New Work Forum: On Food and Religion in Cevasco’s Violent Appetites

By Eleanor Barnett

Copper-deficient & copper-replete fleeces, Royal Veterinary College. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Copper-deficient & copper-replete fleeces, Royal Veterinary College. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Violent Appetites begins with an account from the Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland’s time living among a Seneca family in the 1760s. During his mission, hunger would afflict both Kirkland and his hosts at various points, but they would diverge in how that hunger was understood and experienced. To colonists like Kirkland, Native appetites marked them as different, inferior, and in need of missionizing. A minister of British decent, Kirkland’s story provides one example of how food played a central role in attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity in early America. ‘For the missionaries’, Cevasco says, ‘it was just as important to be able to communicate about food as it was to instruct Indigenous peoples in matters of the soul’ (p. 8). In exploring the history of early American hunger, Violent Appetites has much to tell us about the interconnectivity between food, religion, and spirituality in the northeast.

To Native Americans, better adapted to their local environment, hunger was ‘an inevitable part of a cycle of seasonal subsistence’ (p. 24). To the Europeans who colonised America, Cevasco explains, hunger was instead deeply rooted in the Christian calendar of fasts. By withdrawing from food, Europeans sought to repress the physical to focus on spiritual pursuits, often using fasting to give thanks or offer penance to God. In early America, where hunger struck down colonists who lacked the skills needed to feed from the land, hunger was seen as evidence of divine punishment. Its absence, by contrast, was to Christians a reward of divine providence. Although colonial accounts (and many subsequent histories) failed to understand Native food practices, Cevasco shows how Native peoples also used food to deter divine wrath, through feasting rather than fasting. For example, in February 1765, the leader of the Seneca at Kanadasaga, Onooghwandekha, warned his community that to give up the feasts that they celebrated in the name of the god Taonghyawagon in favour of Christian practices, would have grave consequences: ‘All all will be gone’, he declared (p. 55). Wabanaki war feasts, meanwhile, used extreme eating as a way of mortifying the body, much like Christian fasts.

Religion and spirituality also runs through Cevasco’s discussion of cannibalism in early America. Without the ‘hunger knowledge’ needed to survive in the natural environment, Europeans sometimes resorted to cannibalism rather than starve to death. But it was the ‘ritual cannibalism’ of certain Indigenous peoples that sparked the most horror and condemnation from colonists. Wendat communities, for example, reportedly consumed the flesh of their enemies in a ritual of war. Colonists used Native cannibalism to dehumanise Indigenous people and to justify their missionizing efforts. Cevasco again breaks down the perceived differences between colonial and Indigenous groups, by highlighting how European Christians practiced spiritual and medical cannibalism. In the Reformation, Protestants rallied against the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist was thought to literally transform into the body and blood of Christ. The impassioned hunger to – symbolically – taste and consume Christ expressed by many colonial Protestants nevertheless ‘nudged’ them close towards ‘Catholic literalism’ (p. 119). Europeans, especially Paracelsians, also literally cannibalised bodily materials like urine, breast milk, bone, and even preserved flesh known as ‘mummy’, for their supposed medicinal benefits. For both colonists and certain Native peoples, therefore, ritual cannibalism played an important part in establishing ‘social and spiritual bonds’ (p. 114).

Since food is essential to the maintenance of earthly life, and its absence a threat to survival, it is unsurprising that food has long been tied to spiritual beliefs regarding divine intercession. While examining hunger in the northeast, Violent Appetites exposes the centrality of food in the expression and formation of different religious identities. In early America, colonists encountered a land that they did not know how to cultivate and people who ate and hungered differently from them; food was used to justify colonisation and conversion efforts. Yet, what Cevasco does so well is to shake the traditional Christian and Euro-centric narrative which traces colonial power and dominance, through a critical reading of colonial accounts alongside consultation with modern Indigenous writers. Native peoples possessed superior food knowledge which enabled them to survive in American environments, and resisted Christian conversion efforts by continuing to enact their own, rich – and until now little understood – spiritual foodways, in the face of colonialism.

Dr. Eleanor Barnett is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cardiff University, where her research focuses on moments in which food was exchanged between people of different faiths in order to better understand cross-cultural encounters: the divisions, inequalities, and friendships that shaped the early modern world. She is working on a book version of her PhD from the University of Cambridge, entitled The Reformation of Food, and will shortly be publishing a trade book on the history of food waste from the medieval to the present day. She has also published articles in Renaissance Quarterly and the Historical Journal, and as Historyeats on Instagram she posts food history content everyday to a wide audience. 

