History of Food

History of diet around the world

Cookery books are the recordings of how food was prepared and reflect the cooking practices of the era in which the book was written. Cookery books in English are to be found from the 14th century from the cooks serving Richard II.

Now cookery books are major sellers, being of universal interest.

Ancient Egypt

Grain, bread and porridge have been the basis of diet since the beginning of nutritional history. In Egypt, bread was made as flat cakes from toasted grains of barley, wheat or millet.. In 13th century BC Egypt, it was usual for people to eat two meals a day, a light morning meal and a more substantial evening meal consisting of several dishes.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks made unleavened bread from coarse wheat which they favoured over barley meal, baking their bread in hot ashes and later in bread ovens..

The Roman Empire

The earliest Romans were a rural people and ate a thick porridge of barley or beans and green vegetables with flat barley bread, hard-baked in ashes. Cheeses were made from goats’ milk, meat was a rarity and fish hardly used. Food was flavoured with garlic, parsnip, olives and olive oil. When Rome became all-powerful the poor still ate thick grain soups of millet and coarse bread together with a little turnip or a few beans. Raw olives or goats’ cheese or figs were delicacies and occasionally there was cooked pork or meat balls which were produced in cook shops which were to be found throughout the cities. For long periods in Rome bread was given without payment.

The wealthy few had food from all over the world — spices from India, south-east Asia and China, wheat from Egypt, ham from Gaul and wine from Greece. Ginger came from China through central Asia; cloves from Indonesia by sea to Ceylon and then on by sea and land to Alexandria.

Pepper was a very important element in Roman cooking and was brought overland from India through Egypt. A meal might consist of hors d’oeuvres: a salad of mallow leaves, lettuces, leeks and mints and fish dishes garnished with sliced eggs, rue and tuna fish.

By the second century BC cooking had become an art in Rome. The Romans ate three meals a day. Breakfast between 8:00 and 10:00 am, bread and cheese and a glass of water. . Most food was eaten with the fingers, which were rinsed from time-to-time though the diners were provided with knives, toothpicks, spoons and napkins.

. The Roman army stretched from the Scottish border through to Egypt and as far East as the edge of the Black Sea. The soldiers were issued with daily rations of grain or bread, meat, wine and oil and the cost was deducted from their pay. Cheese, vegetables and salt were included in their basic rations. When the legions were on the march they carried a scythe to cut crops, a metal cooking pot, a mess tin and 3 days’ emergency food of hard tack, dried cooked grain which could be eaten without further cooking, salted pork and sour wine. A quern to grind flour and a portable oven were carried for every 10 men. During peace time a soldier was expected to grind his own grain and bake his own bread. Soldiers supplemented their diet by hunting. In war time troops foraged from the enemy countryside. Roman army officers lived on fresh meat and imported edible snails, olives, vintage wine, pepper, fish sauce, hams and oysters. The Roman army was huge, 300 000 men in the first century AD. This required substantial organisation in supplying the garrison and moving food around the Empire. The cost of such provision of food eventually became an intolerable burden on the Roman taxation system.

Mosaic dietary laws

Jews have a diet established under Mosaic law. These laws defined clean and unclean food. Blood was seen as the life-force and was forbidden, so all food animals had their blood drained as in kosher ritual slaughter.


Indian philosophers stressed the importance of food for the uplifting of the soul and the health of the body. They suggested spices such as cloves and cinnamon were warming; coriander and cumin cooling. They also believed in pure and impure foods; rice and honey were considered purer than other foods.

The Indus valley was the centre of civilization around 2000 BC when it was invaded by Aryan invaders from Iran and Afghanistan. The economy of these Aryan warrior nomads was based on cattle. They lived primarily on meat and milk products. Barley was the staple grain, ground into flour and cakes and eaten with butter.

The inhabitants of the Indus valley were driven south into India. Aryans gradually adopted the use of rice, wheat and beans and learned the use of spices, including tumeric, long peppers (pepper from vines similar to black pepper), sour oranges and sesame, but continued to use clarified butter for cooking. Rice was cooked with mung beans into a thick gruel or khicri. Raw ginger was eaten after meals to aid digestion.

The early Aryans were tribal and their society was divided into castes. The Brahmins were the highest caste with strict rules of purity, particularly concerning food. Food could be polluted by being touched by lower-caste people which was believed to affect its purity. To protect themselves from pollution, strict laws governing the toilet and behaviour of cooks were developed. Brahmins could only eat food prepared by other Brahmins.

Beliefs were very austere and did not allow the eating of meat, fish or eggs, and the people were consequently strict vegetarians. Other Hindus, also strict vegetarians, do not eat rank smelling foods and ban onions and garlic from their kitchens.

