Primer: Tasting and Hearing the Past

Candice Goucher


Experiencing the full spectrum of world history involves all the senses. World historians not only use their eyes to see what happened; they not only read or otherwise examine written and visual evidence. Tasting or hearing the past can offer unique insights into familiar and fundamental dimensions of another time and place.

The modules in Methods present case studies that demonstrate how scholars interpret different kinds of historical evidence in world history.


Recipes for History
Feeding ourselves and our families and households are everyday activities necessary for human survival. While diet requirements were universal across the world’s societies, the different foodways – peoples eating habits and cooking practices – vary endlessly by culture. Omnivores, carnivores, and vegetarians have all been welcomed at the world history table. Food preferences and food taboos were important aspects of cultural or religious identity, and they also could reveal insights into ideas about gender and differences in socioeconomic status. The ways in which foods were grown or procured, then processed, prepared, and consumed, can tell the world historian much about the history of agriculture, trade, technology, social relationships, and beliefs. Like other components of historical memory, culinary histories were transmitted across generations. Recipes not only were collected in cookbooks, but also passed along orally in folktales and stories. Foodways, like other aspects of living cultures, changed over time. The movement of foods, peoples, and their recipes were intertwined in the unfolding of the modern world. Their stories encapsulate the history of globalization that can be told through the narratives of multiple culinary crossroads.

Food tastes were borrowed, traded, and even stolen. For this reason, every meal potentially can reveal yet another chapter of world history. In the culinary crossroads of the Atlantic world, the historian Alfred Crosby called the process of synthesis, the “Columbian Exchange,” a dizzying transfer of foods, plants, and animals in which the pork eaters met the corn eaters. If we knew nothing about the Atlantic slave trade, we could surmise the presence of enslaved Africans and their impact on culinary history in the Americas from the popular Creole dish known as “gumbo” in New Orleans, where the stew that mimicked French bouillabaisse was made from okra and rice; both ingredients were domesticated originally in African.

Today we can find world history on nearly every plate, evidence of these culinary crossroads that brought the foods and flavors of continents together. Ancient billionaires made their fortunes trading salt and pepper, kola nuts, sugar, and rare spices. Even so-called modern fast food brings together Peruvian potatoes and the maritime condiment called “ketchup” (first made from fermented fish in Vietnam) with the European sandwich. Of course, most people in world history were hungry most of the time. Lavish banquets and miserable famines were two opposite ends of the same human experience held in common by the world history of food.

Soundscapes of the Past
Most of world history was never written down. Rather, it was experienced as musical song, drumming, dance, and shared stories, proverbs, poems, and legends. While historians have long tried to visually recreate the past, reconstructing the soundscapes of faraway places and long-ago times is a relatively new practice. Whether people have lived among the noises of horses trotting or within earshot of freeways and jet planes, the ambient sounds of the past sometimes seem to have been subconsciously experienced. The nature writer Rachel Carson used this observation in her classic work Silent Spring (1962) in order to imagine a world in which there were no longer the sounds of birds as a consequence of environmental poisoning. In contrast, world historians are concerned with the remembered sounds of the past.

Sound was first recorded beginning in the 1850s, first by the Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, and later by Thomas Edison, who played it back for listening ears in 1870s New Jersey, leaving later historians with more than a century and a half of auditory evidence. The “talking drums” of West Africa mimicked speech and communicated messages in tonal languages. Their griots were specialist oral historians, who performed, sang and recited the past in order to shape the present contours of social life. Like the charts that trace global culinary routes, musical networks around the world similarly relied on the movements of people and goods, as well as the transfer of instruments, songs, and rhythms for pleasure, persuasion, and identity politics. The invention of the phonograph, radio, and digital recordings have only amplified the variety of historical evidence it is possible to hear.

The sights, sounds, and tastes of world history both unite and differentiate the human experience. Hearing or tasting the past provides insights into the connections that link the individual human body with its social and natural environments connecting intimate and global scales of interaction. World historians now have access to libraries of sound recordings, allowing them to answer questions about the role of collective cultural expression in the formation of national identity or to reconstruct the past of peoples often silenced by colonial records and other authoritarian versions of “official” history. Historian-chefs search out the techniques and secret ingredients to recreate meals remembered in the archives. Archaeologists analyze the contents of ancient cooking pots from their leftover residues in order to reveal early recipes for beer, bread, and curry. These new methods of examining the past have allowed innovative directions and fresh understandings. World history will never sound or taste quite the same.

Further Reading
1. Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, Writing Material Culture History (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
2. Erik Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds, Trading Tastes: Commodity and Cultural Exchange to 1750 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2006).
3. Candice Goucher, Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food (New York: Routledge, 2014).
4. Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).
5. David W. Samuels, et al., “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 39 (2010): 329-345.

