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Food: A Cultural Culinary History

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Eating is an indispensable human activity. As a result, whether we realize it or not, the drive to obtain food has been a major catalyst across all of history, from prehistoric times to the present. Epicure Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said it best: "Gastronomy governs the whole life of man."

In fact, civilization itself began in the quest for food. Humanity's transition to agriculture was not only the greatest social revolution in history, but it directly produced the structures and institutions we call "civilization."

In 36 fascinating lectures, award-winning Professor Albala puts this extraordinary subject on the table, taking you on an enthralling journey into the human relationship to food. With this innovative course, you'll travel the world discovering fascinating food lore and culture of all regions and eras - as an eye-opening lesson in history as well as a unique window on what we eat today.

19 pages, Audible Audio

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

Ken Albala

30 books128 followers
Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA and Director of Food Studies in San Francisco, is the author or editor of 25 books on food. These include academic monographs, cookbooks, reference works and translations. He is also series editor of Rowman and Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy. His current project is about Walking with Wine.

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5 stars
631 (48%)
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503 (38%)
3 stars
152 (11%)
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19 (1%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 185 reviews
Profile Image for MISS Petra to you!  Say yes ma'am.
2,383 reviews33.9k followers
July 12, 2016
If you've read any food history books this one will quite likely disappoint you as much as it did me. It isn't anything like as good as Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food in talking about food. The author talks as much about history, often conjectured, as about food. This book was neither history, nor food, nor culture, but a mish-mash of all three, in varying and inadequate amounts.

I gave it up as I didn't want to waste time getting on to my next five star book.
Very disappointing indeed.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,085 followers
November 8, 2020
There are few things I enjoy more than food. Well, perhaps that is an understatement. Food is one area of life wherein every aspect is pleasant—all the wonderful flavors and textures, of course; but also the cooking techniques, the plethora of ingredients, the infinite recipes, and, yes, the history. At a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is running high, it is worth noting that food is perpetually immune from these trends. Someone can rail against Muslim refugees over a beer, and then follow it up with a midnight kebab. If we could approach the rest of life the way we approach eating, the world would be a much happier place.

This series of lectures is a tasting of food history. Albala is an animated if not especially focused guide, whose love for the subject ties together all the many cuisines and cultures and historical tidbits he covers. He is obviously knowledgeable and intelligent; but best of all he is obsessed. The listener will not come away with any detailed or systematic knowledge. The point of a tasting is not, however, satisfaction, but titillation, not a full belly but a watering mouth. And piquing curiosity is arguably the main task of any teacher. In any case, imagine how much more interesting high school history class would be if we learned about the history of tacos rather than memorizing the names of kings!
Profile Image for TS Chan.
691 reviews851 followers
June 22, 2020
I knew I couldn't go wrong with this Great Course covering two of my favourite topics - history and food. And true enough, it was absolutely fascinating. Food was so intrinsically tied to the progress of humanity that our history was pretty much shaped by it. Agriculture, warfare, religion, colonisation, trade, capitalism.. you name it, food had been a central driving force.

The professor was also easy to listen to with a lively delivery and good cadence. Only thing is that I just can't get used to how he pronounced words with 'hu' in the beginning with the silent 'h', i.e. human sounds like 'yew-men'.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,664 followers
May 29, 2018
Such a great course/audiobook. It's the history of food, which is also a history of food and culture and religion and morality. Here are a few things that I kept thinking about:

1. There is so much judgement and stigma and classism in food--what you're supposed to eat, how, and when. We still use food to divide ourselves.

2. How french cooking rejected spices in favor of just the essential flavors where Indian and Middle eastern cuisine were all about spices. But french dining was refined cooking and the others were not.

3. How globalization moved foods around from old world to new and back and how it made some countries overly dependent on non-native crops (i.e. Ireland and potatoes).

Anyway, I could go on, but it's such a great course.
Profile Image for Maurício Linhares.
150 reviews40 followers
July 16, 2017
A journey through history showing how food has created, shaped and re-shaped society!

The book covers food since the beginning of agriculture, the effects it had on humanity. Covers food since Mesopotamia to the modern days, not only showing what and how people would eat but the cultural and economical effects food had on these societies.

Food has been a central driver and side effect of human interactions, both when cultures mix and new kinds of food become available as when Europeans destroyed and enslaved huge swaths of Africa and Asia for the grow of cash crops (like wheat, cotton, sugar cane and rubber trees), destroying the subsistence farming and making these populations dependent on buying food from the outside.