New Work Forum: On Food and Identity in Cevasco’s Violent Appetites

By Peggy Brunache

Penobscot people, Berry box/container. Collected by Dr. Frank G. Speck (Frank Gouldsmith Speck/F.G. Speck/FGS), Non-Indian, 1881-1950. Media/Materials- Birchbark, Folded, stitched. Place- Old Town; Penobscot County; Maine; USA. Catalog Number2/8170, National Museum of the American Indian. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Penobscot people, Berry box/container. Collected by Dr. Frank G. Speck (Frank Gouldsmith Speck/F.G. Speck/FGS), Non-Indian, 1881-1950. Media/Materials- Birchbark, Folded, stitched. Place- Old Town; Penobscot County; Maine; USA. Catalog Number2/8170, National Museum of the American Indian. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The American folklore that the generosity of Indigenous people saved the English pilgrims in the 1620s may be erroneous, but it is irrevocably tied to the Thanksgiving dinner tradition, a central plank of American identity and culture. Carla Cevasco’s Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast is an ambitious project. It interprets European-Indigenous contact, creolisation and resistance as a psycho-physiological violence that was ascribed upon the physical body as much as it was upon the cultural identity of people in the northeastern region of what was to become the United States.

Cevasco, in part, explores the white supremacist (and in some cases, classist) notions of early America colonists as their culture and identity formation processes were introduced to and ultimately conflicted with their Indigenous neighbours as much with themselves. Like the processes of acculturation and assimilation, foodways also operated within an arena of multiple conflicts across time and space, manifested as hunger. The depiction of hunger with multiple, often interlocking facets is a strong theme that repeatedly demonstrates how external forces (various European-Indigenous conflicts) or internal conditions (European beliefs) informed a racialized appraisal of the Indigenous culinary culture that helped fix Native communities’ subordinate and marginalized status within the colonial hierarchy. As with their food and culture, the white lens viewed Indigenous bodies negatively, but Cevasco attempts a converse approach. She explains some Indigenous definitions of food and hunger and more importantly, the ways in which the Indigenous communities performed culinary resistance through a politics of food and stood culturally resilient against colonial manipulation and assimilation. Culture and identity formation processes were reciprocally influenced by local foodways. Cevasco successfully demonstrates how the link between foodways and identity was (re)shaped and (re)articulated through ordinary, everyday activities but especially in contrast to ceremonial meals with the English during political negotiations through food trades. Repeated hospitality faux pas by English colonists only reinforced Indigenous peoples’ cultural and identity processes of resilience against cultural assimilation but also to fight for food (production) and by extension, land rights.

One cannot overstate how European colonists viewed Indigenous foodways as markedly different and substandard from their own, despite how reliant the earliest settlers (ie invaders) were on Indigenous peoples’ generosity and subsistence practices and knowledge. In one of the most enlightening sections, Chapter Five’s “Give Us Some Provisions: Resistance” provides ample examples of how food, resistance, and Indigenous identity are inextricably intertwined. Moreover, the value of women’s culinary labor is underscored as essential to Wabanaki culture. For the Wabanaki Confederacy, for example, this culinary resistance is examined through an intersectional approach of Indigenous subsistence practices. Although they were experts of a complex food sovereignty based on the knowledge of localised, abundant food resources, they used a ‘language of starvation’ against the colonists as a leverage tactic in negotiations associated with reciprocity politics.

Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast could be oversimplified as a thoughtful case study of the axiom “you are what you eat”. However, Cevasco simultaneously clarifies and complicates this notion with a nuanced analysis of hunger knowledge and highlights how marginalized people resisted the colonization of their cultural identities even after the eventual loss of much of their land and lifeways.

Dr. Peggy Brunache is a lecturer in the history of Atlantic slavery at the University of Glasgow and the first Director of the newly established Beniba Centre for Slavery Studies. Born in Miami to Haitian parents, she trained and worked as an historical archaeologist with a focus on slave plantation studies, the African diaspora and the transatlantic slave trade, working on archaeological projects in Benin, West Africa, Guadeloupe, and various sites in the United States and Caribbean. She has developed a free 4-week online course on British Slavery in the Caribbean with Food is also central to Peggy’s life and work. She acts as culinary consultant for Perth’s (Scotland) Southern Fried Music Festival and has worked with multiple music, science, and food festivals across the UK, providing cooking demonstrations and historical dining events for a broad audience. Her media appearances in the US, Europe, and the UK include the US’s Food Network, Discovery Channel, BBC Television, UK’s Channel Four, Germany’s Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Scotland’s programmes.   

New Work Forum: Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast (Yale, 2022) by Carla Cevasco

Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast, by Carla Cevasco. Image courtesy of the author.
Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast, by Carla Cevasco. Image courtesy of the author.

