Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes: Aspects of Life in an Islamic Metropolis of the Eastern Mediterranean. By PAULINA B. LEWICKA. Islamic History and Civilization, vol. 88. Leiden: BRILL, 2011. Pp. xxi + 626, maps. $268.
Middle Eastern food history is a field in which one frequently encounters amateurism and a confusion between research and celebration. By contrast, Paulina Lewicka is a historian, and a good one. She does not celebrate food, she studies it, and the reader searching for recipes and cooking tips in this book is bound to be as disappointed as the one seeking reenactment advice in a scholarly publication on military history. That quality alone would be sufficient to make this book a solid contribution toward improving the scholarly standards of its field. Despite this and a number of other strengths, however, her book is weakened by problems in the implementation of its research methods and in its presentation.
The book begins with an introductory essay presenting the population of medieval Cairo with the kind of combination of scholarly rigor and accessibility that anyone in charge of putting together an undergraduate course reading list dreams of seeing more often. It also displays Lewicka's mastery of the historiography of Egypt, which is only matched by her familiarity with food studies literature of both Europe and the Middle East. She then moves on to a critical description of her sources--cookbooks, Hisba manuals, chronicles, and medical and literary texts--and methodology, demonstrating in the process the breadth of scope that any serious attempt at creating a general picture of food traditions requires. One would have hoped to see some hagiographies and archaeological scholarship thrown into the mix, but given the magnitude of the effort she can hardly be faulted for these omissions.
Throughout this discussion Lewicka displays a keen awareness of potential traps that are laid by prescriptive sources and by literary texts that necessarily concentrate on the exceptional when she seeks to uncover what was typical. She also rightfully denounces the all-too-common attitude of some who see no problem in including Hadith or the travelogue of a Napoleonic agent in Cairo in their discussion of Safavid cuisine. As Lewicka well knows, no research on medieval Italian cuisine would draw from observations of nineteenth-century Germany. Middle Eastern food cultures change, sometimes radically, over time and place, just as...