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Food and the City in Europe since 1800

Author(s):Atkins, Peter J.
Lummel, Peter
Oddy, Derek J.
Reviewer(s):Perren, Richard

Published by EH.NET (February 2008)

Peter J. Atkins, Peter Lummel and Derek J. Oddy, editors, Food and the City in Europe since 1800. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007. xvi + 260 pp. $100/?55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7546-4989-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard Perren, Department of History, University of Aberdeen.

This book has been published as a result of the ninth themed symposium of the International Commission for Research into European Food History (ICREFH) held in Berlin in 2005. The first of these symposia was held in 1989 and the first of its volumes was published in 1992. This latest addition to the series is divided into four sections (Parts A to D) and has nineteen short articles on various aspects of urban European food history since the industrial revolution, plus a general introduction and a brief conclusion, both of them by two of the editors, Peter Atkins and Derek Oddy. The introduction provides a good overview of the whole book and also indicates where there is a need for further research, but the conclusion mainly summarizes the ICREFH’s work to date.

The first part called “Feeding the Multitude” focuses on supply and has five chapters. In this Hans Jugen Teuteberg presents a general survey of urban food history research; Peter Atkins compares the food supplies of London and Paris in 1850; Roser Nicolau-Nos and Josep Pujol-Andreu discuss urbanization and dietary change in Mediterranean Europe, using as their example Barcelona between 1870 and 1935; Corinna Treitel covers the contribution of the German nutrition scientist Max Rubner to that country’s thinking on the feeding of the urban poor; and J?rgen Schmidt discusses how the Allies fed the three million inhabitants of West Berlin in the years immediately after World War II.

The second section, which has four pieces of work on “Food Regulation,” deals with food adulteration and health issues. It begins with Peter Scolliers who outlines various food frauds and the city authority’s attempts to eradicate them in nineteenth century Brussels; it is followed by Derek Oddy’s study of food quality in London and the attempts of the public analyst to enforce the British laws against adulteration between 1870 and 1939; next, Alessandro Stanziani focuses on similar attempts by the Paris Municipal Laboratory between 1878 and 1907; and finally Vera Hierholzer looks at the role of municipal food monitoring and citizen self-help associations in Germany’s ‘war against food adulteration’ in the 1870s and 1880s.

The third section has six articles covering “Food Innovations – the Product Perspective”; Adel P. den Hartog discusses the links between nutrition science and the attitudes of Dutch producers of skimmed sweetened tinned condensed milk to health warnings about this product between 1890 and 1940; Jukka Gronow details the emergence of first-class restaurants and luxury food stores in Soviet Russia in the 1930s; Martin Franc’s article concentrates on attempts to present Prague as a shop window of the Czechoslovak communist regime in the 1950s and 1960s by the preferential direction of food supplies to the city in order to impress foreign visitors; Peter Lummel switches to the free world with a survey of the development of the supermarket in West Germany between 1949 and 1970; Anneke H. von Otterloo charts the various effects of immigration in increasing consumption of exotic foods in postwar Amsterdam; and Pnikos Panayi ends the section with a similar exercise for London since 1850.

In the final part four authors explore “Eating Fashions – the Consumer Perspective.” Ulrike Thoms examines the menus of scientists’ festive meals in Berlin between 1830 and the Second World War; Alain Drouard discusses diet reformers (as well as one or two food cranks) in fin de si?cle Britain, Germany and Switzerland; Virginie Amilien writes about changing working-class and middle-class food habits in the Norwegian capital from 1860 to 2000; and Isabelle T?choueyres bring the section to a close with an anthropological study of the food markets of Bordeaux since the 1960s.

It is inevitable that this collection of conference papers written by over twenty scholars drawn from different disciplines, with a variety of funding arrangements, often working independently, and covering such a wide geographical area over two centuries deals with some time periods and some aspects of urban food history in greater detail than others. In addition the sources that are available to the authors have imposed their own constraints. As Peter Atkins and Derek Oddy say in their conclusion (p. 252), the amount of archival material varies between states and in some cases has been reduced by wartime destruction. The uneven focus is also a question of numbers as more than half of Europe’s 500 food historians are currently working in Germany, France and Britain, which is reflected in the geographical coverage of the papers of the current volume. The great majority are about Northern and Western Europe and only one of them (the paper by Roser Nicolau-Nos and Josep Pujol-Andreu on Barcelona) is on the Mediterranean region. It also helps to account for the lack of comparative studies which the editors suggest may be helped by collaborative research teams. Although this excellent suggestion would be the logical way to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the development of the European urban food industry, this reviewer thinks that the logistical challenges this could present could well be formidable.

Nevertheless, important themes and topics do emerge in spite of the culturally diverse range of subjects from which they are drawn. For example, the increasing consumption of animal proteins which is a feature of rising incomes seems to be apparent from places as far apart as Barcelona and Oslo (pp. 47 and 235). But this has not been the only agent of change. Technology has brought new products like condensed milk into being, and also increased their consumption, although in this case it was one of the earliest technology-based junk foods and as such did not improve the health of all of its consumers, particularly infants (pp. 136-38). But this was countered by the development of food inspection and regulation, covered by the papers in the second part of the book. However, as the four papers in this section all deal with Northern Europe the reader is left wondering what progress in this direction was like in Southern Europe where the pace of industrialization and economic growth was less. One is tempted to assume that it was slower, but given the regional coverage of the papers on food inspection one has no way of knowing this. The papers that touch on changes occurring after 1945 also highlight some intriguing cultural changes. Firstly, there is the introduction of supermarkets from the U.S. and the profound effects their development has had on food supplies and retailing. And secondly, the impact of migration in introducing new food products and diversifying European diets seems to have been particularly strong after 1945.

All in all, despite the uneven coverage there is much in this book that gives some fascinating insights into nineteenth and twentieth century European history. It also indicates how the valuable work on food and dietary history prompted by the ICREFH and its tradition of interdisciplinary research promises to provide much more information about the cultural, economic and social history of food.

Richard Perren’s most recent publication is Taste, Trade and Technology: The Development of the International Meat Industry since 1840 (Ashgate 2006). His next piece of work, “Filth and Profit, Disease and Health: Public and Private Impediments to Slaughterhouse Reform in Victorian Britain,” is due to appear as a chapter in Paula Young Lee, editor, Meat, Modernity, and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse (University Press of New England) in July 2008).

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII