Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine & Empire
by Elatia Harris
All photos courtesy of Rachel Laudan
Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage and a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. In this wide-ranging interview, Rachel and I talk about her long-awaited book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. Paul Freedman remarks that the book is “a riveting and unique combination of culinary ideas and exposition on the materiality of eating.” Other delighted early readers include Anne Willan, Naomi Duguid and Dan Headrick. As a food lover, a cook, a world traveler or a student of cultural history, you might have asked yourself: What is this thing called food? If so, this is the book for you.
ELATIA HARRIS: To begin, I would love to know what was involved in the transition from historian of science to historian of food. I can remember when there was no such academic discipline as food history, and I’ll warrant so can many readers.
RACHEL LAUDAN: I can remember when there was no such discipline as science history! I think history is the thread through my life. Growing up in history-heavy Wiltshire, I felt I had to escape the weight of the past. I studied the key historical science, geology, at university, although this was almost unheard of for a woman. I then changed to history and philosophy of science and technology. Then to history of food. History is my way of understanding things.
A lot of food writing is about how we feel about food, particularly about the good feelings that food induces. I’m more interested in how we think about food. In fact, I put culinary philosophy at the center of my book. Our culinary philosophy is the bridge between food and culture, between what we eat and how we relate to the natural world, including our bodies, to the social world, and to the gods or morality.
EH: Your earlier book, The Food of Paradise, necessarily dealt with food politics and food history. So many cultures were blended into local food in Hawaii. I treasure that book — almost a miniature of what you’re doing in Cuisine and Empire.
RL: Well, thank you. It came as a surprise to me that I had a subject for a book-length treatment of something to do with food or cooking — as interested in the subject as I certainly was. The only genre I knew was the cookbook, and I am not cut out to write recipes.
It was prompted by a move to teach at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1980s. I went reluctantly, convinced by the tourist propaganda that the resources of the islands consisted of little more than sandy beaches and grass-skirted dancers doing the hula.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. These tiny islands, the most remote inhabited land on earth, have extraordinarily various peoples and environments. And as to the food, I was humiliatingly lost. The first morning in the office, Barbara Hoshida, the department secretary, held out a plate of golf-ball sized fried, well, fried whats? “These are Okinawan andagi,” she explained, “They’re just like Portuguese malasadas.” I didn’t dare ask what Portuguese malasadas were.
Before I knew it I had a stack of essays on the foods of the three diasporas that had ended up in the islands: the taro-based cuisine of the peoples from the South Pacific (the Hawaiians); the rice-based cuisine of the Asians (Koreans, Han and Hakka Chinese, Japanese, Okinawans, and Ilocanos and Tagalogs from the Philippines); and the bread-based cuisine of the Anglos (British and Americans).