Category Archives: Conferences

Conference Report: Materia Medica on the Move, Leiden, 15-17 April 2015

By Sietske Fransen

What happens if you put together historians of early modern science and medicine, ethnobotanists, historians of pharmacy, and art historians in the Dutch National Biodiversity Center in Leiden? Last month this resulted in an amazing conference where we discussed the (global) movements of early modern materia medica. The conference was jointly organized by the Descartes Centre (Utrecht University), Huygens ING, and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

The conference was hosted by the project Time Capsule and was interdisciplinary to its core. The project’s aims and goals are wonderful, and deserve some explanation, so here it comes. Project Time Capsule has as aims to create a ‘semantic interoperable ontology’ of cultural heritage data. This ontology will consist of a combination of existing digital databases and new data, in order to provide historians as well as the creative industry with new methods for research. And the actual ‘time capsules’ – based on Andy Warhol’s project – are supposed to contextualize historical events or facts. To exemplify this exciting but rather mystifying concept, Time Capsule works specifically on data sets related to the history of medicinal plants in the Low Countries, c. 1550-1850. With a team of computer scientists and historians of science the project tries to set an example for further research into the development of digital resources. The final goal is to enable scholars to connect, compare and use an enormous amount of digital resources regarding early modern material medica.

A re-created sunflower, using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, fol. 155.
A re-created sunflower (native to the Americas), using real sunflower leaves in a herbarium of Felix Platter. Burgerbibliothek Bern, ES 70.6, f. 155.

The conference started at Museum Boerhaave with a key-note lecture by Florike Egmond, who  the introduction of non-European ‘medical’ plants into the European context. Even though there were not that many exotic plants actually introduced in European medicine in the sixteenth century, it is remarkable to see that they did gain a rather prominent present in visual sources such as herbaria, prints, and paintings. One of Egmond’s concluding questions and useful pointers for the rest of the conference was to wonder what ‘exotic’ or ‘indigenous’ really means. How long does a plant need to be grown in Europe to be no longer exotic?

The following two days took place at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre. One of the most exciting papers (at least to me) was given by ethnobotanist Tinde van Andel.

Materia Medica on the Move - Tinde van Andel
Key-note lecture by Tinde van Andel

Van Andel showed us how the movement of knowledge about local plants can be traced by following African slaves from their home countries to the Surinam rain forests. Combining ethnobotanical and anthropological field research in West-Africa and Surinam with historical botany and linguistics Van Andel argues that enslaved Africans reinvented their household medicine in the New World. Van Andel’s research demonstrates clearly how the knowledge of plants travelled with the people and was adapted to the needs of surviving on a new continent. Through trial and error and comparison with the knowledge they brought about African flora, the slaves figured out which new but similar plants could be used as medication and food. 

Historian of Pharmacy Sabine Anagnostou, used pharmacopeias in Europe and America to research the transfer of medicinal plants and drugs. She not only looks at the import of exotic plants into Europe, but also at the building and use of pharmacies in the New World. Jesuits were of major importance in the development of such institutions, and would use their own knowledge of European plants in combination with local knowledge in these New World settings. She argues, amongst other things, that there is still a higher amount of European plants present in the American pharmacopeias then the other way around.

Harold Cook delivered the final key note lecture about the ‘Atlantic drug trade and the new sciences’. Cook argued convincingly that we need to study the developments in the use of drugs at the large plantations in the Caribbean to explain the globalization as well as entrepreneurship that started to become connected with medicine from the eighteenth century onwards.

Harold Cook, key-note lecture.
Harold Cook, key-note lecture.

The owners of big plantations were looking for a universal medicine that would cure any disease, in any situation, in any person, with the best possible outcome. The idea behind this was to make sure that ill people could go back to working again as soon as possible. According to Cook the impersonality of these developments (from drugs aimed at an individual to drugs aimed at large groups of people) should be seen and studied (!) as major issues in the changing perception of social medicine in the 17th and 18th century.

Unfortunately this blog is too short to give a description of all papers, but a brief report of all presentations can be found here. The papers covered topics like botanical gardens in Leiden, Poland and Russia; testing of new and unfamiliar drugs in both European and Asian contexts; and the materiality and circulation of herbaria in Early modern Europe. Just as examples I would like to mention Alexandra Cook’s paper on the approval of exotica in a European medical context. She argued that both ginseng and tea (after they were brought to the West) were for a while seen as universal medicines. However, during the eighteenth century, these unproven claims were no longer seen as valid. This lead to reports based on observations and experience in which the qualities of the exotic drugs were systematically described. A last example comes from Davina Blankert, who showed us how the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin and the Veronese apothecary Giovanni Pona discussed exotic plants in their correspondence. Blankert argues that the scholars utilization of plant names with few plant descriptions demonstrates that both were conversant in their knowledge of exotic plants using similar nomenclature and terminology. Bauhin would later publish his acquired knowledge about exotic plants in his famous book Pinax theatri botanici.

Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.
Gaspard Bauhin, Pinax theatri botanici, Basel 1623. Title page.

Bringing together so many different scholars, methods, used materials, and questions seems exactly the point of Warhol’s Time Capsule project. Fortunately for us, the focus of this specific project is not the daily life of Warhol but the ‘daily life’ of materia medica between 1550 and 1850. The conference gave a wonderful view into the research that can be done when material will be collected and brought together in digital form. The current scholars working on all these different aspects of materia medica will hopefully be the providers of the content as much as they should be able benefit from the integration of the all the existent cultural heritage data.

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.

 

Food Will Win the War: A K-12 Educators’ Workshop on Teaching World War I, 1914-1919

By Dana Schaffer

Each year the American Historical Association hosts a workshop for K-12 educators at our annual meeting. When my colleagues and I began planning for this year’s workshop, we knew that the 100th anniversary of World War I would make a timely subject for the attendees. But rather than focus on more traditional narratives of political and military history in the workshop, we decided instead to explore the history of World War I through the lens of food. This creative approach, we hoped, would help teachers to engage and inspire their students in innovative ways.

Our “Food Will Win the War” workshop was sponsored by the Advanced Placement Program of the College Board and co-organized by the AHA, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and National History Day. For the event we assembled a team of scholars, master teachers, and public historians to address the historical context of the period, demonstrate pedagogical techniques, and share resources available for classroom use.

AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #12 Helen Veit and Julia Irwin discuss the politics of sacrifice during World War I. Credit: Marc Monaghan
AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #12
Helen Veit and Julia Irwin discuss the politics of sacrifice during World War I. Credit: Marc Monaghan

For the first segment of the workshop, historians Helen Veit (Michigan State University) and Julia Irwin (University of Southern Florida) discussed some of the key issues of World War I such as the American home front, the importance of food and food conservation to the war effort, and the place of humanitarianism and hunger relief in US relations with Europe. Veit and Irwin had been involved with the development of the online exhibition War Fare: A Culinary Exploration of World War I at the National World War I Museum. As part of their presentation, they highlighted some short films they had made with American Food Roots, which were included as part of the exhibition.

AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #13 Wendy Eagan explains how educators can use this history of food to examine broad thematic concepts of World War I while fellow panelists Tim Bailey, Amanda Moniz, and Lynne O'Hara observe. Credit: Marc Monaghan
AHA2015 K-12 Workshop #13
Wendy Eagan explains how educators can use this history of food to examine broad thematic concepts of World War I while fellow panelists Tim Bailey, Amanda Moniz, and Lynne O’Hara observe.
Credit: Marc Monaghan

The second portion of the workshop included presentations about practical teaching ideas for the classroom. Wendy Eagan (Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda, MD) explained how she incorporated images and materials from the War Fare exhibition into her own AP World History class, demonstrating that she covered a wide range of themes—from politics to gender—by talking to her students about the history of food during World War I. Tim Bailey (Gilder Lehrman Institute) highlighted a “Food Will Win the War” propaganda poster from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and walked attendees through a classroom exercise they could conduct with their own students. Historian and former pastry chef Amanda Moniz (National History Center at the American Historical Association) displayed several recipes from a World War I-era cookbook and explained how students could make these recipes in the classroom. For many students, Moniz noted, cooking can inspire an interest in history in ways that that traditional texts might not.

For the final segment of the workshop Lynne O’Hara (National History Day) shared the National History Day’s World War I resource booklet, which includes dozens of primary sources and lesson modules, which can be edited and adapted to meet the needs of students in any classroom. O’Hara highlighted the lesson plan on food and scarcity during World War I.

Attendees of workshop departed with facsimiles of the “Food Will Win the War” poster, copies of the National History Day resource book, and other materials to use in with their students. A complete recording of the event, including the American Food Roots film segments, can be viewed on the American Historical Association’s YouTube channel.

Food Will Win the War Poster Image A US Food Administration poster from World War I. Credit: The Gilder Lehrman Collection #GLC09522
Food Will Win the War Poster Image
A US Food Administration poster from World War I.
Credit: The Gilder Lehrman Collection #GLC09522

 

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.