Last month, many Recipes Project contributors and readers participated in a virtual conference on Food and the Book: 1300-1800. This exciting event, spread out in sessions over two weeks, was co-sponsored by the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library and Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon Foundation initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I had the pleasure of co-organizing the conference along with David Goldstein and Allen Grieco. Many individuals at the Newberry Library and on the Before Farm to Table team were involved with the planning and execution of this conference, including our very own Recipes Project co-editor Amanda Herbert.
Food and the Book was planned as an interdisciplinary conference which examined the book as a primary intersection for foodways throughout the premodern world. Focused primarily on Europe, the conference examined the language and imagery of food in all kinds of books, including printed cookbooks, manuscript recipe books, literature, historical documents, religious writings, medical treatises, and engravings.
Although the conference had originally been planned as an in-person event, the arrival of COVID-19 necessitated a virtual format. And while many things could have gone awry, the conference appeared to run effortlessly thanks to a flurry of behind-the-scenes technical work by so many at the Newberry and Folger. Each session had a large and enthusiastic audience, particularly our public sessions, which were hosted as Zoom webinars and live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube. Thanks to the widespread interest, the Q&A portions of sessions were lively and full of creative and interdisciplinary inquiry and suggestion.
Two public sessions focusing on current food issues, particularly those of minority and marginalized communities, bookended the conference. The first, a session on food writing, featured a panel of distinguished food writers, historians, and chefs: Tamar Adler, Irina Dumitrescu, Paul Fehribach, and Michael Twitty. Their conversation, linking the premodern topics to be covered over the next two weeks to modern food writing, ranged from the definition of a recipe, hunger, and the pleasure of food. In the final public session, chef Sean Sherman and scholars Elizabeth Hoover and Eli Suzukovich III celebrated Indigenous food cultures. The panelists invited the audience to expand their notions of historical records and consider food beyond colonial contexts and frameworks. They each emphasized that the range of Indigenous culinary activities like food cultivation, cooking, and medicine, actively use a historical knowledge base carefully curated and preserved over time.
The remaining sessions featured innovative programming, incorporating not only a wide range of topics and scholars, but also a variety of formats, including presentations, roundtables, and seminar discussions of pre-circulated papers. In order to build a sense of community potentially lost by hosting a conference online, Food and the Book participants frequently live tweeted, transcribed part of Folger Library recipe book at a virtual Transcribathon with Heather Wolfe, enjoyed a virtual happy hour, and got a taste of the Newberry Library’s holdings of food-related books in brief video collection presentations. So, despite the challenges of a virtual conference in terms of creating community and networking, there were opportunities for personal engagement and conviviality.
The Recipes Project community is undoubtedly familiar with many of the Food and the Book’s thirty-five presenters, as they have frequently appeared on the Recipes Project as contributors. Just to provide a few examples, Marissa Nicosia and Molly Taylor-Poleskey discussed their work in roundtables on “Cookbooks and Recipe Books” and “Documenting Food History in Archival Sources.” Sara Pennell presented recent research on kitchen waste in early modern English households in a session about “Material Kitchens and the Social Life of Early Modern Food,” while Jennifer Park simultaneously delighted and disgusted the audience with her description of eating mummies in a broader discussion with Nicholas Jones and Gitanjali Shahani about “Race and Food in the Early Modern Book.” And in a discussion of pre-circulated papers on literary ecologies, Andy Crow, Madeline Bassnett, and Kathleen Long heartily considered topics ranging from rationing words and food in poetry, weather and climate concerns, and the excesses of Henri III’s court. Larger digital projects like CoReMA, EMROC, and the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network were also represented in a panel on “Digitizing Food and the Book.”
While the overall breadth of research throughout the conference was quite energizing, perhaps one of the particularly exciting points was the number of early career researchers and graduate students. ECRs were represented in many sessions and a graduate student lightning round featured the work of seven graduate students. These students, hailing from departments of history, literature, and archeology and institutions around the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany, demonstrate the long future ahead for research in food and the book.
The conference also revealed significant gaps in past and current research, and the need for inclusion of a more diverse body of scholars in this area of study. As evinced by the discussions of premodern racial and identity issues during Food and the Book, there is much more research in this area which can be done. Several sessions also highlighted gaps and drawbacks in both the accessibility of archival and special collections materials and efforts to mitigate accessibility concerns through digitization. There are many opportunities for growth and expansion of the study of food through books, and many prospects for collaboration and support of this scholarly community.
The Food and the Book conference may have concluded, but recordings of all the sessions are available on YouTube. Please watch what you can, and let’s continue the conversations started at the conference and communicate virtually (and hopefully again soon in person!) about all of the exciting research yet to be done.
Thanks to all involved in Food and the Book, including the presenters and the planning teams at the Newberry Library and Folger Institute, especially David Goldstein, Allen Grieco, Lia Markey and the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies, Kathleen Lynch and the Folger Institute, and the Before Farm to Table Team, especially Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.