If you consult the history books about what sparked the French Revolution, you'll probably read something about poverty, drought, and wealth disparity. If you you consult Tom Nealon, you'll read about how the advent of the dinner party may be to blame.
In his new book, Food Fights & Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste, the rare books dealer and self-proclaimed condiment expert delves into the hidden intersection of food and culture throughout history, and explores how hunger and taste have secretly defined the course of civilization.
Alongside illustrations sourced from the collection of the British Library, Nealon applies his deep knowledge and dry wit to some of the most prevalent of modern foods, from chocolate to mayonnaise to Marmite, and posits questions like: was Charles Dickens a cannibal? Did lemonade cure to the plague?
We talked to Nealon about his thoughts on food from medieval to modern, and everything in between.
MUNCHIES: Why do you think food has been such a central preoccupation of ours for so long?
Tom Nealon: There are a couple of things that are really universal to the human condition, and food's definitely the biggest one of them. I think people will always be interested in food, because it's a way to introduce ourselves to other cultures and other ideas that are maybe difficult to bring up in other ways.
You end up doing quite a bit of myth-busting in the book—did you have any favorites?
I guess mayonnaise is my favorite one, because it's just so ridiculous, and it was the first one that I ran into. Mayonnaise was supposedly invented after the battle of Menorca at the Port of Mahon, the battle that started the Seven Years' War. The British had just taken Menorca from the Spanish, and then the French attacked the British, and that's what started the war.
Supposedly, at the banquet to celebrate, the admirals had brought along their cook, and they had apparently run out of cream, so they wanted to put a whipped topping on the dessert, but there wasn't anything. So he suddenly thought to himself, "How about I mix oil and vinegar and mustard powder and egg yolk, and put that on there!"
That was what stuck for hundreds of years—this nonsense story about mayonnaise.
The stories you address are very wide-reaching. What were your research methods like?
Usually I would come up with an idea, some notion that appealed to me. I thought about the plague coming to Paris and lemonade—just things that happened to happen at the same time. I thought that there was maybe some relationship between them. There were a lot of things that I researched that just didn't turn into anything that's a narrative, or interesting or appealing, so you just sort of chuck them, because the facts don't do what you want. But that one turned into not what I thought. I thought that maybe the lemonade had helped spread the plague, because you had these people going from neighborhood to neighborhood, and then I decided that it was the opposite. So a lot of it you research, but even in the middle of stories, they'd take a left turn, and I'd have to follow it and hope it turned into something that was interesting. But you end up with a lot of dead ends.
In the book, you cite a lot of facts, but then there's this sort of tongue-in-cheek tone throughout, suggesting, for example, that Charles Dickens might have been a cannibal. How is the reader to know what's real and what isn't?
I never liked reading things where I thought I the joke was being played on me by the author, so I'm definitely not trying to do that to suck people into something and make them feel foolish, but it's a tough line. It's supposed to be entertainment, and I try to leave clues as to when I'm jumping over cliffs with some of my ideas, but I think that is always a possible peril. So I guess I don't exactly know. It's all of these facts that led up to the moment, where then I say, "Then, maybe this!" So that the reader is part of that, where you can say, "Well, that sounds pretty reasonable!" or "That one is a fun story, but I'm not so sure." It's a process.
I love the idea you raise about "the artifice of food." How did you first encounter that?
I guess it's obvious in the really old recipes: when they try to pull one over on you, they're really brazen about it. One of my favorites is where they take chicken bones, take all the meat off, then polish the bones until they're really nice looking, and then put the meat back on and fry it so that it looks like it did in the first place. So it's like fake authenticity. I also liked the swan one, where they would really carefully skin a swan or a peacock, cook it, and then put the skin back on and then serve it as if it was real.
Did you try any of the really showy medieval recipes at home?
I did do a Stargazy pie from a 17th century English cookbook. It was a fruit and fish pie, which was sort of challenging as it was. I think it was currants, ginger, mace, fish, and pears. It was one of the ones where you take a bite and you'd be like, "That's really interesting, I like that combination," and then you take another bite, and you're like, "I don't really know why I'm eating this."
You actually cut the little fish in half and put them in the top of the pie so that they're looking straight up in the air, as though they're coming up out of the pie. It was a hard sell. I was like, "Have a piece of pie," and my friends were like, "Tom, you're an idiot. Why would you even do this?"