An impressively researched addition to the Arts and Traditions of
the Table series. French historian Ferrieres (Social History/Univ.
of Avignon) has dug deep and wide in her exploration of anxieties
about food: agricultural statistics, medical and veterinary
journals, public health records, royal decrees, city and town
ordinances and cookery manuals. Human fears about food, she notes,
fall into two categories: concern about quantity and worry over
quality. Her focus here is on the latter. Although she discusses
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the passage of the Pure Food and
Drug Act, she gives the United States relatively short shrift, for
Ferrieres's emphasis is on European, especially French, history.
Her research turns up some fascinating facts, such as that in
14th-century Europe, horror of leprosy led to the erroneous belief
that one could get it by consuming "leprous pork"; later, cabbage,
cheese, beer and gamay grapes were also suspect. One bizarre tale
involves a lawsuit in 1668 between Paris bakers and innkeepers in
which bakery bread was alleged to be unhealthy because it was made
with yeast; to settle the question, doctors weighed in, as did
public prosecutors, judges, police and even parliament. European
reactions-suspicion, aversion, phobia-of unfamiliar foods
encountered in the New World are explored, as are some wild food
rumors; e.g., English porter is made stronger than European beers
by the addition of a skinned dog to the vat. She shows how food
fears changed as industrialization distanced the consumer from the
producer, examines the gap between scientific knowledge and
political power in response to food risks and looks at the role of
individual responsibility for food safety. A densely written,
scholarly work, not especially accessible but filled with choice
nuggets of food lore, culinary information and social history.
Contemporary concerns about food such as those stemming from mad
cow disease, salmonella, and other potential food-related dangers
are hardly new-humans have long been wary of what they eat. Beyond
the fundamental fear of hunger, societies have sought to protect
themselves from rotten, impure, or unhealthy food. From the markets
of medieval Europe to the slaughterhouses of twentieth-century
Chicago, Madeleine Ferri?res traces the origins of present-day
behavior toward what we eat as she explores the panics, myths, and
ever-shifting attitudes regarding food and its safety. She
demonstrates that food fears have been inspired not only by safety
concerns but also by cultural, political, and religious
Flour from human bones and p?t? from dead cats are just two of
the more unappetizing recipes that have scared consumers away from
certain foods. Ferri?res considers the roots of these and other
rumors, illuminating how societies have assessed and attempted to
regulate the risks of eating. She documents the bizarre and
commonsensical attempts by European towns to ensure the quality of
beef and pork, ranging from tighter controls on butchers to
prohibiting Jews and menstruating women from handling meat.
Examining the spread of Hungarian cattle disease, which ravaged the
livestock of seventeenth-century Europe, Ferri?res recounts the
development of safety methods that became the Western model for
fighting animal diseases.
Ferri?res discusses a wealth of crucial and curious food-related
incidents, trends, and beliefs, including European explorers'
shocked responses to the foodways of the New World; how some foods
deemed unsafe for the rich were seen as perfectly suitable for the
poor; the potato's negative reputation; the fierce legal battles
between seventeenth-century French bread bakers and innkeepers; the
role of the medical profession in food regulation; and how modern
consumerism changed the way we eat. Drawing on history, folklore,
agriculture, and anthropology, Ferri?res tells us how our decisions
about what "not" to eat reflect who we are.
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