review by Donna Lee Brien
In the early 1990s, I discovered, and became highly enamoured of, the form of narrative history writing known as microhistory. The term is not widely utilised in Australia, with no publication classified as such in the Australian National Library’s catalogue. Indeed, Stuart McIntyre’s detailed survey of the Australian discipline of history for the Australian Academy of the Humanities report, Knowing Ourselves and Others: The Humanities in Australia into the 21st Century, only mentions the term once—describing how in Australia ‘local history has metamorphosed into microhistory’ (McIntyre 1998). Yet microhistory’s focus on such subjects as single localities, events, lives, families and products has long been able to illuminate broader culture. This aspect of microhistory, together with its writing style—in which engaging and compelling storytelling (often termed “narrative” in discussions of the genre) is prominent—is, indeed—although the resulting texts are not described as such—attracting more and more readers and writers.
Reader interest is due, in large part, I suggest, to the microhistorian’s ability to fashion fascinating and even dramatic stories from data that can often appear uninspiring in its raw form. This is especially so in specialist single subject areas. Currently in print there are, for instance, highly engaging microhistories of rubbish, coal, plastics, toothpicks, chloroform, tulips and shipping containers. One of the booming areas of the single product subject microhistory is that of individual food products.
Microhistorians are usually interested in the ordinary, rather than the great or exceptional that is traditionally the subject of historical narrative. A well known example is Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre (published in English in 1983), a very readable story of sixteenth century characters; namely, Bertrande of Artigat and the charismatic impostor who claimed to be her long-gone husband and lived with her for four years until he was exposed. The book reached a relatively broad audience and this was expanded when the celebrated French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982) (on which Davis was a consultant) was released outside France and was so popular it was remade in English.  Microhistorians share their interest in the quotidian with the social historians of the so-called History from Below movement.
In food history terms, there is nothing more ordinary than the everyday food people eat, and books on these unprepossessing subjects are making interesting reading, so much so that, at times, they are topping the bestseller lists. In my own library, I have studies I would class as microhistories on pigs, goats, cheese, pasta, bananas, oysters, lobsters, salt, spices, curry, potatoes, tomatoes, sugar, sweets, ice cream, honey, chocolate, tea, coffee, wine, beer, whiskey and bottled spring water. Books such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), Salt: A World History (2002) and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (2006) and Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (2005) have all reached sales figures that have surpassed many other nonfiction texts and made writing careers for their authors. These, and other writers, have, moreover, described their work in terms that greatly surpass the significance of the single food item, with Kurlansky describing such food writing as ‘about agriculture, about ecology, about man’s relationship with nature, about the climate, about nation-building, cultural struggles, friends and enemies, alliances, wars, religion. It is about memory and tradition and, at times, even about sex’ (Kurlanski 2003: 1). The microhistories I listed above each deal with some, many or all of the above topics. They also move beyond these topics to range into subject areas such as diet and health, the media, environmental sustainability and food security. At heart, however, most of the texts I have read start from a historical perspective.
Cake: A Global History (Humble 2010) Cheese: A Global History (Dalby 2009), Tea: A Global History (Saberi 2010) and Soup: A Global History (Clarkson 2010), are four titles from Reaktion Press’s delectable Edible series. I chose these to review from a wide range of series titles that include Caviar by Nichola Fletcher, Chocolate by Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch, Curry by Colleen Taylor Sen, Dates by Nawal Nasrallah, Hamburger by Andrew F. Smith, Hot Dog by Bruce Kraig, Ice Cream by Laura B. Weiss, Lobster by Elisabeth Townsend, Milk by Hannah Velten, Pancake by Ken Albala, Pie by Janet Clarkson. Pizza by Carol Helstosky, Potato by Andrew F. Smith, Sandwich by Bee Wilson, Spices by Fred Czarra, and Whiskey by Kevin R. Kosar. I have nothing but praise for the books that make up this wonderful series, each of which is quite different, and shows that the publishers encouraged their authors to engage with the product on their own terms, but each of which contributes to a series of a consistently high standard. I am not alone in this assessment, with individual books praised highly in (the mostly UK) reviews and the series winning a special commendation in the prestigious 2010 André Simon Food and Drink Awards.