The Buddhist diet was a compromise between the diets of the Hindus and Brahmins. Buddhists were not forbidden meat, merely not allowed to kill for food. Vegetarianism was, however, encouraged for all people. The cow was sacred and no longer killed for food or sacrifice. In the temple in modern India Hindu gods are offered vegetarian dishes.

Until the 15th century the rulers of northern India came into contact with and were influenced by Persian culture. Many of the dishes had a Persian origin, particularly the samusak pastries.

Northern India was invaded by the Mughals at the end of the 15th century. They came from Uzbekistan in central Asia. Their cuisine was similar to that of the Persians, with a variety of grains, green vegetables and meats, which were oily, sweet and spicy.


In the China of the last millennium BC grains were cooked whole as flour milling did not come into general use until about the first century AD. An Imperial Court banquet would include roast turtle and fresh fish, bamboo shoots and reed tips. Meanwhile, the common people lived on a diet of beans and grains flavoured with sour or bitter herbs. Salt and sour plums were the earliest seasoning used. Around the second century BC fermented salted soya beans became popular and were produced on a commercial scale. By the fifth century Chinese cooks had a choice of herbs and pickled meats for bitter flavours — honey and maltose from grains for sweet flavours, and prickly ash, mustard or ginger for hot flavours.

The Chinese knelt on mats or flat cushions to eat. The food was laid out either on the floor or on tables. Chopsticks were beginning to be widely used, but soup stews were eaten with spoons and grains were eaten with the fingers. Soup stews were very popular. For the rich there were beef soups seasoned with sour plums, pickled meat sauce and vinegar. Other soups contained venison, salted fish, bamboo shoots and rice, beef, dog or turnip. The poor had soups made of vegetables and grain without meat.

In the Imperial courts of China 960–1280 AD Chinese cooking reached great heights. Seasoning was important: sesame, anise, ginger, black pepper, onion, salt, cardamoms and vinegar.

. China became one of the richest countries and as a result of trading, new foods and culinary skills were available. From India came the refining of sugar and black pepper; from Persia came coriander and pastries.

Stir-fry became a central cooking method. Woks came into common use and wheat flour doughs and pastries were mastered. Sweet sauces made from fermented flour were used to flavour stir-fry dishes. Raw meat and fish were both great delicacies, being flavours which were intense and natural. Preserved pickled meats and fish were very popular.

As the Chinese Empire developed during the 1600 hundred years from the time of Christ, a very complicated system of cooking was developed by the northern Chinese aristocracy. Vinegar, fermented bean paste and soy sauces were developed. In the winter meat and fish were preserved by pickling or made into fermented sauces. Vegetables were pickled with salts.

A Chinese proverb says: ‘you are what you eat’. Chinese attitudes to food and health were dependent on this. The Chinese held to the humoural belief that the universe and everything in it was composed of four elements: fire, air, earth and water, and four qualities, heat, cold, moisture and dryness. Treatment for bodily disorders was based on the strength and interaction of these elements and qualities. The basic division of the Chinese beliefs was between the bright, dry, warm male principle, Yang, and the cold, dark, moist female principle Ying (Yang and Ying).

. Fundamental to the Chinese theories on nutrition was the idea that food and cures come from the same source. Cooling foods such as green vegetables, and fruits treat fevers and rashes, while heating foods such as liver and chicken could treat debility and weakness.

In China, soup was used as a tonic to maintain health.. Chicken soup was meant to be particularly good after childbirth. (It is also interesting that the Jewish general belief is that chicken soup is a universal panacea.)

Buddhism came to China from India at about the time of Christ. With it came preaching against the killing of animals for food. As Buddhism progressed in China the prohibitions of meat eating were not accepted generally, except in Buddhist monasteries, famous for the excellence of their cuisine where the cooking followed strict Buddhist regulations. However, they also insisted on five colours: red, green, yellow, black and white; five flavours, bitter, salt, sweet, hot and sour; and five styles of cooking, raw, simmered, barbecued, fried and steamed.

In Europe during the Dark Ages trade with the East stopped and pepper disappeared from northern Europe. By the time of the Norman conquest of England eastern spices and pepper were once again being traded by Arabs living in Spain and sending trading ships to India, south-east Asia and China. This trade was then developed by Venice, which eventually became dominant in trading, bringing food from the East to the markets of the north of Europe.


Buddhism moved to Japan from China and Korea during the seventh century. When Buddhism came to Japan the emperor forbade the eating of any meat except by the sick. The attempts to introduce a rigid vegetarian diet were only partially successful. Until the mid-19th century the Japanese were somewhat reluctant to kill four-legged animals, particularly cattle, for food. However, most modern Japanese eat beef.

