What is food history? According to Wikipedia, "Food historians look at food as one of the most important elements of cultures, reflecting the social and economic structure of society." I like to think of this little-known aspect of historical study as falling into roughly the same category as folklore, which, as Virginia folklorist John Heatwole once wrote:
The thing about food is that every single recipe has a story to tell, the story of the people who prepared and ate it. It's a story of the place where they lived: what foods they could hunt or gather or grow there; the ways they found to prepare it; and even the rituals associated with eating it.
I graduated with a degree in history from a southern university, but nowhere in my degree program did historical food factor in to my studies. As I became interested in cooking after college, I started to realize that the standard American diet was no good, and went hunting for alternatives. I started researching what previous generations would have eaten, back when people had life expectancies that could stretch into their 80s and 90s (if they survived infectious disease, childbirth, and warfare, to name a few), and tended to die of old age rather than of the scourges of modern society (heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's, for example). Because of this, much of my research centers on cookbooks that were published prior to 1920.
Recently, I have also begun researching the traditional diet of the Cherokee people, which goes back much, much earlier to a time that pre-dates the European farming methods introduced in America by the colonists. Just this year, I learned from a fascinating family genealogy project that I am part Cherokee, and was inspired to learn more about this part of my family heritage. I am compiling resources on Cherokee food, culture, and language for my interested readers here. There are very few printed cookbooks ever produced by the Cherokee people, many of them more pamphlets than books. I am working to collect copies of the ones that do exist, as well as learning more about the foods they traditionally ate (many of which are difficult or impossible to obtain today). I've been very inspired by this researcher, who is working with her tribe in the Pacific Northwest to reconnect with traditional foods. I am excited to be learning more about my Cherokee roots, which were just family rumors for many years.
Food history is a truly fascinating and under-studied topic among historians today, and with degenerative disease wreaking havoc among modern populations eating what's been called the "meat-sweet diet", I hope that history can shed some light on what previous cultures were doing right with their diet to avoid (for the most part) these devastating conditions.