Listening, Tasting, Reading, Touching: Interdisciplinary Histories of American Food

By Theresa McCulla

When members of the American Historical Association gathered for their annual meeting in New York City in January, attendees set out to explore disciplines other than history. Or rather, they aimed to understand where and how other disciplines intersect most fruitfully with the practice of history. To our panel of four scholars interested in food, such a perspective felt perfectly apt. The study of food has demanded an interdisciplinary approach since food history’s rise to popular prominence in the 1980s. Our papers sought to illustrate the value of material, visual, spatial, literary, and sensory approaches to answering historical questions.

Spanning the colonial period through the twentieth century, in rural as well as urban sites, we used food as a lens to explore social transformations in North America. United by themes of consumer culture and ethnic encounter, our research showed how food consumption reflected, and was reflective of, notions of nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality in distinct historical moments.

Carla Cevasco, a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard University, used methods of material culture analysis to compare English Puritan, French Catholic, and Huron communion vessels in colonial America. Cevasco argued that violent imperial conflict troubled the boundaries between spiritual and secular eating, blood and wine, and cannibalism and communion in these three cultures. Protestants were suspicious of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, and yet Protestants and Catholics alike practiced medicinal cannibalism, ingesting substances derived from the human body for medical purposes. In the same era that early Puritan colonists repurposed secular drinking implements as communion vessels, the Huron used French-made copper kettles to practice a ritual called the Feast of the Dead. Cevasco argued that New World combatants were willing to kill and die over perceived differences between what were in fact strikingly similar ideas and practices. Her paper testified to the value of material culture methodologies to the historian seeking to understand the belief systems of marginalized people who left only faint traces on the historical record.

Drawing on techniques of sensory history, Ashley Rose Young, PhD candidate in History at Duke University, listened to the sounds of the late-nineteenth-century French Market in New Orleans to unearth the pivotal role of immigrant vendors in shaping the taste preferences and food culture of the postbellum city. Young argued that sound, more so than sight, touch, taste or smell, informed depictions of late-nineteenth-century ethnic identity in New Orleans. Similar to public markets in many American port cities, the French Market served as a meeting ground for the city’s diverse population—a key space where the daily rituals of consumption bonded together community members from Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Here, African-American calas vendors competed alongside Spanish oystermen and Italian fishermen for customers. Their sonorous efforts to attract the attention of passers-by manifested in a wide variety of witty, salacious, musical, and grating street cries, which writers attempted to capture. To the delight of attendees, Young sang several street vendor cries. Her performance gave shape to compositions that used to be vital economic tools and cannot be fully appreciated as words and notes on a page.

The New Orleans French Market served as a social and economic space for city residents, travelers, slaves, free people of color, and indigenous people. French Market, New Orleans, 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress.
The New Orleans French Market served as a social and economic space for city residents, travelers, slaves, free people of color, and indigenous people. French Market, New Orleans, 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress.

With the paper of Heather Lee, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the panel moved from the market to the restaurant. Lee employed methodologies of visual and spatial studies to understand Chinese restaurants as urban spaces, translating the establishments’ physical layouts into social histories of sexual transgression and exoticism. With the additional input of city anti-vice records, Lee argued that New Yorkers patronized Chinese chop suey joints during the 1920s and 1930s not to sample unfamiliar tastes, but because the restaurant experience allowed patrons to experiment with their sexuality. By staying open to the early morning hours, Chinese restaurants provided a contact zone for people looking to live outside the boundaries of propriety. Young couples could evade their communities’ social conventions of courtship by rendezvousing at Chinese restaurants, because the Chinese staff acted aloof to their clients’ behavior. Female prostitutes solicited johns on the dining floor and men interested in other men met up in secluded corner booths. In her broader work, Lee is developing a historical database of Chinese restaurants, which she will make publicly available through an interactive digital platform on Chinese migration.

Early-twentieth-century New York City's Chinatown attracted diners in search of social and sexual transgressions. New Years, Chinatown, Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant, New York, n.d., Bain News Service, Library of Congress.
Early-twentieth-century New York City’s Chinatown attracted diners in search of social and sexual transgressions. New Years, Chinatown, Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant, New York, n.d., Bain News Service, Library of Congress.

My paper shifted the frame back to New Orleans and forward to the mid-twentieth century. I read a set of letters and recipes for Creole gumbo – the signature dish of New Orleans – that Louisiana residents submitted to a 1951 newspaper recipe contest. The recipes functioned as a window onto private conceptions of regional and even racial identities in the final years of de jure segregation. I argued that New Orleans whites tried to use Creole cuisine to claim ownership of an exceptional cultural legacy, exclusive of people of color, during an era when the social and political privileges associated with whiteness were eroding. These gumbo recipes – which arrived from addresses throughout New Orleans, from cooks of varying social and educational classes – showed how the practice of being Creole and making and eating Creole food mattered just as much in home kitchens as it did in public places like restaurants. African Americans resisted such exclusionary efforts, however. Restricted from eating the food that they had cooked in their own restaurants’ dining rooms, both implicitly and explicitly, Creole chefs and cooks of color made the midcentury New Orleans kitchen a political space.

Together, our papers affirmed the inherent interdisciplinarity of food history as a strength. While we each benefitted from scholarship outside of history, our collective goal was to demonstrate the value of food history to the broader study of American history and encourage a similarly expansive, creative approach to investigating all historical questions.


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