How we came to eat for pleasure - historical transformations in food culture

5 September 2011

As European society changed from medieval to modern, so did its food culture.
As European society changed from medieval to modern, so did its food culture.

As European society underwent the major but gradual change from medieval to modern, its food culture was also undergoing a major transition.
On September 6, as part of History Week, Dr John Gagné, from the University of Sydney's Department of History, will trace the evolution of European taste in a Sydney Ideas talk.
"Concentrating on the period from 1400-1700 I will outline the history that transformed what Europeans ate. I'll look at developments such as the change from vinegar to butter, from Asian to American influence and from what I call diet to delight," Dr Gagné said.
"Take the first example - Europeans' preference for vinegary foods in the middle ages changed to buttery ones in the Renaissance and grew through the Enlightenment.
This came about, in part, because of the change in international trade routes which saw the decline in the overland Asian spice trade. So the typical spicy sweet and sour dishes declined in popularity as access to spices declined.
"At the same time the growing wealth of cities like Renaissance Paris meant that cattle were kept for fresh dairy and not just for meat, allowing Parisians to develop a taste for butter as their cooking fat of choice," Dr Gagné explains.
The change from 'diet to delight' refers to the medieval focus on food's medical, dietary value shifting, from the 15th century onwards, to include an explosion of literature on pleasure and delight in eating.
"This change connects with my interest in the intellectual and cultural shifts that allowed food to be conceived in moral terms, including the idea of eating for pleasure.
"Pleasure, after all, has moral consequences: is the pleasure you pursue good for you? Bad for you? I think the debate over pleasure is a precursor to our current discussions about 'mindful eating,' in other words not just consuming food, but also thinking about it in personal and social terms.
"I'll end by tracing how the habits of the table - things like etiquette, decorations and music - emerged from Europe's embrace of dining as an art.
"Again this was connected to global trends; the fabulously elaborate sugar sculptures which became a table centrepiece in the 17th century were a direct by-product of the colonial sugar plantations," Dr Gagné said.
John Gagné has been a lecturer and researcher based in Boston, Paris, Milan, and most recently, Montréal. He studies the history of early modern Europe, particularly France and Italy in the sixteenth century and currently teaches courses on the Renaissance, food and environmental history.
This lecture is part of History Week 2011 - EAT History, hosted by the History Council of NSW and co-presented with the Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Sydney.


Event Details
What: Eating for Pleasure: Transformations in Food Culture from the Medieval to Modern World
When: Tuesday 6 September at 6pm
Where: Law School Foyer, Eastern Avenue, the University of Sydney.
Cost: This event is free and open to all, with no ticket or booking required. Seating is unreserved and entry is on a first come, first served basis.


Media contact: Verity Leatherdale: (02) 9351 4312, 0419 278 715 or