Eating great food is one of the best pleasures in life! But taste isn’t everything, and… we all know that knowledge is power. Delve into the wonders of food history, sociology and economics. Discover 35 incredible food facts that will feed your curiosity and wow your friends!
Spaghetti, noodles or pizza?
1. Pasta is not Italian. Marco Polo brought it to Venice from China. As a matter of fact, the oldest type of pasta (well… noodle, really) is four thousand years old and used to be made out of millet.
2. Pasta was a common side dish during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, even in Italy. However, it wasn’t until recently that it became a staple of Italian cuisine. Pasta became a popular main dish in Naples in the 17th Century. Coincidentally, around the same time a food crisis had shortened the meat supplies in local markets.1
3. Pizza Margherita was a 19th Century invention and was named after Italy’s queen in 1889. The pizza was supposed to feature Italy’s colours and was prepared for Queen Margherita by a baker named Raffaele Esposito of Da Pietro.
4. The Spanish were the first to use tomatoes to make sauces. They were then followed by the Italians. Tomato sauce was often used to accompany meat or fish dishes.2
Trade, exchange & new ingredients in Europe
5. A single cargo ship in the 2nd Century, bringing black pepper from India to Europe would pay the annual salary of around 7000 soldiers. That’s how expensive pepper was!3
6. Pepper remained so precious that the king of England appointed the The Pepperers’ Guild as custodians of his weights to ensure that pepper was accurately weighed. This happened in 1180. Later, the Pepperers’ Guild merged with the Spicers’ Guild to form the Company of Grossers (where the word ‘grocer’ derives from).4
7. It took around 300 years for Europeans to adopt most ingredients brought from America, like corn, potatoes, tomatoes and chillies.5
8. When tomatoes were brought to Europe (during the Columbian Exchange), their only use was decorative. They used to taste sour and seemed suspicious since they are part of the toxic nightshade family. The fruit’s now defining sweet taste was bred at a later stage, most likely by the Italians.6
9. Chilli peppers come from Mesoamerica. They were transported to Europe during the Columbian Exchange, where they spread further East. Europeans domesticated and engineered them to be more palatable (less spicy) and bigger, and this is how the bell pepper appeared.
10. Before the 17th Century, spices were scarce, expensive, and only belonged to the ruling classes. With technological advances, they became more accessible and thus more affordable for the masses. At that point the elites started looking for other luxury products, such as butter and pastry.7
Food & politics
11. Ancient Greeks used oyster shells to cast some votes. In trials, the jury would write the verdict onto the shell of an oyster. This points to the origin of the word ‘ostracise‘ (‘ostreon’ is the ancient Greek word for ‘oyster’).
12. In 1516 Bavaria instated ‘Reinheitsgebot’, a purity law that allowed beer to be made using only water, barley and hops (yeast had not beed discovered and was occurring naturally). This was to avoid replacing hops with other bitter plants – a common practice (some of which poisonous), and barley with wheat (essential for bread). It is also one of the very first food safety laws in history.8
13. During the 19th Century, the English set harsh and restrictive controls over the Irish food supply. They brought the most valuable ingredients back to England, leaving the Irish to eat almost exclusively potatoes. (This happened around the same time as the Great Famine when potato crops got destroyed by blight.)9
14. One of the catalysts of the Arab Spring was the increase in the price of wheat, which ultimately increased the price of bread. The First Indochina War and the first Russian Revolution are two other examples of conflicts that started from the lack of access to rice and, respectively, bread.
15. The poorer the country, the more disposable income people spend on food. In 2016, consumers in the US spent 6.4% of their disposable income on food at home, while those Nigeria reached 56.4%. This explains why poorer countries are prone to social unrest when commodities such as food become less accessible.10
Don’t underestimate the carrot!
16. Carrots used to be white, yellow or purple, tasteless and fibrous. They were gradually domesticated to develop a more pleasant flavour. And, just like the flavour, their colour changed too. The now common orange carrot was developed by the Dutch in the 17th Century, to honour William of Orange and the formation of the Dutch Republic.
17. During WWII the Brits made the Germans believe that their pilots could see in the dark thanks to a carrot-heavy diet. This made British innovations such as improved radar systems and red light in the cockpit (that protected the pilots’ eyesight at night) harder for the Germans to figure out.
18. China is the world’s largest carrot producer. In 2011, it accounted for over 45% of the global carrot output.
On food, eating and social status
19. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Alexander the Great used to dye his hair with saffron to appear more godly. Cleopatra also loved the luxury spice. She used to bathe in saffron infused mare’s milk before meeting her suitors.
20. Forks have only been used as eating utensils since the late Middle Ages because of their controversial nature. They were particularly common in Italy and Spain. They had, however, been used since antiquity for cooking purposes.11
21. The first writings on table manners appeared in the 13th Century. Their purpose was to separate aristocrats (those who know the rules) from peasants (those who don’t).12
22. The table etiquette as we know it today, was developed during the Renaissance and has not changed much since. This was a major shift from Medieval eating habits, where cutlery was shared, people drank soup straight from the bowl and wiped their hands directly on the tablecloth.
