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Rachel Laudan explains how food, and the way we eat it, has changed over time.

Rachel Laudan: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 10 Transcript

By Marian L. Tupy @HumanProgress

By Rachel Laudan @rachellaudan

The full interview between Marian Tupy and Rachel Laudan can be found here. The transcript is below.

Marian Tupy: Hello, and welcome to a new episode of Human Progress podcast. Recently, I’ve posted a number of articles about the dramatically declining prices of food in the United States over the last 100 years. And a couple of my correspondents complained that food today is less healthy, leads to obesity, and has lower nutritional value than was the case in the past. So to set the matter straight, I’m absolutely delighted to speak to a celebrated historian of food and cooking, Rachel Laudan, whose book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, came out in 2013 to much acclaim. So with that, Rachel, welcome.

Rachel Laudan: Thank you very much.

Marian Tupy: So let me start by saying that Cuisine and Empire is really a masterpiece. Your ability to wed together history, economics, politics, culture, is amongst the most impressive that I have read. And I want to get to nutrition, obesity, and quality of food toward the end of the podcast, but I don’t think it makes much sense to talk about food and cooking today without first considering food and cooking in the past. So in other words, I think that to evaluate food and cooking today, we have to compare it with food and cooking in history and see if there was progress, rather than to compare food and cooking to form an idealised image or idea in the future. So let me start with the subject that permeates your book, and that is the distinction between humble and high cuisine from antiquity to the pre-modern era. And perhaps we can focus on Western Europe and its offshoots. So what did people eat and how was their food prepared?

Rachel Laudan: Okay, let me start with cuisine because that can be a stumbling block for some people, the word cuisine. I use it simply in its original French sense, as a style of cooking. We don’t have a word for a style of cooking and eating in English. And I want to trace long-term trends and changes in styles of cooking and eating, and so I call these cuisines. Sometime in the past, probably around the time of the first states, you get a division in many parts of the world between what I call high cuisines, that’s the sense that people are more familiar with, and humble cuisines. And I call them humble because they are not extravagant, but they are not necessarily bad, either in terms of taste or in terms of nutrition or in terms of their inventiveness. So, high cuisines are ones we’re familiar with. In fact, everybody today, more or less in United… Everybody who’s listening to you, on this podcast, is going to be eating essentially a high cuisine with a few modifications we’ll get to later.

Rachel Laudan: A high cuisine has plentiful meat, the carbohydrate is one of the preferred carbohydrates, usually white rice, or in the west, white bread or pasta, same thing, sweeteners, fresh fruits and vegetables, exotic foods from other places, spices, for example, those are the ingredients. They are usually in traditional high cuisines prepared by men in special kitchens. And when they are eaten, they are usually eaten in a specialised place with specialised equipment such as the knives and forks and plates and cups and saucers we know today. Those were… That was a lot of… Perhaps 10% of most societies in the last several millennia. Most people did not eat this. Most people ate humble cuisine. This consisted largely of the less preferred carbohydrates, barley or oats or millet instead of wheat or rice. It had very little in the way of meat, fat, sugar, or exotic goods. It was prepared in the home by women in a room that was not specialised to cooking, and it was usually eaten from a common bowl with your hands, with your fingers. So that’s the distinction between high and humble cuisines that dominated food history from at least, say, 3000 BC up until 1800 in the richer parts of the world, 1900 or later in poorer parts of the world.

Marian Tupy: And just to be clear, preparation of food, of humble cuisine, didn’t just mean going to the garden and picking up a few carrots or something like that, throwing them in the pot, and off it went. Preparation of food, the way I understand it in your book, was quite a process, quite a physically demanding process, not least with some…

Rachel Laudan: It wasn’t.

Marian Tupy: Water and things like that.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah, well, you had to collect the firewood, you had to carry the water, this was still going on, it still is going on in rural parts of the world. It was still going on when I lived in Mexico in the 1990s, in rural Mexico, not in urban Mexico. The distinguished archaeologist, Gordon Hillman, who taught at the University of London, did some studies on what it took to get wheat from harvest to being ready to grind into flour. There were 20 steps just to get from harvested wheat to being able… Wheat that was clean and had all its outer coverings removed so that you could grind it into flour. The grinding, the grinding is just extraordinary. It’s been written out of history, I think, because maybe it was women’s work. I had the luck when I was in Mexico in the ’90s, where there were still women who ground to get them to teach me to grind. If you are grinding on a simple grindstone, that is a rectangular slab of rock with a cylindrical piece of rock to do the grinding, it takes you an hour to grind for one member of the family for one day’s food. So if you’ve got a five-member family, you’re spending five hours on your knees grinding.

Marian Tupy: That’s extraordinary. That’s unbelievable.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah, it’s extraordinary hard work. Only Olympic rowers have upper-body strength that is equivalent to what archaeologists have discovered by looking at muscle attachments with the upper body strength of grinders.

Marian Tupy: Right, so production of a humble meal would involve obviously a year-long or season-long hard labour by a man, presumably in the fields doing what farmers do, and then presumably, an entire day’s of work by the woman to do everything from grinding to bringing water just to be able to produce a meal for her family.

Rachel Laudan: Yes, and I mean one reason I wrote Cuisine… One of many reasons was to draw attention to the fact that although there’s been a huge amount written about the history of farming, and although the standard line is, once we go to what is commonly called the Agricultural Revolution or the Agricultural Transition of the Neolithic period, that now the happy life of the hunter-gatherer is gone and we have these poor farmers labouring away. The poor farmers, well, they were sometimes women too, but the labour that happened after the harvest gate and before the plate was greater than the work of farming. Farming is terribly hard work during harvest. It’s very hard work during plowing, they’re all planting. There is weeding and things in between, but it goes up and down. The work of actually turning the grain, and it’s always grain or roots that provide basic carbohydrates, the work of preparing that after they’ve been harvested is more than the work of farming.

