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Eating and drinking in Africa before the 20th century

Cuisines, exchanges, social constructions

Published on line since April 2010 (, Afriques. Débats, méthodes et terrains d’histoireis the only journal devoted to the history of Africa before the 20th century. For its fifth thematic issue, scheduled for late 2012, Afriques is calling for papers on: “Eating and drinking in Africa before the 20th century: Cuisines, exchanges, social constructions”. Ten years will, in 2012, have passed since the publication of Cuisine et société en Afrique: histoire, saveurs, savoir-faire (M. Chastanet, F.X. Fauvelle-Aymar and D. Juhé-Beaulaton, eds.), still one of the very few books devoted to this topic. It described the history of foods, dishes, drinks and commensality in Africa. The fifth issue of Afriques would like to update this description while focusing on the period before the 20th century, as is the journal’s wont.

The history of plants and agriculture figured among the questions raised by the first historians who worked on the Middle Ages in West Africa, such as Raymond Mauny (1953) or Tadeusz Lewicki (1974). These authors tried to draw evidence about the distribution of the cereals grown in the Sahel by comparing geographical texts in Arabic with contemporary data. The history of food was definitively opened as a field of research in France and Europe thanks to Jean-Louis Flandrin and his followers, but it is not yet a major subject for historians working on Africa, in particular south of the Sahara. For instance, Africa is missing in the pages of Histoire de l’alimentation (J.L. Flandrin and M. Montanari, eds., 1996). For various reasons, it is not very well represented in publications on this subject. The descriptive ethnology that used to occupy this field of research tended to deny, as usual, the dynamic changes in culinary practices. Historians of the West have been wary of the sources used to write Africa’s “ancient” history. The historians studying food in Africa before the 20th century do not normally have access to books of recipes or the “practical sources” for calculating food intake and food-related expenses as in the West.

When Tables d’hier, tables d’ailleurs (J.L. Flandrin and J. Cobbi, eds.) came out in 1999, the anthropology of the cuisines of the non-Western world was compared with the history of food in Europe and North Africa. This was not the first time anthropological fieldwork in Africa suffered comparison with the written sources available for Europe. Though controversial, Cooking, cuisine and class (Jack Goody, 1982) is still a reference work. It opened the way to comparing African cuisines with Europe and Asia. Goody, a sociologist who did fieldwork in Ghana, contrasted the differentiated, socially ranked cuisines in Eurasia (in which he tentatively included North Africa and the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia) with sub-Saharan Africa where he did not find a socially marked hierarchy in relation to food, nor even a modification of “menus” between everyday and festive occasions. This generalization was abusive. Goody did not compare the same type of data in both worlds. Some characteristics that the sociologist said he did not observe in Africa had to do with specific cases chosen in the world outside Africa (for instance, France with its “haute cuisine”) or with historical texts mainly based on sources such as recipe books. We are calling for a dynamic approach that reflects the still underestimated diversity of African societies. Where do we now stand in understanding the social construction of food in Africa?

This issue will start by assessing the history of food on the continent, both north and south of the Sahara. We hope for methodologically innovative papers about: the sources for food history in Africa prior to the 20th century (the use of external sources, the identification of local sources, the articulation between oral and written sources), the dialog between scientific disciplines (history, archeology of the historical era, linguistics, anthropology), and historical approaches (the history of culinary techniques, the history of taste and textures). Some of these approaches are connected with new trends in the writing of history (connected history, comparative history and sensorial history).

The response to Goody’s argument entails studying how cuisines in African societies have been socially constructed over time, i.e. analyzing the construction of identities and, within these societies, the mechanisms whereby a social hierarchy is expressed through food (products, dishes, drinks and table manners) as well as the question of culinary practices on festive occasions. A fruitful dialog will hopefully take place between archeology and history on this last topic.

The history of plants for crops has often been the starting point for the history of food in Africa (in particular, through a dialog with botanists), but it is still an open question. Several texts have dealt with the arrival of new plants, in particular maize from the New World. Cereals were a subject discussed in Cuisine et société en Afrique. In this special issue, we would like to publish articles on various plants used for food, whether of African origin or from other continents. Nor do we want to forget the food provided by gathering, hunting, fishing and the rearing of livestock.

The question of material and cultural, intra- and intercontinental, exchanges is central to understanding the dynamics of food and culinary practices. We would like for attention to be drawn to: regional complementarities; the circulation of foodstuffs on a large or small scale (the history of markets, of the food supply for urban centers, etc.); nonmarket exchanges (gift-giving); and the transmission of know-how (the impact of slavery or métissage). Contributions dealing with African diasporas (in the Americas, the Indian Ocean) are welcome.

Note to authors

Texts may be written in French or English. They may deal with African societies anywhere on the continent (including North Africa) and with African diasporas. Contributions from archeologists and linguists, from ethnobotanists and anthropologists are welcome if they fit into a historical perspective. The journal Afriques focuses on the history of the 20th century only when it is placed in a long-term perspective. Two headings in the journal, “Débats et lectures” and “Sources” (for the publishing of sources on line), can be used for this special issue.

Practical information

The deadline for sending an abstract (approximately 800 words) for a proposed article is 31 October 2011.

The full article is to reach us by 31 May 2012.

The fifth issue of Afriques is slated for November 2012.

Please send the abstract and contribution to Thomas Guindeuil (

Monique Chastanet (CNRS/CEMAf/Université Paris 1) ; Gérard Chouin (IFRA-Ibadan/CEMAf/ArScAn) ; Dora de Lima (CRHM/Université Paris 1) ; Thomas Guindeuil (CEMAf/Université Paris 1)

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