The approach of each, as the subtitles suggest, moves outside a narrow Western focus and despite their concise length (all less than 200 pages), the information included is detailed and interesting, even for a reader like myself who is familiar with other work on these topics. While the general standard of the information is of the highest scholarly standards, the writing is accessible, and the production of each book is nothing short of beautiful, making these highly desirable volumes for readers outside of the food history area. Each is published in hardcover format, with the series marked by an elegant cream slipcover with a coloured drawing of the subject. Each volume is lavishly illustrated throughout with high quality images that illustrate and enhance the text: Cake has 53 illustrations, 31 in colour; Soup has 60, 37 in colour; Cheese has 60, 40 in colour; and Tea has 77, with 62 of these in colour. Many of the illustrations are historical or archival images that provide a rich source of reference materials for the food historian or those engaged in other cultural enquiry. Each volume in the series moreover includes a menu of choices for further reading on the topic—a list of references, select bibliography, and a list of relevant websites and associations.
It is clear that each of these books is written with real passion, by authors with both personal and scholarly interest in the subject, and such single subject microhistories definitely provide possible avenues for academic creative writers who wish to pursue popular publication. Cake: A Global History’s author, Nicola Humble, for instance, is Professor of English Literature at Roehampton University (UK), and author of an important book on British cookbooks, Culinary Pleasures: Cook Books and the Transformation of British Food (2005), as well as books on women’s cultures: The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s (2001) and Victorian Heroines: Representations of Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Art (1993) (the latter with Kimberley Reynolds). Humble begins her dissertation on cake with a personal memory (of her fifth year birthday cake—a train), a creative nonfiction narrative which focuses the discussion to follow on how ‘Cakes are very strange things, producing a range of emotional responses far out of keeping with their culinary significance’ (8). This is followed by a fascinating discussion of the difference between cakes, bread and biscuits, a survey of iconic cakes from around the world which includes the Australian lamington, a history of baking in different cultures, the rituals and symbolism associated with cakes, famous cakes in literature, and a concluding chapter on postmodern cakes that includes cupcakes and representations of cakes in contemporary art. I devoured this volume in one sitting and then later returned to Humble’s thoughtful analysis of what makes a cake a cake—as opposed to other food items made from similar ingredients—and her detailed discussion of important place that baking occupies in American culture.
Based in France, Andrew Dalby is well regarded in food history circles for his many books on culinary topics from the ancient world including prestigious award winners such as Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece (1996) (winner of the Runciman Award, an annual award offered by the Anglo-Hellenic League, and Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices (2000a), which was named Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers. In Cheese: A Global History, Dalby brings this considerable erudition to a comprehensive and entertaining study of cheese. This he divides into a discussion of the various types of cheese and how their names have changed through time, followed by cheese’s history, making and consuming—all of which are tackled from a historical perspective that draws a great deal from literature in its telling. Dalby also explains why cheese is important, in that it provided a way of transforming milk, a good but unstable source of protein, into a reliable food resource. His chapter on cheese making deals with continuity and variety in cheese making from the Cyclops in The Odyssey to modern times, discussing the various types of milk used (sheep, goat, cow, buffalo), to how it is curdled, treated, flavoured, aged, stored and traded. Until I read this text, I did not realize just how widely cheese has been used as a core culinary ingredient throughout Western history, and I especially enjoyed the series of historical recipes Darby selected for inclusion.
Helen Saberi, author of Tea: A Global History, also has a significant publication profile. She is the author of Noshe Djan: Afghan Food and Cookery (1986) and co-author of The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Cooks and Curry Books (2008) with David Burnett. As research director, she assisted the late, great Alan Davidson for many years on his magnum opus, The Oxford Companion to Food (Jaine 2006), also co-authoring the microhistory, Trifle (2001),and co-editing the compilation The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: Twenty Years of the Best Food Writing from the journal Petits Propos Culinaires (2002) with him. After defining and describing various forms of tea, the world’s second most popular beverage after water, Saberi follows tea’s story geographically from China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, to the Middle East and Mediterranean and hence to the West, through India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Detailing the differences between white, yellow, green, oolong, black and puerh teas, Saberi also discusses the different grades of teas and provides a glossary of tasting terms that is just as detailed and descriptive as those used with wine. Tea’s rise and fall from exotic and costly beverage of high status to the solace of the masses is traced, as are its traditional uses in such ceremonies as the Japanese Zen tea ceremony. The current Western fashion for Bubble tea from Taiwan and versions of Indian Chai tea, and the market for organic, fair trade and origin-specific teas are not neglected, and herbal teas—which are not teas at all, but tisanes—are also discussed. The familiar meals that are centred around drinking tea—morning, afternoon and high tea—are described, as are various methods of preparation and the invention and almost universal uptake of the tea bag. Australian billy tea gets a mention, as does ongoing medical research into tea’s therapeutic properties. Like the other volumes in this series, this is a book that manages to pack in a great deal of information without skirting over any elements of the discussion.
