Why Food Matters

by Emma Spary and Anya Zilberstein

[Editor’s note: The HSS Newsletter is pleased to offer our  readers a sneak peak into the upcoming (2020) volume of Osiris, titled Food Matters. Issue editors Emma Spary, Reader in the History of Modern European Knowledge at the University of Cambridge and Anya Zilberstein, Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Montreal, offer insights about the exciting synergies between our discipline and the burgeoning field of food studies, as well as an idea of what we can look forward to. Stay tuned for the announcement of the release of the issue.]

Our interest in the history of food in relation to the history of science stemmed from our previous inquiries into the history of natural history, which led us to various eighteenth-century scientific forays into perfecting foods, experimenting with novel foodstuffs, and dramatically expanding what counted as appropriate or desirable nourishment. This pervasive interest in subjecting food to scientific scrutiny prompted many questions. What counted as an “improvement” in a given foodstuff? Why did certain foods, like the breadfruit, become iconic objects of state investment to secure, cultivate, and perfect them? Who was positioned to prescribe foods for particular categories of body, in decades when industrialization was proceeding in parallel with expanding European consumption of imported, particularly colonial, foods? What even was a food in the late eighteenth century, and what epistemic debates did it provoke before the emergence of the modern sciences of nutrition? Secondary literature on food history had scarcely engaged with these issues, particularly in relation to problems of labor, power, skills, expertise, race and globalization that historians of science were addressing for other disciplinary domains. The essays in Food Matters constitute a set of explorations around such questions, for example Lu’s reflection on the caterpillar fungus as a boundary object; Pohl-Valero’s study of chicha in Bogotá; Chaplin’s exploration of the imperial-scientific transformation of “waters” into the chemical object “water”; and Guerrini’s investigation of the kitchen as a liminal space between eating and natural history.

While food has emerged as an autonomous area of historical inquiry, it still remains largely outside the history of science, medicine, and technology. Yet even many canonical scientific figures—Boyle, Lavoisier, and Ampère to name just three—experimented on food. We want to argue that the history of food and the sciences does not simply boil down to the history of dietetics or “nutrition science,” nor to the reinsertion of food within histories of  “great men” or ideas. Rather, the historian of food enters a terrain that resists reduction to the positivist “scientific method.” The neglect of food by earlier generations of scholars is perhaps explained by the assumption that because food preparation and consumption occurs outside the laboratory, knowledge-claims over food were not commensurate with knowledge-claims about elementary particles or complex instruments. Eating and drinking have long been viewed as too individual, sensuous, or irrational to be observed and measured, or based on imponderables such as taste or custom. Yet as shoppers, cooks, and eaters ourselves, we all know that our dietary choices and habits are powerfully shaped and constrained not only by socioeconomic status and geography, but also by the range of forms of expertise and regulatory regimes, which become entangled in subjectivity. Even when we eat alone, we eat as a collective.

Workers using a “New-Invented INGENIO or MILL, for the more expeditious making of CIDER.” From John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum: or a Treatise of Cider, and other Wines and Drinks extracted from Fruits Growing in this Kingdom. London: Thomas Dring, 1678, frontispiece. Biodiversity Heritage Library, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Workers using a “New-Invented INGENIO or
MILL, for the more expeditious making of CIDER.”
From John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum: or a
Treatise of Cider, and other Wines and Drinks
extracted from Fruits Growing in this Kingdom.
London: Thomas Dring, 1678, frontispiece.
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Food Matters is intended to signpost some future research directions. The essays progress through a series of conjunctures, moments, or spaces where the making of knowledge was linked to food and drink in non-trivial ways—from the links between cannibalism and the Eucharist in early modern Rome (Bouley) to the centrality of breakfast meetings at an iconic Silicon Valley diner in shaping technoscientific innovation today (Shapin). Food is thus an excellent interface for the historian of science seeking to explore how knowledge-claims travel among laboratory, field, factory, and table. From the perspective of the historian of science, food underscores that knowledge does not have to be “pure” in order to travel in this way, or to reshape our bodies and identities. In fact its very hybridity and mundanity is what gives food its peculiar epistemological purchase: an entrypoint into our selves via the mouth.

Student food scientists testing the fat content of cream. From E. H. Farrington and F. W. Woll, Testing Milk and its Products. A Manual for Dairy Students, Creamery and Cheese Factory Operators, Food Chemists, and Dairy Farmers. Madison, Wis.: Mendota Book Company, 1911, p. 75. Biodiversity Heritage Library, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Although we still know too little about how new knowledge-claims about food find an audience or secure authoritative status, it is clear (for example in the essays of Thoms, Treitel, and Fitzgerald) that certain transformations were facilitated by increasingly tight linkages between political power and scientific expertise after the eighteenth century. Attempts to regulate, reform, and “improve” public diet were integral to scientific programs undertaken within a governmental framework from the early modern period (McCormick, Treitel, Simmons). But industrial culture and attendant transformations in food production, processing, preservation and transportation offer equally profound moments of change and rupture in foodways. During the nineteenth century, the laboratory became an important site for producing new foods, even while it was also the site of emergence of entirely new kinds of food knowledge (Cobbold, Woods, Wurgaft). So the history of food offers a critical site for constructing arguments about how, when, and where forms of expertise and knowledge have interacted.

Yet who was expert about food? Our diets are structured by earlier regimes of knowledge, such as humoral medicine, in ways we no longer articulate or recognize. The invisibility of this process reflects the fact that multiple actors—home cooks and professional food preparers, family members and friends, as well as politicians, bureaucrats, and military officials—possess food expertise. Even as each generation takes on or rejects new foods and claims about them, these sources of expertise serve to perpetuate past practices, tacit skills, or prejudices of taste. In the process, it is rare for one body of food knowledge to displace another completely, as Mukherji’s essay underscores.

Neil Armstrong’s diet sheet from the Apollo 11 Mission (left) and a color photograph of the food supplies (right). Courtesy NASA.

Neil Armstrong’s diet sheet from the Apollo 11 Mission (left) and a color photograph of the food supplies (right). Courtesy NASA.

Food is also, and perennially, an object of deep disquiet. Epistemological controversy and public concern have long characterized attempts by knowledge experts to intervene in the food supply. Scientific encounters with food offer salient case studies of the contestations attendant upon the transformations of everyday life produced by the alliance of centralized state power or corporate culture with scientific expertise. And it is no accident that we begin the volume with the troubling topic of entomophagy. As a food, insects have hovered on the boundary between edible and inedible, pure and polluted for Western eaters over many centuries, yet they are a dietary staple in other cultures. Food Matters demonstrates that it is only by examining the sources and expressions of our own stubborn prejudices about or willingness to self-experiment with food do the stakes of producing normative knowledge about what and how others should eat become clearer.