Historical Context: The Joys of Food History

If I have to point to one thing that I love about delving into the history of food, it’s uncovering influences upon diets that we have forgotten or have never had explained to us.

I have a mind made for trivia. I’m not bragging here, but simply establishing the baseline for my knowledge. When someone says something along the lines of “Columbus sailed to America in 1492″, it becomes a fact in my mind without corresponding evidence. When I hear the date “1492″, the thought of Christopher Columbus immediately comes to mind. What doesn’t come to mind was the fact that Columbus was likely quite the Royal sycophant looking for ways to become famous, without doing the hard work of navigation such as basic math. An example of this was his theory that the world only had a circumference of 10,000 miles. When he approached the Portuguese court looking for investors to his journey west and told them of his 10,000 mile theory, they nearly laughed him out of Lisbon.

The Portuguese had been making north/south journeys with their Caravels, trying to find a way around South Africa in order to circumvent the monopoly held by the Venetians on trade. They had determined many years prior that the distance going these directions was far greater than 10,000 miles. If Columbus believed his numbers, then the world would be shaped like an American football. The idea was laughable to anyone with a passing knowledge of astronomy and/or navigation. This why Columbus ended up at the court of Isabella I of Castile, and sailed under her flag.

Doesn’t the back-story mentioned above make the “1492″ date, learned by rote, far more interesting?

Food history is full of things like this. Well, okay, history is full of things like this, but it becomes readily apparent when finding out about food, because I find myself taking little pieces of food trivia for granted without placing it in context of the times.

Let’s take Catholicism and food. One of the basic doctrines is that of mortification, the act of taking care of oneself against the mortal and venial sins. In broad terms it means, from a Christian point of view, mortification is the personal battle against extravagance, gluttony, greed, discouragement, wrath, envy, and pride. Remember, this is a broad interpretation, and differed from century to century based on beliefs of Popes and Cardinals. In reality, Rome offered interpretations on many aspects of life, beyond what we know of as the seven deadly sins.

How did this manifest itself in diet? Religious holy days occurred more often than we see today, so much so that the restriction of foods from warm blooded animals often took place up to a third of the year. The middle and upper classes had to do without staples such as eggs, meat, and butter during these days. We still see this manifesting today with fish Fridays during Lent.

Now if you lived in Italy during these times, replacing an animal fat wasn’t a difficult proposition. After all, olive oil was readily available, as was a healthy supply of fish from the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

But what if you lived in Germany during this time period? Good luck finding a fat to cook with that isn’t butter or lard. And oh, yeah, fishing is more difficult in the cold waters of the regions. It didn’t help that the longest fasting part of the year, Lent, took place right at the end of winter, when food supplies would be at their barest.

Sure traders from Venice, Genoa, and Lisbon would gladly supply olive oil with the folks up north. But they would have to pay for it. And they wouldn’t necessarily supply the best olive oil out there. They could (and did) offer the lowest grade oils and still make a substantial profit from the commodity.

And Amsterdam? They had the bounty of the sea at their disposal, and ready access to salt to cure the fish. So when the lean months of February and March occurred, traders in these low Countries could make a fair bit of profit as well. And they did. From an economic perspective, it makes sense that traders in Lisbon and Amsterdam became trading centers of Europe, as they saw a void in the Northern markets and profit from it.

But like I alluded to above, context here is important, because two key events occurred during this time frame which would change Europe ate.

1) Shipping technology evolved to such a point that long voyages around South Africa could occur. This is how the Portuguese under Vasco Da Gama ended up in India in 1498, which was the beginning of the end for Venetian traders.
2) Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses in 1517, staring the reformation.

The partial result of these two events on European food culture was as follows: Firstly, the Protestants gladly gave up on fasting. Secondly, the two cities of Lisbon and Amsterdam, who already had the infrastructure for trading in place, replaced the products used as Lenten commodities with more exotic fare, such as black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon from India. Then later products from the New World entered into the marketplace.

Granted these weren’t the only variables at play here, nor were they the most significant in the grand scheme of things. But they did affect how and what the regions of Europe ate, not to mention the economies of any given areas. That these two moments in time happened within a generation of each other is remarkable.

Knowing this, the fact that Vasco Da Gama landed in India in 1498 becomes less important to me than knowing that his journey resulted in changing the culinary landscape in Europe for generations later.

All of this I mentioned above? This is why food history gives me a warm fuzzy. It helps give me context for the bigger picture.