Acclaimed food historian Dr Mohsina Mukadam, who is also the Head of Department of History at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai, held a lecture on food history documentation at the Culinary Chroniclers Conclave. In her fascinating presentation, she spoke of unusual ways food history has been documented, whether it is through menu cards or advertisements. Read to know more about these unconventional sources of documenting food history.
History of cooking
Early cookbooks, also called manuscripts, discussed food preparation primarily with a medicinal point of view. One of the earliest known cookbooks, Soopa Shastra, published in 1875, takes a look at recipes that were popular in the 19th century. Rohinimitra, published in 1910, also talks about the sophisticated palates of people and western influences in food preparation. Dr Mukadam said, “These books give us a peek into our culinary past and explain the approach towards cooking, quality of ingredients and even hygiene.”
Sign of the times
Along with cookbooks, hotel name boards also give a clue into the type of food and the community to which they catered. “Since eating out was not encouraged earlier, hotel owners would put up signboards that specified their community. People from the same communities were reassured to eat at the establishment,” she said. Signboards were also used to reassure patrons on the quality of ingredients used in the food. Globalisation brought with it multiple influences, which reflected in the signage used.
What’s on the menu?
Menu cards are an excellent source of understanding culinary history. They are fascinating and give information on the changing food habits of people. Menu cards earlier began as a single page which has since transformed into a booklet. Dr Mukadam explained, “This shows that people were consuming different kinds of food and were ready to experiment with culinary choices.” The popularity of specific dishes can be traced by the different menu cards that the establishment puts out.
Museums are a vital source of a country’s rich culinary history and its exhibits preserve an extensive variety of food legacy. Utensils showcased in museums give an idea of the food culture of different communities. “The way the utensils are shaped tell us how its users carried it. The metal used to make them tells us what was cooked in them as particular metals react with specific foods,” she explained. The use of each utensil has been passed down through the ages orally and recorded in cookbooks.
Food and beverage print advertisements also are a source of food history. Dr Mukadam cites the example of advertisements by the Tea Board. “Advertisements that the Tea Board displayed are used by historians to understand the popularity of tea. As the climate of the nation changed, advertisements changed too and reflected the mood of the country,” she stated. Tea advertisements moved away from the colonial packaging and began catering to the local consumer. Food historians look at advertisements to track the evolution of food products.
These are surely some of the most unconventional methods which the food historians explore to trace the history of food. Which of these methods of food documentation do you find the most interesting? Know some more of such methods? Let us know in the comments section below.