23. Victorian women and girls believed that eating meat made them uncivilised. They thought consuming meat caused teenage insanity and nymphomania. Another Victorian belief was that women should not be seen eating.13
24. Food journalism was born in France after the French Revolution. Its purpose was to teach the new Bourgeoisie the savoir-vivre of the old aristocracy.14
What we eat today
25. The notion of ‘dessert’ (a sweet dish following a main course) only appeared in the 17th Century. This was at the same time as sugar became increasingly more accessible through colonial plantations (most of which were in the Caribbean). This led to the creation of the ‘confectioner’, a tradesman focused on all things sweet.15
26. Before the 19th Century, Britain’s cuisine consisted in diverse, spice and aromatic rich dishes. As a new urban middle class emerged after the Industrial Revolution, many untrained women were employed as cooks. This consequently declined the standards of cooking. It also set the foundations of modern British cuisine, often stereotyped through its sogginess and lack of flavour.16
27. In 1948 Britain passed a law allowing all Commonwealth citizens to work in the UK, which led to a large inflow of migrants from India and Pakistan. That was when curry houses started to bloom in the UK. In 2016, there were more than twelve thousand around the country.17
28. Foie gras can be produced without force-feeding the geese. Eduardo Sousa has been doing this for years. He realised that geese gorge to store up fat before migration, producing a naturally fattened liver. This technique dates back to Ancient Egypt, where the meat of geese that gorged on figs before migrating was popular among the ruling classes.18
The chicken or the egg
29. The majority of the chickens that we eat today descend from the winners of the Chicken of Tomorrow contest that took place in the US in 1948. The purpose was to find the ideal chicken for the hungry family: large, meaty and cheap.
30. Fried chicken became popular in Southern US after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Black women (just freed from slavery) started cooking and selling the Southern American staple. The first hot chicken establishment opened in a black neighbourhood in Nashville in 1945. It was called Prince’s BBQ Chicken Shack (currently known as Prince’s Hot Chicken).19
What is food without a drink to accompany it?
31. The oldest beer recipe in the world dates back to 1800 B.C. Mesopotamia. In fact, beer was so important for the Sumerians that they even created a goddess of brewing, Ninkasi. The recipe is written in the form of a poem addressed to the goddess. A professor from the University of Chicago (Miguel Civil) translated it from two clay tablets.
32. Archaeologists discovered the oldest winemaking traces in Georgia, in the Kartli region, south of Tbilisi. They are eight thousand years old.
33. Unlike popular belief, tequila is actually a mezcal (an alcoholic drink made from agave). In 1974 the Mexican government gave the popular drink a D.O. (denomination of origin). This means that tequila can only be produced in very specific areas of Mexico and must contain specific information on the label.
34. Gin originates from a Dutch medicinal liqueur made with juniper berries called ‘genever’. The drink became popular when William of Orange became William III King of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1689.
35. The Chinese beer market is the largest in the world. Between 1981 and 1995, annual beer consumption increased from 1 billion litres to 13. In 2018, the annual beer consumption in China reached almost 50 billion litres.20
Still hungry for knowledge?
For any inquisitive gastronome, food is a fascinating topic. If you’re curious to discover another 35 fascinating food facts, this time based on science, check out this article! You’ll find out why tomato juice is so popular when flying, what makes chillies spicy, why fat makes food taste better and more.
- Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History, p. 90
- Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History, p. 102
- Prof Lord Krebs, Food: A Very Short Introduction, p. 37
- Idem 3
- Prof Lord Krebs, Food: A Very Short Introduction, p. 41
- Idem 5
- Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History, p. 84
- Prof Lord Krebs, Food: A Very Short Introduction, p. 56
- Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History, p. 35
- Anne Murcott, Introducing the Sociology of Food and Eating, p.3
- Chris Ying, You and I Eat The Same: On Countless Ways Food And Cooking Connect Us To One Another (MAD Dispatches Vol. 1), p. 31
- Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History, p. 97
- Warren Belasco, Food (Key Concepts), p. 52
- Fernando Gomez, Cooking Critically: History, Theory and Practice of Food Reviewing as a Genre of Journalism, p. 106
- Paul Freedman, Food: The History of Taste, p. 192
- Prof Lord Krebs, Food: A Very Short Introduction, p. 40
- Chris Ying, You and I Eat The Same: On Countless Ways Food And Cooking Connect Us To One Another (MAD Dispatches Vol. 1), p. 55
- Dan Barber, Third Plate: field Notes on the Future of Food, p. 146
- Chris Ying, You and I Eat The Same: On Countless Ways Food And Cooking Connect Us To One Another (MAD Dispatches Vol. 1), p. 73, 79
- Warren Belasco, Food (Key Concepts), p. 109