Award-winning author and Pelham resident Paul Freedman talks about his interests in medieval and culinary history and who he’d invite to dinner.
Sitting in Paul Freedman’s gracious Tudor-style living room in Pelham, one can’t help but notice the shelves lined with antiquarian books. Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History at Yale University, carefully selects one to show this writer. He gently turns the brittle, yellowed pages of a Latin volume on the bishops of Barcelona, clearly grateful for the opportunity to discuss his collection and his career.
To hear Freedman tell it, he is not your archetypal academic. Over the past 41 years, he’s established a notable career teaching and publishing relevant scholarship in not just one but two areas of study: medieval European social history, particularly that of Catalonia, Spain, and the history of American food and cuisine.
“It’s possible to have two interests,” he says of his work. “It’s a little bit odd, but it is also good when you reach a certain age to start doing things that are new. From a professional standpoint, this is not necessarily encouraged. It is considered cute, eccentric; and it’s considered forgivable, because of age. If I were in my 40s and doing this, I think people would wonder, Has your hobby gotten out of hand?”
Freedman, 70, taught medieval history at Vanderbilt University for 18 years, receiving its Nordhaus Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. He moved to Yale in 1997, to teach undergraduate and graduate students. That year, he and wife Bonnie Roe, a New York City securities lawyer whom he met when they were history graduate students, settled in Pelham. “I love living in Pelham for itself,” Freedman says. “You have the feeling that you’re living in real life; you’re not in some very isolated suburbia, yet it has the benefits of suburbia: space, quiet, greenery, pleasant and interesting neighbors, and convenience.”
Freedman has published, edited, and presented many books, articles, chapters, and papers on his scholarly passions. He speaks French, German, Italian, Spanish, Catalan and understands Latin (“the ones I sort of have to know,” he jokes). Freedman finds teaching “extremely, extremely rewarding,” he says, because he teaches students material he believes is intrinsically interesting and “things that I think are important for them to know,” despairing that because history is not given enough attention, the beauty of the past is often lost.
Freedman also holds numerous professional memberships and honors. The Haskins Medal of The Medieval Academy of America, awarded in 2002 for his book Images of the Medieval Peasant, is particularly meaningful because the organization includes all scholars who study the Middle Ages. In 2008, he edited Food: The History of Taste, which won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and has been translated into 11 languages.
Freedman’s bridge between medieval history and culinary history can be seen in another 2008 book, Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, prompted by his study of trade in luxury products. And yes, he does have a favorite spice: cardamom. “It’s so exotic; it’s so marvelous and unpredictable,” he raves.
The New York Public Library’s extensive menu collection inspired him to write Ten Restaurants That Changed America in 2016. (The paperback edition cites Westchester’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in an afterword about restaurants currently changing America.) American Cuisine and How It Got This Way, which explores how and why convenience, technology, and predictability took precedence over food taste, will be published this October.
Growing up on New York City’s West Side, Freedman was interested in World War II and European history. He fondly recalls memorizing baseball batting averages, along with Michelin-starred restaurants. He had an interest in food and elegant tastes: At age 10, during a visit to Europe, he recalls being “very annoyed” when his parents did not take him along to Laperouse, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris. Freedman thinks that, generally, academics have eclectic tastes in food, noting that university towns often have more diverse restaurants. His Twitter feed features pictures of refined meals he’s cooked or eaten at wildly popular restaurants, like La Mercerie in New York City and Husk in Charleston.
Freedman earned his BA in history in 1971 from University of California, Santa Cruz — then an experimental college with no grades — liberating to him for experiences and exposure to “rather non-New York kinds of people,” he says. He earned a master’s degree in library science in 1977 and a PhD in history in 1978, both from University of California, Berkeley.
He studied medieval history out of curiousity about “how people can fight for irrational and fanatical causes” and Catalonia because “it has wonderful archival material, of which more has been preserved than in any other part of Europe,” he comments. “They have castles, knights, cities, guilds, peasants, serfs, commerce, spices — the whole range of medieval culture and society is represented there.”
An interest in social distinctions engendered Freedman’s interest in food as a serious topic, particularly “how people define themselves as members of one class or another and how the symbols change,” not only in the Middle Ages, but also now, he explains thoughtfully, mentioning differences he noticed in food preferences among classes while he lived in Nashville.
In their spare time, Freedman and his wife attend the opera and ballet in New York City and enjoy reading, traveling, and playing with their Cornish Rex cat, Biscus. They’ll walk to Mexican restaurants in nearby New Rochelle, frequent Alvin & Friends there, or Fontanella and Sakura in Pelham. He shops locally, enthusing that local grocery chain DeCicco & Sons is “one of the best things about living here.” Freedman recently hosted his book club, for Pelham locals from their early 40s to 70s, which included preparing dinner for the group (he made chili).
Who else would Freedman enjoy having around his dinner table? As a medievalist, he’d invite Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher of the 13th century, “for his wisdom — practical, as well as contemplative,” he says. He’d also invite Abraham Lincoln “for his leadership, thoughtfulness, and wit.” Dinner fare would include vegetable paella, respectful of kosher laws, and tapioca pudding for Maimonides, and roast duck (preferably wild) and orange fritters, a specialty of the era, for Lincoln.
Freedman is thoughtful about his areas of study, commenting that “food is the soul of society” because it is the object of nostalgia, memory, and creativity. And “one of the things about medieval history,” he muses, “is that there are items of scholarship that are hundreds of years old yet still important. It’s nice because whatever contribution you have made, people — perhaps not a whole lot of people — may still be reading and paying attention to decades or even centuries from now.”
Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Briarcliff Manor.