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Culinary Historian Cathy Kaufman Dishes on CHNY, Cronuts, and the Colombian Exchange

On September 19, Culinary Historians of New York (CHNY) launches a new season of culinary history programs which promise fascinating to academics and foodies alike! Cathy Kaufman, Chair of CHNY’s Board of Directors, was kind enough to sit down with us and dish on the organization, food history, and yes, even cronuts.

Before you entered the culinary world, you were a lawyer. What prompted you to leave law and pursue a career in the kitchen?
Kaufman: My mother cooked when I was growing up, but she didn’t enjoy it, so I wasn’t driven by the nostalgia of recreating home cooked meals that inspires many people in the industry. My husband and I bought an apartment here in New York City, and it actually had a decent size kitchen in it! I thought it might be fun to use it, so I started cooking meals after work. Cooking appealed to me because–unlike writing legal briefs and preparing for cases–it had an immediate product, and I could do it with my hands. Soon I discovered that I’d become obsessed with cooking. After thinking about it for about five years, I decided to leave law and go to culinary school. That was 1991. The Food Network launched in 1992. So I entered culinary school at a serendipitous time, right as food in the United States and in New York was earning respect.

I began teaching at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). Soon I realized that I missed the intellectual stimulation that legal practice had afforded me. Even the briefing process is about telling a story, about crafting a persuasive narrative. Again, my timing was lucky; the ICE was expanding and had challenged instructors to design their own courses. As I thought about what course I’d like to teach, I noticed Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s Fabulous Feasts on my bookshelf and decided to propose a course in Medieval cookery. When I decided to teach a culinary history course, I thought it would be important to actually take a culinary history course, which led me to Andy Smith at the New School. He would eventually become my mentor and invite me to work with him as an editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2004). Both Andy’s course and my work on the encyclopedia really drove home the importance of scholarship in the field. I always insist on using primary sources, which means cookbooks from the period.

Pre-Columbian-Diet-Florentine-Codex

Our knowledge of Pre-Columbian cookery comes from secondary sources. This scene, from the Florentine Codex, depicts Aztecs at a meal. Reports from the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors also proved instrumental.

I’ve had to break that rule in only two instances. First, in pre-Colombian cookery, there are simply no recorded recipes. All we have are accounts from the Spanish and Portuguese , particularly the friars, who reported on what the indigenous population was eating. So for that course, I had to create hypothetical recipes. And when I began putting together the course on ancient Egyptian cooking, I found that the ancient Egyptians didn’t write down recipes or really have any culinary literature. But we do have bureaucratic records, for instance what the pharaohs purchased to feed the workers building the pyramids. I discovered one interesting case here. There were different methods for making beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt at the time, which scholars have been able to extrapolate by examining starches under an electron microscope. The first method was used bread, which was broken up into a soup and fermented. The second method was similar, but the bread was never baked. Instead, a porridge was made and fermented to make the beer.

And how did you come to be involved in CHNY?
Kaufman: Andy encouraged all his students to join CHNY and attend the organization’s events. He had organized a program with Maricel Presilla, an expert in Latin American foodways who also has a doctorate in Medieval History. She did a presentation on Andalucian foods in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the event included a chamber group to perform music from the time period. It was a terrific event where the venue, food, entertainment, and presentation all fit together extraordinarily well.

A few years after that first introduction to CHNY, I started to work on programming, and in 2003, I became Chairman, a position I’ve held ever since, The first thing I did was get us a website (it was 2003, after all), and I’ve worked to maintain high standards for programming, following the first program.

Your work and publications indicate an incredibly broad interest in culinary history. Is there any particular period or subject you find especially engaging?
Kaufman: I don’t necessarily have a particular interest, though much of my research has been on the ancient world. For instance, Ken Albala at the University of the Pacific does extensive work with Greenwood Press, including a series of historical cookbooks geared toward secondary and undergraduate students. He tapped me to do a volume on the ancient world. I’d always done ancient Greek and Roman food, but this also included Mesopotamia and Egypt, which was something new and engaging. That project turned into Cooking in Ancient Civilizations (2006).

A Roman triclinium, or dining room

I really like ancient Rome because culturally there are a lot of parallels between contemporary food culture and that of the ancient Romans. The Romans had a material culture of dining That tracks ours in many ways. Even a moderately affluent Roman would have a triclinium, a designated room for eating. And think about the American Dream: even small bungalows were designed with dining rooms. In many other cultures, there’s no space set aside specifically for eating. And Rome’s culture was very urban, with state policies for bringing food into the city. Sometimes the Roman precedents for the contemporary American food culture really hit you in the face!

You mention Cosman’s Fabulous Feasts as a book that initially inspired your work. Any other favorites in culinary history?
Kaufman: I’ve recently finished Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (2010) by Eric Rath. It’s rare to find books that focus on Japanese culinary history. Rath focuses on samurai cuisine and how that contributed to the evolution of Japanese food. There was a huge element of presentation–a lot of the food at samurai banquets wasn’t meant to be eaten, but only to be looked at. The book was an eye-opening and fascinating read. I also love everything by Ken Albala, who’s an incredibly prolific author. And Margaret Visser’s Rituals of Dinner (1992) offers lots of interesting insights.

Another book that didn’t get the attention it deserved was Carolin Young’s Apples of Gold and Settings of Silver (2002). Young chose a number of great meals in history and wrote essays about what was served and how it was served. She delves into the cultural significance of each meal. It’s really a book that should be better known because it’s both fascinating and well written.

You’ve often alluded to the power of food as a political and cultural force. What’s the most overlooked power of food?
Kaufman: Unfortunately it’s the power to separate people. Fights have broken out over the origins of particular dishes. I’m thinking especially of the Middle East: Is the falafel Israeli, Palestinian, Tunisian? Each group makes claims that this food is part of its national identity, and sometimes even physical fights erupt over these claims of culinary patrimony. Food becomes a metaphor for other conflicts.

