had been hanged, drawn and quartered [in 17th century England], were parboiled ‘with Bay salt and cumin seed — that to keep them from putrefaction, and this to keep off the fowls from seizing on them.’ ”
Before railroads: “As was the case with most great cities, London’s meat had always been brought in on the hoof, often from many miles’ distance, and weary beats meant poor meat.”
Bread-baking in urban Britain in the 1800s: “People who held advanced views on hygiene were scandalized to see how commercial break was made — the perspiration dripping into the dough from the half-naked and far from clean bodies of the kneaders.”
Digestive wind: “Of all the rules of etiquette through the ages, that against breaking wind has had the longest life. Surviving texts are not always specific about which aspect of the subject they are discussing (or perhaps it is just that translators are too genteel), but it is clear that while a delicate burp has been acceptable, sometimes even commendable, in most societies, the audible release of what Dr. Johnson disarmingly referred to as ‘an ill wind behind’ most certainly has not.”

Patrick T. Reardon

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