Zen Buddhism developed and formalised the tea ceremony which had been current in China some 700 years previously. Only foods in season could be used. Two main styles of tea ceremony cooking developed: one at the Daaitokuji temple near Kyoto in the 14th century and the other in the 16th century at the Obakusn temple near Tokyo. The Obakusn meal was based on Chinese vegetarian cooking and retained the Chinese practice of serving all food in large dishes in the centre of the table, from which diners could help themselves. .

Ancient Persia

The Persian Court in the sixth century AD regarded the rearing of animals and birds for the table as being very important. Wild asses were fattened with clover and barley and then cooked with yoghurt and spices. Chickens were reared on hemp, oil and olives and after being killed were hung for 2 days by the feet and then by the neck before they were cooked. Hares and pheasants were made into ragoutes. In the summer the Persians ate nut and almond pastries made with gazelle fat and fried in nut oil. Foods imported from Europe and Asia were available to the Persians. Fresh coconut was served with sugar and dates and stuffed with nuts. They also ate sweet preserves of lemons, quinces, Chinese ginger and chestnuts and drank sweet wine.


Mohammed preached that food was a gift from God, ‘So eat of what God has given you, lawful and good, and give thanks to God’s favour if Him it is you serve’. Pork or any animal found dead, blood or animals killed as an offering to a pagan god, fish without scales (including shell-fish), alcohol and fermented liquids were all forbidden, or halan. Carnivorous animals and birds were forbidden. Permitted foods were halal. Animals killed for food have to be slaughtered by an approved butcher who must say ‘In the name of God, God is most great’ and cut the animal’s throat to allow the blood to drain out. Animals who die by disease, strangulation or beating are not acceptable. This practice is still followed by modern Moslems.

The month-long fast of Ramadan is in memory of the prophet’s revelations and is for the health of the soul. Fasting is a way of reaping spiritual rewards. Nothing is eaten or drunk during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan. All Moslems must follow Ramadan after the age of responsibility, 12 years in girls, 15 years in boys. Exceptions are the elderly in poor health, pregnant and nursing women, menstruating women, the sick, travellers and labourers. The meal is of an ordinary size, not extra quantity to fill the stomach after fasting. In Saudi Arabia today people eat a meal of bread, milk or sour milk together with a braised or stewed meat dish.

The lifestyle of the Arab Califs who ruled Egypt, Iran and the eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century AD was influenced by the Persian traditions, including cooking. Trade with the East brought a wide range of foods to the Arab world and was of a high level of sophistication and luxury. Cleanliness was all-important, in particular the cleaning and preparation of the food and hand washing. Meat, usually lamb, was cooked with fruit such as oranges, lemons, pomegranates, red currants, apples and apricots. Fresh vegetables such as carrot, onion, aubergine, spinach and leeks appeared in many meat dishes.

The New World

Many of the foods eaten in Europe, and which are regarded as Mediterranean foods, came originally from central or meso America. The early hunters in Central America lived on mammoth or barbecued bison and relied on gathering seasonally available plants. Alternative sources of protein were gophers, squirrels, rabbits and mice. These hunter-gatherers had necessarily to be nomadic.

In the warm, well-watered central valleys there was an abundance of fish and fowl. The new concept of returning seeds to the ground for harvesting was the beginning of agriculture. The avocado pear and some kind of squash were the first to be cultivated. Between the period of 5000 and 3000 BC maize and beans were cultivated, but at that stage, provided only 10% of the total diet. It is interesting that even then, Mexican food was already heavily spiced with chilli.

Villages in this area date from approximately 3000 BC and a basic triad of plants, maize, beans and squash were grown.

During the Olmec period of middle America from 1500 BC to 100 BC the basic crop was maize, which even today accounts for 90% of the inhabitants’ diet.

At this stage, the dog and the turkey had been domesticated and served as sources of food. Limitations for these civilizations were that the plough had not been invented and there were no draught animals, the beast of burden being man. The cities of meso America had a carefully planned supply and control of water, with main aqueducts carrying water to the city.

By the time of the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs grew maize as the main crop, chillies as seasoning with additional squashes and beans. The latter provided nitrogen and protein in the diet. There were no dietary dairy products and very little meat.

Maize was the staple diet for the Mayans but they ate domesticated plants such as the anone, avocado, tuayaba, passion fruits, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, beans and sweet potatoes.. This diet was supplemented with fish , crabs, molluscs and turtles.

The Spanish brought many of the foods grown in central America back to Spain. They were then grown in Spain and are now associated with what is called ‘the Mediterranean diet’.

