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Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

(California Studies in Food and Culture #43)

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  185 ratings  ·  35 reviews
Rachel Laudan tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of the world's great cuisines--from the mastery of grain cooking some twenty thousand years ago, to the present--in this superbly researched book. Probing beneath the apparent confusion of dozens of cuisines to reveal the underlying simplicity of the culinary family tree, she shows how periodic seismic shifts in ...more
ebook, 482 pages
Published October 1st 2013 by University of California Press (first published January 1st 1996)
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Average rating 3.92  · 
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Andrew Tollemache
Sep 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
A pretty damn good book that covers an exhaustive amount of ground in the history of global human diets/cuisine over the last 3-5 thousand years. Laudan seeks to detail how the historical shifting tides of empires, religions, nation-states and economic systems has profound affect on the types of food people produce and eat.

key Narrative Threads:

1) The persistence across almost all peoples of both a high, middling and low cuisine.
2) The shifting importance of empires then religions and recently
Marty Trujillo
Feb 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
It’s not hyperbole to say that Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, Rachel Laudan’s exhaustive study of the creation of the world’s cuisines, is a minor masterpiece. Laudan’s book examines in acute and thought-provoking detail the evolution of eating and the forces that conspired to influence cooking across time and cultures. Her book is a good reminder that most of the world's cuisines are based on grains, and have been for a very long time. In fact, crushed seeds continue to form the ...more
Cynthia Bertelsen
Nov 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food-history
Excellent book, not one to race through, much food for thought and reflection.
Beth Roberts
Aug 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The bits and pieces are well-known, but putting the bits and pieces together is enlightening. Laudan's thoughtfulness and rigor undercut many conventional ideas about the development of cuisines.
Aug 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
While Rachel Laudan’s “Cuisine & Empire” is a fascinating review of the evolution of food and the experience of eating throughout history, it is also not an easy book to recommend based on its density and the niche-like quality of the topic.

I first came across this book in 2015, when Laudan gave a talk on the podcast EconTalk. A fascinating discussion, it particularly appealed to me as I had been more and more curious of what lower-class food was like in the ancient world and into the middle age
Roger Hernandez
Aug 12, 2018 rated it it was ok
Laudan does a great job of explaining the interrelations between gastronomy and history. She discusses dozens of cuisines from around the world and their historical influence on cultural and political development. The overall prose of the book is quite dry but readable. As a reader whose read dozens of books on Mesoamerica (a region she discusses throughout her book), I couldn't help but notice an "air" of Eurocentrism when she discussed the question of "cannibalism" in Aztec culture and the ove ...more
Aaron Arnold
Jul 22, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, read-in-2016
Food history is the best history. Living in a world of endless fusion dishes and specialty restaurants is great from the perspective of the average eater - never in history has it been so cheap, convenient, and possible to develop a taste for so many different styles of cooking - but it makes you wonder about where all of these cooking styles came from, and why different cultures have the specific attitudes they do to the food that they eat. Food isn't just fuel; it's both a shared experience wi ...more
Jennie Rosenblum
May 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
The author begins the book with her main theme – Humans are the animals that cook. While I am not much of a cook – I do love food and history. The book is broken down into time periods such as Mastering Grain Cookery 20,000-300 B.C.E., Buddhism Transforms the Cuisines 260 B.C.E. – 800 C.E. all the way to Modern Cuisines 1920-2000. While this book makes a great textbook for a college level class it is still enjoyable for the lay person like me. Every once in a while I like jumping into a book tha ...more
Fraser Sherman
Dec 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, food
Incredibly dense, slow reading, but well worth it. Laudan's focus is the way different cuisines have spread or shrunk across the planet: brought by conquerors, borrowed by conquerors, transferred by trade, divided by social status (contrary to the idea of national cuisines, most countries eventually developed a high cuisine separate from peasant food) and constantly challenged by transnational religious movements, various reform movements (frowning on fancy food as self-indulgence goes back cent ...more
Simon Eskildsen
Jul 10, 2020 rated it it was ok
This was way more academic than I anticipated, so I ended up mostly skimming before finally putting it down. What intrigued me to pick this up was this endlessly fascinating image mapping the Mongol expansion on the spread of the dumpling:

Unfortunately, that's a lonely peak in this book.
Carolyn McWilliams
Fascinating Food History for Foodies

Although the book starts slowly and felt very academic at the beginning, it was not long before I was riveted.i will look at food in a whole new way and recommend it to anyone with a combined interest in World History, World Cultures, and current cuisines.
Kevin Y
May 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating book with a lot of material to digest.

