Food History: Why Should We Care?

Something is not working in our global food system. Will we be able to produce food in sustainable and environmentally sound ways, while at the same time making sure that the growing world population will have enough to eat? What changes can be introduced in global food trade, in order to give also developing countries a chance to participate in fair commercial exchanges? And we could ask ourselves many other questions like these, all very urgent and complicated. The biggest and scariest challenges always seem to lie ahead of us.

However, at times we are so preoccupied with the immediate difficulties facing us that we forget that an efficient way to assess them is to understand how they came to be in the first place. Why do we eat what we eat? Why is our food system the way it is? And above all: Could it have been different?

To tackle these issues, it is fundamental to know why industrialized agriculture is so prevalent in the U.S., and why it focuses on few specific crops, condemning others to oblivion. We also need to examine how land ownership has evolved over time, and how it impacted farmers, influencing movements, their technological choices, and their social developments. To do this, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable problems of immigration, justice, and power distribution.

That is when food history becomes relevant. In the past few years, the media and the publishing industry have shown growing interest in historical topics, reflecting the curiosity and concerns of audiences all over the world. Many successful books have focused on how specific products -- from maize to cod -- changed the world. Sugar is one of the best examples.

Sugar cane was first domesticated in Papua New Guinea, and then spread to India, Persia, and the Islamic Empire, which mediated its adoption in Western culinary traditions. Increasing sugar demand led to the establishment of plantations in the New World, which lost their appeal upon the discovery that sugar could also be made from beets. And now we have so much sugar that whole food industries are built on its consumption, and researchers are busy coming up with replacements and substitutes.

By looking at the past, we can understand our present better. It is not just curiosity about how ancestors ate. It is concern about the reasons why we eat the way we eat now, in the present. By exploring food history, we realize that many elements of our everyday life that we consider connected to current events were already a source of preoccupation for earlier generations.

Already in antiquity consumers were worried about the safety of what they ate: counterfeits, careless production, and even dangerous additives were part of past foodscapes. Different ideas about what is good for us and for the environment, about what we should eat to stay healthy, and what we should feed our children, have shaped discussions that are still current.

Science and technology might have advanced, but it is easy to identify a set of core issues that have always caused heated debates in human societies, in any part of the world. Achieving a better understanding of the historical dynamics around the production, the trade, the consumption, and the cultural meanings of food can guide us to make better choices today.

In the past three years I have been involved as a general editor (together with Peter Scholliers at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, Belgium) in the publication of a six-volume Cultural History of Food (Berg Publishers, 2012).

A team of over 50 scholars and experts from diverse cultural backgrounds and different nationality contributed to this work, whose goal is precisely to explore the past in order to better appraise the present.

On March 21, some of us will participate in a public panel discussion at The New School that will address some of these questions.

Of course, it is just the beginning. But as years go by, we can hope that the scope and the depth of this kind of knowledge will enhance our capacity to make informed choices about what is urgent today.

For more of Fabio Parasecoli's work, visit The New School food blog The Inquisitive Eater.