Marian Tupy: So in many ways, life becomes harder when we stop hunting and gathering, and moving around, searching for roots and mushrooms and whatever along the way, killing animals. We settle down in the cities and become agriculturalists, and yet we stick with it, even though life is difficult. Why did we stick with it?

Rachel Laudan: It’s been very popular in anthropology in the last 30 or 40 years to say that it was much harder once we had moved away from hunting and gathering. I’m not sure it was. I’m not sure that the studies of hunting and gathering that we have include all the work. The most classic study done on what used to be called the Bushman people in South Africa left out food preparation.

Marian Tupy: I see.

Rachel Laudan: So but even so, why do we keep on with grains? Nobody’s found anything, any plant, that is as amazing as the grains. Don’t forget, when we go to grains, we have had 20,000, 50,000 years more than that of inventorying the plant resources of the planet, and so we are not novices. We have tried everything. Now, what do grains do? Grains are very high in their nutritional density compared to their weight. So they can be transported, they are an almost complete food, they are dry, so they store well. And if you’ve got grains, you can turn grains into bread, or let’s just take wheat for a second, you can turn it into bread or pasta, you can turn it into sugar like malt sugar that the Chinese use. You can extract oil from many of the grains, you can turn them into condiments like soy sauce, and you can turn them into alcoholic beverages. I mean…

Marian Tupy: That’s important, that’s very important.

Rachel Laudan: You can have a whole cuisine just based on… You’ve got your carb, you’ve got your fat, you’ve got your protein, you’ve got…

Marian Tupy: In fact, I think I read somewhere or maybe I heard it in one of the podcasts that there is some research trying to argue that the reason why we became agriculturalists was precisely so that we could have access to beer and alcohol rather than a stable supply of food. I don’t know if this is a widely accepted hypothesis, but I know that it’s floating about.

Rachel Laudan: It is so entrancing that it keeps popping up all the time. I actually think it’s probably more that, by the time they’re making alcohol, they’ve done everything with grains, and they’ve discovered that there’s this wonderful range of foods you can make out of one part of one plant.

Marian Tupy: So we have this emergence of humble versus high cuisine. So how did that distinction emerge, and what were its political, cultural, and religious origins and justifications? What was it about the agricultural societies that leads to the emergence of hierarchical… I can’t pronounce it well… Hierarchical eating?

Rachel Laudan: It’s a terrible word, yes. You can store grains for a long time. This means they become a source, or you can store them for… Most of them up for two or three years without a huge amount of loss, a pretty big loss, but still they’re there. This means you’ve got a source of wealth, and whoever can sit on that wealth is going to be able to exert power over others, because you’re holding the thing that keeps people alive. What you find in all ancient societies…

Marian Tupy: Forgive me, Forgive me, I just want to make something clear to our listeners. By sitting on wealth like grains, for example, it doesn’t mean that you had to acquire it through nefarious means. Maybe you are just a better farmer or a better businessman, and you end up with more stuff than others do, right?

Rachel Laudan: Yes, though it is true that in most ancient… The storage of grains is the storage of what is called surplus, and one distinguished historian said, you shouldn’t think of surplus as something that there’s plenty of out there, that as soon as these hierarchical societies get established, they go out and they take everything. The great Roman Dr Galen in the ancient world, in the Roman Empire, said, “The cities go out and they take everything they can from the peasants in the countryside short of starving them.” So there is an element, I think, of compulsion there, and it would be lovely if there weren’t, but there is. The individual… It’s not the individual, it’s more a collective store, I think. Being a better farmer is not going to give you enough, I don’t think, to give you a great deal of power. Anyway…

Marian Tupy: It was good to be corrected on that. And I’m sure that…

Rachel Laudan: Well, that’s just my sense, we’re talking about periods in which there is very little written. The Chinese refer to people in the cities as the big rats who take their grains as compared to the little rats, which are the four-legged rats that get into granaries.

Marian Tupy: Sorry, I interrupted you. You were about to talk about the origins of high and low cuisine in terms of ancient societies.

Rachel Laudan: Yes. Around the globe where this develops, you find that people adhere to what I call a principle of hierarchy, and that is that each kind of living being has a lifestyle including its food that is appropriate to it, and everything is living, from stones to the deities or the spirits or the unknown, unseen world that most people believe in. The stones which are living, they only need water to grow, like you see crystals growing in water, and they stay static. Plants need soil and sun and water, animals need plants and soil and sun and more, and so on up the hierarchy, so that humans are the ones… Civilised humans need grains, that is, civilised in the traditional sense of simply living in cities. Those human societies that have cities are grain-based, but within those cities there is, again, a hierarchy. The poor will eat the lesser kind of grains, the oats and barley, and the elites will eat meat, and the gods will get offerings of smoke rising up, or aromas rising up from sacrificed meat and grains and that. So we have a complete hierarchy of foods for a complete hierarchy of people.

Rachel Laudan: And I mean, the kicker in this is of course, it goes along with what I call dietary determinism, so that people really do believe you are what you eat. So that if you eat like animals, standing up, and eat raw foods, you will become like an animal. If you’re a prince and you start eating lesser grains, you will become like a peasant. It goes the other way too.

Marian Tupy: Fascinating. And so, okay, so with the emergence of cities, civilisation, as life in the cities, plus writing, with the emergence of this agricultural society, we have an emergence of hierarchy, and basically, what you eat is hierarchised in the same way as power relations within the structure. And of course, there are penalties for breaking with the hierarchy. So for example, I was struck when you said that women in Hawaii could be punished by death by eating with their men.

Rachel Laudan: Right.

Marian Tupy: And I think that also women in Ancient Greece were not permitted to eat with men, but I’m not 100% sure about that. Certainly in Rome they could.

Rachel Laudan: Yes.

Marian Tupy: Drinking, drinking wine for women was absolutely strictly prohibited in ancient Greece. That’s for sure. I don’t know about eating.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah. No, I mean, it varies from society to society, but our idea that the whole family or the whole society will sit down and eat the same thing was absolutely untrue.

Marian Tupy: Fascinating. So in the pre-modern era, I’m talking about thousands of years since the birth of agriculture until, let’s say, 1650 or so, what was the quality of food and access to food like? So I studied classics, so I heard a lot about food adulteration back in ancient Rome and Greece, lots of poisonings, lots of slave cooks were put to death because the party died, even though it may have nothing to do with the slave cook, it may have to do with some extraneous force. We hear about monotony of diets in the ancient world, insecurity of food supply, hunger, starvation, and not to hear about… Not to talk about the lack of hygiene. So once again, what was the quality and access to food like, say, in the pre-modern era? And let’s start with the poor, because they constituted 90% of humanity.

Rachel Laudan: Right. I want to give a qualified defence of the food of the poor because it wasn’t necessarily terrible. When I lived in Mexico, which was an eye-opener in many ways with respect to the history of food, the basic food there is maize, the corn tortilla, the flatbread. Nobody… And if you eat two pounds of tortillas a day, you’re pretty fussy about the quality of those tortillas. And the tortillas made by women in the country were fantastic in terms of quality and taste and cleanliness. You could not buy… The richest person in the city could not buy a tortilla of that quality. We cannot buy a tortilla of that quality because today the tortilla is just a wrap that you put other things in. We don’t depend… It doesn’t matter to… Like bread, it’s just a wrap for a sandwich, it’s what goes in that counts. So it is true that the food of the poor could be incredibly ingenious, tasty, and healthy. That said, it was drastically limited compared to what we have today. I mean, if you’re eating two pounds of tortillas and beans and chillies, that’s it, every day.

Rachel Laudan: It wasn’t necessarily perceived at the time as monotonous because there was no contrast to compare it with, but from our perspective we would be horrified to have to eat something that was that limited. It’s also the case that it was highly seasonal, and a lot of the problems of hunger were not necessarily starvation, but the problem of the months before the harvest comes in. So that in northern Europe or North America this would be May, June, July. You’ve run out of your stores and the harvest is not in, and the fruit, summer fruits and vegetables don’t come in till August. Those are the hungry months. And those are the months when people really are short of food and where childhood stunting and that kind… Where children don’t get enough, so they don’t grow tall. A lot of that is due to the seasonality of food.

Rachel Laudan: Another reason why there is so much talk of hunger is that food is very heavy, and if you don’t have water transport, if you don’t have a Mediterranean Sea or a large river where you can take grains and other goods by water, you can only move your basic carbohydrate foods about 10 to 15 miles because after that the cost of transport becomes greater than the value of the food. So that you can have throughout most of the history one village having severe food shortages to the point of starvation where another one, 30 miles away, is doing just fine, but you can’t move the food around.

Marian Tupy: Fascinating. And obviously, if there is inclement weather like I believe in mid 14th century Europe and there are… Season of cold or too much rain, and then you have really a failure of harvest, then that leads to actually starvation on a much larger scale, right?

Rachel Laudan: Right.

Marian Tupy: There’s no way around it.

Rachel Laudan: You can’t bring in anything to deal with it.

Marian Tupy: Okay, and just to make clear, even though those tortillas were exceptionally good, and we can’t even get them, we are talking about a lifetime of eating tortillas.

Marian Tupy: Right, right.

Marian Tupy: Okay, so good.

Rachel Laudan: Okay. And that’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year for however long you live.

Marian Tupy: Tell me a little bit about personal hygiene and things like that, because reading Braudel, I learned that in Europe… Well, animal excrement being used for farming was obviously widespread throughout the world, but in China, for example, you also have human manure and that sorta thing. And people obviously didn’t know about germ theory and anything like that, so how widespread were things like gastrointestinal diseases arising from either unhealthy food or just not washing and things like that.

Rachel Laudan: Incredibly difficult to pin down because we don’t have the medical records, at least until the Industrial Revolution. It’s pretty clear that that’s one respect in which city life, although you get better and more varied food in the cities, the downside is that the danger of things like gastrointestinal diseases is much, much greater in cities than it is in the country. You’re buying more food on the street, you have more people on the same sources of water, you have a greater concentration of people, so that the whole problem of waste disposal becomes more difficult. My impression is that in the country where things are dispersed, it wasn’t too bad, it was the cities where this was really bad.

Marian Tupy: In the countryside, people still sleep with their animals, and presumably even if they were far away from human waste, they would still… Maybe fleas were a problem, rats were a problem, and that sorta thing.

Rachel Laudan: Yes, and this transmission of the diseases backwards and forwards between animals and humans, and it’s certainly true in North Europe, for example, you would sleep with animals during the winter, that when I see all people today with all their dogs and cats piled on their beds, I’m not sure that we’ve moved much on that, but no…

Marian Tupy: I mean, you already mentioned that 90% of humans were peasants who grew their own food, but people who bought food in the cities, how much of their income was spent on food? Today, I think that in the United States, we spend 9% of our disposable income on food. Can you give us a sense of how expensive food was in the past?

