Literary Archaeology: Food for Thought

Jon Black

As writers of historical fiction, we are always looking for tools which provide information about settings by showing rather than telling and that allow us to engage a readers’ other senses when bringing worlds to life.

The First Thanksgiving, an example of the powerful connection between food and history.

Food is distinctive by time and place, but eating is universal. All of us require sustenance. That means that eating is something readers can relate to … which is important in a genre like HistFic where relatable events and activities cannot always be taken for granted. At the same, because eating is universal but what is eaten and how it’s eaten are not, food allows HistFic writers pair the familiar with the exotic. In addition, I think there’s at least a little bit of a foodie in all of us and, therefore, we are fascinated by descriptions of what and how people at in the past.

As long as it is not overdone, descriptions of food and eating offer writers a very powerful tool. While not HistFic, consider the scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo and the Dwarves meet for the first time as an example of how a meal can powerfully set mood and atmosphere.

Below, I’ve expounded on a few thoughts about using food in HistFic.

The Columbian Exchange

For most of history, many foodstuffs we today think of as universal were known only to the Eastern or Western hemisphere. And those barriers did not instantly come down in 1492. Except as rare novelties, it is not realistic to have a food from one hemisphere impacting large swaths of society across the ocean until (generously) 1500 or (more conservatively) 1525 or even 1550. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the ultimately most successful, took centuries to catch on after being labeled poisonous, un-Christian, or actively satanic.

Beware the “Devil’s Fruit.”

Select List of Foods Exclusive to One Hemisphere, Pre-1492

Eastern Hemisphere Foods: barley, cattle, chickens, coffee, cultivated honey, goats, millet, oats, okra, olives, onions, oranges, peaches, pears, peas, pigs, rice, sheep, sorghum, sugar cane, wheat.

Western-Hemisphere Foods: beans, coca, chilies, maize (corn), manioc, paprika, peanuts, pumpkins, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys.

It should be noted the above lists are somewhat deceptive. In the century and millennia before the Columbian exchange, a given food was not necessarily known throughout its hemisphere. For example, the potato was unknown to North American groups and coffee generally unfamiliar outside of Arabia and parts of Africa. A regional breakdown of foods is, however, beyond the scope of this humble blog post.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Descriptions of food and dining in HistFic are often portray opulence or at least variety. Conversely, they can be shorthand for poverty, privation, or oppression. Consider the weevil-infested hardtack and salt pork (skin and hair often still attached) of the pre-industrial sailor. Or Oliver Twist’s celebrated gruel. Or the perpetually simmering porridge (“peas porridge hot”) that was standard fare for medieval peasantry.   

Eating Local

For most of history, food has been an intensely local affair except for the very wealthy. Refrigeration and improved transportation have conspired to gradually change that, making foods from around the around available to most people. For we who take such things for granted, therefore, it is worth briefly examining the history of refrigeration and transportation.

Ice harvesting in Massachusetts, circa 1850.

Refrigeration

The use of snow cellars and iceboxes used to preserved food dates back at least 3,000 years, with the earliest discovered examples coming from northern China. The systemic, widespread use of this process (known as ice harvesting) dates from the 1830s in North America. Inefficient and a largely experimental refrigeration machines, actually predate ice harvesting back to 1755. Such machines did not achieve commercial viability until the 1850s and didn’t really take off until the turn of the 20th century, when costs came down and concerns about pollution in naturally harvested ice grew.

Transportation

An expansive global shipping industry begins in the 18th century and accelerates drastically with the industrialization and advent of the steam ship in the 19th century. Effective inland transportation networks date from the construction of country-wide rail systems in the mid-19th century (slightly earlier in Britain, slightly later in some other locations) and enhanced by the emergence of comprehensive highway systems in the 1930s.

Home Cooking

On a practical level, what did all this mean for food before refrigeration and effective transportation? Canning and other forms of preservation like smoking and salting were practiced nearly ubiquitously. During winter months, such preserves could represent a significant portion of local diets. Unless preserved, meats and, especially, seafood were very much localized. The old maxim about “Only eating shellfish in months with an ‘R’ in them,” was not a quaint bit of folk wisdom. It was good way to avoid getting potentially lethal food poisoning (notice that months with ‘R’ tend to cluster in cold months and scrupulously avoid summer).

Resources

Let’s admit it, part of the fun of using food in HistFic is researching the recipes, drooling over them, and wondering “Hey, could I make that at home?” I’ll conclude with three good online resources for historical cooking.

The Historic American Cookbook Project: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/browse.html

Historic Cookbooks Online: http://www.angelfire.com/md3/openhearthcooking/aaCookbookindex.html

Savoring the Past: https://savoringthepast.net/2014/08/28/18th-and-early-19th-century-cookbooks-digital-searchable-and-free/

Submit a Comment