When I first spotted all six volumes of A Cultural of History of Food on a neglected library shelf, I foolishly thought, “I’m set!” I expected to rely heavily on the volumes to inform the trajectory of my research (i.e. which period(s) I would select for my thesis) and to provide me with the most complete, deep research on its advertised focus, “a cultural history of food.” But I am disappointed in these volumes. Here I focus on volume six, A Cultural History of Food in the Modern Age, a period the editors define as 1920-2000. The chapter titles are promising: “Food Production,” “Food Security, Safety, and Crises,” “Kitchen Work,” and “Family and Domesticity” all relate to the work I am doing on home cooking and cookbooks in periods of infrastructural crisis: the Victorian era (industrializing food production), the Turn of the Century (further industrialization and overwhelming immigration and population influx (Pilcher 27)), WWI, and WWII (both of which experienced crippling rationing and food shortages).
Since this volume’s parameters are 1920-2000, I knew its only overlap with my periods was WWII. But on WWII this volume’s information is meager. “Food Security, Safety, and Crises” and “Family and Domesticity” proved the most fruitful chapters, but even their research related tangentially to mine. They provided context and a broad scope rather than detailed information on wartime interactions with food. In “Family and Domesticity,” Alice Julier sweeps over the crux of food in WWII with statements like, “reformers and government agents promoted [added vitamins to widely distributed foods] after World War I because they worried about the supply of healthy potential soldiers” (150), and the helpful (in that it confirms my own conclusions from examining wartime cookbooks) but boring (because it lends nothing to my research, pushes on no facet of wartime cooking) statement, “As the market was unreliable, canning, preserving, and growing food…were still common place practices, reinvigorated by national propaganda campaigns in World War II…” (154). But this is obvious from any wartime poster; of course citizens relied on their home kitchens during wartime, when embargoes and hostile national relations interfered with trade. I am picking on Julier’s chapter, but all the chapters I read in volume six shared this problem of sweeping over the exciting, probing questions of why citizens ate this way, what the challenges on the home front were with daily eating and providing for families, what health problems emerged from this malnutrition? This volume fails to address the questions its research provokes.
When I read volume five (which I read before volume six), I was bored and frustrated for the same reasons listed above: the research did not provide me with any conclusions about wartime attitudes to food that I could not glean from examining a few wartime posters; it did not challenge my initial assumptions that cookbooks would provide evidence of the frugal, anxious attitudes towards food in WWI and WWII. Volume five, which focused on the “Age of Empire” (about 1800-1920), attended to French and Italian schools of cooking, and Middle-Eastern and Asian countries’ food production modernizing, but very little on Victorian industrialization affecting British food production, which I figured was a notable change in this period. And while volume five focused overtly on non -American and -British countries, which frustrated me because I sought information on Britain, volume six infuriated me for its unrelenting focus on American food, when the collection’s title implies a world-view.
So my sense of these volumes has completely altered since I first encountered them. I originally looked on them as research Bibles, the answers to my wonderment of what the heck I would write a food thesis on. But now that I have specified the periods and nations (mostly British, some American) I am focusing on, I see that much of the volumes are useless to me. Granted, they do provide, as I have said, broad contextualization; they present a starting point. But even anthologies that are designed to cover most “bases” and introduce readers to a subject ensure that they satisfy the questions more probing readers will have. The Cultural History of Food collection fails to do this: the research is too general, then too preoccupied with one nation’s experience; the chapters mention a major focal point (WWII) and then provide surface-level research on it; and the research is so sweeping and all-encompassing that it is rendered minimally valuable.
Bentley, Amy, ed. A Cultural History of Food in the Modern Age. Bloomsbury, 2016.
Bruegel, Martin, ed. A Cultural History of Food in the Age of Empire. Bloomsbury, 2016.