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Studying the historical role of food in health and in war: a case of undernourishment?
  1. Emily Mayhew
  1. Department of Humanities, Imperial College, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Emily Mayhew, Department of Humanities, Imperial College, London SW7 2AZ, UK; e.mayhew{at}

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It isn't difficult to find books that study the history of food. A quick stop in any bookshop or library will reveal plenty of material, from medieval recipe books to biographies of the great chefs. One can study the Roman diet and try out the recipes, just as one can admire the healthfulness of Second World War rations and have a go at playing housewife in the 1940s. All of this is good, useful stuff. But then step back for a moment. Look at where these volumes are kept. Not in the History section with all the serious books, but in the Cookery section, along with Sport and Leisure. And there's the problem in a nutshell. Food and its history are simply not seen as something quite worthy of intellectual analysis. It's local colour or historical novelty; definitely not to be mixed up with the serious stuff, such as history of society, of sickness and of war.

Yet what could be more serious than this? The history of food is nothing less than a history of human need and human dependency. All human beings are dependent on others for food at some …

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