The Culinary Historians of New York Show the Big Apple What It's Biting
Gourmands looking to bone up on their food history should check out the Culinary Historians of New York, a nonprofit organization founded in 1985 with the aim of furthering people's knowledge about the historical and sociological significance of what's on their plates.
Eighteenth-century fish, as portrayed by Luis Melendez.
CHNY's 350 members consist of everyone from chefs and food writers to nutritionists and professors. We talked to the chair of CHNY, food historian and chef Cathy Kaufman, about her favorite reads, how the culinary world has changed over the years, and where it's going in the future.
Why is it important to be aware of our food's history?
I think it definitely puts things in context. We eat every day, and I think it really gives you a connection with your food when you can look at your plate filled with, say, salsa with tomato and chilies, and you realize that's something that was based on New World food and has been done by the Aztecs, Incas, and the Olmecs. And then you look at a plate of pasta with tomato sauce and you realize that those tomatoes came to the Old World from the New World and it only became popular in Italy in the 19th century. It just gives you a much broader idea of how people lived and what was important to them.
What are some of your favorite books on culinary history?
As a very basic text you might want to start with -- although, full disclosure, I was one of the editors -- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, or The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, which is the one-volume, slightly more streamlined version. It's basically an encyclopedia -- you pick a term you want to learn more about, say, chocolate, and you look up chocolate, and there will be 2,000 words on chocolate in America. If you're interested in French culinary history, then one of the best books is called Savoring the Past, by Barbara Wheaton. It talks about the evolution of French food from the 14th century to the French Revolution. It's an award-winning book and it's really a great introduction to French food.
Another book that talks about the art of dining that's really wonderful is written by a woman named Carolin C. Young, and it's called Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver. It's a book that describes 12 different historical meals, starting with a meal at the Abbey of Cluny and ending with a surrealist picnic with Salvador Dali. They're just wonderfully researched, and while they talk about the food, they also talk about the cultural environment in which these meals took place. If you want to learn about New York food, I'd recommend Ariane and Michael Batterberry's On the Town in New York.
What kind of events do you put together?
They are lectures, frequently illustrated, and we prepare food to support the lecture theme. We did one last month that was really fun at the Museum of the Chinese in America. We had a panel discussion with four Chinese Americans who talked about their reactions to Chinese food in America, how it was similar and how it was different to the food in China, how it has changed with the different immigration patterns.
We've had lectures with evolutionary biologists explaining on how different foods, and the need to cook them, helped human evolution. It runs the whole gamut. Maybe one of my favorite events was one of the first I ever went to. It was based on medieval Spanish food. They had a lute player and a couple of people speaking about Spanish food in the 14th century.
Why do think that there has been such a surge of interest in food recently?
Quite frankly, the interest in food for the average Joe is directly related to the birth of the Food Network, where food suddenly became sexy in a way that Julia Child and Madeleine Kamman and James Beard and the Galloping Gourmet weren't. There was also a certain amount of affluence that we had up until the recent recession that allowed people to go out to eat quite a bit, and I think that once people began to get a basic awareness and sophistication about food and how to cook, then they begin to ask questions about "Why do we do it this way?"