Primer: Tasting and Hearing the Past
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.
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.
Imperialism in North Africa: Song, Amina Annabi
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.