The Kitchen at the Center of History: An Interview with Rachel Laudan

Published by Tuesday, July 23, 2013 Permalink 0
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Rachel Lauden, author of Cusine & Empire

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).

EH: It wasn’t all that long ago — going on 18 years — but you were a pioneer in the approach you took. It was history, not a compendium of anecdotes. Was there anything to tell you it would be so well received?

RL: Not at all. Mainland publishers were interested only in a book with exotic tropical recipes. I wanted to use the recipes as illustrations of how three cuisines were merged into a fusion cuisine called Local Food. Readers were welcome to cook from them, but that wasn’t their point. The University of Hawaii Press, after some anguishing about whether a mainlander could write a book about the politically touchy subject of foods in Hawaii, took the manuscript.  So I was bowled over when it won the Jane Grigson/Julia Child prize of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

EH: Any publisher might have had more confidence, originally, in your cultural sensitivity, if they’d seen how many cultures you had by then participated in. And the list has grown. You’ve really gotten around.

View from Rachel's kitchen window in Guanajuato

View from Rachel’s kitchen window in Guanajuato

RL:  I have had the luck to have been successively immersed in four distinct cultures: those of England, the United States mainland, Hawaii, and Mexico. Growing up in Britain, I ate the way that many foodies today dream about: local food, entirely homecooked, raw milk from the dairy, home preserved produce from the vegetable garden. I never saw the inside of a restaurant until my teens.When I was 18, before I went to college, I spent a year teaching in one of the first girls’ high schools in Nigeria, something that I later realized taught me a lot about the food of that part of the world. In addition, I have lived, shopped and cooked for periods of months in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, and Argentina.

EH: Were you always teaching?

RL: Not always. My husband and I left academia of our own free will when we were in our 50s, thinking it would be exciting to try something different. We thought lots of others would do the same, but no. It turns out that is unusual. 

Rache's Food History Group in Mexico

Rachel’s Food History Group in Mexico

EH: Unusual, I’ll say! How did you make the shift not only to a new field, but to a more independent life as a scholar and writer?

RL: I decided to put in cold calls to people I thought were doing interesting work: Joyce Toomre; Barbara Wheaton; Barbara Haber in Cambridge, Mass.; Alan Davidson, founder of the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery in England; Gene Anderson, the anthropologist and historian of Chinese cuisine; and, Betty Fussell and Marion Nestle in New York.  They could not have been more encouraging, inviting me to speak, join their groups, calling from England, and introducing me to others, including Elizabeth Andoh and Ray Sokolov.  I was buoyed by this sense of community as I jumped fields and left academia.

EH: You weren’t even thinking whether the history of food was a serious area of study, were you?

RL: Not at all. I’ve always believed that if you can show people you are on to an important problem and have things to say about it, they will listen. Soon after I began working on food I spent a year as a research fellow at the now-defunct Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. To the horror of many, I proposed a seminar on the culinary revolution in the seventeenth-century that resulted in what we know as French haute cuisine. Once it became clear that I was arguing that new chemical and physiological theories caused the change, they were all ears. And a popular version was later published by Scientific American.

EH: I am moved and impressed. Many people would have just waited by the phone rather than build a new network. Yet your central concerns, as an independent scholar, remained the same as when you were teaching, and have come to full fruition in Cuisine and Empire. Food and technology require to be considered together, do they not?

RL: Indeed they do. One way of thinking about history of food is as a branch, I’d say one of the most important branches, of history of technology. Food, after all, is something we make. Plants and animals are simply the raw materials. We don’t eat them until we have transformed them into something we regard as edible. Even raw foodists chop, grind, mix, and allow some heating.

So I could bring to food history the hard won conclusions of historians of technology.  

For example, historians of technology are not primarily concerned with inventions. The infamous light bulb was useful only as part of a whole electrical system.

Similarly soy sauce, say, or cake, have to be understood as part of whole culinary systems or cuisines. When these are transferred, disseminated, copied, they change the world.

And, perhaps most important, new ideas or values prompt cooks to come up with or adopt new techniques. Technology, including cooking and food processing, is a problem-solving activity and people bring to it their ideas. If people change their minds about what healthy food is, or adopt new religious beliefs, or reject monarchy as a political system, cooking and dining change too.

So a large part of the book is dedicated to laying out the culinary philosophy underlying each of the world’s great cuisines. When that culinary philosophy is transformed, so is the cuisine.

EH: Just one reason I am so excited about Cuisine and Empire is that I cannot think of anyone else who could take all this on, even if they thought to.

RL: My background in history of science was a big help. It had become clear that this was not simply one damn experiment and discovery after another, but shaped by great traditions of scientific inquiry.

