Reay Tannahill: Accidental pioneer of food history and bestselling romantic novelist

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The Independent Online

Reay Tannahill, food historian and historical novelist: born Glasgow 9 December 1929; married 1958 Michael Edwardes (died 1990; marriage dissolved 1983); died London 2 November 2007.

Reay Tannahill was an accidental pioneer of food history. Her Food in History (1973) was one of the earliest general books on the subject, and, though she had few qualifications for writing it, is still one of the best. It is excellent precisely because, when writing it, she had no models to emulate, and had actually to determine what her subject really was. To this task she brought the pair of gifts that mattered – intelligence and common sense.

The book originated in a commission in the 1960s for the Folio Society, for which she was a press officer, to put together two illustrated presentation books, one on Regency England, and the second on the French Revolution. They were successful, so the Folio Society asked her to think of another subject that would be easy to illustrate, and she chose The Fine Art of Food (1968)

"I thought it was going to be easy to research, but I soon discovered just how feeble most of the other books were," she told Claire Clifton in an interview in 1990:

They were all about recipes and banquets. They reckoned if you started off with ancient Rome and jumped to the Renaissance you were home and dry. The emphasis was all on gastronomy. I got to thinking, this is ridiculous, food is so absolutely crucial and important it must have been a motivator to historical development. So at that point I suggested to Eyre and Spottiswoode, as they then were, that I would like to do a book called "Food in History".

Her study of English and economics at Glasgow University was practically the only preparation she had for the undertaking, which took her six or seven years. But she had learned a major lesson while researching her earlier work Paris in the Revolution (1966) – an anthology of eye-witness accounts – "to look very carefully at my sources. Some of the perfectly orthodox sources were totally untrustworthy," she said.

An example she delighted in was that of a 19th-century French authority on gastronomy who

did not believe that the French had ever eaten with their fingers. The French had always eaten with knives and forks. When he quoted medieval texts, he twisted them so that the French, in fact, were not eating with their fingers. Now a lot of people when they do research just go to the last chap who has written a book; so you get myths like that carried on quite uncritically. What I seriously avoided was any book on food history published in the last 150 years.

Until the advent of Tannahill's own work, that would have been quite a good rule of thumb for any would-be food historian.

Reay Tannahill's unusual forename was, in fact, the maiden name of her mother, Olive Reay. Born in Glasgow in 1929, Tannahill was educated at Shawlands Academy and Glasgow University. She worked as a probation officer, advertising copywriter, a reporter and graphic designer before fetching up in publishing. In 1958 she married Michael Edwardes, but the marriage ended in 1983. She led a quiet private life, living in a smart terrace house in London near Tate Britain, and gave her "recreation" as "work", though she belonged to the Arts Club and the Authors' Club, and was chairman of the latter from 1997 to 2000.

As food history is only now in the course of becoming an academic subject, there was no faculty or school to recognise Tannahill's contribution; in any case, some academic historians were sniffy about her work. "I had to contend with a certain amount of resistance when the book first came out," she told Clifton. "There was a sort of faint atmosphere around – if I had crammed half a million years of food history into 400 pages, it must be superficial. But you see, there is this difference between being readable and being superficial."

She was certainly readable. But she was also one of the first writers to recognise the importance of the prehistoric aspect of her subject, and to turn to archaeology for an account of the early human diet, just as she was one of the first to realise that the history of agriculture was fundamental. Before her book, histories of food drew on accounts of feasts and banquets, and on early cookery books, all of which recorded largely what was eaten by the literate upper-classes. Few non-academic historians thought it important or interesting to see what the masses were actually eating, the details of which are more likely to be contained in dreary accounts of crop failures and successes than in glittering tales of court festivities.

Her ambitions were not scholarly in the narrow, academic sense:

I had enough material so that every paragraph could have been a chapter and every sentence could have been a paragraph. But what I was trying to do was to produce a panoramic view so that people who were only ever going to read one book about food could know as much as is reasonable for your average, intelligent reader to want to know.

Still her scholarship was sound, as her revised edition in 1988 amply demonstrated. The revision was, she emphasised,

completely different and a better book for two reasons. There has been a tremendous amount of new research done since 1970 – material not available before to Western historians. I think one of the problems was that when I was writing it the first time around, it was my first major book, I was desperately anxious to sound authoritative – not to stick my neck out unless I was going to be able to produce chapter and verse. Sixteen years later I will stick my neck out as far as I feel inclined to stick my neck out.

Indeed she did take risks, and was proud that in this second revision she was one of the first to write at length about Genetically Modified Organisms in the food supply. She did a third revised edition in 2002, and for it won the Premio Letterario Internazionale Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore. She followed it with Flesh and Blood: a history of the cannibal complex in 1975, which originated in material she had had to leave out of Food in History.

Her publishers were quick to remind her that there was another subject to be covered in a similar way. After all, in the food volume, she had said that "in the last analysis there are only two things without which there would be no human race and no history. One is food and the other is sex." So in 1980 she published Sex in History. It was translated into a dozen languages.

Tired of writing non-fiction, she turned her hand to novels, and her first, a historical family saga, A Dark and Distant Shore (1983) was an 800-page bestseller, combining, said one reviewer, Gone With The Wind, The Thorn Birds and War and Peace. The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1985) followed, set in medieval Scotland, France and Rome; Passing Glory (1989), won the Romantic Novelists' Association's Romantic Novel of the Year award. Next came Still and Stormy Waters (1993), Return of the Stranger (1995) and then Fatal Majesty (1998), about Mary, Queen of Scots.

In The Seventh Son (2001), she tried to be fairer to Richard III than Shakespeare had been: "I looked at all the evidence, then tried to position him, not as your classic evil character – there are few truly evil people in the world or in history – but as a fairly tough cookie with a desire to elevate himself." Last year she published Having the Builders In, a medieval tale of a formidable widow, Dame Constance de Clair, making the arrangements for an extension to her castle. Having the Decorators In, published only the day before Tannahill's death, is a continuation of Dame Constance's refurbishment travails.

As a journalist (frequently for this paper) Tannahill was stylish and amusing. In a 1996 piece, on the occasion when an interest group suggested that one way to prevent binge-drinking might be to introduce children to alcohol at home, she commented that:

The headline writers, as always, had a field day in the matter of the Portman Group's suggestion that British children be introduced gradually to watered wine and the occasional sip of beer. And yet, once upon a time, most of the Western world – children included – pottered amiably through life in a state of permanent intoxication.

Paul Levy

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