Our enjoyment of food depends not just on how it tastes and smells, but also on what it looks, feels, and sounds like. Crispness, for instance, is perceived when we hear a ‘snap’ as the food breaks between our teeth. This relatively new understanding of gastronomic experience explains the recent explosion of recipe books designed to entice all five senses. In fact, a ‘sensorial revolution’ is taking place across most fields of history. This month’s thematic series, edited by Hannah Newton and Elaine Leong, gives a flavour of what might be gained by applying such an approach to the history of recipes; there are 7 contributions, spanning several disciplines, chronologies, and regions, from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England. To put the posts in context, this introduction provides some background on sensory history.
There are many ways to do sensory history. Perhaps the most influential has been the ‘grand narrative’ approach: scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong claimed that a ‘major sensory transition’ took place between medieval and modern times in the way the senses were ranked. In medieval Europe, societies privileged the ‘lower senses’ of touch and taste, but with the march of modernity the ‘nobler’ senses of sight and hearing came to the fore. Although this scholarship has been heavily criticised – not least for its disparaging attitude towards medieval people – the question of change over time rightly remains fundamental to sensory history. Yan Liu’s post in this series is a good example: he shows how the use of the spice saffron in China has been transformed since medieval times, from an antidote against evil powers to a flavour enhancer in cooking.
Another approach to sensory history involves focusing on a particular sensory organ, or a context directly linked to that sense. Examples include Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye (2007), which explores anatomical and philosophical understandings of vision, and Holly Duggan’s Ephemeral History of Perfume, which uses scent as a window into cultural attitudes to smell. One downside to the single-sense approach is that in daily life we perceive the world through all our senses, not just one, and the senses themselves influence one another. Several of the contributions to this series demonstrate these interactions nicely: Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore reveals that the 17th-century apothecary ‘knew substances through “his whole person”’, and William Tullett makes similar observations about 18th-century perfumers.
A third way to study the senses is the ‘sensescape’ approach. This is where scholars take a particular environment or activity, and analyse the multiple sensations that were perceived within it. Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, Cultural History of the Senses, showcases some of the most popular sensescapes, which include the marketplace, street, and church. Donna Bilak’s post is an example of this approach: she uncovers the intriguing sensations reported in the iatrochemical laboratory of the 17th century New England puritan Gershom Bulkeley, which included ‘urinous’ flavours. What Bilak, and many of our other contributors reveal, is that people from the past consciously mobilised their senses when going about their everyday work, whether as a medical practitioner, perfumer, or chef.
One of the biggest obstacles to doing sensory history relates to evidence: most sensory stimuli are ephemeral, leaving no direct historical trace, which means we have to rely on written descriptions or images to access past sensory experience. Unfortunately, this is far from straightforward, due to the difficulties people encountered when putting sensory experiences into words. Peter Charles Hoffer labels this the lemon problem: ‘I can taste a lemon and savour the immediate experience, but can I find words to convey to another person exactly what that sensation was?’
To meet these challenges, exciting new techniques have been devised by historians to recreate past sensations, which involve the use of ‘immersive technology’, such as artificial smells and tastes. By activating our own senses, the intention is to ‘replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost’. Historians of science and food deploy similar techniques, re-enacting past experiments (e.g. or making foodstuffs (e.g. here and here), to reach a closer understanding of contemporary worldviews. Tillmann Taape and Erica Rowan, two of our contributors, are both engaged in this sort of innovative work. Admittedly such approaches do attract sceptics. For instance, Mark Smith warns that while it is possible to reproduce a particular sensation from history, the way we ‘consume’ that sensation may be different from the way it was experienced at the time. Indeed, an experience of a sensation may even change over a person’s own lifetime, as Hannah Newton’s post reveals: for early modern patients, what they would normally perceive as pleasant tastes – such as sweet cordials – were found during illness to be disgusting, owing to the effects of noxious humours on the taste-buds.
Despite the challenges involved, our contributors are optimistic about applying a sensory approach to the study of recipes. So long as we accept that sensory perceptions are culturally contingent, there is no reason why it is not possible to glimpse how past societies understood and experienced sensations.