The Importance of food in people’s lives throughout history

Food has always had a way of bringing people together, it means something different to each individual. Throughout history many things have changed or grown however food seems to have stayed the same, gifting food seems is evidently popular in the early modern period, and somewhat this is still apparent in today’s society too, time spent in the kitchen cooking or baking with or for loved ones is still the very much the same. In the early modern period a mother and her children may make her special recipe, and today a mother cooks dinner for her children and families cook together from recipes handed down. Food also has an interesting way of bringing cultures together.
For me personally, food played a very crucial role this summer in terms of bringing together various different cultures. Summer of 2019 I took part in the cultural exchange programme Camp America, whilst working at an American summer camp in Jackson, Michigan for 3 months I was immersed in American culture and I learnt a lot about their food habits as well as learning about traditional foods of other countries like Turkey, Brazil and Poland. We were given 3 meals every day, including dessert at dinner time and it was the meal times where I learnt many things about my new American friends. For starters, the Americans I met put ranch dressing on everything, from salad to sandwiches and pizza, I learnt to love ranch dressing almost as much as they did by the end of the summer! The last week of summer camp, the theme was ‘international week’ in which we celebrated the cultures of the counsellors and children from other countries, and each meal that week was something from one of the many cultures we had, so we had Polish Pierogi and German sausage in hot dogs for lunch one day, and Brazilian style chicken curry for dinner and even their take on a traditional English Breakfast one day. Despite the food they cooked not being the same as we would have at home, it meant a lot to us that they tried to bring a piece of our home country to America, and we got to share our culture through food with our American friends, the same way that they had done with us that summer. This summer showed me how important food to people was and how it is possible to learn about different cultures through food alone.

This got me thinking about food throughout history and what it has meant to different groups of people in the early modern period. Felicity Heal’s article Food Gifts, the Household and the Politics of Exchange in Early Modern England expresses how the food was symbolically used in gifting in Early Modern England. One example of this is Shakespeare’s play Richard III, where strawberries are used as a symbolic gift that Richard had seen in the garden. From around 1480 until the end of the Civil War, food was the most basic form of offering as it symbolised the balance of giving and receiving. Giving food as a gift was seen as one of the highest offerings, especially if the giver had taken the time to grow and harvest the food themselves to give to the receiver. In many cultures food allows relationships to flourish, as Heal’s article says, giving food as a present would have been seen as a token of affection, love and friendship. However, there were also negative connotations with food gifts, sometimes it could be seen as affectionate and neighbourly however it also ended up as a witchcraft accusation for some women, especially if the receiver was suspicious of the gift or felt an ‘evil’ presence surrounding it.
Food in early modern Europe was important, especially to the families who kept recipe books. Elaine Leong’s article Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household discusses how most families had a designated notebook in which they would record the different recipes and note down anything important about it. There is currently a vast historiography of recipe books online meaning that the families shared it with not only each other but with the next generation, and the fact that it was handed down highlights how important it was that they feel they had to share with their descendants. It seems that not much has changed over the years, with recipe books still in existence just in a different format and baking together as a family is still evident in today’s society, I know personally that me and my sister bake brownies cookies and cakes together whenever we can and many other families still have their own recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation, very similar to Early Modern England.
Food also evolved across Early Modern Europe when the kitchen was architecturally designed in houses. Before the kitchen emerged in households, food was cooked in various different rooms, by the seventeenth century, the word ‘kitchen’ meant the specialised word in which food was prepared and cooking took place, where servants worked and all utensils were held (Pennell S, the birth of the English Kitchen 1600-1805 (Locating the Kitchen) pp. 37-57). Food being prepared in one specialised room instead of a multi-purpose room meant that cooking became more domestic and allowed food to be so special to people in the way I have spoken about in this blog.

To conclude this blog, the main theme that I believe is important to note is that throughout history food has not changed in terms of its meanings in different people’s lives. Ultimately, food brings people together, whether it is by giving a friend a food gift, or even different cultures coming together by sharing their food, or families coming together by sharing their recipes and recipe books that have been in the family for many generations. Food has and always will find a way to bring people together.


1 thought on “The Importance of food in people’s lives throughout history

  1. I liked how you managed to link this topic to your own experiences, do you gift food to your friends and family?

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