A Brief History of Food: A talk with William Sitwell

In recent years, technology has developed so much and given us many more options in the kitchen. Yet we don’t often think about the history and evolution of cooking, and what things were like 30, 300 or even 3000 years ago. Our great friend William Sitwell has researched and summarised the main developments in his book, ‘A History of Food in 100 Recipes’ and kindly shared some of the highlights that his research uncovered at a talk recently held at Fortnum & Mason. His journey begins in 3000BC, in the Ancient Egyptian tombs, where imagery decorating a tomb is believed to be the first ever documented recipe – discovered to be for Ancient Egyptian flatbreads. Fast forward to 1700BC where recipes are inscribed onto Babylonian tablets, and to 1400BC for a mention in the Bible (Genesis 43:2). Moving into the 1st Century, ‘The Art of Cooking’, written by Marcus Apicius, contains 500 recipes - 400 of them being for different types of sauce. He wrote so many recipes that towards the end of the book they have names such as ‘Another sauce for fowl’. Apicius threw many dinner parties but ended his own life when he ran out of money, on the premise that “If one can’t eat wonderful food, life isn’t worth living”. Interestingly, it isn’t until the 15th Century that timings are introduced into recipes. In his recipe for ravioli, Martino de Rossi suggests letting ravioli simmer “for the time it takes to say two Lord’s Prayers”. When we reach the 20th Century the evolution of cooking quickly speeds up, starting with the first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly in 1916, the arrival of fridges and cookers in homes in 1927, and the first Celebrity Chef in 1937. After the Second World War, Elizabeth David romanticized the notion of cooking again, and lead the way for the likes of Delia Smith. Finally we land in the 21st Century, where Celebrity Chefs are now household names, and the impact of our eating habits on the planet has come to light. For much more information about William’s book and where to buy, visit WilliamSitwell.com (http://www.williamsitwell.com/books) While it’s definitely interesting to use a recipe painted onto an ancient tomb wall, we think a recipe on our website is a little more practical! Click here for our recipe page.