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The food curriculum - history

"Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.” Lord Byron (1788-1824)

History is a vast subject. Every other subject, every tiny aspect of life that exists, has history. Including the study of history itself - Historiography. After all Life - in the largest possible sense - is history because the present is forever morphing into the past, some of which is immediately lost, some of which is retained in a myriad of different forms, from electric pulses in the brain, to the food on our plate. It would therefore be incredibly easy to build a food curriculum at any level of learning around history - and I'm sure that there are many, many examples of this around the world.

Many of my blogs touch on history - whether factual, mythical or personal, real or imagined. Every piece of food, or drink that you consume has some connection to history whether it be history of the food itself, human history, or your own personal historical relationship to it. History on a plate.

Indeed it is so vast that it takes you down some unexpected paths, and so, rather than really talk about the history of food, because of it popping up frequently here and there, I'll take you where I have wandered today whilst looking for pictures and quotes to illustrate this post. Some have almost nothing to do with food.

Napoleon. Courtesy of Apple, (who/which I shall come to shortly), last night we watched Ridley Scott's film Napoleon. Food did not come into it, although the French classic dish Veau Marengo is said to be an invention of his cook. There were a few scenes of people eating at tables, even Napoleon and Josephine having sex under the breakfast table, which I suppose - the meal that is - did show you the pomp, or otherwise of meals of the time - the footmen in the background as the couple went under the table - the fact that often Napoleon and Josephine were shown sitting at opposite ends of a very long table, banquets for foreign dignitaries ... In fact when you think about it, as Byron says "much depends on dinner" and most films show at least one instance of people eating - almost always to expand on something the film is talking about - characteristics, relationships, social standing ...

It was a very disappointing film, being largely a series of huge set-piece battles, with lots of blood and gore, thousands of extras, and much stirring music, not a lot of dialogue. A massive technical and cinematic achievement, no doubt, but ultimately boring. We almost gave up. The film has been criticised for a number of things - inaccuracies, etc. as well as being boring, (seen one battle, seen them all - in films anyway) but I include it here for two reasons, maybe three - all to do with the concept of History with a capital H.

The first is that this is one man's view of Napoleon - Ridley Scott's, the director. Or rather, I suppose, his view of what the public would be interested in seeing, tempered with his personal history of mastering huge set pieces. It's a personal view of Napoleon but then all accounts of history are personal because they are presented by no more than a few people at a time. You never get the whole story - the viewpoints of everyone. And there are not records for absolutely every aspect of a particular historical event or person. Napoleon's experience of Waterloo was very different from the Duke of Wellington's, or their foot soldiers, or his cook - he must have had one. Both David and I were very disappointed that there was absolutely nothing about the massive changes that Napoleon made to the French state. Credit to Ridley Scott, though he did include an actual Napoleonic foodie quote:

"I fear insurrection when they are caused by hunger. I would be less afraid of a battle against an army of two hundred thousand."

Moreover and here is the second aspect of History which is inextricably linked to the first. Perhaps most importantly, to me anyway, there was little explanation for why Napoleon did what he did, and was who he was. If you call a film Napoleon surely you are implying a holistic view, rather than the military history. There are always questions about history and they weren't answered here.

"The causes of events are ever more interesting than the events themselves." Marcus Tullius Cicero

That is what is so fascinating about food history. How did we come to make bread? How did we even come to cook food? How come we don't seem to be cooking from scratch anymore? The answers to all of these and the thousands of other questions surrounding food are what is so interesting. In an educational curriculum this might be an opportunity to teach your students to question everything and to be curious.

Lastly, and possibly damaging in this particular instance is this from Kipling:

"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."

and from Napoleon himself - “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon”

The film was a story, but not the whole story, and in some instances not true apparently, but it's what a lot of people will remember. Historical novels are the same. Some are extremely well-researched and convincing but even the best amongst them - Wolf Hall for example - include scenes that simply have to have been concocted from the imagination of the writer. And today in the time of Fake News, who knows what is true and what is not. It matters of course when it comes to Historical Events - written in capitals for a reason - but probably not when it comes to food, although it doesn't of course mean that people won't argue about those stories about food. The origins of Tarte Tatin for example. Maybe you can at least partially blame the Bible and the story of Eve and the apple for the oppression of women. It certainly made the apple a literary symbol.

Which brings me to Apple

Such a brilliant logo which you would think definitely has some symbolic connection to Eve and the apple. That's how I got to it. But according to Apple - not so.

This was the first logo - designed by Steve Jobs himself and Ronald Wayne - the forgotten third co-founder of the company. Which I confess I did not know - so what happened to him? I resisted the temptation of another wander along history's highways and byways.

This first logo features Newton's apple - the one that - another story I believe - gave him the idea about gravity. The words around the edge are from William Wordsworth on viewing a statue of Newton:

"The marble index of a mind

Voyaging through strange seas of Thought - alone."

