Yale historian traces the establishment of slavery plantations to a taste for sugar

Historians in the News
tags: Yale, food, Paul Freedman

Food: It feeds the soul, fuels the body, affects the environment, inspires artists, influences politics, and impacts just about every part of our lives. It has been a subject of fascination and entertainment for centuries, reflected in the beauty of a Dutch still life, the pageantry of a royal banquet, or even the latest episode of “Top Chef.”

While the subject of food may be fascinating to gourmands and gluttons alike, it turns out that the study of the history of food — and the numerous social, cultural, and political forces that shape our palette — is a relatively new field.

Paul Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History and chair of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, specializes in medieval history and teaches the only undergraduate course at Yale dedicated to the history of cuisine. He began teaching “The History of Food” in 2009, and his class draws students from disciplines ranging from environmental science to engineering to history.

YaleNews spoke with Freedman about celebrity chefs, medieval banquets, what the history of food can tell us about our culture, and his favorite cookbooks.

Why should we study the history of food?

Food can tell us a lot about a society in the past and the present, including what people lived on and how they managed to create a food supply, often in difficult circumstances. A number of major historical events have been dictated by changing tastes in food, like the “career” of sugar.

Tea in China is not drunk with sugar. It was the Europeans who decided to put sugar in beverages like tea, chocolate, and coffee. In order to increase the global supply of sugar, they established plantations, particularly in the Caribbean and Brazil, and they brought Africans over to be enslaved workers. So one of the most cataclysmic movements of people in the history of the world is the result of what might be seen as a frivolous or minor fashion. 

Similarly, it was the quest for spices in the Middle Ages that dictated attempts to find their source in India, the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Columbus. ...

Read entire article at Yale News

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