Welcome to our New Work Forum, celebrating Carla Cevasco’s book, Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast (Yale University Press, 2022). As part of our project to promote and celebrate early career writers, the Recipes Project is proud to host a series of posts on Cevasco’s Violent Appetites throughout the month of July. The New Work Forum offers a new, vibrant take on a conference roundtable. 

Violent Appetites reveals the disgusting, violent history of hunger in the context of the colonial invasion of early northeastern North America. Locked in constant violence throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Native Americans and English and French colonists faced the pain of hunger, the fear of encounters with taboo foods, and the struggle for resources. Their mealtime encounters with rotten meat, foraged plants, and even human flesh would transform the meanings of hunger across cultures. By foregrounding hunger and its effects in the early American world, author Carla Cevasco emphasizes the fragility of the colonial project, and the strategies of resilience that Native peoples used to endure both scarcity and the colonial invasion. In doing so, the book proposes an interdisciplinary framework for studying scarcity, expanding the field of food studies beyond simply the study of plenty.
We’ve invited subject-specific experts in the field to share their insights about Violent Appetites. This month readers will learn from posts by Peggy Brunache, Eleanor Barnett, Juneisy Hawkins, and Kate Mulry, with a response by Carla Cevasco. Instead of a traditional book review — the well-worn two paragraphs of summary, one paragraph of criticism — we’ve asked our contributors to focus their posts on a specific kind of source or theme. For Violent Appetites, these include food and identity, food and religion, food economies, and food and populations.
Dr. Peggy Brunache. Image courtesy of Dr. Brunache.
Dr. Peggy Brunache. Image courtesy of Dr. Brunache.
Peggy Brunache draws upon her acclaimed work as a food historian, archaeologist, and specialist in foodways of the African diaspora to explore the nuances of race, identity, and conflict in Violent Appetites. In her post, Brunache highlights how European colonisers dismissed and defamed Indigenous people and their culinary traditions; but, she reminds us, despite the strictures and punishments levelled against them, Native women and men pushed back, as “Indigenous communities performed culinary resistance through a politics of food and stood culturally resilient against colonial manipulation and assimilation.”
Dr. Eleanor Barnett. Image courtesy of Dr. Barnett.
Dr. Eleanor Barnett. Image courtesy of Dr. Barnett.
Eleanor Barnett, a cultural historian of food and early modern religion, shares her impressive knowledge of spiritual practice to explore the roles of belief and faith in Violent Appetites. She notes that the book illustrates how hunger and religion — phenomena that were deeply entwined in both Indigenous and European contexts — were nonetheless perceived and experienced very differently by different groups of people. Separate faith traditions around moments of plenty and paucity increased tensions between Native women and men and the European colonisers who attempted to control them. 
Dr. Juneisy Hawkins. Image courtesy of Dr. Hawkins.
Dr. Juneisy Hawkins. Image courtesy of Dr. Hawkins.
Juneisy Hawkins, an expert in food economies, provisioning, and Anglo-Spanish relations in the colonial American Southeast in an Atlantic World context, foregrounds provisioning in her piece on Violent Appetites. Hawkins explains that this act — managing the hunger of groups of people, whether they were soldiers in British garrisons or Indigenous families — helped to structure many of the interactions explored in Cevasco’s work. Hawkins coins the phrase “Hunger Studies” to describe the contributions that Violent Appetites makes to the existing scholarship, particularly as it relates to managing how (and whether) people ate.
Dr. Kate Mulry. Image provided by Dr. Mulry.
Dr. Kate Mulry. Image courtesy of Dr. Mulry.
Kate Mulry reflects on Violent Appetites via her own deep expertise in the ways that ideas about the environment, health, and the body shaped and were shaped by Anglo Atlantic political cultures. In her post, Mulry analyses the ways that this book addresses the management of populations writ large; by “fantaciz[ing] about which populations would eat and which populations would starve,” Mulry reminds us that colonial administrators, governors, and political philosophers actively imagined feeding their empire. 
Dr. Carla Cevasco. Image courtesy of Dr. Cevasco.
Dr. Carla Cevasco. Image courtesy of Dr. Cevasco.
To close the series, the author of Violent Appetites, Carla Cevasco, will reflect on the themes raised in the forum and how they reflect her own sense of her work.
Over the course of this month, our RP readers will gain invaluable insights into the coverage and scope of Violent Appetites. Not only do these posts offer a more varied and perhaps engaging reading experience than is gained in a traditional book review, the authors have helped us to ask broader, more inclusive questions about how humanities scholarship can speak to the concerns, questions, and struggles that we all share.


Conference Report: ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’

This review is also featured on The Polyphony.

