Food and Diet

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Kolleen M. Guy

Historians recognize food and diet as significant aspects of social history, providing important insight into the material and cultural conditions of everyday life. Serious scholarly investigation of diet, ingredients, and rituals of consumption progressed rapidly over the last decades of the twentieth century. The founders of the influential Annales (1886–1944) school of historical analysis, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre (1878–1956), encouraged academicians to use archival documents, such as wills, household accounts, notarial records, and institutional inventories to study the diet and food habits of the past. Historians took up the challenge. By the 1960s and 1970s, research on European diet and food habits from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century focused on alimentation: food and drink production (planting and harvesting), distribution, and consumption. Quantitative studies dealt with a variety of specific historical questions from determining caloric intake to calculating per capita meat consumption. Despite a variety of criticisms about the incomplete or imprecise nature of the archival sources, notable Annalistes, such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Fernand Braudel, went on to establish the study of food and diet as a legitimate means to better understand the structures of everyday life in European history.

Concurrently, other historians, influenced by the work of cultural anthropologists and ethnographers, began to explore the social importance of food and rituals of food consumption. Historians recognized food's symbolic importance and examined the production and consumption of food as expressions of social solidarity and stratification. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, those interested in the history of food and diet employed a variety of different approaches. Purely quantitative methods, favored by some early practitioners, gave way to looking at cultural contexts. Building on knowledge of the history of the family and women's work, historians made the family meal, including the preservation and preparation of food, a new focal point of study. Cookbooks, recipes, menus, etiquette books, and other gastronomic texts offered new avenues of research. Culinary history, with its focus on food culture, exposed the layers of social production behind food choices and added to the rich documentation on alimentation.

New perspectives continue to proliferate. Given the centrality of food to most societies, historians turned their attention in the 1980s and early 1990s to researching the construction of social identity through dietary choices and culinary techniques in different countries and among different classes. Food and culinary techniques, as distinct expressions of ethnic or cultural identity, have a long and complex history that has only begun to be examined. Historians have also focused much new research on sites of consumption, such as restaurants, cafés, and public banquets. Research by social historians—past and present—on food, diet, and rituals of consumption continues to enrich our understanding of the history of everyday life.

Eating, with its quotidian repetition, may appear insignificant when placed next to the great deeds and events of history. Yet, historically, food has been a central preoccupation in most European societies where undernourishment and starvation were basic components of social life before the mid-nineteenth century. Proverbs from throughout Europe reflected the preoccupation with a full belly and exhorted listeners to stretch meager resources. From the urban beggar to the court nobility, it was understood that the fate of individuals and, according to French gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826) in his Physiologie du goût (1825), the fate of nations intimately "depend[ed] on how they are fed."

How Europeans were fed historically hinged on a variety of factors that defy facile generalization. Shifts in food production and consumption in Europe were linked to the uneven pace of industrialization, urbanization, expansion of arable land, commercialization and transport, and agricultural specialization. Adding to the complexity, these factors were inextricably entangled with questions of political and social organization. Social historians, without minimizing regional and national differences, however, have located a number of important trends in Europe's food and dietary history since 1400.


Food was a central preoccupation for most Europeans in the early modern period (1400–1800) as demographic growth, halted by the devastation of the Black Death, resumed across the Continent. Despite a brief slowing of population growth in the 1600s, the population of Europe increased from an estimated 61 million in the 1500s to 123 million by 1800. With demographic expansion came a surge in agricultural production. Historians generally agree that the amount of land under cultivation increased throughout Europe during this period, often at the expense of land reserved for grazing animals or hunting. In England the enclosure of common lands was under way and would pick up after 1530. Pastures were converted into arable land and in many places vineyards were destroyed to make way for more lucrative cereal crops. There was a decline in specialized production, particularly animal husbandry. As a consequence of changes in supply and demand, a large portion of the urban and rural population reduced meat consumption. Average annual meat consumption per capita in Germany, for example, plummeted from a high of 100 kilograms in 1500 to only 14 kilograms in the early 1800s. Similar patterns emerged across Europe.

