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.

History Carnival 117 — A Twelfth Night Edition

Twelfth Night, when the world turns topsy-turvy until midnight and the wassail is drunk to ensure a good apple harvest… A fitting day for the first History Carnival of 2013! This month, The Recipes Project has the privilege of rounding up the past month’s history blogging.

As you might expect in a Twelfth Night edition, there are several Christmas-themed posts to be found. In the winter, a blogger’s interests might turn to thoughts of dark poetry. Over at The View East, Kelly Hignett offers us “A Communist Christmas Carol”, in which Romanian children (c. 1980) request that Father Christmas bring some simple food items (and toilet paper). Lindsey Fitzharris (The Chirurugeon’s Apprentice) takes “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” as her inspiration for a reminder of our mortality, “The Dead Man’s Poem“, wishing us to “thank God you are safe and secure in your life”.

Other bloggers considered another potentially heavy side of Christmas: food! Many of you may have already been back to the gym and turned to salad-eating, but Twelfth Night is a time of cake and pie, so let us remember once more the feasts of yore. Tiffany Stoziciki gives us a taste of American Christmas dinners at the History Reporter (“Christmas Dinners, 1860-1960“), starting with the pared down offerings of the Civil War tables to the best meal of the year on Cold War tables (with some very American bubbly)…  At The Board of Longitude Project, Alexi Baker looks at what Board of Longitude members, whether on shore or at sea, got up to during the Christmas season in “Longitude and a Christmas lark“– and yes, this is a reference to roasted lark! For the lighter side of Christmas, see Caroline Rance’s hilarious “‘Set the Spirit Alight’: Victorian festive science” (The Quack Doctor): from fiery masks to breathing flames, it sounds like Victorian Christmases were rather fun–if dangerous.

In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, you might check out the future of technology and entertainment at “Fun Places on the Internet (in 1995)” by Matt Novak (Paleofuture). The post is interesting in two ways: bringing back memories of one’s early online forays (ahhh–recalling the sound of a connecting modem still brings a thrill to my heart!) and considering the classification of “fun”…

What are the dark days of winter without a bit of inversion and oddity? Romeo Vitelli at Providentia examines the fascinating case of Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental breakdown in a four-part series, “Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial“. In a post on “Saintly Rivals – a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Beckett and Edward the Confessor“, Steffan (My Albion) considers the seemingly contradictory ideas of what made a good medieval saint (peaceful virtue or violent martyrdom). Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon reviews Eleanor Hubbard’s City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in early Modern London, recounting several tantalizing stories of disorderly early modern women.

The ultimate inversion and oddity, perhaps, is that of tales of cannibalism. Ben Breen has written two intriguing (and beautifully illustrated) posts on medicinal cannibalism and other repulsive remedies in early modern Europe:  “Early Modern Drugs and Medicinal Cannibalism” at Res Obscura and “‘Ravens-scull & a Handfull of Fennel’: Early Modern Drugs” at The Appendix. (These last two posts, if read after Twelfth Night, may also aid in any weight-loss plans!)

December has also been a good month for pondering methodological questions. At The History Tavern and Prospero, the bloggers consider the usefulness concepts such as terrorism (“Boston Tea Party… Was It An Act of Terrorism?“) and genocide (“The Irish Famine: Opening Old Wounds“) in studying specific historical questions.

Trevor Owens and T. Mills Kelly, in turn, are concerned by the research and teaching challenges posed by rapid technological change. Owens–and the lively comments section–suggest ways that archivists might make their collections more searchable in a Google-dominated environment: “Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices“. Kelly has a multi-part series in which he rethinks the entire history curriculum, specifically the imperative of integrating technology into teaching research skills: “The History Curriculum in 2023“.

The complicated relationships among history, narrative, author and audience were discused by Lucinda Matthew-Jones, Christopher Dummit and Christopher Jones. Matthew-Jones’ post “Doctor Who-ing the Victorians” (Journal of Victorian Culture Online) is a thoughtful response to a recent U.K. report on teaching history in British Schools. The use of history in Doctor Who, she argues, assumes a more sophisticated level of historical knowledge than the government report does! Dummit at Everyday History wonders if a historical novelist can be classed as a great historian  “Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?” In “Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance“, Jones of The Junto discusses the problems and possibilities of blurring subject and author when writing narrative history. Rethinking our methodological practices and assumptions?  Contemplating non-linear Doctor Who history? Considering how best to tell stories? Fine questions to consider on Twelfth Night.

The world, obviously, didn’t end on December 21. For those who were disappointed, Sir Isaac Newton also had a few thoughts on the apocalypse, which he anticipated happening in 2034 or, perhaps, 2060: “Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse (1733)” (The Public Domain Review).

In any case, it seems likely that we’ll all be here next month, so please come by next month’s History Carnival, which will be hosted by our own Sally Osborn at her blog Travels and travails in 18th-Century England. Happy Wassailing to you, tonight!