Food, glorious food! We all love to eat and it’s a biological necessity, but at its very core, food and eating contains a strong cultural component. Experiences of tastes, either good or bad, are sensory impressions, but preferences of taste, again good or bad, are also something that is learnt, from others and through experience, and more often than not, through cook books and adaptations to them.
This means, that throughout the ages, what we consider food is a huge list. In fact, humans display a remarkable capacity to be able to live on a vast range of very different diets and it is through this capacity of dietary diversity that humans, as the only mammal in our size-range, has managed to chisel out a living from almost every environment on the planet. Nevertheless, humans typically do not eat everything edible in their environment at any specific time or place, not even in the face of famine. This human aptitude for cultural diversity in diet makes food and eating suitable topics for the study of cultural evolution.
A recent report in PLOS Journal analysed the results from a comparative study on ingredients used in a selection of northwestern European cookery books, spanning the late medieval period into the late modern era. There exist several earlier studies on changes in food culture, from different and sometimes opposing perspectives, but most of the more recent food culture studies are focused on particular aspects, such as gender, emotions or ethnic identity, though there are also examples of studies concerned with general patterns of change.
The study looked at the reasonably long history of cookery books and developed a method where the research team systematically recorded recipes in cookery books as algorithms to identify increases in the complexity of cooking over the last 800 years in the number of steps, techniques, ingredients, and semi-manufactured ingredients. They wanted to see if a change in cooking is gradual or fast moving.
The 22 ingredients present in 35 per cent of the recipes of any given cookery book were, in order of increasing commonness later in time: Pork, Cinnamon, Saffron, Vinegar, Wine, Hen, Yolk, Powdour fort, Ginger, Broth, Salt, Mace, Water, Pepper, White pepper, Margarine, Onion, Butter, Lemon, Parsley, Flour and Cream.
Their findings showed that between the two medieval cookery books, from 1200 and 1390, the general changes were rather small with one striking large change in the rather drastic increase of butter. The recipes from the 1650 and 1739 cookery books fell below the regression lines in a number of aspects; the number of steps, processes, ingredients and semi manufactured ingredient.
Between 1739 and 1879 the largest change is again in vegetables and the decreased use of sugar in fish, red meat and poultry dishes is interesting since sugar was no longer a luxury food.
The largest change between 1879 and 1976 was found in spices as there was an emergence of white pepper and dill, accompanied by the disappearance of the bouquet and of nutmeg.
And finally, between the cookery books from 1976 and 1999 we found the largest changes per time unit in the whole data set, again with the largest change found in spices now followed by the animal products. Among the animal products an increase of chicken is noticeable, as is a drastic increase of fresh milk accompanied by a decrease in the use of cream. The extensive use of fresh milk in cooking is a clearly modern phenomenon. It should be noted that the time distance in time between these two cookery books is the shortest in the whole study.
The increase of number of ingredients is probably not surprising with the current global food market and modern preservation and transport possibilities. But measured in number of ingredients per recipe it also indicates more complex mixtures than before.
Tell us below, what recipes have been passed down throughout your family? What’s the oldest recipe you know?