I went into food history with a problem, my preferred way of thinking about any inquiry. The problem was: “Can I explain world food history in the same way that I explained the food history of Hawaii? Can I explain it as the expansion over vast tracts of territory of a small number of culinary traditions or cuisines?”  

Cuisine and Empire answers that with a resounding yes. It’s possible to capture most of food history in the last 20,000 years by talking about the expansion of about a dozen different cuisines.

EH: I will be thinking about this book for years and years. I’m already starting to wonder what broad cultural assumptions I must bring with me when I cook… Despite how well prepared — I want to say uniquely prepared — you were for writing Cuisine and Empire, it was a tremendously ambitious project, was it not?

RL: It was ridiculously ambitious. 

EH: Now, this is a question everyone who writes will understand — did it ever seem so huge and unwieldy you wanted to chuck it?

RL: More times than I care to admit. What was I writing about? Farming? Cooking? Dining? What were the big turning points? And what about all the regions such as Central Europe and Southeast Asia that got short shrift?On the other hand, I had the wonderful gift of time to take on a big project and I didn’t want to fritter it away. So I gritted my teeth, kept re-working my organization, telling myself I was as well prepared as anyone.

EH: How so?

The picture of an 18th c. farm that hung over Rachel's mantelpiece when she was a child

The picture of an 18th c. farm that hung over Rachel’s mantelpiece when she was a child

RL: On the practical side, I had grown up on a working farm. And I learned early on that cooking was just as important as farming. One of my earliest memories was the day my father decided he would make bread with the wheat he had grown. At the time, there was no internet to look up how this might be done. He put it in a pestle and pounded it. Nothing but flattened grains, even though many of the archaeologists in our part of the world assumed without experimenting that that was how it was done. He screwed the meat mincer on to the side of the large kitchen table and put the grains through that. Nothing but little lumps. Finally, he put a handful of grains on the flagstone floor and attacked them with a hammer. Fragments scattered all over the kitchen, but still no flour. With barns full of wheat, we could have starved because we did not know how to turn wheat into flour to make bread.

Later, I had the chance to shop and cook in Europe, Australia, the U.S.A. and Mexico, so I had a pretty good grip on a variety of cuisines. In Nigeria and Hawaii, I had experienced cuisines based on roots, not grains. At the University of Hawaii, I taught a wildly popular hands on world history of food, learning a huge amount from my students, almost all of them of Asian ancestry. And in Mexico, women taught me what my father couldn’t, namely how to grind grains into flour.

An English farmhouse tea at Rachel's home in Guanajuato

An English farmhouse tea at Rachel’s home in Guanajuato

On the intellectual side, in the course of my academic life I’d also taught social history, an eye-opener about what life, including diet, was like for ordinary people until very recently. And at the University of Hawaii, with its polyglot population, I’d had a chance to talk with many of the pioneers of world history.

EH: Unlike when you were writing Food of Paradise, was there also a wave to catch? In the form of other like-minded scholars and writers at work?

RL:  A wave? If there was, it was more in world history than in food history, which in spite of the efforts of some fine scholars, did not really become mainstream until a few years ago. World historians such as William McNeill, Philip Curtin, Alfred Crosby and Jerry Bentley — the latter my colleague at Hawaii — were drawing on decades of detailed historical scholarship to see if they could trace big patterns of disease, warfare, enslavement, ecological change, and religious conversion.  

Why shouldn’t I jump into the fray and see if there were big patterns to be traced in food? Surely it was just as important in human history as their topics. I’d always loved making sense of masses of complicated data. Now here was a real challenge.

EH: Rachel, I expect lots of readers for your book. Which other books do you think it will be on the night table with? I’m thinking particularly of Michael Pollan and Bee Wilson — is there a cogent comparison? I note Paul Freedman blurbed your book, by the way — along with Naomi Duguid, Anne Willan and Dan Headrick.Gee, good company!

RL: Well, if mine ends up on the night table with these books, I will be tickled pink. And I think it complements them nicely. Michael Pollan’s recent book, wonderfully written as always, is a long meditation on contemporary cooking.  I differ from him in not drawing a sharp distinction between cooking and processing. Processing (pre- and post-industrial) and cooking are on a continuum of stages in food preparation. Bee Wilson’s delightful book is also about cooking and full of wonderful historical insights as befits a historian. But whereas she treats themes such as knife, fire, and measure, I organize by the origin, spread, and transformation of cuisines. In my wildest dreams, I would like to think of this as the historical counterpart to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.

