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Response to Review no. 695

A thoughtful and intelligent review, positive or not, is a blessing to the author and all those who engage with the book’s relevant fields of scholarship. I am fortunate to have benefited from those elsewhere. Derek Oddy’s review of my Hunger: a Modern History is far from the ’serious engagement‘, let alone the ‘professional, courteous and temperate’ tone, promised and suggested by the IHR Guidelines for its Reviews in History. It does no credit to him or this forum.

Amidst the review’s misrepresentations, factual errors, and name-calling there is one point of substance. Oddy believes the book lacks ‘methodological rigour’ because I do not use our current knowledge of nutritional requirements to map out how hungry people really were in the past. This is the project that Oddy devoted much of his scholarly career to. It produced an important body of work which contributed to the ‘standard of living debate’ still raging among social and economic historians in the 1970s. This was duly referenced and discussed in my first chapter. There I explained that while others had usefully traced the rise and fall of hunger through nutritional standards and anthropometric measures my project was a different one. Simply put, I wanted to understand hunger as a cultural category not a biological condition. Specifically, the book explores how and why the meaning of hunger changed over time. I argued that the way people understood hunger shaped the experience of it and the systems developed to govern it. As the book mainly focuses on the century between 1850 and 1950 I saw the development of nutritional science at this time – and its endless debates about what constituted an adequate nutritional standard and how it should be measured – as part of that history. Historians of science will be just as perplexed as I that Oddy believes making science an object of historical investigation is not to understand it or its truths. I do not refuse the insights generated by those like Oddy who believe that ‘modern nutritional knowledge should be applied to data from the past’. I am interested though in historicizing the construction and politics of that knowledge.

Oddy should feel less beleaguered. His well earned retirement should allow him time to read other peoples work more seriously. If he did so he would learn what the cultural and imperial turns he berates me for invoking are (clearly it is not that I have no ‘methodological rigor’, just not his method).  They may not be as threatening to the author of From Plain Fare to Fusion Food as he thinks they are.