History Bound Up in Every Bite: Food, Environment, and Recipes in the Western Civ Survey

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Best wishes for a good Thanksgiving." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 1, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-6467-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Best wishes for a good Thanksgiving.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 1, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-6467-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

By David C. Fouser

I use food as much as possible in my surveys of Western Civilization and world history. As a cultural and environmental historian, I use food to give meaning to the lived experience of our subjects. We read The Epic of Gilgamesh alongside an ancient Mesopotamian recipe for beer, the “water of life” that Shamhat the Harlot gave to the wild-man Enkidu to mark his entry into her society.[1] Our discussion of Emile Zola’s Germinal pays particular attention to the contrasting diets of working class and bourgeois characters, and how their diets reflect their relationships to industrial capitalism. But, even better than talking about food is eating it.[2] Each semester, I hold a class potluck, and participation is (mostly) mandatory. The food is a novel sensory experience for the classroom, and the assignment bridges the gap between past and present by exposing the history bound up in every bite.

The assignment itself is simple: prepare a dish of your choice, describe the historical and cultural context of the recipe, locate the environmental origins of the ingredients, and tell the class about it. Investigating the history and cultural context of a recipe leads to a set of questions: Who first made it? Was it intended for particular occasions or specific people? How did you find the recipe, and is what you made different from the original version? Every semester, at least one student makes pumpkin pie, and informs a surprised classroom that it was in fact not served at the first Thanksgiving, but instead became a common holiday dish only in the early nineteenth century.[3] Such revelations bring into the open the meanings behind foods, especially those as loaded with symbolic value as pumpkin pie. In so doing, students find themselves on the same footing as ancient Mesopotamians and nineteenth-century coal miners, consuming both food and meaning.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "[Valentines and Christmas cards depicting pumpkin pies, a pumpkin patch, a jack-o'-lantern, farmers, an orchard, cupids and letters.]" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 1, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-c5c1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “[Valentines and Christmas cards depicting pumpkin pies, a pumpkin patch, a jack-o’-lantern, farmers, an orchard, cupids and letters.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 1, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-c5c1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Identifying the environmental origins of ingredients brings to light the fact that our global food system provides us with a cheap and varied bounty, but not with knowledge of our food’s origins. Modern recipes nearly always list their ingredients in the simplest and most abstract terms possible, like “butter” and “all-purpose flour.” Tracing the origins of the flour in a piecrust leads to the company that milled it, but rarely beyond, for both flour and wheat are commodities: part of a homogeneous, fungible category of thing, stripped of its environmental particularity by a global market. Each dish, then, contains both the historical context and contemporary relationships between people and nature: food for thought for courses that take students from our distant past to our shared present.

References:
[1] Josh Jones, “Discover the Oldest Beer Recipe in History, from Ancient Sumeria, 1800 B.C.,” Open Culture, March 3, 2015, http://www.openculture.com/2015/03/the-oldest-beer-recipe-in-history.html.

[2] NOTE: The policies for food in the classroom vary widely across institutions. Some have no problem with it, while at others you might send your department chair into paroxysms of panic—so look carefully before you try anything like this.

[3] Andrew F. Smith, ed., “Pumpkins,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; ebook 2005), http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195154375.001.0001/acref-9780195154375-e-0724.
David C. Fouser is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine, and an adjunct faculty member at Santa Monica College and Laguna College of Art & Design.  His in-progress dissertation is entitled, “Wheat, Flour, Bread: The Globalization of the British Food Chain, 1846-1914.”  You can follow him on Twitter @journeymanhisto.


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