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Does culinary innovation presage a time of cultural and political apogee?

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Does culinary innovation presage a time of cultural and political apogee?

Brian S | Feb 12, 2006 11:20 AM

I wrote this short essay on culinary history for a small group of friends. I hesitated to post it here. But it IS all about food. And you will enjoy correcting my errors re Chinese cuisine... which corrections will be helpful to me.

Does culinary innovation presage a time of political ascendancy and cultural apogee? What a delight for chowhounds were it so. Our connoisseurship, rather than being tolerated as a quirk or eccentricity, would be respected as a bellwether of greatness. Several factors militate in favor of this hypothesis -- though, as a general rule, all such overbroad generalizations are false, except perhaps for this.

1. Courtly cuisine
There are two types of cuisine. One is earthy and earthbound. Peasant cuisine, the cuisine de terroir, mama's home cookin' Much of the Italian and Thai food we love is like that. The other is more elaborate, and features complex dishes designed for kings and aristocrats. Such courtly cuisine requires courts, or at the least a nexus of wealth and power. As such, it is correlated with political power. The lavish banquets of ancient Rome, the elaborate dishes of Imperial China, and first and foremost the elevation of cuisine to an art form that graced the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France -- all these are examples of culinary greatness emerging from the halls of power. Florentine cuisine too might have followed this path were it not for the baneful puritanism of Savonarola.

2. Territorial expansion
The country that projects its power abroad will reap the harvest of foreign foods and cooking techniques. Sixteenth century Spanish explorers brought potatoes, tomatoes and cassava back to Spain, and the fruits and bounty of the Americas came to grace the dinner tables of Europe. The British Empire may not have benefited those colonized, but it gave the colonizers curry and mulligatawny soup.

3. Culinary experimentation
An adventurous culture has an adventurous palate. Curiosity, an openness to new ideas, is a prerequisite of technological, scientific -- and culinary -- advance. Consider those tomatoes discovered by Spain and brought to Italy, part of which was then under Spanish rule. The tomato arrived in Italy in the seventeenth century. But it was not until just before 1800 that tomato sauce was first invented, and even then it was not immediately popular. The intervening centuries were times of reaction and counter-reformation. It just wasn't a good time in Italy for experimentation, either cultural or culinary.

The ancient and complex history of China is interwoven with all these threads. I don't know enough about Chinese culinary history to make definite correlations, but there is some indication that all the above applies. The Tang Dynasty, for example, was a time of cultural excellence. It was also a time of culinary innovation. The sybaritic art of gracious living flourished, and court poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu described the elaborate, Versailles-like fetes and revels of the day. Foreigners who settled in the capital city of Chang'an brought their cooking with them, and the foods of central Asia could be found in the wineshops of the city's huge Western Market.

Another time of cultural apogee is the southern Sung dynasty. As a time of exploration and openness to innovation, it has no rival until modern times. Through the Sung, Yuan and the early years of the Ming, until about 1430, innovation reigned supreme. In the 13 century, neo-Confucian writers such as Zhu Xi laid the groundwork for a scientific revolution...which revolution, strangely, never happened. In the early years of the 15th century, the Ming emperor Yongle sent a vast armada to explore the known world. Under the command of admiral Cheng Ho (also spelled Zheng He), this fleet visited east Africa, Egypt, and Ceylon, as well as the lands of southern Asia and the Persian gulf. But, a few years later, for reasons unknown and still debated, all voyages were stopped and China turned inward. Had this not happened, the European explorers a half-century later would have been met with Chinese flags. China would have domintated the world.

And in the kitchen? The southern Sung saw the development of the four styles of cooking found in Zhejiang. Su Dongpo wrote a poem about his favorite slow-cooked pork, providing us with perhaps the world's first written recipe and a dish served to this day. As for the Yuan and early Ming, it saw the genesis of northern, Peking imperial cuisine. And the period after 1430? I'd like to be able to correlate it with a time of culinary stagnation... but I just don't know enough about the culinary history. To complicate the issue, that period was not a time of unrelieved cultural entropy. The sixteenth century, to give just one example, saw the invention of modern art (Dong Qichang) and big factories (silk workshops in Suzhou). But enough for now. If my words be food for thought, think on.

Brian S.

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