25 November 2015, 12:30 - 14:00

Seminar Room SG1, Alison Richard Building

Iona McCleery (Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds)
Emma Spary (History, University of Cambridge)


Iona McCleery
Getting a taste for elephant: foodstuffs in West African travel narratives

Portugal played a significant but rather neglected role in the global food exchanges of the 15th and 16th centuries. Historians have usually emphasised the reception of New World foods or Indian and Indonesian spices in European cuisine and pharmacy. This talk will focus instead on food as a material part of cultural encounters in West Africa and the Atlantic islands between c. 1450 and c.1550, as described by merchants and explorers. Foodstuffs in these narratives such as fruits, cereals, legumes and meats like elephant flesh had a number of symbolic meanings, but their significance was always bound up in their presentation as material goods. The talk will explore how they were physically encountered and morally critiqued through touch, smell and taste. Most foods were usually identified according to their marketability as commodities. Sometimes they were seen as essential for survival.


Emma Spary
The taste of the pineapple: or how to know the unknowable in eighteenth-century France

Flavours present particular challenges for the historian of material culture. Even more so than foods themselves, they denote a particular kind of absence figured at once by the absent body of the past/other consumer, and by the absence of the tasted substance itself. This problem is exacerbated in the case of exotic foods as they moved, in the course of the early modern period, from being unknown and foreign to being familiar and everyday. Yet foods in a key sense represent the ultimate term of materiality, since they entered and constituted the very fabric of the body itself, the primary and definitive experience of materiality. Therefore, a history of material culture that excludes flavours is greatly impoverished. Yet how can historians address this predicament of embodiment? One route into the problem, I will argue, is by exploring the politics of tasting. Using discussions of the taste of exotic fruits over the period from the late 17th to the late 18th centuries, I will show how accounts of their taste constructed some very specific agendas, from the immediate problem of explaining ‘how something tasted’ to claims that evaluated tropical flavours in the light of contestations over French colonialism and governance.




Open to all.  No registration required
Part of Things-(Re)constructing the Material World Research Group, series

Administrative assistance: gradfac@crassh.cam.ac.uk