Rachel Laudan: Here you are venturing into one of the most controverted questions, not just in the history of food, but in history. We really don’t know very much about most of history, and even where we get good records, and I’m gonna talk about Britain in the Industrial Revolution. It is an incredibly difficult thing to disentangle. It’s called the cost of living debate. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the cost of living debate.

Marian Tupy: We are in the middle of it here in the United States right now.

Rachel Laudan: Well, if you go to the historical literature, the cost of living debate refers to the question, did the cost of living go up or down during the Industrial Revolution?

Marian Tupy: Right.

Rachel Laudan: And I mean, there are literally thousands of articles on this, because you’re asking, I looked up an article that was written two years ago by a British historian trying to make sense of the current state of thinking on this. And she wants to distinguish very sharply country people and city people and mining people, people working in mining, people working in industry, people working in agriculture. The people working in mining are spending at least 50% of their income on food, the people working in industry are spending 40% at least. We get different figures for this, but it’s always going to be… And they’re both spending much less than people in the country. People in the country, they are getting… Now, let me just… Where do we go? They’re spending about 80% of their money on food, because by that stage, they’re not growing food of their own, except maybe a few vegetables.

Rachel Laudan: So nowadays, I know that that 9% figure has to be broken down in rather the same way, because there are people who spend much more than 9% and people who spend much less than 9%, but I think overall, the percentage spent on food, it has dramatically declined from city people in the mid-19th century.

Marian Tupy: And before then, if I recall, Braudel arguing that up to 80% of… He was looking at Europe in the middle ages, and his estimate was that anywhere between 40% and 80% of income was spent on food depending on your social class and where you live, and that sorta thing, and most of it’s spent on bread. In other words…

Rachel Laudan: Oh, yes.

Marian Tupy: So again, a monotony of diet based on bread on which you were spending a whole lot of money.

Rachel Laudan: Yes. In Britain, if you were a agricultural worker in the 19th century, you were spending 60% or 70% of your income on bread. I grew up in a village where they had set stones into the wall of the churchyard that gave the price of bread in different years. And in 1800, it was a certain price, and in 1801, it jumped about 30%, and this was such a tremendous and traumatic event that they put the price of bread in the church wall.

Marian Tupy: Now, let me suggest something to you that you may disagree with, but I think that actually in the United States, the 9% figure that is spent on average on food is actually inflated by the fact that half of our food spending is in restaurants. So if you look at the lines of food consumed at home and food consumed out of home, they have actually met now. In other words, 50% of what we spend is in restaurants and at home, and because restaurants meals are much more expensive than they would be at home, we are artificially actually increasing the amount of income that we are spending on food. If every food was bought in Walmart or Whole Foods and then consumed at home, presumably, the figure would be much lower than 9%.

Rachel Laudan: It would be lower. Again, if restaurants include… It’s away from home, so you’re not talking necessarily white-tablecloth restaurants here, we’re talking McDonald’s and Arby’s and that kinda thing, but no, it is. [chuckle] People in America just take it for granted now that you can eat out. I had a student say to me, “When you were a student, did you enjoy exploring the restaurants in the town you lived in, at the university town in England?” and I just looked at her. When I was a student, you didn’t go to restaurants. You didn’t have a prayer of going to a restaurant.

Marian Tupy: Yeah. When I started at Saint Andrews in 1999 or 2000, I can’t remember, we had two restaurants. One was an Indian pizza place and the other one was an… Sorry, an Italian pizza place and an Indian place, so there were two restaurants. And so late at night, if you were hungry, you went for deep-fried Mars bar, washed down with an Irn-Bru, so that was the extent of our culinary experiences back then.

Rachel Laudan: Yes.

Marian Tupy: So another controversial subject. Forgive me for pushing you on controversial subjects, but if we can’t do it here, where can we? So I’m confused about calorie intake, again, speaking for… About the people at the bottom of the income ladder. This is what interests me most, is what 90% of people who were the peasants, lived on. So we tend to think about consumption of 2,000 calories per person per day as the starvation level. Anything much below that, and you are really pushing it, or at least that’s how I understand it, but many historians including yourself note in your work that a typical male worker would have consumed between 3,000-5,000 calories per day, so is that really because of manual labour, in other words, that the problem here is manual labour, so even where calories-rich diet is not enough to keep people alive or on the edge of starvation?

Rachel Laudan: Yeah, I think it is manual labour, and I think people had an idea of…

Marian Tupy: Forgive me… Let me rephrase that. So what separates people from starvation and survival or even flourishing is not really the total amount of calories, it’s more calories adjusted for the amount of work that they have to work that day in order to produce the food for the next day. Would that be correct?

Rachel Laudan: I think that’s much more like it. And I think, for example, that there were huge adjustments. It was very common, as I understand it, in medieval England, and right up through the 19th century, to kill an animal shortly before harvest, because you knew that you were going to need a better diet in order for the men to do the hard work of harvest. So I think people’s calorie… I mean now, there’s always food available, so we just chug along, and we can have as much as we like all the time. I think in the past, going back to the hungry months, the number of calories available were much lower, probably very often in the months before the harvest than they were after the harvest. Some historians say that in very northern areas, the peasants essentially hibernated during the dark months of winter and went to bed. And then your calorie needs go down dramatically.