Primary Sources

Imperialism in North Africa: Song, Amina Annabi

North African women have long, rich traditions of vocal and instrumental music. At weddings and other joyous occasions, including religious celebrations, female musicians sing, perform, and dance. One of the most popular singers and composers in Europe today is a Tunisian woman, Amina Annabi, whose music—and life—fuses traditional Arab, Middle Eastern, and West African musical genres with Western music, particularly blues, jazz, reggae, rap, and rock ‘m’ roll. Amina’s is a complicated story, however, since it is not merely the tale of a talented musician making it in the world music movement from the 1980s on. Her life is intertwined with the postcolonial reality of millions of North Africans who reside permanently in European nations; many were born there and are from second- or third-generation migrant families. While they hold legal citizenship in France, the UK, Italy, Spain, or Belgium, their family origins as Muslims, Arabs or Berbers, or Africans often brings rejection or marginalization at worst—at best, partial social and cultural integration. Annabi was born in Carthage, a suburb of Tunis in 1962. She is the product of a “mixed marriage”—her father is French, her mother Tunisian. Amina’s mother came from a family that boasted gifted female musicians and composers, including her grandmother. The social composition of Carthage in those days was still very culturally diverse, with large Mediterranean expatriate communities; each had its own diverse musical traditions that Annabi intertwines with Tunisian Arab classical forms, such as “Malouf.” In addition, Tunisia has hosted international summer musical festivals for decades in Carthage and Tabarka which brought in vocalists, like James Brown, Tina Turner, Joan Baez, Algerian and Senegalese musicians, and performers from around the world. Thus the young woman was raised in a milieu saturated with heterogeneous musical influences. In 1975 she went to Paris with her mother, where she pursued music at France’s leading world music station, Radio Nova. Her first recorded album, “Yalil” (Night), included songs like “Belly Dance,” and, reflecting her own background, fused an eclectic range of musical styles characterized as “ethno-techno.” “Yalil” was released in over twenty countries; as a result, in 1991 she was named the “Best Female Singer of the Year” in France. That same year, she joined an international musicians’ peace project to protest the first American invasion of Iraq. In addition, Amina represented France at the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest held in Rome, where she received a second place. Again, in 1994, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist album entitled Paris, which celebrated the French capital. Thus one sees a progression in her career—from first prize winner to actually representing France and French culture in international competitions—by combining the musical traditions of former French colonies with those of Europe or the West. One of her most popular songs is entitled “Yanari”—which means “Life is Difficult”—a piece about migrants, immigration, visas, and the traumas of transnational families. In July 2001, she toured the United States with French musical groups, performing in New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities. One wonders—given the political climate in the United States currently and the fact that a huge number of foreign artists have been refused permission to enter the country—whether she would be allowed now to sing. (She is also a film actress, playing in such films as Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky” [1990].) In many of Amina’s songs, she embraces the old Orientalist and colonial stereotypes of the sensuous depraved Eastern woman and inverts them, making musicial parodies of cultural parodies. Together with a growing number of North African artists, such as the Algerian raï singer Khaled, Amina has managed to break out of the postcolonial cultural and political ghetto experienced by so many African migrants residing in Europe—through art and performance. From the French military depictions of Algerian women done in the 1830s and the colonial postcards of “la Belle Fatima,” we have come to Amina, who demands in one of her most famous songs: “Tell me, in the name of which nation do you raise your voice in my house; he who speaks the loudest is always the one who is right.” (From “Le dernier qui a parlé” or “He Who Has the Last Word.”) This source is a part of the Primer: Tasting and Hearing the Past methods module.


Candice Goucher is Professor of History and Co-Director of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice. She teaches courses in world history, African history, the history of food, and Caribbean studies. She was the co-lead scholar on Bridging World History (funded by a $2.28M grant from Annenberg and the Corporation from Public Broadcasting). Her recent work includes Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food (ME Sharpe/Routledge, 2014) and the two-volume world history, co-authored with Linda Walton, World History: Journeys from Past to Present 2nd edition (Routledge, 2012), translated into Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese. With Graeme Barker, she co-edited Volume 2 of the Cambridge History of the World: A World with Agriculture (Cambridge University Press, 2015). In 2015, the World History Association awarded her the Pioneer in World History prize. She was the Trent R. Dames Fellow in the History of Civil Engineering (2014-15) at the Huntington Library, while researching a new book on the history of iron in the Atlantic World.

How to Cite This Source

"Primer: Tasting and Hearing the Past," in World History Commons, [accessed December 7, 2021]