Food is Culture
Elegantly written by a distinguished culinary historian, Food Is Culture explores the innovative premise that everything having to do with food--its capture, cultivation, preparation, and consumption--represents a cultural act. Even the "choices" made by primitive hunters and gatherers were determined by a culture of economics (availability) and medicine (digestibility and nutrition) that led to the development of specific social structures and traditions.
Massimo Montanari begins with the "invention" of cooking which allowed humans to transform natural, edible objects into cuisine. Cooking led to the creation of the kitchen, the adaptation of raw materials into utensils, and the birth of written and oral guidelines to formalize cooking techniques like roasting, broiling, and frying.
The transmission of recipes allowed food to acquire its own language and grow into a complex cultural product shaped by climate, geography, the pursuit of pleasure, and later, the desire for health. In his history, Montanari touches on the spice trade, the first agrarian societies, Renaissance dishes that synthesized different tastes, and the analytical attitude of the Enlightenment, which insisted on the separation of flavors. Brilliantly researched and analyzed, he shows how food, once a practical necessity, evolved into an indicator of social standing and religious and political identity.
Whether he is musing on the origins of the fork, the symbolic power of meat, cultural attitudes toward hot and cold foods, the connection between cuisine and class, the symbolic significance of certain foods, or the economical consequences of religious holidays, Montanari's concise yet intellectually rich reflections add another dimension to the history of human civilization. Entertaining and surprising, Food Is Culture is a fascinating look at how food is the ultimate embodiment of our continuing attempts to tame, transform, and reinterpret nature.
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Montanari is professor of medieval history and the history of food at the University of Bologna, Italy, and a well-respected scholar, having studied food for nearly 30 years. Best known in the United ... Read full review
Montanari is a senior historian, and this brief book summarizes his learning about European history in clear (though not exciting) writing accessible to most people.
As a promoter of the new food production methods known as agro-ecology, I liked the way he presented the old Mediterranean food culture of the Greek and Roman empires as based on agri-culture -- ie the flat fields around cities (ager) where culture, not savage wilderness, prevailed.
Medieval Europe was less grain obsessed, more forest-oriented, foraging mushrooms, nuts, berries, pigs and other animals there -- rather than relying on grains, the "staff of civilization." We need to appreciate and respect such agro-forestry and agroecology as a longstanding tradition in the Global North, as well as the Global South.
The book gives lots of detail on how widespread hunger and famine were right through the Middle Ages. This helps explain why Europeans have built more robust "welfare states" than North Americans; they know deep in their bones that bad and beyond-control events can happen that require everyone to pull together, not compete.
He understands food culture in a deep way that relates to today, a time where he says people are having a hard time gaining knowledge about and control over their food. "Now we must seek to manage it, above all culturally."
From my stay in Turin, Italy, where I read this book, this rang true, The people of Turin have truly embedded a healthy local fresh and nutritious food culture into their everyday lives and institutions.