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It’s History Time Boys and Girls

As most of you know I like to put up things I have worked on in class, and this is no different. I present to you this time around my final essay for my History and Culture class. It reads like a history paper because well guess what it is. for some of my readers this may not be to entertaining but for you that enjoy history and like know how it has impacted our day-to-day lives then please read on.

As a people or society no matter what differences we all have, be it race, religion, culture we grew up in, the one thing that all of us have in common is food. Granted we may not all eat the same but we still eat. Throughout history the discovery and manipulation of food and its history has had a dramatic impact as to how we as a people evolved and grew. From the migrations of early hunter and gathers as they followed the progression of the animals that they lived on, to the discovery of the New World and the rich abundance of new food ideas that would be brought back to the Old World because of it, food has and still does play a vital role in our history and culture. When broken down over the ages, the history and culture of how and what we eat has always been impacted by five key topics: geography, climate, the cost of food and social status, religion, and world events such as war, natural disasters, and trade.  With the next few pages we will take just a brief look at how these factors have shaped and changed the way our history and culture has been changed and impacted by arguably the most important thing in all of human existence: food.

With any journey we first start out by looking at the geography that we will be traveling over, so it seems only fitting to start our journey of understanding the history and cultural impacts of food with looking at how geography itself played a major role in what we eat. Geography has a lot to say about food, from how food is grown in  one place, distributed to another place, and eaten in yet another place. It is just recently that we have started to move the food we eat from this or that place to another. However, for most of human history, food was consumed where it was grown. Think about it: if a tribe of early people had access to fresh fish then they would eat mostly fresh fish. The geography of the environment could mean that a civilization could thrive or that it would crumble. The easier it was to cultivate food from an area the greater likelihood that a society would arise and thrive there. Looking at Europe as our example, we can see that almost every country has a different climate and geography than the next and in some countries many different geographical regions. This lends and helps to explain the wide variety of differences in food that we see coming out of Europe. This is not only true in Europe though. Looking at how we utilize the geography of today’s landscape gives us a glimpse into the past. Cereal grains are mostly grown out on the open plains, while the more mountainous regions are used for grazing of livestock. Even areas around the coast where it is more tropical are used for fruits and vegetables, but these are not limited to just the oceanic coast, as we can see farms rising up along river valleys as well. Looking at geography from a historical stand point there is something to be said about where the early civilizations started. People settled and cultivated where the food was. Geography impacted the development of past civilizations because it determined how successful they became and how much they could benefit from their geography or suffer from it. For example, the geography of Ancient Greece was very mountainous and without much fertile land. Since this was the case it meant that the Ancient Greeks would need to trade with or invade their neighbors in order to have a food supply.

Walking hand in hand it seems with the geographical impact on food is the climate impacts on food history and culture. One of the best examples to be given about how both the geography and climate of an area impacted our history is that of the Nile River Valley. Each year the Nile would flood its banks and deposit rich slit on the surrounding lands that was essential to the framer’s crops being able to have the nutrients they needed to grow. This is simply just one example of how agriculture is highly sensitive to climate variability and weather extremes, such as droughts, floods and severe storms. The forces that shape our climate are also critical to farm productivity, as can be shown with the flooding of the Nile River. Every society develops philosophical and mythical interpretations about the role of the natural environment in human affairs. This is evident in almost every culture by looking at the religious aspects of that culture itself. Take the Native Americans as an example. These people grew so dependent on the crops that they tended that they would perform rain dances to try to appease the gods for rain. A similar tie to this can be seen in the Greeks who would pray to the gods for favorable weather. Aztecs would perform human sacrifices to the gods in order to try to gain favorable weather conditions for the upcoming harvest season. As a people we recognize and respect the factors that weather plays in the growing and cultivation of our foods. We may not have necessarily understood why the weather did what it did like we do today, but we still respected and paid close heed to how it affected our food supply. In all of our history we learned that certain types of food items would grow in specific areas while others would not. This understanding of the climate and how and where foods would grow led to many things, such as trade and war. Even today we are paying very close attention to the impacts that our global climate has on our food production. Look at the poorer countries of our world and see how they are affected by the changing climate on a yearly basis. For example look at the droughts that are plaguing Africa, yes geographically speaking this area has always seen low rainfall, but as we have seen in recent years the droughts are getting longer and harder. Even here in America we see and feel how climate affects our food prices.  A frost in Florida can cause citrus fruit prices to sky-rocket, while in the Midwest droughts of our own could mean that feed stock grain prices could raise as well, meaning that the cost of our beef, chicken, and pork would increase as well. However as expressed before sometimes these adverse conditions of our climate have good affects, which impact the way we as a people think about and spend our money on food.