Australian-based food historian Janet Clarkson admits in the beginning of Soup: A Global History that she panicked a little when she found herself committed to writing an entire book on soup, especially as—unlike many other food products—she found it not inherently sexy, extravagant, mysterious, exotic, cute or sporty. Yet, it was in its very familiarity, its universality and ubiquity, that Clarkson found soup’s ‘claim to fame’ (9). The author of numerous culinary encyclopedia entries as well as the books Menus from History: Historic Meals and Recipes for Every Day of the Year (2009) and Pie: A Global History (2008), for the Edible series, took a thematic approach to her study, beginning with the origins of soup, and then progressing to what she classified as medicinal (including a fascinating dissertation on soup as comfort food and its role as medicine), charitable (soup kitchens and the role soup has played in feeding those in need), portable (soups as preserved and concentrated foods for travel and what this has meant for exploration, colonization and war) and global soups. In the latter, Clarkson posits that ‘Soup is unequivocally a human cultural phenomenon, not a geographic or political entity’ (84) and shows how widespread soup really is. She finishes with a glorious chapter on noteworthy soups that details a series of extravagant (the soups of kings and other wealthy diners), aphrodisiac, unusual (cold and sweet soups), dangerous (poisoned) and even sad soups (as in the 19th century mania for turtle soup), a list that certainly challenged my idea of soups’ comfortable familiarity.
Like many others who enjoy food history, I like not only reading about food, but am often inspired to cook from these volumes. In my research for this review, I indeed attempted a number of the recipes from each of the Edible series volumes and found them clear and reliable. I was indeed able to construct an entire dinner party menu from them, and served Watercress Soup and Damper (from Soup), Viking Pies of cooked lamb, cheese, currants and pine nuts (from Cheese), and Hazelnut and Raspberry Cake (from Cake) with a Jasmine Tea Sorbet and hot Spiced Tea (both from Tea).
These books certainly took me on a delicious and informative journey. For writers and teachers of writing of all genres, I believe these and the other books in this series provide a wealth of information and fascinating detail that will be not only very useful in a range of writing contexts, but also inspiring in terms of publishing possibilities. My favourite of these books? That’s as difficult to choose as the dishes I made from them.
1. The French film, released with English subtitles as The Return of Martin Guerre in 1982, reflected the content of Davis’ book, although the 1993 Hollywood remake, Sommersby (Amiel 1993), starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, added a happy ending. return to text
Amiel, Jon (dir) 1993 Sommersby. Film. Warner Home Video, Canada return to text
Burnett, David and Helen Saberi 2008 The Road to Vindaloo: Curry Cooks and Curry Books. Totnes: Prospect Books return to text
Clarkson, Janet 2009 Menus from History: Historic Meals and Recipes for Every Day of the Year. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing return to text
Collingham, Lizzie 2005 Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. London: Chatto & Windus return to text
Dalby, Andrew 2000a Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press return to text
Dalby, Andrew 2000b Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World. London: Routledge
Dalby, Andrew 1996 Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. London: Routledge return to text
Davidson, Alan with Helen Saberi (eds) 2002 The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: Twenty Years of the Best Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press return to text
Davis, Natalie Zemon 1983 The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press return to text
Humble, Nicola 2005 Culinary Pleasures: Cook Books and the Transformation of British Food. London: Faber return to text
Humble, Nicola 2001 The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press return to text
Kurlansky, Mark 1997 Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Harmondsworth: Penguin return to text
Kurlansky, Mark 2002 Salt: A World History. New York: Random House return to text
Kurlansky, Mark 2003 Choice Cuts: A Selection of Food Writing from around the World. New York: Jonathan Cape return to text
Kurlansky, Mark 2006 The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. New York: Random House return to text
McIntyre, Stuart 1998 ‘History’, Knowing Ourselves and Others: The Humanities in Australia into the 21st. Century. Prepared by the Australian Academy of the Humanities for the Australian Research Council Discipline Research Strategies. Canberra: National Board of Employment, Education and Training, Australian Government Publishing Services return to text
Reynolds, Kimberley and Nicola Humble 1993 Victorian Heroines: Representations of Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Art. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf return to text
Vigne, Daniel (dir) 1982 Le Retour de Martin Guerre (rel. as The Return of Martin Guerre). Film. La Société Française De Production Cinématographique, La Société De Production Des Films Marcel Dassault and France Région 3, France return to text
Donna Lee Brien is Professor of Creative Industries and Director of Research in the School of Creative and Performing Arts, at CQUniversity, Australia. Donna is the Special Issues Editor of TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, a Foundation Editorial Board member of Locale: The Australasian-Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies and Past President of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs. Her current research includes projects on the impact of Australian food writers and food writing.
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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy