Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present

Stephen Mennell
Urbana: University of Illionis Press
0 252 06490 9
$18.95 pb
x + 397 pp.

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The publication of the first edition of All Manners of Food in 1985 established the importance of the sociology of food. Any review of the second edition of the book, therefore, needs to be historically situated. Apart from an edited book by Murcott (The Sociology of Food and Eating, 1983), sociologists had largely ignored the social context of food. In 1992, Mennell, Murcott, and van Otterloo released an overview of the field, The Sociology of Food, which still bemoaned the lack of sociological research to draw upon. However, the call may have finally been heeded with a number of recent publications (Wood 1995, The Sociology of the Meal; Crotty 1995, Good Nutrition?; Whit 1995, Food and Society; Maurer and Sobal 1995, Eating Agendas). In Britain, the need for information on the social context of food has been recognized in the £1.6 million pound funding of The Nation's Diet: The Social Science of Food Choice, a six year program on the study of the social context of food directed by Anne Murcott.

Mennell's book exposes the richness of food as a subject for sociological study. The second edition of All Manners of Food retains the original structure and content, the only major change being the addition of a thirteen page Afterword in which Mennell reviews the literature since 1985. The basis of the book is an historical analysis of the development of manners, cooking and eating, using France and England as case studies. Chapter one provides the theoretical foundation of the book and critiques the structuralist perspective for being overly static and unable to account for change and cultural difference in food habits. In contrast, Mennell uses a 'developmental approach' and adopts Elias' concept of the 'civilizing process'. However, he does not expand upon or critically analyse Elias' concept, so that readers unfamiliar with Elias' work may need to do further reading to gain a full appreciation of Mennell's perspective.

Chapter two exposes the limitations of biological accounts of appetite and taste, showing how taste is culturally determined. Mennell's quest is to uncover how people are able to change their eating habits amidst tradition and conformity to a particular cuisine. Mennell investigates the chronological development of cooking and food consumption in relation to social class from the Middle Ages to the present. He deals with a wide range of topics, from food taboos and dislikes, the professionalization of the occupation of chef, and an interesting account of how women's magazines and cookery books were imbued with patriarchal ideology which helped to shape conformity to the 'housewife' role.

Mennell identifies three distinct periods of 'food evolution'. Famine and feast is characterized as the first epoch, where the nobility displayed its status through over- consumption. With increases in the food supply, the bourgeoisie adopted a 'discriminating palate', where high status and culture was connoted through etiquette, restraint and the art of cooking (the development of haute cuisine and the professional chef). The third period involved the process of industrialisation which led to the mass production and distribution of food. According to Mennell, the increasing availability and standardization of food has resulted in a trend to 'diminishing contrasts and increasing varieties'. Therefore, the civilizing process in the history of cuisine has seen the decline of class dictating food culture.

Mennell's grasp of the material represents not only a scholarly work of thorough research, but also one replete with wit and humour. In any book covering such a wide expanse of history and topics, there are bound to be some minor misgivings. All Manners of Food depicts how standards of taste develop in two different societies by essentially explaining why France developed haute cuisine and England did not. In examining the role of the bourgeoisie in evolving food culture, more attention could have been paid to the role of peasant culture. In arguing about the increasing rationalization and standardization of food, Mennell surprisingly overlooks the work of Ritzer (The McDonaldization of Society). The Afterword section provides an all too brief overview of the works of Fischler, Harris, Mintz and Finkelstein among others. Readers will be left wanting more and may be right to question why the Afterword was not worked into a more substantive chapter.

Overall, the second edition of Mennell's book, released through a new publisher, is further testament to the importance of the sociology of food. The increasing attention being paid to Elias' work and the social and symbolic context of food means that All Manners of Food remains a significant contribution to the sociology of food literature and the analysis of a developing western culture.

John Germov
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Newcastle, Australia

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996