A peep into 300 years of food history

A peep into 300 years of food history

“Let them eat cake!” This infamous jibe often attributed to Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France in the 1790s  when peasants had no bread even, may historically conceal more than it reveals.

From man’s daily bread to ward off hunger, a basket of agro-horticulture
produces, protein-rich metric nutrition with onset of industrialisation, ethnic cuisines, organic food, to highly post-modern personalised food habits when the affluent even fast in style, the “food evolution” has had an encyclopaedic vastness alongside man’s own.

Though largely Euro-centric, it impacted the world’s stage at large, as the history and culture of “food” waved through with its paradoxes. A fascinating peep into it came at a recent Indo-German encounter in a little known corner of Tamil Nadu, at St. Xavier’s college (Auto­nomous) in Palayamkottai, Tirunelveli, once hailed as the “Oxford of the South”.

Even subalterns may stagger at over 300 years of “food history” in western Europe, particularly in countries like France, Britain and Germany.

“You know, until 1850 large sections of the population were feeding mainly on potatoes, ” Dr Detlef Briesen, Professor of History and Cultural Studies at the
Justus-Liebeg-University Giessen, Germ­any, startlingly posed.  Incredible, but substantially true! After nearly three centuries of “prosperous living” in western Europe, mainly in the German-speaking countries, between the 14th and 17th centuries, Europe went through a period of  “food crisis” in the pre-modern period, Dr Briesen drove home.

Outbreak of famines

The perpetual European wars, a big climate change caused by the “little ice age”, periodic outbreak of famines and agriculture stagnation cumulatively led to what he termed a “hunger crisis”, often resulting in undernourishment or even plain starvation. This was a powerful motivation for Europeans to “get
aggressive to conquer other parts of the world.”

For more than 150 years’ “standards of mass nutrition decreased constantly”, when 60 per cent of the European population simply struggled for survival,
nothing more, he noted. However, since the 17th century, as European powers set up colonies in other parts of the world, new products began arriving in Europe, which had been “developed abroad to serve the needy European consumers there”.

The foundations for a new food cycle were, ironically, laid outside Europe. Potatoes, for instance, originated from South America, liquor in large quantities was first distilled in the English colonies in North America, refined sugar imported from the Dutch, French and later English colonies, coffee initially from Mauritius and Sri Lanka and others.

“The demand for colonial commodities and the nutrition crisis modified European, including German, agriculture and led to the production of sugar beet, potato, and chicory. This production had a deep impact on agriculture and induced an often underestimated technological revolution in agriculture,” contended
Dr Briesen, also a visiting Professor at JNU, Delhi.

Thus, it was only after 1850, that Europe began to witness replacement of an undernourished diet with a prosperous pattern of food consumption, as he put it. Partying times were ushered in with serving of wine, beer, large quantities of beef, milk, cheese, sausages, vegetables and of course bread.

People began to “celebrate their status by trying to emulate the consumption patterns of the French nobility”. After the French Revolution though, what emerged was a “French bourgeoisie cuisine as the paradigm of good, nutritious and genteel food for more than a century,” he explained.

Across Europe, the post-1850s generally marked a “return to prosperity” in eating habits. But this process was rudely interrupted during the two killer World Wars. “The real prosperous consumption of Food” in German-speaking countries in particular came only from the 1950s,” he said.

Simultaneous developments in the post-Civil War United States saw people with a much higher income level taking a “more pragmatic approach to nutrition”. Though American cooking was “mainly influenced” by British traditions, a strong German influence and elements of French Haute cuisine, rapid industrialisation, new products, mass production, standardisation of nutrition, abundance and prosperity led to what he termed an “even more rapid and far-reaching” dining table revolution in the US!

While the early 1950s’ unfolded a new pattern of consumption in the US “with more chicken, salad, corn flakes, rice, noodles, tropical fruits, less potatoes, bread, pork, etc.,” the “Coke” and supermarket culture spread to the European continent predominantly only after World War II. The emergence of the “European Common Market”, a television market and advertisement were key factors which aided this transformation, he said.

Historical journey

Spanning this amazing historical journey of Food over 300 years, the food culture has now got more “egalitarian and ethnic”, thanks to migrant populations in
different countries, even as it has spawned a “wonderful diversity of nutrition”, in Prof. Briesen’s analysis.

From “gourmet food, organic food, pragmatic food introduced by modern nutrition, traditional food with its regional variations, extremely selective food by the upper class, experimental nutrition coming from the chemical industry’s lap for athletes and women who need to be slim, to overeating of prefabricated high calorific food for underclass children,” this huge variety in the food scene now turns age-old cookery upside down.

People in higher echelons now consciously limit their consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Good enough, but it is also paradoxical, says Prof  Briesen. “Today, it is not the rich, but the poor who are overweight or even obese, and abundance had become the main factor for untimely demise and diseases like cancer, heart attack or blood pressure.”

Would Prof Briesen get such a platform to share these insights on “Food History” that is largely people-centric if Indo-German encounters had been
confined only to the grand tradition of Indological studies in the line of great scholars like Max Mueller, Prof Daussein and so on?

Fr Biritto Vincent, College Rector and Assistant Professor at St Xavier’s Folkore Department, had no ready yes for a reply. For him, what enabled such dialogue was a less known tradition which also shaped Indo-Germ­an relations, thanks to the Grimm Brothers of Germany who first systematically collected German folk tales and myths in the early 1800s and compared them with other oral folk traditions in India.