Rachel Laudan: And you get all kinds of reports from observers. And I’ve heard people themselves say this, that they adjust… That families did adjust the amount they ate in relation to the work they knew they were gonna have to do. So they would save up food for… A family would make sure the man, for example, if he were doing heavy work in early industrialisation, he was a miner or a navvy or something like that, he would get some meat, the rest of the family would not, but he needed those extra calories from the meat and the fat. So I’m not sure a daily average is gonna capture what’s going on.

Marian Tupy: That’s very interesting. That’s very interesting, and a good reminder that things don’t necessarily go in a linear fashion. I wanna stick to meat just for a few more minutes. Would it be fair to say that meat consumption, especially for the masses, was something special? I want to divide it into two or three different stages. One would be antiquities. So I assume that, and correct me if I’m wrong, that part of the reason why they had all these religious festivals is because that’s where the meat was slaughtered, and then after the offerings to the gods, it would be shared amongst the people. This would be presumably one of the few instances when people would have access to meat. Is that correct interpretation of the literature?

Rachel Laudan: Yes. What we don’t have for, say, country people is how much they were able to get the odd rabbit or small bird or even the rat or something like that. That’s just not captured in any records that we’ve got. Certainly meat-eating for citizens in the ancient world was a symbol of the state of the political unit. And if you take the Olympics, which as you as a classicist will know, were as much a religious ceremony as a sporting one. There was a sacrifice at the end of the Olympics, and 30 cattle were slaughtered, and the meat was divided. I calculated it out once, it’s not a huge amount of meat per person, but it is meat, but of course, that was for citizens. There weren’t women there and there weren’t slaves there. So how much people across the spectrum got I am not sure, but nothing like our assumption that we’ll have meat at least once and probably two or three times a day.

Marian Tupy: And then moving from antiquity to the modern era, I also read that people had to be very careful about slaughtering their domestic animals. I once read that, for example, even something as simple as slaughtering a chicken would have been something reserved for special occasions, if at all, because you are essentially removing a source of food, because if you kill the chicken, there is no more eggs, right? And that is an extraordinary thing when you compare it to today, where minimum wage in the United States is something like $7.5, and a Costco chicken, rotisserie chicken, costs $5. So basically a person working on minimum wage… And by the way, 90% of American workers get about $12 and up, so the people in $7.50 are really very few and between, but for an hour of work, you get an entire chicken. So presumably something like that would have been very difficult to come by before.

Rachel Laudan: When I was a child, a long time ago, back in the 1950s, chicken was the luxury meat.

Marian Tupy: Really?

Rachel Laudan: Oh, yes. I still… When I see fried chicken, I forget hamburgers. That still connotes luxury to me, because it wasn’t until you got the mass production of chicken and the separation of the production of meat and eggs that chicken became an everyday or even the cheapest meat. It’s very, very recent.

Marian Tupy: Out of interest, and this is something that’s tangential to our conversation, but do your students, presumably in their early 20s, do they ever ask what was life like from a culinary or food consumption experience when you were little?

Rachel Laudan: They don’t. Nobody believes you, because it is so incomprehensible to a modern American, even the kind of food that the English had after World War II. No chicken. Yes, meat, but small amounts. No going to restaurants, no foreign food. It’s something… I think it’s a loss of historical knowledge that makes it very hard to talk about food today, because it’s filled in with this romantic fairytale story that you went out to the garden and you plucked your carrots, as you said, or your peaches, and you killed your chicken, and it was abundant and healthful and just, it’s been downhill ever since.

Marian Tupy: Well, one of the things that absolutely blew me away in your book was that little statistic about 80% of Italians not being able to afford pasta in 1930s.

Rachel Laudan: 1950s.

Marian Tupy: In the 1950s? Okay, but maybe that’s one of the reasons why we see so much anxiety and so much dissatisfaction amongst the youth, is because they have no historical perspective, they cannot really appreciate what went on, but I mean, I know it from my own experience, when my grandmother who grew up under Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia, was telling me about hunger, starvation, they were borderline starving at that time. It just didn’t register, it just was not something that you could process.

Rachel Laudan: It’s not a failure on their part, it’s just so far outside experience.

Marian Tupy: Yeah, and that’s why she would always insist, “You have to eat absolutely everything because you never know when you might be starving.” And yeah, you just don’t get it. And then by the time that I started being interested in all of this stuff, of course she was gone, so there was nobody to talk to, but okay, moving on. So we have talked about life for ordinary people, that’s what we are mostly interested in, in the pre-modern era, we have skipped the high cuisine because I think that everybody can understand what high cuisine is… What maybe was enjoyed by the top 5% of the population you can now still find in French restaurants and things like that, but we don’t need to talk about that. What I wanna… I wanna move to the modern era, which really starts in the 17th-18th centuries.

Marian Tupy: And I wanna talk about… Well, just when I thought I couldn’t think any less of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his role in human history. You pointed out in the book that it was Rousseau who started the whole natural food movement in his influential work, A Meal. My understanding is that humans had been toying with nature for a long time through selective breeding, for example, so is there any fundamental difference between artificial selection of plants and meats through breeding and cross-breeding and GMOs, for example?

Rachel Laudan: Not from my perspective. And I think it’s interesting that since you’re a classicist, in the ancient world, cultivation was seen as a form of food processing or preparation that you did want to modify the plants that you had to make them better. So yes, modification of plants goes way back, every time archaeologists look at it, it goes further back, and I would see GMOs and other modern technologies as an extension of that.

