Read “A History of the World in Ten Dinners” about the history of food

Victoria Flexner, author "World History in 10 Dinners"
In her new book, World History in Ten Dinners, Victoria Flexner examines 2,000 years of history through a culinary lens. (Credit: Teddy Wolf)

Victoria Flexner is our editor 1000 Stories Project – and, as of this week, the author of the recently released book World history in ten dinners(Rizzoli.) Flexner, a food historian by training, founded the Historic Supper Club in New York City Edible history in 2014, along with chef Guy Revell, and the two have spent nearly a decade hosting dinner parties around the city – each based on a particular era of history, with unusual dishes sourced from period manuscripts, cookbooks and culinary compendiums. . Their supper clubs have transported diners to the scents and tastes of King Henry VIII’s Tudor court, the streets of ancient Rome and stops along the medieval Silk Road, among others. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the supper clubs came to an abrupt halt, presenting Flexner with a new challenge — how to keep Edible History alive in a time of coronavirus shutdowns. She began work on a book proposal for what would become A History of the World in Ten Dinners and in 2021 it was acquired by Rizzoli, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Two years later, and much research and recipe testing later, Flexner and Reifel’s book is out in the world for history buffs and home cooks to enjoy.

At every Edible History dinner, there is an exciting moment when the first course comes out of the kitchen and is placed in front of the guest. As the guest looks at his plate, examines its contents, consults the menu, and exchanges curious glances with my fellow diners, I begin by telling the evening audience about the dish being served before them, its history and how it relates to food. The time period of night. The show starts.

Each cycle acts as a window into the broader historical narrative. The Black Chicken and Peaches of Emperor Domitian’s reign are a taste of the madness that plagued the emperor who once served guests a meal dyed entirely black; Perhaps the fall of Rome could have been predicted at the dinner table. Marinated raw beef with butter sauce from the Ethiopian Empire gives us a taste of Empress Taitu’s penchant for high-quality, expensive ingredients. Coccinthrace, made in the time of King Henry VIII by stitching the front end of a pig to the back end of a capon, demonstrates elaborate theater and An optical error is an illusion Tudor banquet dining style.

The food served and the stories told at an Edible History dinner allow guests to live for a moment in a shared metaphysical space with someone who has been dead for hundreds of years – to experience the same flavors and scents that Domitian, Tyto, and Henry did. This is food history. A unique type of history that offers a deep insight into the reality of past existence, and in turn shatters preconceived notions and debunks popular myths.

For example, you might imagine that the Medici ate pasta with tomato sauce, or that the peasants who worked the lands of the Holy Roman Empire lived on a meager diet of potatoes. But they didn’t – because of the potatoes And Tomatoes come from the Americas and were not introduced to Europe until after 1492. Likewise, Indian curry, Sichuan soup, and Isan Larb did not contain a single chili pepper until the Portuguese introduced the plant to the Asian continent in the 16th century. The study of food can dramatically change the way we view our culinary heritage.

A history of the world in ten dinners
Credit: Lucy Schiffer/Rizzoli

The study of food also shows us that we have been living in a globalized world for a very long time. International trade and commerce are not byproducts of our modern global world. Spices, textiles, gems, animals, and even humans have been making their way along the Silk Road for thousands of years. By the 13th century, knights in England were sprinkling peppercorns on their roasted meat and seasoning their wine with cloves from Indonesia.

Thus, the history of food reveals to us facts that exist outside traditional history. Your morning pastries and hot beverages of choice tell impossibly great stories. Food speaks about entire lives, entire civilizations and cultures. Eating what has come before is perhaps the closest we can come to recovering the stories of those who have been largely forgotten by traditional history.

It is no secret that the history we learn today was written mostly from a Western perspective and largely by white men. European colonization and subjugation of most of the known world beginning in the fifteenth century produced a “world history” that begins with the Age of Exploration and moves through time linearly from the perspective of its conquerors. The result is a history that does not truly reflect the actual experiences of most people who have lived on this planet during the past 500 years.

We missed a lot of perspectives. How do we reclaim these lives and these voices? How do we learn about people who left nothing behind? We write history based on what remains; But what about what doesn’t stay? What about the smell of the early morning air when Ibn Battuta sailed from Africa to the East, and the market conversations in medieval Cusco, the meal eaten by the women who fought in the French Revolution, were being held?

Smell and taste are incredibly powerful memory tools. We vividly remember those dishes our loved ones prepared for us: what the kitchen smelled like as they were being prepared, where we sat at the table, and how we felt when we ate them. We cannot know exactly how a young immigrant coming to New York in the nineteenth century felt or what she thought when she got off the ship and settled in this new city. But we can eat what you ate.

We hope that through these stories and these recipes, we can invite readers into the conversation of history, as they step out into their own kitchens to embark on a new kind of culinary journey. ◼

“World History in Ten Dinners” It is the first book by Victoria Flexner. She is a food historian and founder of Food History. She writes, lectures, and hosts historical dinners throughout New York City.

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