Cereals became the primary source of nutrition for most Europeans; bread replaced meat in the popular diet. Despite the increase in cultivated land, agricultural production did not keep pace with population expansion. The price of grain in Europe climbed by 386 percent between 1500 and 1650 while purchasing power lagged behind. Statistical evidence reveals that cultivation of industrial crops, horticulture, and viticulture were highly dependent on the price and consumption levels of grain. The meager statistical data available suggests that many families changed their eating habits by further curbing meat consumption and increasing reliance on other plant products. Dried and salted fish might be added to the common diet as a surrogate for meat, particularly in urban areas, although generally it was not considered filling. Salaried workers, whose wages did not keep pace with prices, shifted a larger portion of their incomes to purchasing bread and other foodstuffs. In the countryside, even the peasants with a surplus to sell in the market reserved their best produce (including wheat and rye) for sale and subsisted on a diet of lesser grains (barley, millet, and so on), legumes, and chestnuts.

Between 1650 and 1750, the supply of daily bread for the bulk of Europe's population was affected by an agricultural depression. Although this depression was not as prolonged or severe as those that took place during the Middle Ages, the chief features were important to the bulk of Europe's inhabitants: decline in cereal prices, little land reclamation activity, expansion of animal husbandry and reduction of arable land, cultivation of fodder crops, and few agricultural innovations. The combination of the depression with the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) and a series of epidemics brought fundamental changes to European agriculture and, subsequently, the European diet.

One change of particular importance was the upheaval in rural land ownership throughout western Europe as nobles, bourgeois, and royal officeholders gained possession of large expanses of farmland. Large-scale farms with regular access to markets prospered by experimenting with new crops and techniques. Land-poor peasants introduced potatoes to their gardens as their overall living standards declined. Similarly in eastern Europe, the nobility increased their control over agriculture and lucrative markets by subjugating the peasantry and increasing compulsory labor service. The process was complex and varied according to regions. With increases in the amount of labor and capital invested in farming, however, grain from the Baltic littoral created not only a flourishing internal trade but also flowed into Amsterdam to feed the hungry urban population of Europe.

As the proportion of grain in the popular diet increased, the crises provoked by grain shortages became more severe. There was a series of major grain shortages in France, Germany, England, Spain, Italy, and throughout northern Europe in 1555, 1597, 1630–1632, 1693–1694, and 1709. Shortages typically began with a harvest failure, which created a surge in prices. In some areas, there was a deterioration of bread quality as mixtures of grain (rye, wheat, and other grains) or substitutes (barley, oats, legumes, or, in severe cases, chestnuts) were used in bread making. The "hierarchy of bread"—white bread for the wealthy, brownish breads for those with some resources, dark bread for the least well-off—was a daily reminder of social distinctions. Lesser grains were better than no grains. Shortages resulted in malnutrition, vulnerability to disease, reduced fertility, and, at times, death. Rising grain prices (seen as unjust by the lower classes), adulteration of flour by millers, or the hoarding of wheat and bread often led to protests or bread "riots." Between the seventeenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century, food conflicts—the possibility of popular disorders or rebellions due to bread shortages—resulted in greater state investment in stimulating grain production and trade, distributing bread or grain in times of shortage, and regulating markets. Famished crowds demanded that public authorities, particularly the mythical "baker king," feed the masses of hungry subjects. Responses such as the Elizabethan Poor Laws (1598 and 1601), for example, although known for their harsh treatment of the poor, did make English villages less vulnerable to famine. German principalities, similarly, administered prices, regulated market relations, and worked to relieve local shortages. As cereals came to dominate the popular diet, the bread question became a major political issue.

The consumption of food and the social context for that activity was a clear expression of the opposition between the ruler and the ruled in early modern Europe. Abundance and variety characterized the table of the social elites; elaborate social rituals of consumption were an expression of their power. The contrast between the daily abundance on the dinner table of the wealthy and the daily dearth on the dinner table of the poor was striking. While the poor might have occasions of excess during important holidays or as markers of certain rites of passage, these were rare moments to be remembered. Elites and masses differed not only in the quantity regularly consumed, but the quality and variety of food consumed as well. Historians have concluded from the evidence in kitchen accounts and cookbooks of the wealthy that overall grain consumption decreased among the social elites in the early modern period in sharp contrast to growing popular consumption of cereal-based foods. Both the quantity and quality of prepared food available on a daily basis to the dominant classes represented and confirmed their social, economic, and political status.

