The Practice of Culinary History as Research Methodology

Document Type

Conference Proceeding



Conference Title

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), Cultivating Appetites for Knowledge


University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Conference Dates

May 30-June 3, 2007

Date of Presentation





As with the study of all fine arts, deep understanding of the daily experience of producers and consumers of the past proceeds partly from the analysis of written sources both theoretical and practical, but this rarely yields complete comprehension without a measure of hands-on experience. Arguably, mixing colors from original ingredients may be necessary for a grasp of the technical difficulties which painters have faced; using historic instruments is equally important for understanding not only composers’ original intentions but to gain insight into the experience of the audience. Modern tools and techniques often yield results entirely different than those produced in the past. It is no different with culinary history, and while complete authenticity is impossible given that ingredients and technologies have changed over time, actually cooking historic recipes is a valuable, and indispensable part of any research project in culinary history. The prejudice against practice as a research tool is of course deeply imbedded in Western culture, where value is attached to disembodied and presumably objective analysis. Subjects like food and cooking are normally studied, if at all, as a means of revealing patterns of trade or commerce, nutrition and health, the history of publishing or other topics ultimately disconnected from food itself. But if a great proportion of most people’s daily experience involved procuring and processing food, then cookery must be an integral part of any history of daily life, material culture and of the body itself. And what better way to investigate this topic than by following the instructions laid out in historic recipes as closely as possible, using authentic fuel sources and implements, to discover out exactly what values and preferences informed culinary decisions made years ago and exactly what people in the past tasted. This paper will focus on Renaissance culinary literature and my own experience in its reconstruction. Contrary to many culinary historians’ assumptions, directions in the past were not imprecise or haphazard, nor always intended for well-seasoned professionals. They are often remarkably lucid and exacting. It is only when trying to interpret historic recipes through the lens of modern preferences and with the prejudice of modern culinary conveniences, that researchers are lead astray, or recipes apparently make no sense. My research reveals that what often appears to be bizarre or incomprehensible, works when one follows instructions literally, without shortcuts and without any so-called adaptation. Renaissance cuisine thereafter becomes remarkably accessible, with its own internal logic, but no less fascinating than any other art form of the period, and equally resplendent. Moreover, to gain a full understanding of the physical experience and esthetic reception of food in the past, one must be willing to both cook and taste recipes in exactly the same way we are willing to observe objects of art. Comprehending historic sources and in particular how the meaning of good taste has changed over time is impossible without the direct physical sensation of eating. Using several concrete examples of 16th century dishes drawn from Italian cookbooks by authors such as Scappi and Messisbugo as well as lesser known works in France, England and Spain, I will describe the practice of following period recipes, using visual sources for clues, and ultimately I will advocate cookery as an important research tool. I will also relate the practical difficulties of using archaic fuel sources and technologies such as turnspits and earthenware vessels, as well as procuring now obscure ingredients, all of which I argue are a necessary for understanding and properly reconstructing the daily experience of our forbears.