Food and Power: An Interview with Rachel Laudan


by Elatia Harris

All photos courtesy of Rachel Laudan

Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, and a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. In this interview, Rachel and I talk about her new book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, and her transition from historian and philosopher of science to historian of food.

Elatia Harris: I can remember when there was no such academic discipline as food history, Rachel. What was involved in getting there from being a historian of science and technology?

Rachel Laudan: I can remember when there was no such discipline as history of science! In fact, moving to history of food was a breeze. After all, the making of food from plant and animal raw materials is one of our oldest technologies, quite likely the oldest, and it continues to be one of the most important. The astonishing transformations that occur when, for example, a grain becomes bread or beer, or (later) perishable sugar cane juice becomes seemingly-eternal sugar have always intrigued thinkers from the earliest philosophers to the alchemists to modern chemists. And the making of cuisines is shaped by philosophical ideas about the state, about virtue, and about growth, life, and death.

A lot of food writing is about how we feel about food, particularly about the good feelings that food induces. I'm more interested in how we think about food. In fact, I put culinary philosophy at the center of my book. Our culinary philosophy is the bridge between food and culture, between what we eat and how we relate to the natural world, including our bodies, to the social world, and to the gods, or to morality.

EH: Your earlier book, The Food of Paradise, necessarily dealt with food politics and food history. So many cultures were blended into local food in Hawaii. I treasure that book — almost a miniature of what you’re doing in Cuisine and Empire.

RL: Well, thank you. It came as a surprise to me that I had a subject for a book-length treatment of something to do with food or cooking — as interested in the subject as I certainly was. The only genre I knew was the cookbook, and I am not cut out to write recipes.

The book was prompted by a move to teach at the University of Hawaii in the mid 1980s. I went reluctantly, convinced by the tourist propaganda that the resources of the islands consisted of little more than sandy beaches and grass-skirted dancers doing the hula.

I couldn't have been more wrong. These tiny islands, the most remote inhabited land on earth, have extraordinarily various peoples and environments. They were an extraordinary laboratory for observing the encounter of three radically different cuisines inspired by totally different culinary philosophies.

EH: It wasn’t all that long ago — going on 18 years — but you were a pioneer in the approach you took. It was history, not a compendium of anecdotes. And it was a treatment of culinary philosophies. Was there anything to tell you it would be so well received?

RL: Not at all. Mainland publishers were interested only in a book with exotic tropical recipes. I wanted to use the recipes as illustrations of how three cuisines were merged into a fusion cuisine called Local Food. Readers were welcome to cook from them, but that wasn’t their point.The University of Hawaii Press, after some anguishing about whether a mainlander could write a book about the politically touchy subject of foods in Hawaii, took the manuscript. So I was bowled over when it won the Jane Grigson/Julia Child prize of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

EH: Any publisher might have had more confidence, originally, in your cultural sensitivity, if they’d seen how many cultures you had by then participated in. And the list has grown. You’ve really gotten around.

RL: I have had the luck to have been successively immersed in four distinct cultures: those of England, the United States mainland, Hawaii, and Mexico. Growing up in Britain, I ate the way that many foodies today dream about: local food, entirely home cooked, raw milk from the dairy, home preserved produce from the vegetable garden. I never saw the inside of a restaurant until my teens. When I was 18, before I went to college, I spent a year teaching in one of the first girls' high schools in Nigeria, something that I later realized taught me a lot about the food of that part of the world. In addition, I have lived, shopped and cooked for periods of months in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, and Argentina.

Rachel and her kitchen assistants in Guanajuato, photo from a Saveur Magazine shoot

EH: Were you always teaching?

RL: Not always. My husband Larry Laudan and I left academia of our own free will when we were in our 50s, thinking it would be exciting to try something different. We thought lots of others would do the same, but no. It turns out that is unusual.

EH: Unusual, I’ll say! How did you make the shift not only to a new field, but to a more independent life as a scholar and writer?