Other imports from the New World included nasturtiums from the West Indies, used for their flowers and leaves in salads. Potatoes, turkeys and chocolate came from central America. Potatoes also came to Europe from the mountainous parts of South America. Initially, they were a curiosity in English cooking and in mainland Europe potatoes were not eaten to any great extent. In Ireland, by the middle of the 17th century they were an established staple food. Turkeys were introduced into England about 1524, having been imported from Spain. They replaced swans, peacocks and bustards as festive foods, being relatively cheap, readily stuffed, roasted and baked in pies. Fruit and vegetables coming from central America were sweet potatoes, peanuts, maize, chillies, tomatoes and kidney bean.

Dietary influences of the Crusades

After the Crusades, spices and new foods were brought into northern Europe. Sugar was unknown until the 11th century when it came to Europe, first from the Middle East and then from Spain, but by the 17th century, sugar plantations, run by slave labour in the Caribbean and Brazil, enabled Europe to indulge its fast growing taste for sugar. Spiced sugar comfits were nibbled in the long fasting hours of Lent as a medicinal aid.

Rice, oranges, figs, dates, raisins, spinach, almonds and pomegranates were all imported. Dishes were made with rose hips, shredded almond, chicken, red wine, sugar and strong pepper and thickened with rice flour. Other recipes included eels seasoned with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, galingale, long peppers and saffron.

Blancmange, made with rice sweetened with sugar and flavoured with almonds, is a Middle Eastern dish. The Arabs who were the mainstay of culture in the European Dark Ages maintained much of the Greek and Indian philosophies and science. They applied these philosophies to food, whereby foods were classified and used to balance the humours in man.

In contrast, the early Christians believed that only Christ had healing powers. Illness was a punishment for wrong-doings, to be treated by fasting and prayer. However, by the time of the Crusades, some foods were seen as having medicinal properties. This all emanated from the Salerno School near Naples founded by Benedictine monks. Knights returning from the crusades often stopped there and were cured. Even 400 years later, the English physician Andrew Boorde was influenced by the Salerno school of teaching. Foods were still regarded as hot or cold, dry or wet, according to the humoural theory.


Cannibalism is a taboo subject, causing great distress when mentioned. It occasionally occurs with starving groups and is variably reported in various societies eg the head-hunters of Papua New Guinea.

History of European diet


In late mediaeval Europe feast alternated with famine. Large trenches of hand-baked coarse bread were cut into oblongs to serve as plates. There were jugs of water and wine on side tables. Most meals were taken by hand from the serving plates. Fine white bread was trimmed into finger-shaped sops and used to mop up liquid, including wine. Potage or soups were eaten with spoons from shared bowls and mopped up with sops. Meats and other foods were sliced and placed on the bread trenches. At the end of each course the softened trenches of bread were collected to be given to the poor.

At large banquets there would be a boar’s head with gilded tusks, a heron, sturgeon and a pie made with cream, eggs, dates, prunes and sugar. The next course might include venison served in spice, wheat gruel, stuffed suckling pig and peacocks, skinned roasted and served in their plumage. The third course had more roast birds, quinces in syrup, grilled pork rissoles, custard tarts and pies of dried fruit and eggs.

The essence of mediaeval cookery lay in mixture. The quantities of spices used were quite significant. Pastry and the stylish shaping of pies came from Persia along with recipes for traditional Chinese pastries.

The diet of ordinary people was very different from the nobility at court. Such people lived on cheeses, curds, cream and oatcake. Potage, a porridge-like soup thickened with cereal or bread was popular in England. A porridge made of boiled ground wheat moistened with milk and covered with saffron was served with venison at the court of Richard II. The poor, when they could afford meat, made a potage of dried beans boiled in bacon stock mashed and served with bacon.

Throughout Europe peasants lived on a similar diet of bread, cheese and pork which was usually salted. In northern Europe peasants ate more rye or black bread than in the south. A Lenten bread was made of barley and oats.

Rats and mice polluted the stored grain, weevils burrowed into the dried beans, bacon was rancid, cheese was mouldy and wine sour.

There was never enough fodder to keep alive more than the few animals needed for breeding, through the winter. In the autumn animals would be killed for their meat, salted or smoked, and preserved for the winter and spring. Turnips, beans and peas were dried. During times of famine the poor would only have cabbages and turnips without bread or salt.

In the Middle Ages, towns were relatively small. Within the city were private gardens and around the city walls were fields and vegetable gardens. The offal from various meat and fish was dumped anywhere with resulting pollution of the streams.

