Serving Up Food History and Mastering the Art of Public Engagement

By Paula Johnson

 Over several wintry days in January, at a sprawling hotel in midtown Manhattan, members of the American Historical Association and affiliated societies gamely selected from a virtual cornucopia of panel discussions, roundtables, and special sessions built around the theme, “History and the Other Disciplines.” Those interested in food studies—an inherently multidisciplinary field—found relevant sessions salted throughout the schedule, reflecting the field’s growth in recent years. I participated in one of these sessions, “Serving Up Food History and Mastering the Art of Public Engagement,” a panel organized and chaired by Amanda B. Moniz, assistant director of the National History Center of the AHA. The panel brought together historians to explore the opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities of sharing food-history research with a broad public.

The first presentation deftly illustrated the intensely collaborative nature of public history work. Moniz, with historians Helen Veit, assistant professor of history at Michigan State University, and Julia Irwin, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, discussed a multi-faceted media project that drew upon their complementary skills and expertise. With American Food Roots, a digital publication, the three historians produced content for a series of videos on how World War I changed American food and foodways. The videos feature Moniz (a former pastry chef) cooking period recipes while Veit and Irwin explain the larger historical and cultural context of food during the war. Veit showed one of the videos, which featured recipes for peanut butter soup (!) and a nut, cream cheese, and date salad, served with a mayonnaise dip.

Screenshot 2015-03-09 11.00.55Peanut Butter Soup recipe screenshot. http://www.americanfoodroots.com/features/wwi-food-shortages-changed-american-eating-habits/

Moniz, Veit, and Irwin discussed how they used the historian’s tools—and then some—to shape the video series. In addition to their research on the war itself, they scoured archival and library collections to help illustrate and expand the theme. The videos are enhanced significantly by the primary research underlying the production: period cookbooks, government posters and pamphlets, and news photographs allowed the historians to convey visually the urgency and deprivations of the war as well as the spirit of the times. The preparation of period recipes on camera also offers an accessible way for viewers to understand both the sacrifices caused by food shortages and the inventiveness of American cooks.

Rachel Hope Cleves, associate professor of history at the University of Victoria, spoke next about her blog, The Not So Innocents Abroad: Historical Ramblings on Sex, Food, and Other Bodily Pleasures, in Paris, Capri, and Beyond. Cleves noted how the blog permits a more informal voice than her academic writing, yet she grounds it in scholarly research and methods. Blogs, by their nature, are more widely and easily accessible than traditional scholarly monographs, and Cleves reported an unexpected benefit: the opportunity to engage immediately in thoughtful exchanges with people on the other side of the world, people she would not have encountered via academic channels.

Of her many intriguing food-related blog posts (e.g., “Elizabeth David & Coming Home,” and “Love’s Oven is Warm: Baking with Emily Dickinson”), Cleves spoke in depth about “Benjamin Franklin’s Apple Pudding” . While trying to follow Franklin’s instructions, she discovered they lacked adequate detail about quantities and ingredients. Perhaps eighteenth-century cooks familiar with the dish didn’t need such guidance, but a twenty-first century cook had questions—lots of them—and, like inquiries that drive academic research, Cleves’ questions underlie the structure and tone of the post. Finding the instruction to boil the apple-filled pastry for three hours difficult to reconcile, Cleves boiled it as directed and served the resulting putty-colored blob to guests. They, like readers of the blog, surely learned something new about the culinary milieu of Benjamin Franklin.

I wrapped up the session with a presentation about my work in food history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. As project director and co-curator of the exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, I addressed some of the curatorial decisions the team made in shaping an exhibition that presents the myriad—and often contradictory—forces behind some of the big changes in how food is produced, distributed, prepared, and consumed in American since World War II. The exhibition relies on objects, documents, and case studies to present the complexity of food and change, from Julia Child’s home kitchen to early microwave ovens and the rise of convenience foods; from artifacts of the counterculture to a menu board from an early drive thru restaurant. I also discussed the role of evaluation in public history work, reporting that survey responses to the FOOD exhibition are helping the team shape a robust schedule of public programming to enhance and expand the themes of the exhibition.

Julia Child's Kitchen new installation
The home kitchen of American cookbook author, teacher, and television chef Julia Child is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Our panel attracted a roomful of people who participated in a lively conversation about the expanding opportunities for engaging diverse publics in food-history discourse. While the panel touched on various media for bringing food history to the public, we agreed there are many other avenues to explore. We also agreed on our responsibility to continue bringing academic rigor, primary source material, creative thinking, and a passion for people, food, and history to every endeavor.

 


2 thoughts on “Serving Up Food History and Mastering the Art of Public Engagement”

  1. Great write-up of a terrific panel! Coincidentally, I made peanut butter soup two nights ago for a household of children. Okay, so my soup also had chicken stock and coconut milk in it, but the peanut butter was pretty dominant – and not bad at all.

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