Two courses on Food History

This week I’ll review two courses on food history, both by Prof Ken Albala and available on The Great Courses. The courses are complementary, and I’d recommend them to everyone who likes history, cuisines, and the involvement of both in literature.

First, a few words about the lecturer. Ken Albala is a professor of history, specialising in culinary history. I first came across his works through the Tasting History YouTube channel (see my post here), which in fact replicates some of his recipes. I found his work and style very engaging and approachable. He has authored or edited 25 books, two of which (The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home and The Lost Arts of Cooking) are particularly appealing to me — promoting the joy of experimenting and cooking at home with varied age-old techniques. I’ll be sure to post reviews once I get to them — especially if I coordinate it with some actual cooking post.

Cooking Across the Ages

I’ve done this course first, and it’s fine — though perhaps doing them interleaved will be the best way if you plan on experiencing both. This course is dedicated to historical cookbooks more than anything else. Every episode Prof Albala picks one surviving cookbook (starting with the Roman Apicius), gives the historical context of the work, and cooks a few dishes from it.

Albala often picks recipes that are reasonably easy and would have been representative of the period, ie available to many people. Remember that historical cookbooks are very different than their modern format, often mere mnemonic notes for experienced cooks working for the elite, rather than teaching devices. In fact, the evolution of the cookbook, the shifts in who the target audience is and the functions that cookbooks filled for them, is a big part of the course.

Note that most of the material concentrates on Western Europe and the Americas, with only small diversions into the Far East and other cultures. Not all the dishes are interesting and inspiring and there is some repetition — but then it can be interesting to explore the variations of similar themes throughout regions and periods. Not all the dishes are interesting (from a personal perspective), and sometimes I wish he’d spend more on the background than the actual cooking demonstration. But that’s when then second course comes in, and Albala’s certainly explains the idiosyncratic tastes of each period and invites the student to investigate and explore those taste profiles for themselves.

There are 24 lectures in total, from an introductory lecture to the course and historical cookery, through Roman Apiciius (which isn’t the oldest recorded collection of recipes, but is the first cookbook as such), to the modern and post-modernist eras.

Find the course here:

Food: A Cultural Culinary History

In this course Prof Albala doesn’t cook, but instead lectures about the influences of food on culture and vice versa. The course is built around academic lectures, exploring the forces that shaped each era and people, how it affected their cuisines, how culinary discoveries shaped human cultural evolution. Albala covers things like Kosher laws in and Vegetarianism in India, impacts of trade and globalisation, food as medicine, changing eating habits with the rise of restaurants, etc. He does an amazing job of introducing those complex forces and contexts, and keeping the student engaged.

This course is valuable to any curious person. Students of history would appreciate the studies of what life was like, of how long-term processes affected and were affected by food production and consumption. Students of culture would enjoy a view about the historical roots of certain beliefs and practices around food and morality that persist to this day. And, of course, students of culinary arts would appreciate the forces that shape modern tastes — culinary arts, like all arts, exist as a response to pre-existing conditions.

I think the two courses could be best done together. There are 36 lectures in this course, starting with hunter-gatherer diets (which might surprise you) and the agrarian revolutions (plural), and then covering a wider array of cultures and ages. While Albala does cook occasionally, the focus is on the historical context. Start with this course, and whenever there’s a similar period then go and watch the corresponding episode of Cooking Through the Ages for the specific demonstration of cooking techniques and dishes.

Find the course here:

I certainly enjoyed the two courses. I feel like they helped broaden my horizons where culinary history (a favourite topic) is concerned, and cement my knowledge. If you love history and cooking, I’d highly recommend them. Even if you are not planning on replicating all the recipes, they are fun to watch (I usually watch shows while on the treadmill — in this case, an apt countermeasure to the rising desire to cook and eat 😉)

As mentioned above, Albala’s style is very inviting and freeing. He covers at length how cooking is an individual path and an expression of art and craft. He’s trying to free students from the adherence to recipes and exact recreations, in favour of understanding both the variety of techniques now mostly lost to the home cook, and how tastes and flavour profiles changed through ages. My understanding is that he takes the same approach with the two Lost Arts books, which make me eager to read them.

Some of this will no doubt make it into my writing. While the Felix novels are fixed with the Roman period, that was a globalised economy with trading networks and incoming influences from many other cultures. I certainly love to dump new dishes on Felix (something he enjoys less — for those who noted his comments about haggis in In Numina). Beyond that, for non-Felix projects (which I’ll only refer to as “that troll book” until I finish the first draft), I will do what I love and use real historical cuisine and culture to engender a sense of place for specific people.

What are your experiences with historical cookery? How do you supplement studying history, and how does that affect your writing and reading? I’d love to know!


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