By Rachel Clamp

Institute of Medical Humanities, Durham University

17 June 2022

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

Earlier this month, I was delighted to attend the Institute of Medical Humanities symposium ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’ at Durham University. The symposium was designed to bring together colleagues with an interest in embodied experience and the senses to reflect on methodological and theoretical approaches and to provide opportunities for future collaborations.

I should preface this post with a brief disclaimer to say that I am not a sensory scholar myself. I am a third-year PhD candidate in the history department at Durham where I work on the history of plague and plague workers in early modern England and Scotland. I am, at best, sensory-adjacent. I do, however, try to gain access to past experience through my research, and I was keen to learn more about how I could incorporate theories of embodied experience and the senses into my work. Yesterday’s symposium allowed me to think critically about what exactly we mean when we talk about past ‘experience’. What is human experience if not sensory?

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

The day began with a rich and thought-provoking keynote lecture from Dr William Tullett in which he argued that whilst we might have succeeded in our approach to exploring and reconstructing smells in the past, we still have much work left to do concerning smell and/of the past. He demonstrated the need for scholars to ‘re-odorise’ the past, to develop an understanding of both the presence and absence of smells and the role of smell in history, memory, and heritage. He showed how the study of historical smellscapes can enrich our understanding of the past, allowing us to ask more difficult questions and make our arguments more interesting and persuasive. He suggested that with training and practice, humanities scholars could learn to smell ‘better’ and that the more we use our noses the more we are able to bring them into historical perspectives.

The remainder of the day consisted of a series of 10-minute ‘provocations’ rather than traditional conference papers. After each provocation, we were encouraged to write down our thoughts collectively and to draw connections between our responses.

Dr Megan Girdwood shared her work on movement and kinaesthesia drawing our attention to the early-twentieth-century researchers Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson to show that the sense of movement extended far beyond the realm of conscious, deliberate motion. Having identified her partner, Anstruther-Thomson, as someone with an especially well-developed sense of kinaesthesia, Lee recorded the minute physiological responses she experienced as a result of engaging with renaissance art.

Lena Ferriday explored relationships between the body and the environment in her provocation on the pedestrian navigation of the Devon and Cornwall coastlines. She illustrated that local residents and those who worked in these spaces on a daily basis had a very different haptic relationship to those who visited the area for leisure. They possessed an embodied expertise that allowed them to walk over difficult terrain more easily, in turn allowing them to guide visitors through the landscape for a fee.

Dr Coreen McGuire investigated the ways in which we measure the senses, once again drawing our attention to the extreme diversity of individual experience. Using the example of a stethoscope, she encouraged scholars to broaden their interpretation of the senses and to look at breath and breathing as an embodied sense. She also demonstrated the importance of the objects used to measure senses for accessing hidden histories.

Paula Teixeira Moláns explored the issue of diversity of experience further by demonstrating the vast diversity of language used to describe sensory perception. She looked at the relationship between semantics and colour, showing that not all languages describe colour, and asked what meaning is left behind when we translate sensory language.

Dr Richard Bellis used the example of the eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter to demonstrate the extent to which anatomists were required to actively engage with their senses during experiments. Hunter’s method for separating the placenta from the umbilical cord used sight, smell, touch, and even taste to better understand the processes he witnessed throughout the experiment. Once again, we returned to the issue of sensory standardisation. How did all anatomists know that they were experiencing a cadaver in the same way as their colleagues? The answer, for eighteenth century anatomists, lay in religious belief. Dr Bellis highlighted the contemporary belief that, providing an anatomist worked ‘appropriately’, the consistency of sensory experience was guaranteed by God.

Dr Fraser Riddell looked at alternative models for describing sensory experience drawing on neurodiversity studies. If we have established that sensory perception and embodied experience are both deeply unique and personal phenomena, what sensory worlds could we access with reference to neurodiverse experiences? He asked scholars to think critically about the ways in which sensory history has been shaped by neurotypical assumptions.

In reflecting on the day, was struck by the way in which the work of scholars from such a broad range of interdisciplinary backgrounds shard aurprising number of common themes. One way or another, all presentations touched on the idea of the senses as skills that one can develop rather than phenomena that simply happen to a person, of the difficult process of measuring and describing the senses, the need to expand our understanding of what we consider ‘senses’, and the importance of the senses in the construction of knowledge.

In addition, the symposium made it abundantly clear that sensory experience is deeply personal and unique. This can make the process of defining methodologies and approaches exceedingly difficult. The answer, it seems, lies in interdisciplinary research. Only through collaborative, interdisciplinary research can we access the resources, knowledge, and expertise required to tackle the complex questions that sensory studies raise and arrive closer at our collective goal of better understanding the senses and embodied experience.

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