While the book covers a considerable amount of places and cuisines, the main focus is Western Europe and North America. There are brief sections on Africa, Asia (and one specific for Japan), old Central and South America, but most of the focus, specially on modern times, is in the US. You'll definitely learn a lot about many different cuisines, why some countries took on using forks and knives and why table knives are basically useless (yes, it's so people won't be able to kill each other at the table), how modern restaurants came to be (in France, mostly because after the French revolution the cooks for the nobles, now dead, had to figure out something to do without their old bosses' money), the insanity of processed foods in the US and how it all came to be and how social stratification is kind of the main reason we ended up having so many different kinds of cuisines.

Must read if you have any interest in food!
Profile Image for James.
366 reviews12 followers
May 7, 2020
This was a fascinating look at history through the lens of food - what we eat, how we prepare it. And who gets to eat what. Ken Albala is a spirited and knowledgeable professor and his passion for the subject is always evident. Every episode was interesting. I think my favorites were some of the tales of centuries past. The more current episodes were no less interesting, but it was often frustrating to hear stories of how big business took over food production and distribution. Banana republics, lobbyists, mass production, exploitation...we have really made a mess of things. And then there is the discussion of the Irish potato famine and how the government withheld aid and let people die in order to not disrupt the free market. Eerie...where have I heard that recently, I wonder???
Profile Image for Jams.
480 reviews28 followers
September 6, 2013
Interesting and educational. Ken Albala tells the tale of human history through food. I learned lots of things about the past and present and am now considering how food will impact my future.

This is my first of The Great Courses" but it won't be my last.
Profile Image for Clyde.
772 reviews54 followers
October 24, 2018
Based on an actual university course, this is a history of the relationship of the human race to its food. It consists of 36 lectures, and I found it to be very interesting indeed. It covers much more than just food alone. It goes quite deeply into the interrelationships of food with culture, religion, morality, and even the rise and fall of nations throughout human history.
It includes a number of recipes from past ages. I plan to give some of them a try. (Fancy a lamb dish from 35 centuries ago? How about Neolithic flat bread?)
Both interesting and educational -- I will probably try some of the other Great Courses.
Profile Image for Phillip.
673 reviews49 followers
November 10, 2017
This is so good that I would give it another two extra stars if I good. It is pleasant, informative, and gives the listener/reader much to think about food throughout history and how we consumer it now and into the future.
Profile Image for Julie Davis.
Author 4 books262 followers
February 21, 2014
Ken Albala does a great job when he sticks to the food part of the lectures. I was interested to learn the connection between ancient Roman concepts of "hot" and "cold" personalities which they then tried balancing with "cold" and "hot" foods with our own descriptions of food (spicy peppers as "hot" for example).

However, Albala can't keep his own opinion from influencing his lectures. When talking about how a lot of huge empires fell to smaller, aggressive kingdoms at about the same time, he says that we don't know why. Possibly climate change. And then moves on.

(What? Why? Back up please because otherwise that is just applying the current, hip, all-purpose excuse to ancient times. What kind of history is that? And what does that have to do with food's influence on culture and history, which is what I bought the class to hear?)

I am used to superficial explanations of the Old Testament Hebraic view of God, especially in connection with dietary rules. It was a disappointment to hear it from this professor. However, I was interested to see that he is consistent. Any religious influence is continually given superficial treatment with the most fact-based modern explanation tossed at listeners. I know very little about the life of Buddha but I've never heard it given such short shrift.

As for Hinduism, the description of why Brahmins changed to a vegetarian diet was one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. Clearly the professor's sources, and the professor himself, have no idea of how faith or religion work. Certainly not as he describes. Therefore, I wish he would have stuck to the issue at hand. Perhaps worst of all, these continual explanations take time away from the subject that Albala does seem to have a good grasp of, which is food.

I stopped before Albala could trivialize Confucious and other Chinese customs in a similar fashion.

Albala would do well to read Paul Johnson's "Art: A New History." In that work, when areas fall outside the matter at hand, Johnson gracefully refuses to give his own explanations, simply saying that the subject is outside the scope of the book.
Profile Image for Molly Cinderella.
35 reviews22 followers
January 10, 2015
I "read" this on Audible and very much enjoyed it. It hit upon my favorite historical category (broad overview of a specific topic across time and different cultures) and my favorite topic (food history).