In the Christian calendar there were 200 fast days a year, when meat, milk and eggs were all forbidden, and only fish or vegetables were allowed. The one meal a day allowed for the 6 weeks of Lent offered a daily diet of salted fish, stock fish or red salted herrings with mustard sauce. Fresh fish was also permissible; consequently some monasteries had their own fish pools. The only soup allowed was dried peas boiled in water and flavoured with fried onions. In mediaeval times it was usual to give gifts of hard-boiled eggs painted with vegetable dyes on Easter Sunday.

Cooking techniques changed during Lent. Milk made from ground almonds replaced cows’ milk for poaching and stewing.

Food supply and balances were at their limits. The supply of food to the developing cities was yet to reach sophistication . Many countries experienced long periods of starvation. Bread, oats and cooked vegetables were the peasants food, with water and whey for drinking.

The 16th and 17th centuries

By the 16th century came the development of printing and cookery books. During this period English merchants became extremely rich, with fortunes made from trade to India and the West Indies. There was little ability to store food, so the diet reflected seasonal availability. Some of the cookery books discussed the curative properties of specific diets.

In England in 1603 breakfasts of cold meat, cheese and egg were eaten between 6:00 and 7:00 am.

By the late 18th century fashionable people in London were eating as late as 7:00 pm, although this was not the pattern in the country. Breakfast was a meal of cold meats and ale, eaten about 9:00 or 10:00 am in towns, and supper had become a late-night snack. Afternoon tea was taken between breakfast and dinner with tea and bread and butter or buttered toast. Dinner plates of pottery or pewter replaced the mediaeval trench of bread, and forks were slowly introduced.

Around the periphery of London there were small, intensive market gardens, manured by excrement. Fruit and vegetables were grown for the population of the capital and were sold from barrows or in markets, for example Covent Garden.

In the 17th century increasing trade meant a new concept of food storage for the mariners. Fish could be caught but water and fresh fruit and vegetables could not be stored, with consequences for vitamin C status until the findings of Lind were adopted. A years store of food was taken , the basic being hard tack, a cake of wheat floor baked twice for better preservation. Venetian ships carried salt pork, wine, cheese and broad beans. Protein calorie malnutrition was a feature of the early, long voyages. The food at sea was salt beef and pork, beer , pease, cheese and butter, biscuit and salted fish. London was the only port large enough to victual a ship with these specialist foods. During the Napoleonic wars and the blockade of the French channel ports a major agricultural industry developed, the walking to London of cattle from the Scottish Highlands by drovers and geese from East Anglia all for the feeding of the fleet. This trade was central to the Highland economy.

In the 17th century increasing trade among European countries led to new diets. Trade with India and China resulted in tea being imported. A variety of beverages, such as tea, coffee and chocolate were introduced into Europe.

The Chinese habit of drinking tea is believed to date from the time of Emperor Shen Nung ( 2,737 BC). Japan, India and Sri Lanka have a long tradition of tea drinking. The Portuguese brought tea to Europe in the middle of the 16th century. Tea replaced beer as the drink for many English farm labourers.

Coffee was introduced into Europe during the 17th century. The coffee shrub is native to Ethiopia. By the 16th century coffee was drunk throughout the Moslem world. It was introduced to Europe through Venice by the beginning of the 17th century. The first coffee shop opened in Oxford in 1650.

Drinking chocolate became popular throughout Europe during the 17th century. Chocolate was initially imported by the Spanish from Mexico where it had been drunk by the Mayans and Aztecs. When first introduced into Spain it was a secret maintained by monasteries.

Tea, coffee and chocolate replaced the previously widely drunk mulled wine. As they were rather bitter in flavour, sugar was taken to improve the flavour.

France was the most important European wine producer in the mediaeval era, sustaining a tradition which had existed since Roman times. The Parisians preferred light white wines, whereas the English liked red wines. The favourite wine during the second half of the 17th century was champagne. Claret was imported in barrels from Bordeaux, usually drunk warmed with spices as mulled wine. Maturing of wine in bottles later became more common and with this development the concept of wine improving with age.

By the mid-17th century the great tradition of French cooking had begun. This was a cuisine based on a series of techniques; basic preparation, bouillon and roux, the use of bouquet garni, egg whites for clearing consommeé and stuffings made with mushrooms and other vegetables. Pieces of meat and mutton were slowly cooked. Eighteenth century French and subsequent cooking preferred the infusion of carefully selected flavours. From the 17th century with the increasing availability of sugar, puddings were slowly established as a regular feature of a meal and served with other savoury dishes in the second course. The English pudding was transformed by the introduction of the boiling cloth. Before this innovation boiled puddings, both the sweet and spicy versions of sausage and savoury puddings, were cooked in animal intestines.

