A BRIEF HISTORY OF FOOD
By Tim Lambert
FOOD IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
For most people in ancient Egypt food was plain and dull. The staple food of the Egyptians was bread and beer. Bread was baked outside and because of the desert sand was often blown into dough. In time eating bread with grains of sand in it wore down peoples teeth.
In ancient Egypt as in all early civilizations meat was a luxury and only the rich could afford to eat it frequently. Nevertheless the Egyptians ate sheep, pigs, cows and goats but meat often came from ducks and geese. However fish were plentiful in Egypt.
Egyptian food included many vegetables, such as marrows, beans, onions, lentils, leeks, radishes, garlic and lettuces. They also ate fruit like melons, dates and figs. Pomegranates were quite expensive and were eaten mainly by the rich. The Egyptians grew herbs and spices and they made cooking oil.
Beer was made from crumbled barley bread and barley with water so it was lumpy. It was strained before it was drunk. Even so it was still lumpy so it had to be drunk through a wooden straw with a filter. Better off Egyptians drank wine.
Food in Ancient Greece
Like Egyptians ordinary Greeks ate plain food. They lived on a staple diet of bread (made from barley or, if you could afford it, wheat) and goats cheese. Meat was a luxury but fish and vegetables were plentiful. Ordinary Greeks ate pulses, onions, garlic and olives. They also ate hens eggs. Peasants caught small birds to eat. The Greeks also ate fruit such as raisins, apricots, figs, apples, pears and pomegranates.
Rich Greeks ate many different types of food such as roasted hare, peacocks eggs or iris bulbs in vinegar. Poor people drank mainly water. If they could afford it they added honey to sweeten it. Wine was also a popular drink. Usually wine was drunk diluted with water.
A Roman dining room was called a triclinium. The Romans ate a breakfast of bread and fruit called the ientaculum. At midday they ate a meal called the prandium of fish, cold meat, bread and vegetables. The main meal was called the cena and was eaten in the evening.
The Romans were also very fond of fish sauce called liquamen. They also liked oysters, which were exported from Britain. The Romans turned cooking into a fine art. .
FOOD IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Saxon women brewed beer. Another Saxon drink was mead, made from fermented honey. (Honey was very important to the Saxons as there was no sugar for sweetening food. Bees were kept in every village). Upper class Saxons sometimes drank wine. The women cooked in iron cauldrons over open fires or in pottery vessels. They also made butter and cheese. Saxons ate from wooden bowls. There were no forks only knives and wooden spoons. Cups were made from cow horn.
Saxons were fond of meat and fish. However meat was a luxury and only the rich could eat it frequently. The ordinary people usually ate plain food such as bread, cheese and eggs. Apart from chickens eggs they ate eggs from ducks, geese and wild birds.
Food in the Later Middle Ages
After 1100 rich people ate a very good diet. They ate beef, mutton, pork and venison. They also ate a great variety of birds, swans, herons, ducks, blackbirds and pigeons. However the church decreed that Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were fast days when people were not allowed to eat meat. Rich people usually had fish ponds so they could eat pike and carp. They also ate fish caught in rivers or the sea.
The rich ate breakfast in private but they ate dinner at mid-morning and supper at 5 or 6 in the great hall. On special occasions they had huge feasts. The Lord and his lady sat at a table on a raised wooden platform so they could look down on the rest of the household. Often musicians entertained them while they ate. Rich people ate their food from slices of stale bread called trenchers. Afterwards they were given to the poor.
Poor people ate simple and monotonous food. For them meat was a luxury. If they were lucky they had rabbit or pork. They also ate lots of coarse, dark bread and cheese. They only had one cooked meal a day. In the evening they ate pottage. That was a kind of stew. It was made by boiling grain in water to make a kind of porridge. You added vegetables and (if you could afford it) pieces of meat or fish. In the autumn peasants gathered fruit and nuts. In normal years the peasants had enough food but if there was a famine they might starve.
Life in the Middle Ages
In China the rich ate very well. They ate grains like rice, wheat and millet. They also ate plenty of meat including pork, chicken, duck, goose, pheasant and dog. Vegetables included yams, soya beans, broad beans and turnip as well as spring onions and garlic. They also ate plenty of fish. Soup was made with shark's fin, bird's nest, bears paws and sea slugs. People drank wine made from rice or millet. They also drank tea. Poor people in China ate plain food. In the South they ate rice. In the North they ate wheat in the form of noodles, dumplings or pancakes.