Which may well be a good description of Steve Jobs' mind - or one he might have embraced as true anyway. Nevertheless the reason that the apple was chosen for the name of the company has no symbolic connection. Steve Jobs just liked apples - he was a fruitarian after all - and he suggested it as a name after he had visited an orchard. And that bite? Nothing to do with Eve, or even Snow White, or not really with byte - the term for units of digital memory. No it has a bite out of it to distinguish it from a cherry which looks really similar. More food. I won't detour into the Woolworths logo.

Nevertheless in the same way that we now automatically think of the company rather than the fruit when the word 'apple' is mentioned - well so says research - I'm sure that a vast number of us think of Eve and the apple when we see that logo. Temptation, beauty, and all that. Something incredibly ancient - and also mythical - that represents something amazingly of the present, and World changing. So simple and elegant too. Like I said. It's possibly the most brilliant logo that exists today. The designer, I should have said, was Rob Janoff - and I didn't see what happened to him either.

"What is past is prologue." says William Shakespeare

History is the gateway into the study of so many other fields of study via the history of those areas of human knowledge and endeavour, but also into the study of history itself and it's influence on how we live. Even if, as George Bernard Shaw says: "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." Because of all of those omissions, falsifications, and personalisations. Not to mention the notion of "this time it will be different".

And food - as my final selection of quotes show is a magical gateway into history.

"When one thinks of the civilisation implied in the development of peaches from the wild fruit, or of apricots, grapes, pears, plums, when one thinks of those millions of gardeners from ancient China right across Asia and Middle East to Rome, then across the Alps north to France, Holland and England of the eighteenth centuries, how can we so crassly, so brutishly, reduce the exquisite results of the labour to cans full of syrup and cardboard-wrapped blocks of ice?" Jane Grigson

Looking at that quote and the pictures I have chosen to represent it, you can see that food history leads to so many other topics - all of which are connected to history - other than the history of actually growing and concocting dishes from raw materials. There is art, there is religion - the Egyptian painting is, of course, from a tomb - there is commerce, there is design, there is engineering, exploration and discovery, not to mention cookery itself. All that and much more is to be found if you choose to look.

Woman's success in lifting men out of their way of life nearly resembling that of the beasts -- who merely hunted and fished for food, who found shelter where they could in jungles, in trees, and caves -- was a civilizing triumph.” Mary Ritter Beard (1876-1958) US historian, writer, ‘Woman as a Force in History’ (1946)

I assume she means the comforts of home, the chief of which is Byron's dinner, but I sometimes think it was not a civilising triumph - not when you look at how many men still seem to be locked into that ancient need to hunt and conquer - e.g Napoleon - well according to Ridley Scott anyway - another man. Nevertheless as well discussing the truth of the statement, you could follow a path into the history of women's place in society, as well as the development from hunter gathers to urban man and why some societies are still making the transition.

"the true worth of the past, the long labouring struggle to learn to survive as well and as gracefully as possible." Jane Grigson

A quote that does indeed make me at least, consider gratefully all the centuries of hard labour by our ancestors, in the fields, the factories, the brains of those who have strived to improve the crops themselves and the way those crops can be manipulated and provided to an ever-increasing proportion of the population. All that work that enables me to live in a very comfortable state of well-being.

“Food is a macro consideration for our planet and is ultimately intimate and personal to every single person. It nurtures, soothes, fuels, and fulfills. Taste is the physical manifestation of memory, making what we eat a nostalgic continuum.” Jeff Swystun,

The above is a quote from a book called - TV dinners unboxed: The Hot History of Frozen Meals, which amply suggests how you can go from the trivial - TV dinners - to the fairly profound 'a macro consideration for our planet'. Food does that. It doesn't just lead you into the historical memories of the planet, but into your own personal history too.

Yes history is vital, and so instructive. As we watched Napoleon's ill-fated attempted invasion of Russia which lost him 300,000 men and wounded 200,00 more, as well as casting him into exile, I thought yet again how even though history is indeed instructive we never seem to learn from it - either on the grand scale, Napoleon himself, or of course, Hitler and Russia are the obvious examples, or indeed on a personal scale. We often make the same mistakes over and over again - give in when we shouldn't for the sake of peace and quiet, overcook the steak yet again ...

And why didn't they teach much of it in Westminster School almost the top English public school - unless David's memory has fooled him, or indeed in many schools? Why is history, like so many arts subjects these days relegated to a subject for the less brainy - or, dare I say, girls?

No I need to stop there.


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Mar 13
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Well that was a wide ranging and informed discussion on a large number of things. Very enjoyable even for a non historian like myself. 5 stars for this post, but only 2 for Ridley Scott's film of Napoleon. I would give Napoleon 4 stars for all the changes that he introduced , from the metric system, centralised Govt., Universities, exploring Egypt...

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