. Quaking or shaking puddings of cream, breadcrumbs, sugar and eggs flavoured with spices were cooked in well-floured bags in simmering water. Apple puddings of apple, sugar and butter were wrapped in pastry skin and boiled in a cloth.. Plum puddings with dried fruit were increasingly developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, with fruit, sugar and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and maize.

The 18th and 19th centuries

Butcher’s meat required specialized killing and cutting which often took place in remote towns, whereas rabbits, chickens and pigs were killed locally. During the Industrial Revolution in Britain, workers crowded into the rapidly growing towns to man the new machines. Women worked in factories and were also responsible for the preparation and cooking of family meals, without the training they had previously received from their totally domesticated and now distant mothers. There was a resulting decline in nutrition.

In the 18th and 19th centuries rural life was very much dominated by the availability of seasonal fresh fruits and game from the rural activities of fishing and hunting. Fishing towns supplied cod, lobster, sole, skate and whiting. Fresh vegetables were grown in the garden, with strawberries and raspberries in June, and peaches, nectarines, plums and pears in September. Asparagus and cucumber were also grown.

The farmworkers had a very simple diet. There was bacon from the family pig, kept in a sty at the back of the cottage, eaten with fresh vegetables, bread and home-made lard flavoured with rosemary. However, many of the farmworkers came close to starvation, particularly during times of poor harvest. They lived on potatoes, and in Scotland on oatmeal, milk and sometimes fresh herrings. Rural workers in the south did not necessarily have gardens provided and lived almost exclusively on bread with little salt, bacon or cheese.

The introduction of the potato into rural Ireland and Scotland gave a readily grown nutritious crop. By the nineteenth century the potato was a staple of the diet both in town and country. So that when the fungus phytopthora infestans infected potatoes in Ireland, the resultant destruction of the crop resulted in widespread famine for poor Irish populations living on a marginal diet.

The development of restaurants followed the French Revolution when chefs, who had lost their aristocratic employers, opened restaurants, resulting in a more general, intense and continuing interest in recipes and food. There was a defining of cooking styles, with precise cooking instructions for the preparation of purées, essences, sauces and garnishes with a perfect balance between well-chosen flavours. This led to an almost total domination by French cooking of food in Europe. It has been suggested that, by the mid-19th century, the urban British middle-class, unlike the French, had lost contact with their own country origins and consequently an understanding of the origins of their foods.

The introduction of spices into Britain came from exposure to India. The recipe for Worcester sauce was brought back from India and curries were introduced through the East India Company. The first recipes for mulligatawny soup, using curry powder, came at the beginning of the 19th century. Such soups were thickened with barley, bread or split peas.

In the industrial areas there was considerable starvation. During the 1840s the diet of the majority was stodgy and monotonous, and for many, deficient in both quantity and nutriment. Badly housed parents lost many of their children and those who survived were undernourished, rachitic and sometimes deformed. Meat was often eaten only two or three times a week, with the main or even sole food source being bread and potatoes.

At the beginning of the 19th century the British soldier’s daily ration was one pound of bread (450 g) and a quarter of a pound (110 g) of meat. In the army barracks there were two coppers for each company, one for meat and the other for vegetables, so the food could only be boiled. There were no canteens. There were two meals, one at 7:30 am and the other at 12:30 pm. On overseas service soldiers were provided with salt pork or salt beef or dried biscuits.

There were considerable problems of storage during this period with resulting mass adulteration and upgrading of food. Bakers bleached inferior grades of flour with alum to make bread appear white. Second-hand tea leaves were sold by servants to merchants. The tea leaves were then mixed with gum and dried with black lead before selling them as fresh tea leaves. It was only by the 1870s that parliament legislated against food adulteration.

The introduction of the railways enabled food to be carried rapidly around the country. By the end of the 18th century, fresh salmon in ice could be brought from Scotland to London, initially by road and later by the railway. In the 1860s and 1870s the development of the railway system into the Mid-West of the United States and the cattle lands of South America opened up new fertile sources of food. The railway and rapid ship movements meant that grain and cattle could be brought from North America and South America to the industrial areas of Europe.

Canned meats and vegetables were used by the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars, but this was only partially successful. By the late 19th century canned Californian pineapples and peaches were available in Britain.

The long period of urban malnutrition became apparent during the Boer war when nearly 40% of the British volunteers had to be rejected because of being physically impaired by inadequate diet.

Despite this knowledge, was the failure of one of the most famous expeditions of all times, Scott’s attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole. Not only was he beaten by Amundsen but he and his party died on the way back through cold and poor nutrition. One of the early expeditions to climb Everest used hampers from Fortnum and Masons as their food supply.

