Gourmands looking to bone up on their food history should check out the Culinary Historians of New York, a nonprofit organization founded in 1985 with the aim of furthering people’s knowledge about the historical and sociological significance of what’s on their plates.
CHNY’s 350 members consist of everyone from chefs and food writers to nutritionists and professors. We talked to the chair of CHNY, food historian and chef Cathy Kaufman, about her favorite reads, how the culinary world has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future.
Why is it important to be aware of our food’s history?
I think it definitely puts things in context. We eat every day, and I think it really gives you a connection with your food when you can look at your plate filled with, say, salsa with tomato and chilies, and you realize that’s something that was based on New World food and has been done by the Aztecs, Incas, and the Olmecs. And then you look at a plate of pasta with tomato sauce and you realize that those tomatoes came to the Old World from the New World and it only became popular in Italy in the 19th century. It just gives you a much broader idea of how people lived and what was important to them.
What are some of your favorite books on culinary history?
As a very basic text you might want to start with — although, full disclosure, I was one of the editors — The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, or The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, which is the one-volume, slightly more streamlined version. It’s basically an encyclopedia — you pick a term you want to learn more about, say, chocolate, and you look up chocolate, and there will be 2,000 words on chocolate in America. If you’re interested in French culinary history, then one of the best books is called Savoring the Past, by Barbara Wheaton. It talks about the evolution of French food from the 14th century to the French Revolution. It’s an award-winning book and it’s really a great introduction to French food.
Another book that talks about the art of dining that’s really wonderful is written by a woman named Carolin C. Young, and it’s called Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver. It’s a book that describes 12 different historical meals, starting with a meal at the Abbey of Cluny and ending with a surrealist picnic with Salvador Dali. They’re just wonderfully researched, and while they talk about the food, they also talk about the cultural environment in which these meals took place. If you want to learn about New York food, I’d recommend Ariane and Michael Batterberry’s On the Town in New York.
What kind of events do you put together?
They are lectures, frequently illustrated, and we prepare food to support the lecture theme. We did one last month that was really fun at the Museum of the Chinese in America. We had a panel discussion with four Chinese Americans who talked about their reactions to Chinese food in America, how it was similar and how it was different to the food in China, how it has changed with the different immigration patterns.
We’ve had lectures with evolutionary biologists explaining on how different foods, and the need to cook them, helped human evolution. It runs the whole gamut. Maybe one of my favorite events was one of the first I ever went to. It was based on medieval Spanish food. They had a lute player and a couple of people speaking about Spanish food in the 14th century.
Why do think that there has been such a surge of interest in food recently?
Quite frankly, the interest in food for the average Joe is directly related to the birth of the Food Network, where food suddenly became sexy in a way that Julia Child and Madeleine Kamman and James Beard and the Galloping Gourmet weren’t. There was also a certain amount of affluence that we had up until the recent recession that allowed people to go out to eat quite a bit, and I think that once people began to get a basic awareness and sophistication about food and how to cook, then they begin to ask questions about “Why do we do it this way?”
How educated are people in the United States about the history of their food?
Not terribly. I teach culinary history at the Institute of Culinary Education. I’m always stunned when I talk about tomatoes being a New World product and there are always a few people in the class who had no idea those were not indigenous to Italy. People are becoming more educated, but I think if you look at European education, especially schools in Italy and France, little kids get exposed to cuisine as part of their education — it’s part of their cultural patrimony. It has not been nearly as important to the cultural patrimony here in the United States. We tend to let that slip.
You use a lot of historical recipes. How are they different from recipes now?
There isn’t as much of a sharp divide between sweet and savory dishes [in recipes from the past]. One of the dishes I’m preparing tonight from Spain has herbs and artichokes in it, and it’s finished by putting a lot of sugar on the top and putting it in the broiler. It’s a bit of a different palate — there’s often a lot of sweetness in things we would consider savory dishes. The animal products we are using now tend to be different from the truly free-range or wild stuff that was often hunted or raised back then. A lot of recipes will have you larding or barding pieces of meat because they were just too lean. That’s something that continues through the 18th century, and it’s only in the 19th century that it falls out of favor.
So what do you think the future of American gastronomy will look like?
In terms of culinary style, I think there will always be new interesting ethnic cuisines to explore. I think we will soon be learning a lot more about African cuisines, which are pretty hard to find in New York these days, with the exception of the Ethiopian restaurants that have been here for a while. I think some of the molecular gastronomy will continue, but it will be brought down from its very ethereal heights of, for example, serving pancakes on lavender-infused pillows of hot air, to something a little more prosaic. Things like rose water are showing up in desserts after being gone for a hundred years, so I think we’re going to rediscover some of these fruit and floral essences and expand our palates that way.
I think we are much more open to diverse experiences now than we were 100 years ago. If you wanted an elegant meal then, it would have been by definition French. Now if you want an elegant meal you can have any number of different kinds of cuisine, although that French influence is always lurking in the background.