With Hal McGee and Rick Bayless when I was Scholar in Residence at IACP

Rachel, Harold McGee and Rick Bayliss at the IACP

EH: Readers will be intrigued by your historical treatment of “processing.” It’s become a bad word – code for turning food into non-food. I regularly read your blog, so I know you mean it a certain way that looks at the very big picture, including labor economics. But the food you personally like is emphatically not processed…

RL: Not if you limit “processed” to what many call junk food, though I hope readers will be curious about why I use the term more broadly. I’ve never acquired a taste for fast-food hamburgers or soft drinks, have never eaten Wonder Bread or its siblings, and cook at home six nights out of seven. Picky is what I am.

EH: So there! How do cuisines speak to you personally — as someone who loves food and cooking? If a cuisine does reveal a culture, then would tasting and analyzing it be as telling as listening to a poem or seeing a drama?

RL: Absolutely. Every time you go into the kitchen, you take your culture with you. As you plan a meal for guests, say, you bring to it assumptions about how to mesh their preferences with yours, about how much it is appropriate to spend on the meal, about how to accommodate their religious or ethical food rules, and about what they believe to be healthy and delicious.

I like to play a little game with myself when I go to a different country or meet someone from a different background. Knowing the history of that place or the heritage of that person, can I guess what the cuisine will be like? Or conversely, if presented with a meal, can I read it, dissecting, say, the noodles, the condiments, and the meat to tell a story about how it evolved over the centuries? And the answer is almost always yes.

Rachel grinding pineapple

Rachel grinding pineapple

EH: What holds a cuisine together?

RL: Again it was Hawaii that gave me the clue. It was not the local plants and animals, because Hawaii had almost nothing edible before humans arrived. It was systems of belief or ideas or culture. The Pacific Islanders all valued taro, which had a place in their traditional religion, they all had a variant of the same herbal medicine. The Asians (apart from the Filipinos) had all been touched by Buddhism with its veneration of rice, and all subscribed to some form of humoral theory. And the Anglos came from a Christian tradition that placed high importance on raised bread and they followed modern nutritional theory. 

EH:  You have empires in the title, but you haven’t mentioned them yet.Where do they fit in?

RL: Empires have been the most widely spread form of political organization and as such the major theater in which cuisines have been created and disseminated. It’s not a case of one empire, one cuisine, though. Because aspiring leaders always copy and adapt the customs of what they see as successful rivals, cuisines were copied and adapted from one empire to another. In the ancient world, for example, Persian cuisine was copied and adapted by the Indians and the Greeks, and then the Romans copied and adapted Greek cuisine.

Grinding on a four thousand year old grindstone in the Museum in Minorca

Rachel grinding corn in Mexico

EH:  So cuisines spread from empire to empire. Is it a coherent story all around the world?

RL: Amazingly, yes. Beginning with the first states, interlinked barley-wheat cuisines underpin all the early empires. Then in the next phase, Buddhism transforms cuisines of eastern Asia, followed by the Islamic transformation of cuisines from Southeast Asia in the east to parts of Africa and Spain in the west (and the shaping of the Catholic cuisines of medieval Europe), and Catholic cuisines transform the cuisines of most of the Americas in the sixteenth century. Protestant critiques open the way to modern cuisines in Europe, with the rest of the world quick to make similar changes. Protestant-inspired high French cuisine becomes world high cuisine, Anglo cuisines create a middle way between high and humble cuisines, a middle way that is copied from Japan to Latin America in late nineteenth century. Although there are countless wrinkles, exceptions, and idiosyncrasies, at the core is a simple, coherent story of a few big families of cuisine and three major stages.

EH: If empires spread cuisines, does the reverse apply? I have read in Jared Diamond about food and food taboos affecting the success or failure of a whole society – the Norse colony in Greenland, whose people starved to death and even ate their pets rather than eat fish, for instance. What about embracing a culturally new food for political reasons?

RL: Certainly most people in the past believed that food could affect the success or failure of a whole society. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, leaders around the world looked at what seemed to be the unstoppable expansion of the Anglo world, that is, the British Empire and the United States of America.  

One explanation was that Anglo strength derived from a cuisine based on white wheaten bread and beef served at family meals. Unlike alternative explanations such as the special characteristics of Anglos or their upbringing in bracing climates, this offered a strategy for countering this expansion. If you could persuade your subjects or citizens to abandon corn or rice or cassava, and shift to bread or pasta, if you could persuade them to eat more meat, if you could persuade them to eat as families, then they might become stronger.

EH: Well, I’m naïve, then. “Eating as a family” is not a given across cultures? Please tell me more.