I think that the strongest chapters in the book were the ones focusing on how food cultures adapted to new staples (specifically after the Columbian Exchange). I appreciated that the author tried to include non-European food cultures in the book, although the African cuisine chapters felt a bit glossed-over.
Profile Image for Juniper Nichols.
172 reviews10 followers
April 2, 2015
This was a real eye opener, especially how much empires and enslavement were built to support the trade of luxury foods.
Profile Image for Andie.
804 reviews8 followers
August 8, 2019

This was a fascinating look at how we eat from pre-historical times to today. it's amazing how food is tied to political events. For example, the Enclosure Acts in Britain meant that large scale farming would begin with higher crop yields which effectively ended famine in the British Isles - the first place in the Industrialized World to end periodic famines. Conversely, Western Imperialism brought monoculture agriculture to the third world countries that were conquered as colonies. The western nations extracted their colonies agricultural output sole as raw materials for the mother countries' industry, thus causing famines in the third world.

A lot of random facts also stuck in my mind:

• Pythagoras was the world's first vegetarian and until the 19th Century, vegetarians were called pythagorians.
• The word restaurant comes from the French word meaning "to restore" because the first restaurants served restorative soups.
• Peanut butter was first marketed as a dainty hors d'oeuvres for women
• The reason we all know the Chiquita Banana jingle is because when the character was first introduced the jingle was played 365 times per day over the radio.

This is the kind of book that makes history fun.

Profile Image for John.
2,003 reviews197 followers
November 30, 2019
Short review of a long book!

First two-thirds, from pre-history up to the late 1800's industrial revolution was excellent. But then, the tone becomes fairly heavily political until the end, which I found very pessimistic. Can't debate the points he made, but the heavy-handed presentation kinda spoiled things for me.
Profile Image for Tracy Rowan.
Author 15 books25 followers
August 21, 2019
"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Professor Albala opens with the above quote from Brillat-Savarin, and goes on to prove the truth of it by exploring man's relationship to his food throughout the millennia. This course of 36 half hour lectures covering everything from the food of the hunter-gatherers of the stone age, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance when trade brought exotic foods and spices to the table, to the age of expansionism and empire when trade empires were created, often on the backs of native people, and finally into the modern age where he discusses food trends, GMOs, nutrition, and counterculture food movements.

Professor Albala is an engaging speaker, so each lecture seems to fly by, and yet each is filled with information about how the availability of food changed human life over and over, beginning with the change from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian societies, a change that didn't just have an impact on what we ate, but also on how hard we worked to get it, and on people's roles in society.

He explains the importation of spices and non-native foods to Europe, and how they were costly and therefore exotic and destined only for the nobility.  And he explains how falling prices changed tastes, and changed what people spent their money on (tea and sugar.) He also discusses non-European societies and how their cuisines informed and were informed by trade and colonization.

Moving into the present, he explains the process of industrialization of the food chain, the rise of factory farms, and how counterculture food trends have been co-opted by big business.  He also does a very good chapter on GMOs, what they are, and why they both are and are not problematic.  In the end, Albala is upbeat about the future, discussing what he believes are probable changes for the better.  And it's hard not to feel hopeful when he explains his ideas about why our food situation will improve.

This is another terrific course from The Great Courses, and one of the most informative and useful ones I've had the pleasure of listening to.  On the strength of it, I'm going to look for more from Professor Albala.
Profile Image for Leslie.
193 reviews22 followers
December 2, 2013
What a wonderful overview of the whole history of food in different times and cultures. Fascinating details, a good speaking style, very engaging personality - I want to listen again very soon! The scope is marvelous, very worthwhile!
Profile Image for Sharolyn Stauffer.
316 reviews38 followers
February 9, 2017
This is one of my favorite Great Courses lecture series. Albala is so enthusiastic, and I loved listening to the history of food through the ages. I learned so much and plan on listening again!
Profile Image for Allie.
51 reviews4 followers
May 6, 2022
Very shallow and vague.

I knew going into this that it would be a vague overview of (mostly European) history with some food facts, but I was still disappointed by how brief the actual sections about FOOD were. It seemed each lecture was 2/3 about the social and political aspects of each time/place and 1/3 about what they ate.