RL: At the time, I decided to put in cold calls to people I thought were doing interesting work: Joyce Toomre; Barbara Wheaton; Barbara Haber who were working on Russian, French, and American food history in Cambridge, Mass.; Alan Davidson, founder of the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery in England; Gene Anderson, the anthropologist and historian of Chinese cuisine; and the food writer Betty Fussell and the nutritionist Marion Nestle in New York. They could not have been more encouraging, inviting me to speak, join their groups, calling from England, and introducing me to others, including Elizabeth Andoh, expert on Japanese cuisine, and Ray Sokolov, then working for the Wall Street Journal, who had just published Why We Eat What We Eat, that examined long-distance exchanges of food. I was buoyed by this sense of community as I jumped fields and left academia.

EH: You weren’t even thinking whether the history of food was a serious area of study, were you?

RL: Not at all. I’ve always believed that if you can show people you are on to an important problem and have things to say about it, they will listen. Soon after I began working on food I spent a year as a research fellow at the now-defunct Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. There, to the horror of many, I proposed a seminar on the European culinary revolution of the mid- seventeenth century when main dishes flavored with spices and sugar and the acid, often bread or nut-thickened sauces of the Middle Ages were abandoned. They were replaced by a rigid separation of salt and sweet courses and sauces based on fats, as well as by airy drinks and desserts. This was the beginning of high French cuisine.

I argued that this was due to the replacement of Galenic humoral theory by a new theory of physiology and nutrition deriving from the work of Paracelsus and accepted by the physicians in the courts of Europe. Once it became clear that my theory could account very precisely for the change in cuisine, they were all ears. A scholarly version won the Sophie Coe Prize of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and was published in the pioneering food history journal, Petits Propos Culinaires. And a popular version was later published by Scientific American.

RACHELCulinary Cosmos pre 1650.tiff copy
Cuisine and the Cosmos, before 1650–pop it up!

EH: I am moved and impressed that you left academe with a plan. Many people would have just waited by the phone rather than build a new network. Yet your central concerns, as an independent scholar, remained the same as when you were teaching, and have come to full fruition in Cuisine and Empire. Food and technology require to be considered together, do they not?

RL: Indeed they do. Food, after all, is something we make. Plants and animals are simply the raw materials. We don't eat them until we have transformed them into something we regard as edible. Even raw foodists chop, grind, mix, and allow some heating. So I could bring to food history, the hard won conclusions of historians of technology.

EH: What are historians of technology mainly concerned with?

RL: Well, historians of technology are not primarily concerned with inventions. The infamous light bulb was useful only as part of a whole electrical system. Similarly soy sauce, say, or cake, have to be understood as part of whole culinary systems or cuisines. When these are transferred, disseminated, copied, they change the world.

And, perhaps most important, new ideas or prompt changes in technology. They cause cooks, for example, to come up with or adopt new techniques. As the shift to French high cuisine shows, if people change their minds about what healthy food is, they will change their cuisine. When they adopt new religious beliefs, Buddhism or Christianity, say, they abandon meat cooked in the sacrificial fire for enlightenment-enhancing foods such as sugar and rice in the case of Buddhism, or for periods of fasting in the case of Christianity. When they reject monarchy as a political system, as happened in republican Rome, the early Dutch republic, and in the early United States, they reject the extravagant dining associated with reinforcing kingly or imperial power.

So a large part of the book is dedicated to laying out the culinary philosophy underlying each of the world's great cuisines. When that culinary philosophy is transformed, so is the cuisine.

EH: Ah! Just one reason I am so excited about Cuisine and Empire is that I cannot think of anyone else who could take all this on, even if they thought to.

RL: My background in history of science and technology was a big help. It had become clear that this was not simply one damn experiment and discovery after another but shaped by great traditions of scientific inquiry shaped by atomism or Newtonianism or uniformitarianism, to turn to my specialty, geology. And I had explored the parallels between science and technology as cognitive systems, arguing that technology too was not just one invention after another but shaped by traditions of knowledge that, for example, specified materials, techniques, and ways of handling them in say, the evolution of gearing, or interchangeable parts, or jet engines.

