The Science of Taste, A Taste of Science — French Historian E.C. Spary on the Science of Food in the French Enlightenment

E.C. Spary

EMMA (E.C.) SPARY obtained her PhD from the University of Cambridge, and worked at the University of Warwick, the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin and University College London before returning to Cambridge, where she holds a lectureship at the faculty of History. She is the author of Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Paris, 1670-1760 (University of Chicago Press, 2012), Utopia’s Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and numerous shorter pieces. She has also co-edited two collections of essays on the history of natural history and a volume on the history of chemistry.

Currently, she is working on The Sciences of French Food, 1760-1815 — a study of the role of scientific expertise in the early production of industrial foods in France.

How did your interests in French food and the Enlightenment come about? How did you manage to intersect them in your intellectual life? Why in particular the French Enlightenment as the period in question?

I am an historian of science by training. My first book, Le Jardin de l’utopie (2005) concerned the transformation of the old Jardin des Plantes into a Muséum d’histoire naturelle in 1793. So it was natural for me to continue my interest in French history in the eighteenth century. During the research for that earlier book, I had encountered numerous naturalists and chemists commenting on food and diet. But what most fascinated me was the problem of how scientific knowledge about food rose to importance in eighteenth-century France. My interest therefore centered on how scientific knowledge about food could grow up among these well-established forms of authority so as to rival and even overturn them. The answer to this was not self-evident: at the start of the century the only public food experts were physicians, as they had been since the Renaissance and earlier. By the end of the century the balance had shifted from traditional dietetics towards chemistry. To follow the rise of food experts in French society was therefore to move from one discipline to another.

But it was also to ask questions about how and why new forms of expert could appear on the public stage, in print and before rulers. This was particularly true in France, where by the reign of Louis XIV there already existed an authoritative courtly cuisine. In a general sense it was also the case that in all societies, there existed and still exist well-established culinary traditions and eating preferences, coming from parents, peers and fashion, which are entirely distinct from science and medicine.

My interest therefore centered on how scientific knowledge about food could grow up among these well-established forms of authority so as to rival and even overturn them. But at the same juncture, as is well known, there was a great takeoff in the consumption of exotic foods, indeed, in dependency on them, throughout much of Europe — as Sidney Mintz shows in his study on sugar. The problem of new forms of knowledge and that of new tastes for food, it soon became clear, were actually the same thing: how did people accept the need for something so novel? Why did they seek the new knowledge that Enlightenment offered, and the new foods that cooks and city merchants offered them? This of course made the choice of Paris obvious, for nowhere else in the eighteenth century brought together new knowledge and innovative culinary practices to such a marked extent.

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