The 20th century

The diet of the British working classes at the beginning of the 20th century was dominated by bread, sugar, lard, cheese, bacon and condensed milk. The meat was brought chilled from Argentina or frozen from New Zealand.

In Europe, factories were attracting workers from the land so that as the available agricultural production was reduced the diet was augmented by overseas food. Novel methods were found to preserve foods on long journeys. Cattle in Argentina were slaughtered solely for their skins for leather. Later the development of a meat concentrate, e.g. Bovril, made the proteins available for use by distant populations. The introduction of refrigerated ships enabled meat to be carried long distances in prime condition.

Later in the 20th century, food could be carried by refrigerated lorries, so that lettuces, strawberries and melons could be brought in good condition from France to Britain. Successful canning was another important development. Canned salmon and canned peaches became the traditional Sunday tea for many people during the 1939–1945 war.

The long working hours in factories resulted in eating problems, because the traditional time for the working mens’ main meal was the middle of the day. Good employers provided canteens where workers could eat at that time. At the Cadburys’ works canteen a meal of roast beef and two vegetables was available at midday. For the majority of workers canteens were not available until the 1940s. Often food was taken in to work to be eaten at midday. This might be a pie, or a basin of meat and vegetable stew or cold sandwiches, and tea. Coal miners would take in a bottle of cold tea and a tin of sandwiches.

War makes great demands on a population’s nutrition. The first and second world wars made great demands on both the civilian and military personnel. Civilians often experience famine during wars. One of the greatest nutrition experiments ever was Food Rationing in Great Britain during the second World War under the charge of JC Drummond. Many of the poor ate better than previously during this period with an equitable sharing of food. The supply of food to armies moving over distances provides a constant problem for their generals. When Ghengis Khan entered Europe there were nearly half a million cavalry horses which caused considerable feeding problems. The members of the Chinese Communist Army on the long march carried rice with them. On the other hand, a British regiment facing a charge of enemy opened their ammunition boxes to find they had been provisioned with biscuits.

Concentration camps for civilians and Prisoner of War camps have resulted in controlled starvation beyond comprehension.

History of eating patterns in Scotland

An example of the development of eating patterns in an industrial society can be found in Scotland. In 1949, Kitchin and Passmore described three distinct eras of nutrition in the general Scottish population.

The first era was that of a self-supporting agricultural community. The diet was in the Viking tradition, which included rye, wholemeal bread, oat and barley porridge; fish (especially herring); boiled meat and broths of sheep, lamb, goat, ox, calf and pig; cheese, butter and cream; beer and mead; and among the wealthy, wine. The most common vegetables were cabbage and onions; apples, berries and hazelnuts were also popular.

The second era was the age of the Industrial Revolution. As industry expanded and the population increased, so food requirements exceeded home food production, necessitating the import of food from overseas. Significant differences in health appeared between the urban and rural populations, in part because of the better quality of the countryman’s diet. During the 19th century, 10% of the population were too poor to buy sufficient food for themselves. Such malnutrition, in addition to bad sanitation, inadequate overcrowded housing, insufficient land for farming, and a host of acute and chronic infectious diseases, led to rickets, poor stature, and high maternal and infant mortality.

A study in 1903 by Patton, Dunlop and Inglis of the diet of the labouring classes in Edinburgh, identified a large proportion of poorly developed and undersized children and adults. Two groups were studied; families with assured and adequate incomes, and the poor, who were unable to buy the necessities of life, either because of inadequate income or because of employment that was only casual. The daily nutrient intake per man varied from 1100 to 4800 kilocalories (kcal). The wife and children of the poor families lived on tea, bread and potatoes, the tradition being that the man ate butcher meat daily. The larder was replenished with small quantities of food bought each day. Alcohol was a great problem, affecting work record and hence income. In contrast, the families of workmen receiving regular wages, ate meals consisting of bread, potatoes, oatmeal, eggs, beef, mutton, ham, butter, herrings, cod, sugar, rice and barley. Fresh vegetables were confined to potatoes, cabbage and peas.

In Edinburgh before the First World War, over 12% of the milk contained tubercle bacilli.

The third era was that of state planning. During and after the Second World War, the Government was obliged to control and provide an adequate food supply for the whole population, so that malnutrition could, despite the obstacles to the importation of food, be avoided as far as possible. This was the golden age of the nutritionist. During the period 1941–1945 boys 13 years old in Glasgow grew to be on average ¾ of an inch (2 cm) taller and 3 pounds (1.4 kg) heavier than those in the same age group in 1935–1939, and 3½ inches (9 cm) and 12½ pounds (5.7 kg) heavier than those of 1910–1914.