Meanwhile in Central America maize was the staple food of the Aztecs. Aztec women ground the maize into flour on a stone slab with a stone roller. It was then made into flour and baked into a kind of pancake called a tortilla. Aztec women cooked on a clay disc called a comal, which stood on stones above a fire. Also maize was made into a kind of porridge called atole. The Aztecs ate 'envelopes' of steamed maize called tamales stuffed with vegetables, meat or eggs.
The Aztecs also ate tomatoes, avocados, beans and peppers, as well as pumpkins, squashes, peanuts and amaranth seeds. They also ate fruit such as limes and cactus fruits.
Aztec food also included rabbits, turkeys and armadillos. They also ate dogs. However meat was a luxury for the Aztecs and ordinary people only ate it infrequently.
The Aztec nobles drank an alcoholic drink called octli, from fermented maguey juice. Upper class Aztecs drank chocolate made from cocoa beans. It was flavoured with vanilla and honey. Poor people drank water or sometimes an alcoholic drink called pulque.
The Incas lived in the highlands and lowlands of what is now Peru. In the lowlands the staple food was maize. In the highlands the main food was potatoes. Incas also ate peppers, tomatoes and avocados. They also ate peanuts and a grain called quinoa.
Llamas and alpacas were kept for wool and for carrying loads but they sometimes provided meat. Incas also ate guinea pigs. They also fished and ate birds. However for most Incas meat was a luxury. Incas drank a fermented drink called chicha. Ordinary Incas drank from bowls carved from gourds. Rich Incas drank from pottery vessels or even ones made from gold or silver. Poor people ate food off dishes placed on the ground. Inca nobles ate off a cloth on the ground. There were no tables.
Maize was the staple food of the Mayans but they also grew beans, chilies, sweet potatoes and squashes. The Mayans also ate fruit like papaya, watermelon and avocados. The Mayans ate animals like deer, turkeys, dogs, peccaries (wild pigs) and a kind of rodent called an agouti. They also fished. The Mayans also kept bees for honey.
In the mornings people ate a 'porridge' made of maize and chilies called saka. During the day they ate 'dumplings' made of maize dough with vegetables or meat inside them. The 'dumplings' were called tamales and they were wrapped in leaves from maize plants. The main meal was in the evening. People ate maize 'pancakes' called tortillas. They were eaten with 'stew' made with vegetable and (sometimes) meat. The Mayans drank an alcoholic drink called blache. Maya nobles drank chocolate.
FOOD IN THE MODERN WORLD
16th Century Food
In the 16th century rich people still ate a variety of food with a great deal of meat. However poor people usually ate dreary food. In the morning they had bread and cheese and onions. They only had one cooked meal a day. They mixed grain with water and added vegetables and (if they could afford it) strips of meat. All classes ate bread but it varied in quality. Rich peoples bread was made from fine white flour. Poor people ate coarse bread of barley or rye.
The Tudors were also fond of sweet food (if they could afford it). However in the 16th century sugar was very expensive so most people used honey to sweeten their food.
In the 16th century new types of food were introduced from the Americas. Turkeys were introduced into England about 1525. Potatoes were brought to England in the 1580s but at first few English people ate them. Apricots were introduced from southern Europe. Meanwhile a new vegetable reached England in the 16th century. It was called cauliflower.
Only the very poor drank water in Tudor times because it was too dirty. Young children drank milk. Everyone else drank ale or, if they were rich, wine. From the mid-16th century beer became common. The Tudors also drank cider and perry.
Rich people liked to show off their gold and silver plate. The middle classes would have dishes and bowls made of pewter. The poor made do with wooden plates and bowls. There were no forks in Tudor times. People ate food with knives and their fingers or with spoons. Rich people had silver or pewter spoons. The poor used wooden ones.
In the 16th century people made much of their own food. A farmer's wife cured bacon and salted meat to preserve it. She baked bread and brewed beer. She also made pickles and conserves and preserved vegetables. Many prosperous farms kept bees for honey.
Life in the 16th Century
Food in the 17th Century
In the early 17th century people in England began eating food with forks. Meanwhile during the 17th century new kinds of food were introduced into England (for the rich) such as bananas and pineapples.
