Steven Kaplan on the History of Food

Food-jesus_0 Over at The Browser's Five Books:

[L]et’s get started by talking about your first book, Capitalism and Material Life by Fernand Braudel. I don’t think he would have seen his work in the context of the history of food necessarily – is that right?

No, he certainly did not see this as a history of food – and I don’t see this as being food history, in any narrow way. It is, however, one of the books that has most shaped my perspective on how to think about the history of food, and that’s why I chose it. In the 1950s and 60s, Braudel talked about “total history” – in ways that now seem both quaint and megalomaniacal. “Total history” meant trying to look across the long run (in French, the longue durée) at all the aspects of the human experience. Braudel began this study by talking about “capitalism and material life,” because for the 400-year eco-cycle that he was looking at, the driving force for much of material life was the development of capitalism, and material life was to a great extent about eating and clothing and shelter (in that order). He’s talking about the basics of what makes a society and an economy operate, he’s talking already in the 1960s, when he wrote this book, about what we today call globalisation, and he’s enormously interested in what I call the construction of the everyday order, or what we could call the banality of things – that is to say, the everyday life that people struggle to get by in.

What’s really interesting about all this is that Braudel is constantly talking about the way in which the fundamentals of material life really begin with food. For me, this is a very powerful story, because it’s a story about how societies are organised in ways that permit them to reproduce themselves; permit them to overcome horrors like the Black Death – in which a third of the European population is wiped out – and to overcome the famines that are structurally inscribed in the nature of things, and to develop systems of exchange through markets that acquire relative sophistication. These are the kinds of questions that historians (even historians of food) tend frequently not to think about, because they’re really the big, structural questions.