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Old Food, New Books

Once an ignored academic backwater, food history is suddenly a hot topic.

February 21, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-five years ago, it dawned on me that a lot of Indian dishes had the same names as Persian, Arab and Greek dishes, so there must have been a medieval cuisine extending from the Mediterranean at least as far as India.

"Great!" I thought. "Where do I go to read about it?"

At the time, I found, about the only people writing about food history were flaky journalists and cookbook writers who happily quoted each other's Marco-Polo-brought-spaghetti-to-Italy stories without ever thinking to check their accuracy. But it turned out there were also some inquisitive souls out there with higher standards of food scholarship, and over the years these once-marginal amateurs have become almost mainstream. "The Oxford Companion to Food," to which some of them contributed, actually made it onto the Food section's best-seller list last year-despite being a daunting 900 pages long and costing $60. Not to be outdone, Cambridge University this year published a two-volume "World History of Food" that runs more than 2,000 pages and costs $150. It, too, is selling respectably. In fact, on Amazon.com, both are handily outselling the last version of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook."

Back in the '70s, though, the only serious sources Claudia Roden could point to in "A Book of Middle Eastern Food" were one English translation of a 13th -century Arab cookbook and several ground-breaking articles by a professor at the Sorbonne named Maxime Rodinson, most of which were in French.

The truth was, academic historians just didn't consider cuisine worthy of study. It wasn't a serious subject-not like, say, 14th-century toll road records.

So if I was curious about food history, I'd just have to study it myself. For years I haunted UCLA's University Research Library, gleaning what I could here and there. I learned that if you wanted to know whether a foreign library had any ancient cookery manuscripts, you had to look under Medicine, Arts, Economy and Miscellaneous, because there was never a section on cookbooks.

In 1980, I couldn't bear it any longer. I scraped together all the money I could and went off to Cairo and Damascus to collect medieval manuscripts. (I recently translated one of them, which Prospect Books will publish this year along with Maxime Rodinson's writings from the '40s and '50s in a book titled "Medieval Arab Cuisine.")

On my way back from that trip, I stopped off in London and looked up the publisher of a tiny new magazine named Petits Propos Culinaires. Alan Davidson, a recently retired British diplomat, lived (as he still does) in a house in Chelsea filled with stacks of books on every conceivable subject that might be relevant to food.

Davidson was becoming the center of a world-wide network of inquiring foodies. He corresponded with Russian fish experts, teachers at African universities, English ladies who were keen on 18th-century puddings and an engineer who liked to note down every kind of food sold at the local markets in whatever country he was sent to. I started contributing to Davidson's magazine and found myself caught up in a sort of international food subculture.

Its first big gathering-the Woodstock of food scholarship, as it were-was the second Oxford Symposium, organized by Davidson and Theodore Zeldin at St. Antony's College, Oxford, in 1981 (the first Symposium had been a tiny invitation-only event). It drew hundreds of people, most from England but some from as far away as Japan and the Philippines, not to mention half a dozen European countries.

Prof. Jacques Flandrin brought a whole entourage of his students from Paris. It was the heyday of Structuralism, and a lot of these French scholars took an inscrutable Gallic delight in fitting every sort of food into Claude Levy-Strauss's categories of raw, cooked and rotten. They reminded me of the McLuhanites of the '60s, contentedly sorting everything into hot, cold, linear and non-linear.

The 1981 Symposium was often pretty chaotic. I remember having to stand up and wave my arms around so I could register my disagreement about something-a supposed Neolithic Bulgarian bread, I think it was. Subsequent Symposiums (they've been held almost every year since) have learned the lesson that most papers should be presented in small workshops.

They continue to draw an eclectic mix of people, such as the flamboyant Alicia Rios, who writes about Spanish foodways-and has designed Dada-esque "clothing" made out of food. An Englishwoman named Janet Laurence, who sometimes presents papers on medieval food at the Symposiums, has written a murder mystery, "A Deepe Coffyn," set at a food historians' convention perhaps loosely modeled on the Oxford Symposiums.

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