Marian Tupy: Right. So people should understand that what we look at as corn today or tomato or a carrot, didn’t look anything like that in the past, it’s a product. Okay, so you walk into Whole Foods and you pick up a nice carrot or, I don’t know, a piece of corn, and you think… And it’s got an organic label on it, and you think, “Oh my God, I’m getting as close to nature as possible.” But in fact, it didn’t look like it before humans interfered with it.

Rachel Laudan: No, I mean, and some of them didn’t even exist at all. I mean, maize just didn’t exist before humans got going on it. And luckily, this is one of the points that is fairly easy to get across to people because you can show them pictures of what things used to look like and what they’re like today. And a picture’s worth 1,000 words I guess.

Marian Tupy: So Rousseau, to whom I referred in my previous question, brings us to the enlightenment, and you argue that basically that period of time in European history was as fundamental of a change as the discovery of agriculture 12,000 years ago. And basically that during this time, we have an emergence of a new cuisine, and that’s the Middling cuisine, so so far we’ve been talking about the high cuisine and the humble cuisine, and now we have the emergence of Middling cuisine. So what is it? And where did it come from?

Rachel Laudan: I think you get from both a religious and a political aspect, and of course, they’re tightly tied in together since states sponsor religions, a criticism of the hierarchical principle. When you get Protestantism, the whole idea of the Catholic mass with the priest performing and the recipients, is replaced by the idea in Lutheranism and other Protestant religions of communicants around a table and them having equal access. A lot of food historians have pointed out that the royal banquet and the Catholic mass had a lot of parallels and that this was not accident, the way the table was laid out, the important place of wine and fine cups, the processional aspects, so that in traditional Catholic states of Europe, it was not just that church and state were linked in multiple ways, but that link was demonstrated in the feeding, both in the mass and in the royal banquet, that all goes out with Protestantism.

Rachel Laudan: And at the same time, you get the development of Republican and Liberal theories of politics, an argument for separation of church and state. And I think the Dutch Republic is particularly important here, the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, where the Dutch quite deliberately reject the high cuisine in favour of a middle class, bourgeois cuisine, family based, equal for all without the extravagance of high cuisine.

Marian Tupy: I found the entire book fascinating, but this part is really the most interesting to me, because essentially, you are tying the emergence of enlightenment, protestantism, equality before the law, questions surrounding the ruling class legitimacy, with food, and how politics and different changing ideas about politics impact how we eat. And this is really the break with the past. So the enlightenment is a break with the past along so many dimensions that had been covered elsewhere, but here, you’re saying it’s fundamental also to food consumption?

Rachel Laudan: I think so. And I mean, let me turn to the United States or the young republic of the United States at the end of this century, just two things that… Well, actually one in the 19th century. When the United States declares itself independent, one of the questions they have to address is what they do about diplomacy, because the diplomatic meal, which is central to diplomacy, is an aristocratic meal with high cuisine. And it’s very much like the royal banquet or the mass, it’s elitist and extravagant, and you don’t have to have tons of special China for it. And the Americans say that they will not hold, they will not give their diplomats the go-ahead to indulge in these meals. And it has been a problem for Americans ever since to know what to do about the proper meal… The state meal in America, because should they join the international community and have high French cuisine, say under the Reagans, or should they simply have a more democratic meal, barbecue under President Johnson for example?

Rachel Laudan: When George the VI goes to America to meet Roosevelt, he is served a hot dog and he has to eat it with his fingers. So in America, this is right at the centre of state and individual politics. The Thanksgiving meal was specifically designed in the United States to be a Republican meal. It was designed to be a family meal with affordable ingredients that everybody could have. So you have sweet potato pie and you have pecan pie and you have everyday vegetables, and it was a… This happened immediately after the Civil War, the construction of the Thanksgiving meal, so that it’s acted out in all… I heard a fascinating talk by an Irish food historian about what the Irish did, Southern Irish, after they got independence from the British, and they declared the Irish Republic, they went through the same routine. We can’t do the diplomatic meal, we are not going to spend thousands of pounds on fancy China for the diplomatic meal because republics don’t do that.

Marian Tupy: Yeah, and I’m about to make a political point, so don’t feel obliged to respond to it, but in my view, as the American presidency has grown more imperial and royal in all of its accoutrements, we have seen increasingly presidents having fewer problems, I think, with putting on lavish displays of wealth and power. I mean, you noted in your book that Nancy Reagan bought very expensive China, for which she was criticised, but then the Clintons had their own China, and the Obamas bought their own China, and of course, all of them have given massive and very lavish entertainment for foreign visitors.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah. Well, it’s difficult. I mean, it is a tricky problem in the sense that… How do you relate to the international community? And I can see there are difficulties there.

Marian Tupy: One aspect of liberalism that emerges in 18th century is, of course, free trade, and I was particularly pleased to see in your book that you do discuss free trade and its impact on food prices and types of eating in Europe, especially Britain, with which you are most familiar. So can you talk a little bit about the importance of the Corn Laws and their effect on the welfare of the British public?

Rachel Laudan: Sure. The Corn Laws were a set of tariffs on imported, let’s call it grain, or wheat, because corn in America specifically means maize. So it was… It protected British landowners and British farmers. They had guaranteed prices, and foreign grain couldn’t come in. As urbanisation and industrialisation occurred, this kept the price of food relatively high for… Or high for the urban populations. Well, actually the rural ones too, but in that stage. And so when the Corn Laws were repealed, the effect, not immediate, but after about 30 years, was that wheat from America began to come into Britain, and it dramatically reduced the cost of food. The continental countries, Germany and France, decided to protect their agricultural industries by keeping the tariffs on and, in fact, increasing them.

