Your Food in History Syllabus

Food In History

Purpose of Course

Few things are as basic to society and culture as food. This course will examine the history of food, beginning with the Neolithic revolution that gave us agriculture and animal domestication and ending with the quandaries over diet that plague us today. We will study food economically, socially and culturally, looking at how different societies have procured sustenance, and how they have attached different meanings what they consume.

Overview of Subject

A number of trends characterize the human-food relationship over time. One trend has been the connection between food and civilization. It was the invention of agriculture, the domestication of animals and the abandonment of nomadic for sedentary existence that first led to the rise of cities. Only as food production increased beyond subsistence levels was it possible for large numbers of people to devote their time to non-food related pursuits: the arts, science, government, war. All great civilizations have rested on a food base, usually a single key staple crop like rice, wheat, or corn. And cuisine--the culture that people build up around food and eating--has served as a key aspect of self-definition and civility in virtually all human societies.

The second major trend in food history has been the increasing control over food. Fewer and fewer people rely directly on nature to get what they need to survive. Food has been industrialized; it has been subjected to scientific and technological control and manipulation. Food production no longer occupies the majority of the time of most workers, as it did throughout most of human history. Abundance and even overabundance have replaced scarcity and fear of famine as a crucial human preoccupation. This shift, seen in the changing economics of food production, will be a major concern of this course. So too will the social and cultural ramifications of this shift. With greater control of food has also come new concerns over the regulation of weight and body, new fears about over consumption, and an obsession with proper diet.

The disenchantment of food is the third powerful trend. Whereas once food, cuisine, and meals were filled with symbolic and religious importance, today in our society they serve mainly as means of sustaining life. Food continues to be a source of pleasure, but over time those pleasures have been stripped of their larger social significance. Food serves less and less as a socially unifying event, Meals are no longer at the center of family or community life. In modern industrial societies, few people procure and prepare their food from scratch. As a result, people are becoming ever more distant from food, even as food becomes ever more abundant. The result is disenchantment, food without social, religious or cultural meaning. Disenchantment seems to occur despite the corresponding increase in concern about regulation of consumption for individuals.

These developments and their significance are what the course is about. They raise a number of important questions for our own lives that we will address over the semester:

1. Can people still find meaning and self-definition in their cuisine, despite the forces of disenchantment? Are there any rituals that take the place of eating in social, religious and family life today? Or is artificiality and separation an inevitable outgrowth of industrial and commercial development?

2. Food modernization seems destined to undermine or eliminate ethnic and regional food traditions. Must this be so? Or can a people preserve their food culture in the face of modern techniques and pressure in food production, preparation and consumption?

3. Why, even in a world of incredible food productivity has food remained a resource to be argued about and fought over. Although absolute levels of food production today far exceed those of any time in the past, the distribution of food continues to serve as a political and military weapon, a means of dividing people by class, gender or race. Despite abundance, hunger has yet to be banished from human experience.

4. As the frozen, artificial and chemical have replaced the natural, wholesome and fresh in human diet there has been both heightened awareness about the dangers of food, and periodic rebellions against modern food. Reform efforts have attempted to get back to nature, and to restore natural flavors and processes. Is there any possibility of this effort succeeding, or are we condemned to live with industrialized food?

Outline of Lectures

Lecture 1 : History Raw and Cooked

--traditional and modern societies and their foods

--food, class and identity

--food and capitalism

Lecture 2: Deciphering a Meal

--why food is good to think as well as eat

--religious meanings of food

--food and the boundaries of culture

Lecture 3: The Food Revolution

--hunters and gatherers

--agriculture and pastoralism

--food supply and cities

Lecture 4: Food Makes Civilization

--staple crops and food cultures in the Middle East

--Chinese and Indian Civilization

--Meso American Civilization

Lecture 5: The Old World Diet

--climate, agriculture and the economy

--food production and well being

--from scarcity to abundance

Lecture 6: The Great Food Hunt

--pre modern cuisine

--spices and trade

--crop transplantation

Lecture 7: The Colombian Exchange

--first the seed, next the germ

--adopting new foods in Europe and America

--African exchange and African American agriculture

Lecture 8: Trade in Food, Trade in People

--slavery and staple crop production

--feeding the new labor supply

--diet and lifespan

Lecture 9: Sweetness and Power

--the westward movement of sugar

--sugar plantation economies

--feeding the industrial labor force of Europe

Lecture 10: Civilizing Food

--the origins of table manners

--manners as civilizing process

Lecture 11: American Abundance

--the great plantation economies

--the opening of the grain belt

--cattle frontiers

Lecture 12: Republican America and its Food

--British folkways and American customs

--our puritan food heritage

--food regionalism emerges

--utopian food communities

Lecture 13: Food Politics

--bread riots and whiskey rebellions

--coffee house democracy

--tea and revolution

--the Washington boarding house community

--log cabins and hard cider

Lecture 14: Provisioning the City

--food supply and urban growth

--working class diet

--diet, health and well-being

Lecture 15: The Disenchantment of Food

--premodern meals and their meaning

--animal, humans and the agricultural world

--food becomes human fuel

--scientific food

Lecture 16: Controlling Food

--drinking in America

--Indians and alcohol

--the first temperance crusade

--drinking and capitalism do not mix

Lecture 17: Food and Immigration

--potato famines and agricultural displacements

--strange smells and spices on distant shores

--mothers and foodways

Lecture 18: Food Americanization

-what can be adopted, what must be rejected

--imposing food values

--resisting food hegemony

--fighting food backwardness in the South

Lecture 19: The Borderland of Cuisine

--Mexican American food traditions

--dominant and subordinate cuisine

--maintaining food cultures

--food hybrids emerge

Lecture 20: The Modernization of Food

--American agriculture and natural abundance

--beefeating in America

--the food industrial revolution: beef, beer, wheat and cheese

Lecture 21: Food Reformers

--cornflake crusaders


--advertising and packaging food

Lecture 22: Cooking Technology and the Household

--fuel and cuisine

--the technology of the kitchen

--more work for mother?

Lecture 23: Purity and Danger

--from food taboos to modern science

--pure food

--nutrition and home economics in two world wars

Lecture 24: Health and Image

--fasting and dieting

--changing female body images

--a history of anorexia

Lecture 25: Prohibition

--was there a drinking problem in America?

--the saloon as a way of life

--controlling men by controlling drink

Lecture 26: Food can be Fun

--the restaurant in America

--the male world of 19th century public culture

--stepping out in the 1920s

--The end of Victorianism?

Lecture 27: Food and the Modern Lifestyle

--the origins of fast food

--the supermarket

--cooking without nature

--women in and out of the kitchen

Lecture 28: Rebellion and Reform

--new food dangers

--the rejection of the artificial

--we are what we choose to eat

Lecture 29: The World Food Economy

--the dangers of affluence

--food distribution and equality

--the attack on food modernization

Lecture 30: The Quest for Taste

--food and distinction

--food innovators

--confused over your diet?

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