Despite all the contrasts in our modern world and despite all the differences between the cultures and regions of this earth, there is at least one element that unites everyone and brings them “to the same table”: food. But is food culture really only there to ensure survival and to create community?
This article will illustrate how food culture could have acted as a driving and dynamising element and what positive or negative influence it had on culture, the economy, politics and the standard of living of people and nations.
Two significant periods of European history that still have a formative influence today are singled out: the Roman Empire during the early imperial period around the year 0 and Europe at the time of the Renaissance and the voyages of discovery around the year 1500.
While the early Romans still fed themselves very simply, the elite in the early imperial period developed a speculative luxury that also corresponded to Rome’s rank as a new world power. The decadence also provoked criticism – a contrast arose between two dietary concepts. Beyond these forms of food culture, Roman culinary art served above all as a means of demarcation – on the one hand it reflected social hierarchies, but the contrast between Roman “civilisation” and the “barbarians” beyond the empire’s borders was also desired.
In the early imperial period, nutrition had reached a level that would not be revolutionised again until the early modern period. The rich ate a healthy and balanced diet, but the simple population usually had no access to the luxury of the high Roman food culture. Roman literature also dealt extensively with healthy nutrition. Rome’s food culture and economy in imperial times was absolutely dependent on its provinces and trade with foreigners.
In the late Middle Ages, the spice trade became increasingly important. Therefore, Europe eventually took over world trade, the Portuguese and Dutch expanded their influence in the Indian Ocean and the Spanish conquistadors conquered America. What followed was an incredible change for the culture of Europe. The result was globalisation, population growth as well as economic expansion through the establishment of the plantation system, through the Columbian Exchange and slavery.
The food culture of the Renaissance still placed a lot of emphasis on staging, also involving the public. Later, the many new foods such as coffee and potatoes also had a lasting influence on the food culture and everyday life of Europeans. The culinary arts became more and more refined.
A common feature of both food cultures is the turning to other cultures. New plants and animals were imported, and in many cases people were to a certain extent dependent on trade with foreign countries.
Both ancient Rome and early modern Europe did not resist usurping and exploiting other countries and regions along with their resources and trade routes. The Roman provinces and European colonies were important for the economic expansion of the respective countries. Food cultures naturally also created an identity and demarcation, be it the contrast between civilisation and barbarism among the Romans or, across epochs, the difference between social classes, the poor and the rich, peasants and nobles.
However, clear differences can also be identified: Roman food culture was very heterogeneous and even taboo by certain standards – and therefore not as identity-forming as, for example, the developing national cuisines of the late early modern period. Rome was merely a political entity that covered many cultural circles, partly also copied and absorbed them – quite in contrast to the fragmented Europe around 1500.
In late antiquity, moreover, the standard of living dropped noticeably, the Roman Empire, together with its high food culture, collapsed and the time of the migration of peoples began. Even during the early imperial period, the golden age of Rome, the poor had virtually no access to the luxury of food, and this was not to change at any time.
In the early modern period, on the other hand, the common bourgeoisie became more and more powerful. Wealth increased, the world became smaller and, at the latest since the beginning of the modern age, the common people also gained access to exotic foods and high cuisine. Man could not and still cannot get around food, it is an important element of everyday life – at all times. The study of food cultures not only offers an insight into the ways of thinking and behaviour of people from bygone days, but also shows the influence and dynamising effect of food on culture, economy and politics.