Albala was fairly insulting when discussing religion (mostly Christianity and Hinduism got the brunt) and how culture/religion/food all intersect. If you are religious and sensitive, be warned. Also, the amount of time he spent clumsily trying to explain religion did not seem warranted by the tiny bit of information about food he connected to it.
Profile Image for Madison Williams.
110 reviews1 follower
January 17, 2018
What a fun lecture! I learned a lot about food history and the other topics he sometimes got sidetracked on. I know my friends are going to be delighted to hear me spouting out food facts during meals.
Profile Image for Jack Hansen.
492 reviews37 followers
February 9, 2018
What a glorious trip through history via food choices by peoples throughout the world. The presentation by Ken Albala is upbeat and pleasant. Fascinating subjects can fall flat because of dry narration but not with Food: A Cultural Culinary History.

Culture spreads easily along temperate longitudinal zones making food introduction to new territories possible. Food becomes a major reason for trade between remote places that offer certain fruits, vegetables, spices, and grains. Nobility arises as the wealthy share new foods at banquets with their affluent friends. Preparation requires employing servers and, most importantly, chefs who work hard to master the art of cooking. This becomes a status of power within the community.

Cities burgeon as recipes spread among commoners who are healthier because of the variety of food. Different parts of the world develop their own cuisine. The written word preserves the practical manner in which food is grown, harvested, prepared, and enjoyed.

Food is responsible for the temperament of the citizens of cities relying on climate, soil, and observation. Gastronomy develops out of necessity to feed populations in diverse regions. Agriculture determines whether or not a land is arable enough to sustain people before it applies its knowledge for growing plants and rearing animals.

The style of growing and preparing food, today, evolves from a country's economy since certain crops yield wealth from trade around the world. This limits the variety that the family farm yields and most people eat what is processed according to government regulations. This series of lectures ends with a look into the future that sees society pursuing healthier lifestyles. This may entail more organic foods with locally raised livestock. The informed consumer leads this trend that could very well improve a population's overall well being.
1,893 reviews11 followers
July 6, 2015
I have always enjoyed books that combine history and cuisine, and this did not disappoint. It was full of many interesting historical tidbits and trivia, but it was presented in a way that made sense, from ancient Egyptian cuisine to the modern world. I liked that there was a global focus in the first half of the book, though I was a bit disappointed when that focus waned towards the end. Still, there was quite a lot of interest to me, and if you are interested in food and history, this is worth a listen.
Profile Image for Yaaresse.
1,994 reviews16 followers
August 15, 2019
All around excellent. In 36 lectures (that are really more like conspiratorial chats) , Albala covers the gambit of culinary history, showing how religion, politics, economics, and world events all contribute to local, regional, and global food cultures. Not only one of the most interesting TGC I've enjoyed, but one of the more high energy and humorous, thanks to Albala's clear love of and knowledge about his topic. Highly recommended. I'd love to see some of the topics included in this series expanded into series of their own, especially the sections on South American and Africa.
Profile Image for Kat.
286 reviews
September 7, 2017
Fascinating! Goes through food history from the very beginning and moves through time and cultural regions. So much I didn't know before.

The professor does have an annoying way of laughing at himself a lot. He is a good story teller and inserts lovely little tidbits of personal experience or interpretation.
Profile Image for David Chan.
5 reviews1 follower
July 14, 2016
A very in-depth history of different food cultures, with descriptions of flavors, preparation techniques, philosophies behind food, and even a few recipes here and there.

A good read for anyone who likes to cook or eat, or calls themselves a foodie.
Profile Image for Scott.
73 reviews2 followers
November 10, 2013
Luckily didn't make me too hungry while listening. A great companion the A History in 6 Glasses
Profile Image for Emily Michael.
Author 4 books5 followers
May 9, 2017
Outstanding! Informative and fascinating! This was one of the best Great Courses I've ever listened to.
Profile Image for Dawn.
1,241 reviews72 followers
March 7, 2020
What a great course. I thought it was a little boring at the start but as soon as it gets past the pre-historic times, it is all fascinating.

And then when it gets to modern times, it is even better. I had no idea just how much food rules the world. How much is was part of colonization. And now I need to pay more attention to where my food comes from, just on principal, I should not be eating sugar or tea or coffee or tobacco or anything by Del Monte, and maybe bananas....wow but those were bad for so much of the world. And we thought we did bad things in the name of religion, that is nothing compared to what we have done for a profit.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 185 reviews

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