By Amalia Levanoni
Mamluk Studies Review, Vol.9:2 (2005)
Introduction: Food has been a long-standing object of attention in ethnographic and sociological research. Anthropologists of the nineteenth century focused on the ritual supernatural aspects of food consumption. Their twentieth-century successors, especially field anthropologists, studied rituals surrounding food and then food in the wider context of social systems. Among historians, too, leading historians of the Annales School pioneered attempts to develop a “total history” emphasizing the macro-historical analysis of societies over long periods and the study of all aspects of human experience, especially material culture. A salient example is Fernand Braudel’s major works, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Capitalism and Material Life 1400–1800, in which the author underscored the influence of long-term changes in material culture, including food, on the social systems in Europe. Braudel’s monumental works provided an incentive for the study of social history. Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, one of the most important studies written in the last decades in this field, traces the origins of the norms of conduct in today’s western Europe in late medieval royal courts. The western European way of conduct, including table manners, was modeled by cultural factors in royal courts in a long-term political process related to the formation of states and power monopolization in them.
In the last decades, scholars studying the history of Islam have also begun to focus on the study of material culture, including food. The collection Culinary Cultures of the Middle East, edited by Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, examines Middle Eastern cuisine mainly in the modern era, while studies by David Waines and Manuela Marín focus on the medieval period. In David Waines’ In a Caliph’s Kitchen and A. J. Arberry’s “A Baghdad Cookery-Book” an attempt was made to learn about the culinary culture of medieval Baghdad from recipe books. Eliyahu Ashtor’s “Essai sur l’alimentation des diverses classes social dans l’Orient médiéval” looks at social stratification in medieval Near Eastern populations by way of their patterns of food consumption. In his Al-Matbakh al-Sultani Nabil Muhammad ‘Abd al-‘Aziz examines the royal kitchen during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods. Geert Jan Van Gelder explored food manifestations in Arabic literature and G. S. Reynolds studied the Sufi approach to food in adab literature. Late medieval humoristic and allegorical “debates” between foods were studied and edited by Manuela Marín and Ibrahim Kh. Geries. Two articles are especially interesting for the research of food and cooking in medieval Islam: Maxime Rodinson’s “Recherches sur documents arabes relatifs a la cuisine” is a valuable bibliography of the Arabic sources on cuisine, and David Waines’ “Prolegomena to the Study of Cooking in Abbasid Times: A Circuitous Bibliographical Essay” is an excellent survey of the modern study of cooking and methodological issues connected with this field of research.