European Food from the Renaissance to today
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European Food History

men drinking together
An early chocolate house

April 2016 - During the 1500s and 1600s AD, European traders began to bring back all kinds of new foods from places they sailed to around the world. Rich people began to eat sugar and ginger from India (Combining these two new foods together gave us the gingerbread man). They drank hot chocolate from Central America, coffee from East Africa, and tea from China. Coffee and tea encouraged more and more people to start eating breakfast, which became more common in the 1500s. Breakfast became more common after 1500 because more people were working for a boss, and they had to work much longer hours than before. They didn't get their supper until 7 or 8 pm, so they wanted to have their dinner about noon, and then they were too hungry before dinner if they didn't have breakfast when they got up. So most people started to eat breakfast.

But most people couldn't afford fancy imported foods. They were still living mainly the way they had in the Middle Ages - on barley - barley porridge, barley bread, and barley soup, or, in northern Europe, on rye bread ("black bread"). The Little Ice Age made it harder to grow food, and made rye more important than barley even further south. People hated the rye bread, but they had to eat it anyway.

woman baking bread
Woman baking bread (Jean Francois Millet, France 1854)

But colonialism - conquering other countries and profiting from the work of people in India and Africa and South America - made Europeans richer. In the 1600s and 1700s, people in Europe got richer and got more political power - the British had Cromwell, and then the French had the French Revolution - and the newly powerful citizens demanded white bread - wheat bread - instead of that horrible rye bread. By the late 1800s, even in Germany only beggars and prisoners ate rye bread.

women working in a factory
Chocolate factory (1800s)

Thanks to colonialism and the slave trade, Europe could also support educated food scientists, and these scientists also began to create new foods to please people who could now afford to buy them. They made the first big orange carrots in the 1600s.

Colonialism and trade also brought new foods from other countries. Most of the new South American foods were hot-weather foods, so potatoes, tomatoes, and corn were hard to grow in Europe, and sweet potatoes, yuca, and peanuts were impossible to grow. Europeans began to eat South American foods long after Africans and South Asians and Chinese people did. But by the 1800s Europeans began to eat potatoes, and then tomatoes, both from South America. Cooks in Europe cooked these foods in new ways, inventing french fries and potato salad, and adding tomato sauce to pizza and spaghetti and gazpacho. Food scientists developed the chocolate bar in the 1800s. As modern countries formed, governments encouraged all French people or all Italian people to eat the same way, mixing up the food of each small region. So instead of only Bretons eating crepes, people all over France began to eat them. Instead of only people from Bavaria eating pretzels, people all over Germany began to eat pretzels.

In the 1900s, even more new foods came to Europe from around the world. People moving to Europe from Asia and Africa brought with them new foods like couscous, tofu, peanut oil, safflower oil, and curry. Today, people in Europe come from all over the world and eat foods from all over the world, cooked both in the traditional way and in new, European ways.

More about rye bread
More about North American food

Bibliography and further reading about European food:

Medieval European Food
Modern Europe
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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