Since then, a fourth era has emerged, the era of the supermarket and a free market. Increasing overall prosperity, more efficient home farming practices and ready availability of food from all over the world means that many have the choice of a wide range of foods from an efficient wholesale and retail system. The constraints now are personal and communal preferences, and financial limitations. There have been considerable increases in height, weight and lifespan. However, the population now has new and unprecedented opportunities for inappropriate or excessive indulgences. In general, however, the human race copes better with nutritional excesses than with insufficiency. Obesity is now a major problem .

An important consequence of the advent of this fourth era is that Scotland’s nutrition is dominated by a common range of choice on supermarket counters, selected by a few supermarket purchasing managers. The modern consumer is presented with an unprecedented range of 20,000 lines in major stores. The pattern of restaurant eating has changed with Indian and Chinese restaurants having a prime place in contemporary eating. Chicken tikka masala is now Britains most popular meal.

A development in the provision of food in Europe is the long distances that food may travel to ensure that the supermarkets have a broad range of edible fresh items for the shelves. This so called globalisation is not without its hazards as well as the undoubted advantages:

1. Zoonosis. This is the spread of diseases over long distances as a consequence of travel. This includes Aids, Lassa fever and Ebola and animal diseases such as BSE, foot and mouth disease and salmonella.

2. Transport. A manufactured food may contain ingredients from several countries which have travelled a total of some 1000km to meet together.

3. Poverty stricken countries may grow cash crops eg tobacco, oranges and opium which are exported, neglecting the local population’s food needs.

4. In UK, for every calorie of carrot flown from South Africa 66 calories of fuel are consumed.

5. Super market buying managers may spend only defined periods in any one section and not make contacts and contracts with local producers..

A new element has entered the delivery of food. Farming practice has changed with the number of types of any one plant or animal being very much reduced. On the other hand the range of plants and animal sources of food is greatly increased . There is a growing group of people who do not believe that mass farming with its heavy use of pesticide and herbicides is healthy. From this has developed a significant support for organic farming. Similarly for various reasons, distaste for the way in which animals are farmed or even the killing of animals for food has led to a group who are vegetarian, to various degrees, the definition of which varies in degree of strictness. The supporters of both organic farming and vegetarian practices have had significant effects on the food industry.

Despite diligence in ensuring that our food is clean and wholesome, there are widespread concerns about chemical additives (‘E numbers’), bacterial and viral infections, pesticide residues, and the perils of excessive intake of proteins or saturated fatty acids. Food, long recognised as a vector of infectious disease, is now seen to have a role in the aetiology of non infectious disease such as coronary heart disease, maturity-onset diabetes and obesity.

Quality of life is important. Well-being and protection from stress are not inappropriate ambitions. The French have a reverence for food which has nothing to do with their concern for longevity. They are fortunate in being blessed with both exciting food and longevity. A rigidly controlled diet may not result in longer life, it may only seem longer. The value of survival and quality of life will vary with circumstances and may be judged only by the individual or possibly the community. Mencius (Chinese 2nd century BC ) supported the principle of equilibrium in agriculture and the food production industry between the past, the present and those who come after, based on an understanding of balance and the right time and the right way to do things. This has governed the Chinese approach to food until the present day.


The intention of this chapter is to show how throughout history, communities have developed a diet structure which made the most of local resources.

The cooking of this food depended upon the population, the manner in which society developed and contact with other populations.

Religion and social structure have been important determinant of diet. Once travel and migration became the norm and populations became aware of other modes of life and cooking then diets have changed.

The industrialisation of agriculture and food delivery systems e.g. supermarkets has profoundly changed nutrition in the developed world.

Nutrition throughout much of the world has become more interdependent.

How does the transport of food over the globe affect the energy used its production?

Further reading

Aslet C (2002) Clocking up food miles. FT Weekend February 23/24 page I
Burnett, J. (1989) Plenty and Want — A History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day, Routledge, London.
Davies, N. (1982) The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, Penguin Press, London.
Fieldhouse, P (1986) Food and Nutrition, Custom and Culture, Chapman & Hall, London.
Kiple KF and Ornelas KC. ( 2000) Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Kitchin, A.H. and Passmore, R. (1949) The Scotsman’s Food: an Historical Introduction to Modern Food Administration, E. & S. Livingstone, Edinburgh.
Leeming, M. (1991) The History of Food, BBC Books, London.
Patton, N.D., Dunlop, J.C. and Inglis, E.A. (1903) Study of the Diet of the Labouring Classes in Edinburgh, Otto Schulze, Edinburgh.
Tannahill, R. ( 1995) Food in History, Three Rivers Press. New York.
Tansey, G. (1995) Food System Guide, Earthscan.


http:// horizon.nmsu.edu/garden/history/welcome.html


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