Changing Tastes: How Foods Tasted in the Early Modern Period and How They Taste Now
Lecture by Steven Shapin, Harvard University
Given at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, on May 22, 2012
Overview: In dietetic and natural philosophical frameworks of the period from Antiquity to the seventeenth century, the subjective experiences of taste, and indeed the experiences of digestion, testified to the make-up of the world’s edible portions. That is, such subjective experiences might be both philosophically and practically reliable. How did that framework help early modern eaters make sense of their bodies and that portion of the world that constituted their aliment? How did that sense-making capacity change over time, as new medical and scientific frameworks emerged from the eighteenth century and, finally, became scientifically dominant in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? What happened to the subjective experiences of taste when they no longer indexed how the world really is? How has the vocabulary used to describe taste changed? And how do we now know about the edible world?
Extract: I start by describing some features of a culture of taste that marked the early modern period. There are three considerations I want to bring to your attention. First, there is an ontological or cosmological aspect (and I’ll use these terms more or less interchangeably): the relations between what people believed about their food, on the one hand, and their understanding of the basic nature of matter. Second, there is something to be said about the sensory experiences of taste (and digestion) and knowledge of what made up your aliment. Third, there are features relating the ontology and epistemology of aliment to practical medical advice and to what has been called the practices of the self.
Let’s start with a basic vocabulary used from Antiquity through the early modern for describing the nature of aliments. Leeks are hot and dry. Black pepper is the same but more so. Melons are cold and moist. Cucumbers are similar but not quite so moist as melons. Quinces are cold and dry. Figs are hot and moist. Duck is hotter than goose. Beef is cold and dry, though roasting might make it moister and baking drier; lamb is moist but roasting makes it drier. Fish in general is colder and moister than flesh from terrestrial animals. It was often said that all wines are hot, but different sorts of wines differed markedly in their qualities and they could change fundamentally as they aged, typically becoming hotter. Renaissance and early modern writers tended to agree in their broad judgments of such things, though there was significant variation too.modern writers tended to agree in their broad judgments of such things, though there was significant variation too.