2019 James Ford Bell Lecture

Paul Freedman, Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, Yale University

17 October 2019, 7:00 p.m. | Elmer L. Andersen Library, Room 120


"Poverty and Prestige: Food and Social Status in Pre-Modern Europe"

What people eat is not merely the result of the natural environment or of national tastes but rather varies with class. The elite classes mark their status by eating certain foods and avoiding others associated with peasant or other lower-class consumption. In our time, for example, prestige is now attached to local, seasonal food, artisanal products (craft beer; small-batch pickles) while the lower classes are stereotyped as addicted to unhealthy, sugary and processed food. Thirty years ago the stereotypes were reversed: rural people were mocked for keeping chickens in their backyard and putting up their own produce for winter while upper-class taste involved imported foie gras in cans, English marmalade, and other prestigious but industrial products.

In pre-modern Europe there was a similar social positioning. Aristocratic status required serving meals that involved meat, especially game, highly-spiced sauces (spices had both a medicinal and exotic value as they came from far away and were expensive), and large fish such as sturgeon or lamprey. The peasant diet was actually healthier than that of the elite as it had more fiber, vegetables, and variety, but its constituents were ridiculed — pottage, dairy products, garlic, and other strong-flavored garden produce.

This presentation will explore how some of these images of status changed — how cheese and salad became prestigious in the Renaissance, for example, and how the hierarchy of foods was affected by other cross-cultural currents such as fasting rules and medical notions.

Reserve your seat!

Copies of Professor Freedman’s new book, American Cuisine and How It Got This Way, will be available for purchase following the lecture.

About the Speaker:

Professor Freedman specializes in medieval social history, the history of Catalonia, comparative studies of the peasantry, trade in luxury products, and the history of cuisine.  Among his numerous publications are: Out of the East:  Spices and the Medieval Imagination, and Ten Restaurants that Changed America.  This lecture will be a plenary session in the conference, "Premodern Food Cultures and their Legacies, October 17-19, 2019, co-sponsored by the James Ford Bell Library, the Center for Medieval Studies, and the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World.  The Bell Library's fall exhibtion, Rapunzel, Peanuts, and Thousand Year Eggs, will also be linked to these events.

This lecture is presented by the James Ford Bell Library with support from the Associates of the James Ford Bell Library and the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries.