Living History and the History of Food

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Living History and the History of Food acknowledges the rise of a scholarly yet popular movement to recreate historic cookery. It may be objected that it is merely a branch of food history but it deserves separate recognition. It stands in relation to the cultural study of food much as experimental archaeology relates to the classical archaeology of excavation. It attempts to perform, and learn from the performance. The nostalgic urge to recreate is a constant of post-Renaissance European culture, but there has often been a gulf between theoretical knowledge and practical application. In experimental archaeology, for instance, the construction of objects or buildings transformed our understanding of their vestigial remains, as did the open air and folk museums that spread from their Norwegian origins at the end of the 19th century. Such ventures embraced the need to explain, often by practical experiment or performance, the realities of life in earlier times. By extension, that often meant the food and cookery. To the work of museums, there came to be allied from the 1960s a much wider popular taste for historical re-enactment, perhaps stimulated by events surrounding the American Civil War Centennial. Re-enactment often has military overtones, indeed can seem a harmless channelling of latent aggression, but when enthusiastically pursued can be viewed as experimental archaeology for a wider set of participants. Many of these, though never a majority, are women, who are often more interested in the domestic than the martial arts. Ally this to a desire by several practising food historians to interpret early recipes and to put to use the kitchen equipment surviving from previous centuries (as well as reconstructing it when necessary), and there is a chance of approaching the sensory experience of past diners. No more than a chance, it should be admitted, as the variables of raw materials are almost immeasurable (though the efforts of Dr John Letts in growing historic varieties of English grains should be noted). Nonetheless, reconstructions of table settings and dressed dishes, as well as experiments in flavour combinations, have given us something more immediate and tangible than a recipe or a detail in a painting. This tendency has been encouraged (especially on the visual side) by the wish for greater authenticity in film and television as well as an enthusiasm on the part of museums for more emphasis on the domestic.