If you like history and connecting the dots for wide array of information, this is that kind of book albeit centered on food and politics. I definitely recommend this book.

Doyoung Chung
Aug 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A different way of viewing human civilizations through the lens of food and cooking
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food 'through the lens of science and history'. 

Rachel Laudan takes the idea that we 'are the animals that cook' (p1) and looks at how cuisine - how we cook - has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I'd never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn't mean you've ad
Diane Jiang
May 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: food
If you had to pick one book that encapsulates the history of food, it's this.
Sanjay Varma
Dec 02, 2015 marked it as abandoned
Shelves: non-fiction
I just peeked at this book so I'm not giving a star rating.

The opening chapter sets the table, so to speak, by describing how pre-historic cultures had a broad diet, but increasingly focused on grains which could be transformed into a wide variety of foods. And so the common inheritance of world cuisines is that of a grain-based culture where meat-eating is limited to religious sacrifices followed by communal feasts.

The middle chapters focus on religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and C
Aug 30, 2015 rated it liked it
Good book but too long for the content and a result, I found it repetitive.

The history of food was interesting, as Laudan takes us through the many historical cuisines over the last couple thousand years, and identifies the significant transformations that food processing and meal preparation have undergone (mostly for the better).

In particular, the development of grains - especially wheat - made it possible to feed the growing world population. I was impressed with Lauden's statistic that mor
Jul 07, 2016 rated it liked it
This book is an interesting overview of cuisine throughout world history with an emphasis on how dominant cultures, i.e. empires, effect the cooking styles of their areas of influence. The prose is a bit dry at times but the book has a lot of interesting facts to share and questions that have gotten me thinking. For example, the author points out that what we call the Colombian Exchange was not much of an exchange. Except for chocolate and much later, and very reluctantly, potatoes and corn, con ...more
MaryJo Dawson
Jun 23, 2015 rated it liked it
To say I read the entire book would be a stretch.... I read most of it. It is a very informative read, but it was a surprise to find out this really does read like a history textbook - with small print.
My expectation was that the information would be relayed in a manner that showed how food had affected events or played a role in world history, but essentially it takes you from ancient to modern times and the progression of what we eat, and the origins of the grains, spices, etc., that we use.
Oct 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This history is well researched and written in a 'user friendly' style. It is MUST reading for anyone who wants to know about food and how it got that way AND the amazing interaction it has had with the movement of power from nation to nation and conquest to conquest. It is an amazing accomplishment to bring so many threads together and make it SEEM so easy.
Kyle Hayes
Jan 27, 2016 rated it it was ok
While the book was well-documented and informative. The tone was a bit more formal and academic than I was hoping for. I really enjoyed the overall premise (food processing is a staggeringly important part of the development of the human race), but the message of the book didn't really become clear until the final chapter.

Jeremy Cherfas
Jul 05, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really excellent guide to changes in cuisine through history, and the forces that drove them. A useful antidote to the rose-tinted myth that the cooking of times gone by was so much better than the food we have now. Some people have described the book as too dry; I disagree. It is scholarly and informative, rather than the once-over-lightly so common in so many "factual" works.
Bill Kte'pi
Jul 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
A valuable contribution to a field in which there are too few overviews and a proliferation of post-Kurlansky microhistories. Laudan paints in broad strokes sometimes, and at other times I wish she would zero in and go into more detail or provide more examples -- but the scope here is obviously huge, and one book can only do so much.
Jun 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Excellent look at how different eras and empires in history affected the development of the world's best-known cuisines. Thoughtful, well-written, and well-researched. Great addition to a book list for those interested in knowing how we ended up eating what we eat.
Jan 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Simply the best history of cuisine I have ever read. Anyone writing about food should read this book, and anyone wanting to make sense of the swirl of global food history will appreciate it. What a sweep! Hats off to Rachal Laudan!
Mar 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A well documented and referenced take on the history of cuisine. I found that the author defined her subject well, presented compelling arguments and built a good history of cuisine. I have a different view of cuisine after reading it.
Jul 18, 2013 rated it liked it
Wheat!!! Best fed army in the history of the world - Roman army!
Sarah (CoolCurryBooks)
In the span of a year, I've tried this one twice. It's about time to just let go of it already.
May 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Good overall, though her ambitious range of topics led her to make some mistakes (e.g., see p. 60, where she confuses facts about ancient Jewish data and misreads Marvin Harris' argument).
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Interview with Rachel Laudan 1 6 Jul 24, 2013 07:52PM  

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