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Session R5091 (Roundtable-Food Studies and the Middle East: Past, Present, Future), 2018
Food in Middle Eastern literature and culture is a vast field, spanning from classical poetry to modern printed cookbooks. Yet classical and medieval material has received more scholarly attention than more recent sources when it comes to literary and cultural studies of food in the region. This presentation gives an overview of existing scholarship (with a focus on Arabic material) and suggests that a cultural studies approach could widen the scope of Middle East food studies in terms of both coverage and content.

Between 1984 and 2001, critical editions of the major works of the medieval manuscript tradition of Arabic cookery books were published; in 2017 and 2018, two new translations in English of texts from this genre have appeared. Food-related scholarship focused on this era has not limited itself to cookbooks, however, and has much to offer scholars studying other periods. The study of medieval cookbooks, mostly written in Middle Arabic, highlights the need to look beyond “classical” Arabic texts when studying food. Work on the culture and history of everyday life has drawn from diverse genres, from legal texts like hisba manuals to medical and pharmacological texts to chronicles.

How might these approaches be extended to shed new light on the relationship between food, culture, and society in the early modern and modern Middle East? ‘Ammiyya poetry, from the 17th century Hazz al-Quhuf to the political refrains of Ahmed Fuad Negm and protest music in the Maghreb, represents one possibility, as do the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and others who have fictionalized and dramatized social change and everyday life. Printed cookbooks first appear in Arabic in the late nineteenth century and continue to be produced today, but they are curiously understudied. The influence of the Galenic approach to medicine in the region offers a scientific framework for understanding food as it relates to medicine and the body, alongside modern nutritional approaches. Legal genres like fatwa collections span the classical and contemporary periods and provide insights into everyday concerns. And other media including magazines, radio, films food blogs, and television include a plethora of culinary material.

Food, intimately connected to everyday life and expressed in a range of linguistic and cultural registers across the region, offers many new possibilities for cultural narratives: from those that attend to the longue duree––tracing continuity and change across epochs typically studied in isolation from one another––to investigations of the particularities of the local.