Food is so dear to us because of that nurturing concept. Food is part of our individual identities. People say, “That dish, that’s my dish.” One would hope that we could come together over shared tastes, but doesn’t always happen that way. Food is such a marker of identity. Claudia Roden once asked rhetorically at a CHNY presentation on the foods of Spain why vegetable dishes in Spain almost always have tiny pieces of pork in them. We weren’t sure. It turns out that officers of the Spanish Inquisition would present conversos from Judaism and Islam with these dishes. Refusal to eat them indicated that one hadn’t truly hadn’t converted to Catholicism. So food has always had this power to separate, to differentiate.

New York City is known for its food fads, such as the cronut. Has this phenomenon of food obsession existed at other points in history?
Kaufman: Oh, the cronut is so fifteen minutes ago! But that’s a great question. The cronut craze reminds me of the tulip frenzy during the Dutch Golden Age, where the cost of bulbs reached ridiculous levels. Oyster bars attained incredibly popularity in New York City during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but they were also so ubiquitous. A similar phenomenon would require artisanal production without a sufficiently robust distribution network, and that’s not something that has really occurred at other points in history, at least not that I can think of.

In your estimation, what are the most important moments in culinary history?
Kaufman: The first is certainly the Colombian exchange, when New World foods were introduced to the Old World, and vice versa. This has a huge impact on the way people ate around the world and was therefore incredibly important. Next is the development of rail transport, which made it possible to get food to distant markets much more efficiently.

And finally, I’d go way back to when we first learned to treat food with fire. Richard Wrangham, a professor at Harvard, argues that cooking our food enabled us to evolve because it allowed us to shorten our guts and spend more calories on developing our brains, instead of digesting our food. So that first attempt to cook food was really the most important moment in history. It’s interesting, then, that the raw food diet has become such a strong trend. The more we learn about nutrition–which is a huge and complex area–the more we realize that raw is not necessarily the best, most healthful in all situations. I love raw tomatoes, but to make a tomato’s lycopene more accessible to my body I have to lightly cook the tomato.

How has the study of culinary history evolved since you entered the field?
Kaufman: There’s an extraordinary diversity of topics addressed, including a lot of single-subject history. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. There have been many studies of sugar and its impact on society, which is an extraordinarily important topic. Sugar consumption has numerous cultural ramifications and is a window into discussions on topics as wide ranging as slavery and current dietary problems. It’s fabulous to view world history through the lens of an important foodstuff like that. But there’s also a trend toward choosing an overlooked foodstuff and asserting its importance in history, and that can often be strained.

Meanwhile in the last twenty years, rather than looking from a strictly culinary perspective, we’ve come to a more sophisticated way of understanding world history. We’re getting away from the “dead, white, European male” approach. We’re focused on understanding how what went on the table was important to technology, to trade, even to war and peace. Think of Egypt, and how a failure to get enough wheat into the country has contributed to the deposition of two leaders. It’s not so unlike the French Revolution.

How have organizations like CHNY contributed to the evolution of the field?
Kaufman: CHNY is helping to take the field from academia and introduce it to more general discourse in a very accessible way. We don’t dumb it down. Instead, we strive to be mediators between the academic world and the greater community, who are often interested in and impacted by food and its history.

Tell us a little more about CHNY. How many members do you have, and what can we expect from the upcoming season of programming?
Kaufman: CHNY has around 300 members who are mostly located here in the tri-state area. Their ages range from mid-twenties to…ancient. Each year we offer ten programs, usually one per month except during the summer months, when we take a break to think about the upcoming year. Each program is usually structured as a reception, followed by a lecture and a question-and-answer session. We strive to offer a mix of topics over the course of the year, and our goal is to work with smart, articulate, engaging experts who are excited to share their expertise with a wider audience. Members also receive our newsletters and journal. We offer an annual research grant, supported by the Julia Child Foundation, for the pursuit of research in culinary history. We also grant the Amelia Award, named for Amelia Simmons, to recognize lifetime achievement in culinary history.

From “Good to Think and Good to Eat: Symbolic Cannibalism and Edible Springtime Rites” with Gary Allen

Last year’s programming was great, and I’m expecting this year’s to be even better. In October, Anthony Buccini will present “The Early History of Pasta: Post-Modern Myth and Medieval Reality.” He’ll certainly rock the boat a bit with his unconventional argument about the origins of pasta. December’s event will have a more light-hearted focus on vodka. And in April we’re welcoming two experts from the UK who are kind enough to share their expertise with us while they visit New York. It should be an exciting year!

Cathy K KaufmanProfessional chef and culinary historian Cathy Kaufman has taught at the Institute of Culinary Education since 1995, specializing in culinary history. Kaufman has created culinary history curricula for ICE and the Museum of African Art. She’s also consulted on cookery and etiquette for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, the National Arts Club, the Merchant’s House Museum, and others. She’s been chairperson of the Culinary Historians of New York since 2003, creating both the annual Scholar’s Grant and the Amelia Award. Kaufman is also on t the board of trustees of the Oxford (UK) Symposium Trust, which administers the annual Symposium on Food and Cookery. Prior to embarking on her culinary career, Kaufman practiced law for eleven years. She has a BA in History from Cornell University and a JD from New York University.

Founded in 1985, Culinary Historians of New York was established to stimulate and share knowledge of the ways food has affected us since the earliest times. Members include chefs, cooking teachers, historians, anthropologists, food writers, librarians, collectors, and more. They’re brought together by a shared intellectual curiosity and a special interest in food and its history. For more information on joining CHNY, please visit the CHNY website.

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