Rachel Laudan: It’s a really, really… I am basically pro free trade. I can see there’s a downside to it. Britain became so dependent on foreign food, that when World War I and World War II came along, we may be up for Three soon, if America had not come to the rescue and shipped food across the Atlantic, there would have been mass starvation in Great Britain. And much of the common agricultural policy was put in place by the European Union in order to make sure that the starvation of World War II did not recur in that area. So on the one hand, free trade works real… It was great for Britain, it was great for British workers. It works really well until the politics changes and you’re at war.

Marian Tupy: Yeah. This is a point I make all the time. We are making a lot of progress, but nothing is guaranteed, because if politicians decide to ruin it for the rest of us, they can certainly do a very good job at it. But I just want to emphasise for the listeners that the chapter where you combine the rise of liberalism, Protestantism, enlightenment, enlightenment, emphasis on equality before the law, and that’s… I’ve been long arguing that this is the great break from the drudgery of the past, but it actually does have serious culinary consequences, which you in fact call the triumph of the Middling cuisine between 1820 and 1910. What do you mean by the triumph of the Middling cuisine? Not only does it appear on the horizon, but it takes over the world, right?

Rachel Laudan: Well, yes, one way of looking at it is that as the franchise extends, you cannot… There is a parallel between greater access to better and more various food at a reasonable price and the spread of the franchise, because if you’re gonna be a citizen, you can’t be cut out. If you’re gonna be an equal citizen, equal before the law, as you say, you have to have equal access to food. It’s not actually written out like that, but that’s the kind of underlying logic. Yes, it may start. Yeah, it’s everywhere. It’s not just a European story, the same thing is happening in Japan. It is at least being debated. Same thing is happening in Russia, of course, goes slightly a different way because of socialism, but again, socialism didn’t always work out as expected, but it was an attack on the aristocratic system.

Marian Tupy: Yes.

Rachel Laudan: And so in multiple different places, you get the same thing happening in the Ottoman Empire, in the Middle East, you get it debated by Indians who are in the Independence Movement in India. Everywhere it is seen that breaking down this old aristocratic division between high and humble cuisines is part of becoming a modern state.

Marian Tupy: What are the features of the Middling cuisine? And obviously, it is co-terminus with food processing and industrialisation and the decline of prices. So maybe we can talk just a little bit about food processing, the fall in the price of food, and how does that translate into what people eat on a daily basis, just very briefly?

Rachel Laudan: Well, I mean, food has always been processed, but what happens in the 19th century is that animal labour, including human labour, and wind and water as sources of power are replaced by fossil fuels as sources of power. And that means things like grinding, which, we keep returning to bread as being so central, bread, pasta, cookies, the whole lot, I mean, crackers. You move from, a human grinding takes five hours a day for a family, a water mill can do it in 15 minutes a day for a family, a big powered steel roller mill up in the Midwest in Minneapolis, you only need a dozen of those in the United States. And so the steel roller mill is invented around 1875, by 1900 you have them… It was invented actually in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is part of your world perhaps.

Marian Tupy: Yes.

Rachel Laudan: It spreads to the United States and England, France, the whole of Europe, Latin America. You’ve got the Rong brothers in China putting them in. You’ve got them in India. I mean, it transforms food for the world because the labour of grinding is reduced to moments with fossil fuel power. And so the price of… You’ve still got the price of growing wheat for bread, but you’ve got at this… I mean, a lot of things are going on at once. You’ve got fossil fuel applied to the processing of grains. You have got fossil fuel applied to the transport of grains because you’ve got steamboats and railroads, so that that old 10, 15-mile limit on how far you can take grains is gone, you can take them wherever you want at essentially a tiny price, and you have got the opening up, for better or worse, of the grasslands of the world in the Western United States and Canada, in Brazil and Argentina, in New Zealand and Australia. And so you’ve got a lot more land to grow those grains.

Marian Tupy: And a little bit later, obviously, fossil fuels go very much into the production of artificial fertiliser, right? And of course, powering…

Rachel Laudan: That improves productivity. Yeah.

Marian Tupy: And powering of tractors and things like that.

Rachel Laudan: I mean, it’s what the historian, Tony Wrigley, at Cambridge called a change from the organic economy to the industrial one. And it affects food as much as it affects everything else, probably more.

Marian Tupy: Right. And so this again, contributes massively to the decrease in food prices. And as you describe in your book, by the early 20th century, beef and bread becomes an obsession in the United Kingdom. And as the British empire grows, other countries are beginning to wonder, “Why are the Brits so successful? Well, it must be the diet, therefore let’s all eat bread and beef, right?” Okay. So more recently, we have seen a renewed interest in anti-processing of food, localism, naturalism, organics. So that brings us to the quality of food and nutritional content of food today. I promised when we started this podcast that we would get back to it. So in a word, is food better today than 100 or 200 years ago or is it worse?

Rachel Laudan: Yes. Better.

Marian Tupy: Better?

Rachel Laudan: Better. Better, better, better, better. Is it all good? No, of course not. Humans are humans. It’s not all nutritionally wonderful. It’s not all what many people would like to see it to be, but in terms of its abundance, its safety, the access of wide numbers of people to nutritionally adequate food, oh, it is night and day.

Marian Tupy: Who would you recommend that people read for this particular subject, what book or what study, anything out there, aside from obviously Cuisine and Empire.