My experience in Hawaii had already suggested that there were far reaching traditions in food too. So I asked “If even the history of the foods of Hawaii has to be told in terms of the cross-oceanic, cross-continent expansion of a few great culinary traditions, might not that also be true of world food history?”

Cuisine and Empire answers that with a resounding yes. It's possible to capture most of food history in the last 20,000 years by talking about the expansion of about a dozen different cuisines.

EH: I will be thinking about this book for years and years. I’m already starting to wonder what broad cultural assumptions, that I’ve never thought to identify, much less question, I must bring with me when I cook… These are assumptions about science and technology, too, because science exists within culture. Despite how well prepared — I want to say uniquely prepared — you were for writing Cuisine and Empire, it was a tremendously ambitious project, was it not?

RL: It was ridiculously ambitious.

EH: Now, this is a question everyone who writes will understand. Did it ever seem so huge and unwieldy you wanted to chuck it?

RL: More times than I care to admit. What was I writing about? Farming? Cooking? Dining? What were the big turning points? And what about all the regions such as Central Europe and Southeast Asia that got short shrift? On the other hand I had the wonderful gift of time to take on a big project and I didn’t want to fritter it away. So I gritted my teeth, kept re-working my organization, telling myself I was as well prepared as anyone.

EH: How so?

RL: On the practical side, I had grown up on a working farm. And I learned early on that cooking was just as important as farming. One of my earliest memories was the day my father decided he would make bread with the wheat he had grown. At the time, there was no internet to look up how this might be done. He put it in a pestle and pounded it. Nothing but flattened grains, even though many of the archaeologists in our part of the world assumed without experimenting that that was how it was done. He screwed the meat mincer on to the side of the large kitchen table and put the grains through that. Nothing but little lumps. Finally, he put a handful of grains on the flagstone floor and attacked them with a hammer. Fragments scattered all over the kitchen, but still no flour. With barns full of wheat, we could have starved because we did not know how to turn wheat into flour to make bread.

Later I had the chance to shop and cook in Europe, Australia, the USA and Mexico so I had a pretty good grip on a variety of cuisines. In Nigeria and Hawaii, I had experienced cuisines based on roots, not grains. At the University of Hawaii, I taught a wildly popular hands on world history of food, learning a huge amount from my students, almost all of them of Asian ancestry. And in Mexico, women taught me what my father couldn’t, namely how to grind grains into flour.

Learning to grind corn in Mexico

On the intellectual side, in the course of my academic life I’d also taught social history, an eye-opener about what life, including diet, was like for ordinary people until very recently. And at the University of Hawaii, with its polyglot population, I’d had a chance to talk with many of the pioneers of world history.

EH: Unlike when you were writing The Food of Paradise, was there also a wave to catch? In the form of other like minded scholars and writers at work?

RL: A wave? If there was, it was more in world history than in food history, which in spite of the efforts of some fine scholars, did not really become mainstream until a few years ago. World historians such as William McNeill, Philip Curtin, Alfred Crosby and Jerry Bentley — the latter my colleague at Hawaii — were drawing on decades of detailed historical scholarship to see if they could trace big patterns of disease, warfare, enslavement, ecological change, and religious conversion.

Why shouldn't I jump into the fray and see if there were big patterns to be traced in food? Surely it was just as important in human history as their topics. I'd always loved making sense of masses of complicated data. Now here was a real challenge.

EH: Rachel, I expect lots of readers for your book. Which other books do you think it will be on the night table with? I’m thinking particularly of Michael Pollan and Bee Wilson — is there a cogent comparison? I note Paul Freedman blurbed your book, by the way — along with Naomi Duguid, Anne Willan, and Dan Headrick. Gee, good company!

RL: Well, if mine ends up on the night table with these books, I will be tickled pink. And I think it complements them nicely. Michael Pollan's recent book, wonderfully written as always, is a long meditation on contemporary cooking. I differ from him in not drawing a sharp distinction between cooking and processing. Processing (pre and post industrial) and cooking are on a continuum of stages in food preparation. Bee Wilson's delightful book is also about cooking and full of wonderful historical insights as befits a historian. But whereas she treats themes such as knife, fire, and measure, I organize by the origin, spread, and transformation of cuisines. In my wildest dreams, I would like to think of this as the historical counterpart to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.

Rachel with Harold McGee and Rick Bayliss, IACP condference

EH: Readers will be intrigued by your historical treatment of “processing.” It’s become a bad word –- code for turning food into non-food. I regularly read your blog, so I know you mean it a certain way that looks at the very big picture, including labor economics. But the food you personally like is emphatically not processed…

RL: Not if you limit “processed” to what many call junk food. I’ve never acquired a taste for fast-food hamburgers or soft drinks, have never eaten Wonder Bread or its siblings, and cook at home six nights out of seven. Picky is what I am. At the same time though, I think that we hinder our understanding of food if we don’t understand that all our food, with the exception of a few fruits, has been transformed, that is, processed, before we eat it. The foods that humans eat are one of their greatest creations, one of their greatest arts in that dual sense of technique and aesthetics, and we should celebrate that they are artifacts, not bemoan it. Like all human creations, some foods are better than others, and should be judged as such, but they are all creations.

Ch. 8. Fig. 3. Down with Kitchen Slavery
A Soviet poster, promising women freedom from “kitchen slavery.” Out the window, the overworked woman sees a cafeteria.

EH: So there! How do cuisines speak to you personally — as someone who loves food and cooking? If a cuisine does reveal a culture, then would tasting and analyzing it be as telling as listening to a poem or seeing a drama?

RL: Absolutely. Every time you go into the kitchen, you take your culture with you. As you plan a meal for guests, say, you bring to it assumptions about how to mesh their preferences with yours, about how much it is appropriate to spend on the meal, about how to accommodate their religious or ethical food rules, and about what they believe to be healthy and delicious.

I like to play a little game with myself when I go to a different country or meet someone from a different background. Knowing the history of that place or the heritage of that person, can I guess what the cuisine will be like? Or conversely, if presented with a meal, can I read it, dissecting, say, the noodles, the condiments, and the meat to tell a story about how it evolved over the centuries? And the answer is almost always yes.

EH: What holds a cuisine together?

RL: Again it was Hawaii that gave me the clue. It was not the local plants and animals because Hawaii had almost nothing edible before humans arrived. It was systems of belief or ideas or culture. The Pacific Islanders all valued taro, which had a place in their traditional religion, they all had a variant of the same herbal medicine. The Asians (apart from the Filipinos) had all been touched by Buddhism with its veneration of rice, and all subscribed to some form of humoral theory. And the Anglos came from a Christian tradition that placed high importance on raised bread and they followed modern nutritional theory.

EH: You have empires in the title, but you haven’t mentioned them yet. Where do they fit in?

RL: Empires have been the most widely spread form of political organization and as such the major theater in which cuisines have been created and disseminated. It's not a case of one empire, one cuisine, though. Because aspiring leaders always copy and adapt the customs of what they see as successful rivals, cuisines were copied and adapted from one empire to another. In the ancient world, for example, Persian cuisine was copied and adapted by the Indians and the Greeks, and then the Romans copied and adapted Greek cuisine.

EH: So cuisines spread from empire to empire. Is it a coherent story all around the world?

RL: Amazingly, yes. Beginning with the first states, interlinked barley-wheat cuisines underpin all the early empires. Then in the next phase, Buddhism transforms cuisines of eastern Asia, followed by the Islamic transformation of cuisines from Southeast Asia in the east to parts of Africa and Spain in the west (and the shaping of the Catholic cuisines of medieval Europe), and Catholic cuisines transform the cuisines of most of the Americas in the sixteenth century. Protestant critiques open the way to modern cuisines in Europe, with the rest of the world quick to make similar changes. Protestant-inspired high French cuisine becomes world high cuisine, Anglo cuisines create a middle way between high and humble cuisines, a middle way that is copied from Japan to Latin America in late nineteenth century. Although there are countless wrinkles, exceptions, and idiosyncrasies, at the core is a simple, coherent story of a few big families of cuisine and three major stages.

