I read a lot of food history books, and I generally enjoy them, but occasionally, one impresses me more than others I’ve read. While good writing always gets my attention, a different approach can be really captivating. And so it is perhaps not surprising that I found Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History to be a particularly good read. It is very well written, but the thing that sets it apart is that, while most food histories seem to focus on a single item (including my own book, Midwest Maize), a specific period, or a specific country, Laudan’s book takes the novel approach of tracing cuisine by the progress of history’s great empires. Equally importantly, Laudan also draws a clear distinction between humble cuisine and high cuisine, once that division occurred in society.
Of course, in the context of history, this approach makes a lot of sense. A conquering people generally either introduced their ideas into conquered countries, or they adopted what they found in the places they invaded. Controlling or mandating cuisine became a political tool. Plus people in power have, for at least a couple of millennia, eaten better than the man on the street—though modern cuisine (since 1810) adds to this “middling cuisine,” the food of those who are neither rulers nor peasants—i.e., the middle class.
Of course, there have been a lot of empires, and the book could end up with hundreds of chapters, so Laudan further divides the topic by major influences (such as the agricultural revolution or the rise of Buddhism) and time periods. With a timeline running across more than 20,000 years, the book is definitely ambitious, but it offers wonderful insight into how cooking has developed from the first boiled-grain gruels into the sophisticated international cuisines of today.
The book is massively well documented, should you wish to track down the sources of some of her information. It is the kind of book that could be used simply for reference of a period of interest, or read through, as one watches history unfold through the meals that made civilizations possible and cultures identifiable.
So if you’re interested in food history, or the history of the impact of the world’s great empires on food and food’s impact on politics through history, I definitely recommend Laudan’s Cuisine & Empire.