Rachel Laudan: Cuisine and Empire. I think we’re waiting for a book that is written with the romantic verve of Michael Pollan books, people for whatever reason… Yeah, I think I know what… I mean, they yearn for the Rousseau vision of the fresh and the natural and the rural, and there have been many people writing about the virtues of modern food, but it’s a hard sell because it’s not poetic enough, it’s not an escape, it’s not… It’s saying, “It’s okay, what you’ve got there in the grocery store, in fact, it’s better.” No, no. Goodness, if Louis the XIV saw it, he wouldn’t know what to do, he’d be so overwhelmed by what you can get in your local Kroger. That’s not what people want to hear. They imagine… I don’t know why. And they see… We’re in a very funny state because the changes in the last 100 years are the biggest changes in food and probably in human lifestyle in at least 10,000 or 20,000 years, and at least for the time being, and at least in the west, we are…

Rachel Laudan: And in many other places as well, I don’t want to make this just a western story, it’s true of Japan, true of many people in China now too, very recently, there’s an abundance, and we have abundant everything, and it’s patently clear that we’ve got to relearn lots of habits to deal with abundance. There’s the obesity question, which I think is basically an abundance problem. Traditionally, what you could eat were so constrained by a shortage that most of our social mores are designed to give us when we get the chance to eat as much as possible. So that all festivities involve large amounts of food, and large amounts of food are good, and that’s a very good social programming for shortage, it’s not such a good social programming for abundance. It’s equally clear… I think there’s a parallel between this, and you have surely heard of the Marie Kondo decluttering phenomenon.

Marian Tupy: I did not. Please do tell me about it.

Rachel Laudan: You don’t know Marie Kondo and decluttering? Well, she wrote a very successful, tiny book about how to get a house clear of junk, because people are just overwhelmed by all the stuff in the piles of magazines and enough clothes to see them till the end of time.

Marian Tupy: Is the implication of what you’re saying, that in the past, everything was so scarce that we have built up, perhaps not genetically, because there wouldn’t be enough time for genes to change in the last… Well, maybe they would, but suddenly, culturally, that we are so, so, so shaped by our history that we just want more clothes and more food and grab onto anything we can get precisely because we didn’t have it, so we are driven by some sort of a subliminal reminder that this could be the last time that you’re gonna eat, therefore, eat as much as you could possibly eat.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah, I think it’s not just a subliminal… This is just a guess. Everybody is guessing about, what is obesity, and how do you deal with it? So I’m no more informed and probably less than many other people, but as I said, it’s built into language, into social customs. Asian languages say, “Have you eaten today?” As a greeting.

Marian Tupy: Really?

Rachel Laudan: Yeah. The assumption being that, well, eating is good, you must eat because you might not have eaten today, we have… As I just said, a birthday party means lots of food and lots of sweets. Don’t necessarily have to, but it is, so I think it’s a matter of trying maybe gradually, and I think it will take a long time to work out to get our social customs and language in line with this amazing abundance, assuming the amazing abundance continues.

Marian Tupy: It’s actually… Come to think about it. I just recall from my youth how often my grandmother would start a conversation with, what have I eaten, or have I eaten? Precisely because she remembered days when there was no food. So that’s all very interesting. Recently, I was talking to a professor of religion, Alan Levinovitz, who wrote a book called Natural. And we talked also about Rousseau, and we talked about The Myth of the Noble Savage, and we also hypothesised that it may be precisely with the decline of religion in the 18th century, that you have a decline in a meta narrative about what is a man’s and woman’s place in the world, because religion gave you a clear indication of what your state was, where you were going, where you came from and so on. And when that becomes less powerful, you need to develop a new narrative. And the genius, the evil genius of Rousseau, as you can see, I’m not a huge fan, is to offer a new meta narrative, which is that of a noble savage, who lives in unity with nature, everything is abundant, and he is spoiled by civilisation, and basically part of the contemporary political scene are continuing to run with that myth.

Rachel Laudan: Yeah. No, I know Alan well.

Marian Tupy: Oh, okay. That’s great.

Rachel Laudan: Okay, yeah. No, I think there’s a lot to that. And I was just thinking the other day that I hadn’t thought about the noble savage in quite the way I had until recently, when I was thinking about the noble part of the savage, because this whole romantic movement in many ways always turns back to the old aristocratic with the hierarchies, and of course, the savage is noble, he is noble, and so he’s in abundance, and we’re back… It’s a circle back. All the people who are writing about food from the… As far as I can see, you’ve got four basic ways post-enlightenment. There’s the old aristocratic, there is the liberal Republican tradition, there is the socialist tradition, and then you’ve got this romantic tradition. And the romantic tradition… None of them are pure, and they all cross over and so on, but the romantic tradition always has this move because the only people who can go like Rousseau up into the mountains… You’re a person of leisure to be able to do that, you are a person who can travel, you are a person who can escape the toiling masses back in the city. So yeah, I think I would go along with that.

Marian Tupy: So in this podcast, we have looked at food from the origin of history, written history, written records, we started with the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago. We looked at the hierarchical difference between the humble and the high cuisine. We talked about what lives of ordinary people must have been like, what they ate, what they didn’t eat, then we talked about the massive break that comes in food history with the rise of enlightenment, and then the Industrial Revolution food processing leading to abundance, which is on the whole good, as you say, good, good, good, it’s just not perfect, and I would submit that perfection is for the next life, but not for this one.

Rachel Laudan: This is where I always resort to the phrase that today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions.

Marian Tupy: Very good. This has been an absolute joy and a privilege to speak to you. Thank you very much for joining me today.

Rachel Laudan: Well, thank you, it’s been a pleasure on my part too.

Marian L. Tupy is a senior fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and editor of HumanProgress.org.

Rachel Laudan is a food historian and the author of the prizewinning book Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.

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