RL: The importance of the family meal as the foundation of society and the state is so deeply ingrained in the American tradition that it’s hard to appreciate just how American it is, perhaps inherited from Dutch settlers.Of course many meals were prepared in the home throughout history, though institutional food was more important than we realize. Just think of the courts, the military, the religious orders, as well as prisons, boarding schools, poor houses, and so on.Just think of the pictures of dining in the past and how rarely it is a family that is depicted.Who you ate with reflected rank rather than family ties.

But even when prepared in the home, the meal was often very different from that depicted in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.”The children might eat in the nursery, as in nineteenth-century middle class England. Or the father might eat in a different place and at a different time from the wife, as in Japan. Or the father might eat food prepared by different wives on different days, as in Nigeria.Or the meal might include unrelated apprentices and farmhands.So to many societies, the idea of the communal family meal as offering both physical and moral/social nourishment was a novelty.

EH:  And the shift to bread, pasta, and meat?

RL: Even in the United States, there were concerted efforts to persuade southerners, particularly in the Appalachians, to abandon cornbread for biscuits of wheat flour. And Brazilians, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Indians, and Chinese debated, and often put in place policies to bring about this change. The most successful efforts were in Japan where the diets of the military and of people living in cities were changed to add more meat, more fat, more wheat, and to introduce family meals.

EH: Ah! Taking on the strength of the aggressor, or of the dominant culture! I wonder who’s doing that now, and with regard to whose food? I’m fascinated with the cover of Cuisine and Empire. I know it’s a Japanese print. I want it to be the Jesuits, but that’s centuries off the mark.


RL: It’s a print in the Library of Congress collection by the Japanese artist, Yoshikazu Utagawa, made in 1861 just a few years after the forcible opening of Japan to the West. It shows two Americans, great big fellows, one of them baking bread in a beehive oven and the other preparing a dish over a bench top stove. I chose it because it so nicely illustrates the themes of the book. It puts the kitchen at the center. And it shows the keen interest that societies took in observing, and often copying, the cuisines of rivals.

EH: The kitchen at the center of history — a beautiful idea. And what is so very important is that no one has written food history on that conceptual basis. I cannot wait! When exactly will the book be out? 

RL: I believe the official launch date is in November. Copies, though, will be available from late September.

EH: Well, I have it on pre-order. Thank you so much for this fascinating preview and discussion. You have a book party chef in New England when you need her! I’m already thinking how to incorporate 20,000 years of causality into the menu. 

Pre-order Cuisine and Empire at amazon, at Barnes & Noble, or at the University of California Press.

Rachel’s article for SaudiAramco World on the Islamic influence on Mexican Cuisine

Rachel’s personal blog, “A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics” at


Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.


  • The Menial Art of Cooking –
  • British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)
  • Frances Moore Lappé
  • “Food is art and magic”
  • The Culinary Triangle
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  • John Altobello
    July 23, 2013

    Thanks, Elatia, Tremendously insightful interview with an enlightened individual.

  • Elatia Harris
    July 23, 2013

    John, how delightful to see you here! You will love the book.

  • Harry Z Coren MD
    July 23, 2013

    Although I’ve enjoyed eating various types of food, I never gave much thought to the history and derivation of the preparations. Your interview has opened up further avenues of thought. Thanks for the information.

    • Elatia Harris
      July 23, 2013

      Thank you for reading, Dr. Coren. As you can see, so much of food history is about power relations — it’s rather psychoanalytic!

  • kate
    July 23, 2013

    Wow, fabulous interview, fascinating. I can’t wait to read the book. Thank you Elatia. I like thinking about cooking in terms of problem-solving too. I always enjoy reading your interviews, you ask the most insightful questions, elicit such thoughtful responses.

    • Elatia Harris
      July 23, 2013

      Thank you Kate! I am delighted to be writing for The Rambling Epicure. The editor, Jonell Galloway, regularly posts food art — look for us here if you ever do any. I know you will enjoy this book.

  • Sally Reed
    July 24, 2013

    Fascinating interview. Wonderful ease and confidence. I have preordered the book, but now it seems like an awfully long time to wait before reading it.

    • Elatia Harris
      July 24, 2013

      It IS a long time to wait! Meanwhile I know you would enjoy Rachel’s blog, Sally — linked at the end of the article above.

  • Harriet
    July 24, 2013

    I loved the phrase “kitchen at the center of history”, perhaps the end of the reign of the Big Mac is nigh. Great read as always, Elatia, and Rachel’s book sounds very interesting.

    • Elatia Harris
      July 24, 2013

      Thank you Harriet. One reason Rachel’s book will be a big hit is that she writes so well that it will be fun to read. Delighted you found your way to TRE.