Consumption of elaborate, expensive, refined foods, which were outside of the budget of the mass of Europeans, were deemed intrinsically appropriate for those with high social rank. Scientific and literary theories of nutritional privilege, whereby social class implied a certain type of "natural order" to food consumption, created a hierarchy of both food and people. Vegetables, particularly bulbs and roots, were believed to be among the lowest rank of the natural world and, therefore, most suitable for those of the lowest ranks of society. Fruits and fowl, by virtue of their distance from the element earth, were seen as the most appropriate food for the highest classes. Pheasant, partridge, and other "light" meats were seen as reflections of the refined character of those who consumed them. Spices, which were increasingly within reach of those outside of noble circles, were replaced with delicate flavorings such as chives, shallots, and capers, first used by French chefs. Where spices remained a luxury, such as in Germany, Poland, and Russia, their strong flavors continued to be part of the cuisine of the elite. Throughout Europe the wealthy table with its emphasis on quality food, elaborate presentation, and complex rituals acted as a daily reminder of the gulf between the ruling classes and the bulk of the population. Power was expressed through food.


As power shifted in the waning days of the ancien régime so, too, did elite dietary preferences. By the eighteenth century, health considerations and issues of food hygiene became a part of the discourse of Enlightenment philosophers, encyclopedists, and technicians who turned their attention to the "science" of food, dining, and drink. The science of gastronomy created new taste professionals who enumerated some of the fundamental truths of the new food culture. Strong flavors of wild game and heavy meals with multiple courses of meat became symbols of old social and political regimes. The "enlightened" bourgeoisie and nobility adopted a more delicate, refined cuisine with mild cream sauces, more "white" meats, and increased varieties of vegetable foods. Restaurants featuring fine cooking opened in places like Paris in the late eighteenth century, and the idea of dining out not simply when traveling gained ground. The new attitude toward diet softened earlier rhetoric that had advocated the exclusive consumption of "quality" food by people of "quality." This changing ideological framework made proper nutrition and freedom of food choice an ideal; actual food consumption, however, continued to be a visible sign of rank and class membership.

Over the course of these centuries, changes in supply and demand and the introduction of new crops slowly altered the European diet. Rice, once an exotic import reserved for the wealthy, became a part of the European diet from Spain to the Low Countries. Sugar, a dominant commodity of the European colonial trade, was consumed in vast quantities. A historian-anthropologist has argued that sugar became the first mass-consumption food, eagerly sought out and widely purchased, though not really necessary. As European long-distance trade became more sophisticated, new beverages, such as coffee and tea, were also introduced. While coffee, consumed in urban coffeehouses, became popular among European elites, tea became a basic beverage throughout European society. Hot, sweet tea was popular among the lower orders, particularly in England, where it was said to provide a quick burst of energy. Crops from the Americas, such as the tomato, potato, and maize (corn), were gradually assimilated as well. By the late eighteenth century, the nutrient-dense potato, which could feed more people per acre than grain, was an important staple of the popular diet. In the predominantly industrial countries north of the Alps, potatoes became a major crop in the gardens of peasant and wage-earning households. The lowly potato, believed to be fit only for peasants and animals when first introduced, gradually made its way into the recipes of the elite by 1800. Scholars attribute the variations in assimilation of new foods to climate and standard of living, as well as to differences in food cultures.