New drinks were introduced, chocolate, tea and coffee. In the late 17th century there were many coffee houses in the towns. Merchants and professional men met there to read newspapers and talk shop. However for the poor food remained plain and monotonous. They subsisted on food like bread, cheese and onions. Ordinary people continued to eat pottage each day.
Food in the 18th Century
Food changed little in the 18th century. Despite the improvements in farming food for ordinary people remained plain and monotonous. For them meat was a luxury. A poor person's food was mainly bread and potatoes. In the 18th century drinking tea became common even among ordinary people.
19th Century Food
In the early 19th century the working class lived on plain food such as bread, butter, potatoes and bacon. Butcher's meat was a luxury. However the diet of ordinary people greatly improved in the late 19th century. Railways and steamships made it possible to import cheap grain from North America so bread became cheaper. Refrigeration made it possible to import cheap meat from Argentina and Australia. Consumption of sugar also increased. By the end of the 19th century most people (not all) were eating a much better diet.
The first fish and chip shops in Britain opened in the 1860s. By the late 19th century they were common in British towns and cities.
In the late 19th century canned food first became widely available. The rotary can opener was invented in 1870 by William Lyman. Furthermore in 1869 margarine, a cheap substitute for butter, was invented by a Frenchman named Hippolyte Mege-Mouries. Meanwhile several new biscuits were invented in the 19th century including the Garibaldi (1861) and the cream cracker (1885). The Digestive biscuit was invented in 1892 by Alexander Grant. Meanwhile the first chocolate bar was made in 1847. Milk chocolate was invented in 1875. The first recipe for potato crisps (aka potato chips) appeared in a book by Dr William Kitchiner published in 1817.
A man named Gail Borden patented condensed milk in 1856. John Meyenberg patented evaporated milk in 1884.
The first refrigeration machine was invented in 1805 by Oliver Evans. During the 19th century methods of refrigeration improved and in 1882 refrigerated meat was brought from New Zealand to Britain for the first time. Fred W Wolfe invented the refrigerator for use in the home in 1913.
The first electric oven went on sale in the USA in 1891. They went on sale in Britain in 1893. By 1939 there were about 1 1/2 million electric ovens in Britain and about 9 million gas ones. The first electric toaster was invented in Britain in 1893 by Crompton and Co. The pop up toaster was invented by Charles Strite in 1919.
Life in the 19th Century
20th Century Food
Ordinary people ate better food in the 20th century. In 1900 some families sat down to a meal of a plate of potatoes and malnutrition was common among poor children. Food was also expensive. In 1914 a working class family in Britain spent about 60% of their income on food. By 1937 food was cheaper and they only spent about 35% of their income on food. Moreover sweets were a luxury in 1914. They became much more common in the 1920s and 1930s. Meanwhile new biscuits were introduced in the 20th century including custard creams in 1908 and bourbons in 1910.
Food was rationed in Britain during World War II. In January 1940 butter, sugar, bacon and ham were rationed. Tea was also rationed from 1940. Rationing became much more severe in 1942. From July 1942 sweets were rationed. Instead of real eggs many people had to make do with 'dried eggs' imported from the USA.
Food rationing lasted in Britain for several years after the Second World War. Tea rationing lasted until 1952. Rationing of sweets and eggs ended in 1953. However meat and cheese were rationed until 1954.
Ordinary people began to eat a wider variety of food in the late 20th century. That was partly because fridges, freezers and later microwave ovens became common. (In Britain microwave ovens first became common in the 1980s).
Chinese and Indian takeaways and restaurants became common. So, in the 1980s, did hamburger and pizza chains. Meanwhile several new types of food were invented in the 20th century. People had been eating ice cream for centuries but the ice cream cone was patented in 1903. Choc-ices went on sale in the USA in 1921. The ice-lolly was patented in 1923. Sliced bread was first sold in the USA in 1928. Spam was invented in 1936. Instant coffee was invented in 1901. Fish fingers went on sale in 1955. Meanwhile in 1954 Marc Gregoire developed the non-stick frying pan.
A timeline of food
A brief history of cakes and biscuits
A brief history of desserts
A brief history of fruit
A brief history of vegetables
A brief history of drinks
A brief history of herbs and spices
Last revised 2018