Academic Reveals Tie Between Food, History
The relationships forged among the world’s many countries can be complex. Sometimes, to truly understand the history of international policy, one needs a menu.
A Rutgers–Camden professor says the food on our plates can reveal a lot about our relationships with other cultures.
“We announce a fundamental relationship with the world through our cooking,” says Aaron Hostetter, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers–Camden. “We search for experiences of different cultures through cuisine and we have an immense selection of ingredients to choose from.”
Hostetter, of Collingswood, says our tastes for different foods were initially developed through political relationships, something he traces back to medieval Europe.
“I became interested in the flavor of political well-being and how tastes for food determined—and were determined by—relationships with other cultures,” Hostetter says.
“A medieval banquet, for example, would include staples that came from the local manor, but also spices brought all the way from Asia by land.”
At the time, some meats and most spices were more expensive and therefore only common on the tables of the nobility. Says Hostetter, “Political relationships radiated from the sovereign, or the king, who ate what he wanted and brought it in from all over the world.
Hostetter, who received his Ph.D. in medieval literature from Princeton University, wrote his dissertation on the politics of eating and cooking as portrayed in medieval English literature. He says food imagery in medieval English literature often illustrated social and economic problems, government relationships, and even concern with status.
The Rutgers–Camden scholar describes the fare at a medieval table as mostly bread and roasted meat, accompanied by sauces for dipping and various dishes that combined meat with spices and other ingredients called pottages.
A typical pottage recipe might be the mortrew, stewed ground pork mixed with beer or almond milk, grated bread, saffron, egg yolks, salt and ginger powder, and even sugar and cinnamon.
A feast was served in courses, three or more for an important meal, each consisting of five to twelve separate dishes. These courses were bridged by what were known as entremets, literally “between servings,” which were often imaginative kitchen creations like a “cockatrice,” the front half of a rooster sewn onto the hindquarters of a suckling pig.
“This ensured that a banquet titillated all of one’s senses along with the imagination, making the feast a celebration of humanity’s domination over the entire world, its resources and inhabitants,” Hostetter says.
Clues to the relationship between medieval foreign relations and eating habits could be found in cookbooks as well as literature.
“The cookbooks expressed a certain degree of political reality and relationships with other cultures and classes,” he notes.
The same can be said about modern American cookbooks, Hostetter says.
“You can certainly see the way we view other cultures through the evolution of the Betty Crocker cookbook,” he says. “In the 1950s, there were no Chinese or Italian recipes, but as time goes on and different cultures become more accepted and desirable, those recipes started appearing in later editions.”
Hostetter continues, “There was an upsurge of interest in Pacific Rim foods in the aftermath of the Second World War, which resulted in Chinese and Polynesian recipes eventually being circulated in American cookbooks, as well as many of those restaurants opening in the U.S.”
Those parts of the East seemed to be at the frontier of American interests in the world at the time.
“Sushi bars got their start in America right around the time of Japanese economic ascendancy, when it seemed like a good thing to acculturate ourselves to them through common tastes,” Hostetter says.
Hostetter, who joined the Rutgers–Camden faculty this year, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Colorado. He has presented numerous papers at conferences and has an essay published in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, among other publications.
He is teaching courses in Medieval and Renaissance literature and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales at Rutgers–Camden.