European dietary regimes underwent a perceptible shift starting in the eighteenth century (although there are significant differences in character and timing of change from region to region). One of the most remarkable things about the eighteenth century, compared to earlier periods, was that individual food consumption remained constant, while agricultural production was regulated to match. It is even likely that, for some classes, individual consumption went up, in spite of the great growth of population. Cities often demanded not only grain but also specialized produce, such as dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables. The profit motive in agriculture worked against the practice of reserving certain foods for a select group of consumers. Between 1761–1790 and 1821–1850, high prices for agricultural products, which resulted from a combination of changes in consumption patterns, population growth, and demand for fodder crops (which reduced the amount of arable for cultivating grains for human consumption), led to an expansion of the area cultivated, increased animal husbandry, the introduction of new methods and inventions, and a renewed interest in agriculture. All of these factors stimulated development. But what was unique during this period was that the usual plowing under of grasslands for arable, which traditionally took place during periods of high cereal prices, was not undertaken. With the growth of demand for manure, the increase in the number of horses for transport, and changes in consumption patterns, animal husbandry did not decline in profitability in relation to cereal cultivation. Agricultural changes meant a greater variety of resources of food to sustain the population.

Desire for a variety of foods became increasingly more "democratic" in the modern period as old dietary hierarchies of exclusion were discarded. Greater food choices for a broader group of consumers did not necessarily result in more "democratic" diets. Despite enhanced agricultural productivity and progress in food supply by the eighteenth century, the mass of the European population had enough to eat only when harvests were good. Subsistence problems for both the urban and rural populations of Europe persisted well into the nineteenth century. Continued population growth, particularly in the later half of the eighteenth century, further exacerbated nutritional deficiencies. High cereal prices meant that food was the most important part of the budget of most working-class families; half of the family budget could be spent on bread alone. The poorer the family, the less varied the diet. This was also true of some members of the rural laboring classes who were hit by rising rents and food prices. For many, particularly among the lower classes, rising agricultural prices meant a diet that was monotonous (with the reliance on plant foods and cereals) and generally inadequate.


Historians note that there was an increase in demand for meat and dairy products early in the nineteenth century. This led to the spread of innovations pioneered in the Netherlands and in new crop rotations and livestock breeding and, according to some historians, a slow, perceptible improvement in the daily diet of the masses. Innovations were adopted slowly throughout Europe during the nineteenth century. The new husbandry, which generally meant a decrease in fallow, did not always, by itself, produce higher crop yields. But often the reduction of fallow was combined with new crop rotations that included fodder crops and growing herds of livestock—all of which provided more nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen-enriching crops and manuring. Greater demand and higher prices coupled with concomitant improvements in agricultural technology and technique stimulated European agricultural production between 1821 and 1850.

Whether this agricultural change resulted in an improvement in the diet of the growing number of working-class families in Europe has been part of an intense debate among social historians about the early effects of industrialization on the standard of living. Regardless of their conclusions, most historians agree that food remained a central part of the family budget, and a mother's role as a consumer was key to the family's well-being. Expenditures for food could take up between half and three-quarters of a working family's income even among the most skilled (and highly paid) workers. One estimate, based on calculations from a variety of different types of working families, showed that, between 1823 and 1835, the proportion of wages of the male head of the household that was spent on grains decreased. Nonetheless, grain and bread still absorbed around 55 percent of the man's wages. The last widespread European famine in 1846–1847, which had its most devastating effects in Ireland, attests to the extent to which the bulk of the populace continued to rely on grains and potatoes for nourishment.

For many working-class Europeans, any earnings above subsistence were dedicated first to modest improvements in diet. A bit of fat or, even better, butter on bread could be a cherished luxury. At times, the caloric needs of certain family members prompted difficult eating arrangements within working-class households. Mothers and children would often practice restraint in eating, in order to allow the male breadwinner to eat meat.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century there was a dramatic change in agricultural supply—due to intensive application of early nineteenth-century innovations—and demand—as an increasing industrial population wanted, and could afford, more meat and dairy products, and industry created new markets. Dearth, which had ruled everyday life for centuries, increasingly became an exceptional event. Nutritional standards improved as the century passed. Various studies of working families demonstrate that food continued to constitute the largest yearly expenditure. Aggregate figures for the French working class reveal that up to 60 percent of the family budget was dedicated to food; figures for England show no substantial difference. Bread remained a major item in the budget, but lower cereal prices made it possible for families to shift their spending to other food items, such as eggs, cheese, noodles, sugar, jam, and coffee. All but the poorest families consumed some meat. Even the bread consumed by the masses of Europeans changed. The long coveted white bread of wealthy consumers became the norm by the end of the century. Throughout Europe, consumption of wine, beer, and spirits, in both public and private drinking rituals, increased.

