In the tenth century, a scholar named Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq produced an Arabic manuscript called Kitab al-Tabikh (“The Book of Cooking”.) This volume, which compiled and discussed the recipes of eighth- and ninth-century Islamic rulers (caliphs) and their courts in Iraq, represents the oldest known surviving cookbook of the Arab-Islamic world. Many more such cookbooks followed; in their day they represented an important literary genre among cultured elites. As one food historian recently noted, “there are more cookbooks in Arabic from before 1400 than in the rest of the world’s languages put together”.
This course will take the study of Ibn Sayyar’s cookbook as its starting point for examining the cultural dynamics of food in the Middle East across the sweep of the Islamic era, into the modern period, and until the present day. It will use the historical study of food and “foodways” as a lens for examining subjects that relate to a wide array of fields and interests. These subjects include politics, economics, agricultural and environmental studies, anthropology, literature, religion, and public health. With regard to the modern era, the course will pay close attention to the social consequences of food in shaping memories and identities – including religious, ethnic, national, and gender-based identities – particularly among people who have dispersed or otherwise migrated.