How much we as a people spend on food is very surprising when you consider what this means about us as a people throughout history. The amount and quality of food that we get always has shown in some way just how well off we are. Today just like back in our history food has power. Today it could simply be that we can afford to eat out at more expensive restaurants then the person next to us, or that when we take people out or have them over we are trying to show off by what we buy or make. This idea really hasn’t changed for as long as there have been a rich and a poor. Granted today we try to help feed the poor with social welfare programs but it is still the same basic idea of the poor eating the left over scraps that the rich leave behind. Something funny to note, however, is how the perception of wealthy food items and poor food items has changed from our past to the present. It’s funny to think that today we spend tremendous amounts of money on lobster and consider it an item of higher class and wealth, but when first being introduced to early explorers, the lobster was looked upon with open disgust and fed to prisoners simply because of the way it looked. While it may have looked like a “bug” to the early explorers, if we as a people today found out that inmates were being fed lobster three times a day we would be outraged because they would be eating better than us. The whole notion of taste is class-based. Members of lower classes often strive to emulate the taste and taste practices of higher classes, who in turn attempt to change their notions of taste and eating behavior to maintain the distinction between themselves and those perceived as of lower status. Members of higher classes came to identify certain foods with impoverished status. For instance, after World War II, chicken became associated with low-income and was eschewed by the wealthy because of this association. Restaurants were once a place where only the upper class would dine, while today persons of all classes eat in restaurants. However, the choice of type of restaurant and the frequency of eating meals out varies by social class. Part of this difference is a function of income. Those with greater wealth can afford to eat out more frequently and to visit more expensive restaurants. The various dimensions of social class have different influences on food consumption and its consequences. Income and wealth provide access to food or constrain food purchases. Take for example the food we eat today, it is seasoned with herbs and spices, sometimes making a dish more expensive, but then look back to the beginning of the spice trade. In the Dark Ages only the wealthy could afford to have spices or herbs in the food they ate and generally the food that was eaten by the lower class would be relatively bland. This was because of the cost associated with acquiring that spice. When having a gathering of the wealthy the point was to show that you were indeed wealthy, and this meant that you would use a lot of spice because it cost money. Sometimes however we see a dish that was discarded by the rich be widely embraced by the poor and it spreads in popularity that the rich then try it and find it to their liking. One of the key aspects about food in our history has been how it is viewed and what can be done with an item. Two items of note and importance to look at are bread and pasta. Whole-wheat bread tended to be consumed more by people of middle-or upper-class background; by contrast, bread prepared with processed wheat, which is less expensive, is more often the choice of working-class consumers. The reason for this difference is a historical reversal of fortune. The white flour was once that of the elites. The highly refined flour was reserved for those with great status, whereas the whole-grain flours were those of the poor. Moving down to Italy we look at pasta. When talking about pasta today the notion is that Italians eat pasta many times a week, however this is only a recent development, as pasta was food of the rich. For the lower class Italians it was considered very lucky if they ate pasta four times a year.  While the wealth of a person or group of people set the standard of how a food was perceived, it could be argued that nothing had, or even still has, a greater control on food than religion.

Since the beginning of time, dietary practices have been incorporated into the religious practices of people around the world. Some religious sects abstain, or are forbidden, from consuming certain foods and drinks. Others restrict foods and drinks during their holy days, while still others associate dietary and food preparation practices with rituals of the faith. Practices such as fasting are acts of faith by numerous religions still today. Many religious customs and laws may also be traced to early concerns for health and safety in consuming foods or liquids. In the past, preservation techniques for food were limited. Modern conveniences such as electricity were unavailable, and the peoples of that day and age did not understand theories of health promotion, disease prevention, and illness as we do today.

Therefore, religious leaders developed rules about the consumption of foods and drinks, and so religious practices, restrictions, and traditions come in to play. Specific religious laws about what can be consumed remain in most religions today. The lack of mechanisms to refrigerate or preserve foods led to certain rituals, such as the draining of blood from slaughtered animals, while restrictions on the eating of foods known to spoil easily, such as eggs, dairy products, and meats, were devised for safety reasons. In the case of some religions, such as Judaism the food must be prepared in a way so that it meets the religious views. For Judaism this custom is called eating Kosher.  Kosher simply identifies Jewish dietary laws that define clean foods, unclean foods, how food animals must be slaughtered, how foods must be prepared, and when foods may be consumed, or in other words, the timing between eating milk products and meat products. As stated before many religions incorporate some element of fasting into their religious practices. Fasting or restricting food and drink have been described as a call to holiness by many religions. Fasting has also been presented as a means to acquire the discipline required to resist temptation, as an act of atonement for sinful acts. Probably the biggest example of fasting that is still going on today is Lent. Today we see it as a celebration and time to go have a wild party with Mardi Gras, because we are going to be repenting and giving up something for the next forty days. However in the past if the poor people didn’t have very much to give up this could mean that they were nearly starving themselves to death. It wasn’t just the poor who would be giving up things though; the rich would be as well. It is enough to say that not many people liked this tradition but because religion could potentially have more power than the ruling class, everyone followed along with it. In some religions restrictions are placed on eating specific foods year round. In the case of Hindus many are strict vegetarians. Those who do eat meat are forbidden from eating beef, because cows occupy a sacred place in the Hindu religion, and therefore no beef is consumed. Other products from the cow, however, such as milk, yogurt, and butter are considered innately pure and have no restrictions placed upon them. Religion is just one of the many world-changing events that have shaped the way that we look at and eat different kinds of foods. Sometimes however world events play a much more influential role in our history and culture than we as a people seem to remember.