A greater variety of food items in the family budget can be seen among the rural classes as well. At mid-century, peasants in some regions of France, for example, prepared daily meals that were a meager combination of black bread and la soupe (gruel, porridge, or, in some cases, just water with salt or fat added). Improved conditions by the end of the century might mean rye bread, potatoes, milk and cheese, soup with some fat, and, on Sundays, a bit of beef in the stew. A good meal, which everywhere included meat and wine, remained, however, an event to be remembered. Consumption of meat remained pitifully low outside of cities. The average city dweller consumed about 60 kilograms of meat per year while their rural counterpart was limited to about 22 kilograms per year. Continued reliance on grains could still bring disastrous results for rural residents as the harvest failures and horrifying famine of 1891–1892 in Russia attests.

Above all it was the increased consumption of meat that was revolutionary during these years with the floor on per capita consumption varying between 14 and 20 kilograms per year in places like France and Germany. Improvements in diet for both the rural and urban classes before World War I, however, were relative, judged from a low standard of evaluation. The consumption of milk and fresh fruits and vegetables among working families remained low. One study in 1904 found that 33 percent of English children were undernourished. While the bulk of Europeans consumed a greater variety of foods, malnutrition remained a common problem, particularly among women and children. Women often deprived themselves of nutrition when there was not enough food for the family. Shortages and high food prices, as in earlier times, could still lead to protest. In urban areas these disturbances were frequently incorporated into trade union activity and seen as a more general protest against the high cost of living.

Continued technological advances increased yields and led to a marked, although uneven, improvement in the European diet by the twentieth century. The combination of agricultural change, improvements in transportation, and the cultivation of new land put an end to the cycles of famine that ravaged Europe in earlier periods. Shortages were not, however, a thing of the past. Hunger was widespread once again during World War I and World War II. During World War I, for example, near starvation conditions were reached in many countries by 1917, and food riots became a recurring event throughout the war years. These were man-made disasters: the result of wartime inflation, inefficient government policy, shortages of fertilizer, and hoarding of agricultural commodities.

Other developments affected European eating patterns in the twentieth century. The variety and number of restaurants increased. In Britain, fish-and-chips outlets provided new eating opportunities for the working class from the 1920s onward, a sign of new consumerism in the area of food. Beginning among the middle classes, particularly among women, there was an increased preoccupation with dieting or restraint in eating. In France this concern began to emerge in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Warnings about overeating and the need to discipline children's appetites proliferated. The decline of corsetry and the adoption of more revealing fashions made discipline of the body more and more desirable. Although rural regions and the working classes were somewhat exempt from these intense concerns, hostility to obesity ran high.

Dwindling numbers of traditional peasant farms in the West, the tragic results of Soviet collectivized farming, and the potential problems of genetically engineered crops have generated new discussions among historians, economists, and policy makers over the relationship between economic modernization and nutritional choices in Europe. Without a doubt, the shift to an industrial economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries dramatically altered the history of food in Europe. Fast food, frozen dinners, and American soft drinks—all industrial food products—are now ubiquitous. Twenty-six percent of all restaurant meals in France were taken at fast-food outlets by 1990. Widespread, too, is a rich regional diversity in cooking techniques and gastronomic traditions that has developed in response to culinary homogenization. Uniformity at some levels of food production has not destroyed a rich tradition of diversity in food consumption. While speed of eating probably increased—the two-hour lunch began to decline in places like France and Spain, in favor of greater efficiency at work—Europeans resisted some American patterns. EuroDisney (opened in 1992 and later renamed Disneyland Paris) near Paris initially expected American-style willingness to snack at all hours, but the assumption proved wrong: European visitors wanted set meal hours, with wine and beer, and the Disney approach had to be adapted for their preferences. In a more serious vein, strong protests in the 1990s directed against American and other imports and against genetically altered foods demonstrated Europeans' fear of losing control over what they ate. Social historians have only begun to chronicle the unfolding story of culinary "traditions" and dietary transmutations of an ever-changing Europe.

See also other articles in this section.


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