Ch. 7. Fig. 4. Chinese eating Western meal
A Chinese family, eating Western-style

EH: If empires spread cuisines, does the reverse apply? Does food affect the success of empires, or smaller states? I have read in Jared Diamond about food affecting the success or failure of a whole society – the Norse colony in Greenland, whose people starved rather than ate fish for instance. What about embracing a culturally new food for political reasons?

RL: Certainly most people in the past believed that food could affect the success or failure of a whole society. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, leaders around the world looked at what seemed to be the unstoppable expansion of the Anglo world, that is, the British Empire and the United States of America.

One explanation was that Anglo strength derived from a cuisine based on white wheaten bread and beef served at family meals. Unlike alternative explanations such as the special characteristics of Anglos or their upbringing in bracing climates, this offered a strategy for countering this expansion. If you could persuade your subjects or citizens to abandon corn or rice or cassava, and shift to bread or pasta, if you could persuade them to eat more meat, if you could persuade them to eat as families, then they might become stronger.

EH: Well, I’m naïve, then. “Eating as a family” is not a given across cultures? Please tell me more.

RL: The importance of the family meal as the foundation of society and the state is so deeply ingrained in the American tradition that it’s hard to appreciate just how American it is, perhaps inherited from Dutch settlers. Of course many meals were prepared in the home throughout history, though institutional food was more important than we realize. Just think of the courts, the military, the religious orders, as well as prisons, boarding schools, poor houses, and so on. Just think of the pictures of dining in the past and how rarely it is a family that is depicted. Who you ate with reflected rank rather than family ties.

But even when prepared in the home, the meal was often very different from that depicted in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.” The children might eat in the nursery, as in nineteenth-century middle class England. Or the father might eat in a different place and at a different time from the wife, as in Japan. Or the father might eat food prepared by different wives on different days, as in Nigeria. Or the meal might include unrelated apprentices and farmhands. So to many societies, the idea of the communal family meal as offering both physical and moral/social nourishment was a novelty.

EH: And the shift to bread, pasta, and meat?

RL: Even in the United States, there were concerted efforts to persuade southerners, particularly in the Appalachians, to abandon corn bread for biscuits of wheat flour. And Brazilians, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Indians, and Chinese debated, and often put in place policies to bring about this change. The most successful efforts were in Japan where the diets of the military and of people living in cities were changed to add more meat, more fat, more wheat, and to introduce family meals.

EH: Ah! Taking on the strength of the aggressor, or of the dominant culture! I wonder who’s doing that right now, and with regard to whose food… I’m fascinated with the cover of Cuisine and Empire. I know it’s a Japanese print. I wanted it to be the Jesuits, but that’s centuries off the mark.

RL: It’s a print in the Library of Congress collection by the Japanese artist, Yoshikazu Utagawa, made in 1861 just a few years after the forcible opening of Japan to the West. It shows two Americans, great big fellows, one of them baking bread in a beehive oven and the other preparing a dish over a bench top stove. I chose it because it so nicely illustrates the themes of the book. It puts the kitchen at the center. And it shows the keen interest that societies took in observing, and often copying, the cuisines of rivals.

EH: The kitchen at the center of history — a beautiful phrase. The book launches very soon.

RL: I believe the official launch date is in November. Copies, though, will be available this week.

EH: Well, mine will arrive today or tomorrow. Thank you so much for this fascinating preview and discussion. I’m already thinking how to incorporate 20,000 years of causality into the book party menu.

A print that hung over the mantel-piece on Rachel's father's farm in Wiltshire


A different version of this interview, emphasizing gastronomy in history, is available at The Rambling Epicure.

Pre-order Cuisine and Empire at Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, or at the University of California Press.

Read Rachel’s article for SaudiAramco World on the Islamic influence on Mexican Cuisine

Read Rachel’s personal blog, “A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics” at

Live in or around Boston? Come with me to a talk by Rachel Laudan the evening of October 28 at BU!