Our world has been shaped by events both great and small in magnitude, and this has had an effect on our food as well. Whatever the event may be, it still plays an important role in the way we eat, sometimes a very central role in just how and what we eat. Take for instance the Italian town of Tuscany, not only does this town take its name from the people who originally conquered it but these people also brought with them a dish from their nomadic days. The dish was call puls or pulmentum. As languages evolve and change over time so does the way we say words for pulmentum became polenta. This is not the only time that a war or conquered people have adopted the food of the victor. When the Greeks came in they brought with them wine grapes and olives and thus the Italian wine trade began.  Trade has and always will be important to our society and trade has played a vital role in why we eat the way that we do today. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set out to find a faster trade route from the west to India, hoping to bring pepper back for the king and queen of Spain. He did not set out looking for the New World and in fact he never actually landed in what is today called America. He did “discover” the New World however and was able to bring back with him new items and spices that had not been seen yet. Items like chocolate, turkeys, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers. Black pepper has a bit of a kick to it, and when tasting the peppers of the Americas and getting that same kick he called them pepper. This discovery of new food ideas and items changed the way the Old World would eat. We have already seen how items like lobster were first received, however some items like chocolate would have the opposite effect. Chocolate was enjoyed and even craved by the upper class in the Old World. Spain in particular embraced chocolate and pushed it into the circulation that it has today.   Not all foods that were brought back would be accepted and in fact some were reserved for the poorest of peoples. The potato was at first considered poisonous and bad for you to eat, because of its heritage to the nightshade family. It wasn’t until the food shortages because of the Revolutionary War that potatoes would gain wide-spread cultivation as a staple food source. When potatoes finally became part of the main diet of Europe, it saw a wide boom in its popularity. Not only were farmers able to produce much more food, they also gained protection against the catastrophe of a grain crop failure and periodic population checks caused by famine. While the potato was rapidly becoming an important food across Europe, in Ireland it was frequently the only food. This led to chaos when the great potato famine erupted. As the Irish would immigrate to America, mostly to Boston and New York, they were met with discrimination again. However the sheer number of Irish that arrived could not be overlooked or ignored for long. The potato blight had spread the Irish people out into the world, and today the number of people with Irish decent is staggeringly high. This is one of the first examples of the how the United States became a melting pot of many different cultures. Tomatoes much like the potato did not start out as we see them today. Wild tomatoes originated from the Andes Mountains. Ancient Indians ate them, but they did not cultivate them as that only came to happen much later. Through them, the plant reached Mexico. Tomato sauce rapidly became a basic ingredient of the Aztec cuisine. Spanish conquistadors also got a taste of the sauce, liked it and then sent tomato seeds to Spain, the Caribbean and the Philippines. At first, the Europeans were reluctant to consume the tomato, because botanists had included it in the nightshade family. Moreover, the whole plant, with exception of the fruit and the seeds, is toxic and the leaves spread a strong scent. As the tomato made its way down to Italy it was once again provided as a food source to the poor. Many northern Italians would call the eating of or use of the tomato disgusting, but in Naples the people found a use for them to make a very simple dish. Pizza, which many people credit as being of Italian tradition and origin, was started in Naples.  As the world poverty level grew the people of Naples had the choice to make of stay and potentially die, or move to the United States and try to start fresh. When the Italian immigrants came from Naples to the United States they brought the pizza with them and we loved it. It wasn’t until World War II that the pizza came back and was accepted by the rest of Italy. This is because of the American soldiers coming in to Italy and looking around for the pizza and not finding any. The Italian people realized that they could charge the soldiers for something that was simple and cheap for them to make. Today pizza is an incredibly popular item found all over Italy, but this is just another example of how world poverty and war moved food from one location to another and helped spark its popularity to what it is today.

The key points of geography, climate, social status, religion, and world events have played a vital role in the way we look at our food history. There are times when we have had the combination of one or two key points that are playing a factor in our food history, and other times like with the Columbian Exchange, it is a combination of all five of the key events. So even though our histories may be different from each other, in respect to the outcomes of war, religious belief, and language, we have all been impacted by the choices that another culture has made throughout history, because as we look past all of our differences the one thing that will always connect us together is the food we eat and the choices that are made to impact our food history and culture.


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One Comment on “It’s History Time Boys and Girls”

  1. Tori January 7, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    I remember this paper! It turned out great, and I told you you’d get Exceeds for the class. 😉

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