The Ten Most Important People in Food History?

April 3, 2014

The Daily Meal has asked an intriguing question: Name the ten most important people in the history of food.

I’ve been struggling with my answers for the past couple of days, and keep changing my mind.  The first person I thought of was Christopher Columbus, who completely changed the way the world eats. Before his voyage there were no horses, pigs or cows on the American continet.  He also took a whole slew of plants to Europe from whence they traveled to Africa and Asia.  Without Columbus there’d be no tomatoes in Italy, chiles in Thailand, peanuts in Africa or potatoes in Ireland.  And that’s just for starters.

But before Columbus there was Alexander the Great, whose tutor Aristotle encouraged him to take botanists on his journeys of conquest.  In the third century, BCE, he changed Greek society by bringing them citrus, peaches, pistachios and peacocks.

In between, of course, there was Marco Polo.  He may not have brought noodles back from Asia, but he returned with many other foodstuffs.

Then there are the cookbook writers. Careme, Escoffier.  The English Robert Mays, who wrote a much-read English cookbook in 1588. The author of the extremely influential Le Cuisiner Francois, which disseminated the principles of French cooking in 1651 and was widely translated into other languages. (It was in print, in English, for more than 200 years.) And of course the great Chinese scholar of the Ch’ing Dynasty, Yuan Mei.

What if we concentrate only on America? Even so, it’s hard to narrow down the list, which would probably have to start with Thomas Jefferson, who was responsible for bringing us so much of what we eat today.  He even tried planting olive trees in Virginia. “The olive," he wrote, "is a tree least known in America, and yet the most worthy of being known.  Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious.  Perhaps it may claim a preference even to bread; because there is such an infinitude of vegetables which it renders a proper and comfortable nourishment.” (Jefferson may have been the Michael Pollan of his time; he was a great believer in eating vegetables.)

I’m imagining that the Daily Meal list will concentrate most heavily on contemporary influencers. Even so, I worry that the great Angelo Pelligrini, who pretty much invented Slow Food 60 years before its time, will be overlooked.  And what about Fanny Farmer, who made cooking “scientific”?  Or Chuck Williams, who brought us most of the tools we now consider necessary, thus reinventing the way we cook?

Thinking about this has been a lot of fun. Who’s on your list?





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  • Interesting question. Reading through your post makes me want to study food history more, as I immediately thought of more contemporary people: Julia Child, James Beard and Alice Waters (as well as Escoffier) were the ones that came to mind. Columbus is a smart choice for the reasons you point out.

  • NMissC says:

    Clarence Birdseye. Julia Child, who I really think invented a kind of cookbook that has proliferated. I don’t know enough about the history of wine to know if there’s an individual critical to the trade between England and Portugal and Bordeaux to be named, but if there is, that person. I’m similarly ignorant about the history of Japanese and Chinese cooking to know, but for Chinese I have the sense that it’s (It’s being both the cooking there and the way it has spread across the world) not exemplified in one biography the way some of these developments seem to be. Perhaps Frenand Point.


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