New Work Forum: Continuing the Conversation About Hunger in Violent Appetites

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 Amanda E. Herbert.

Long before Violent Appetites was a book, it existed in conversation with classmates and colleagues, conference audiences, the other scholars I read and cited, and with readers at The Recipes Project. So it is a joy to return to the conversation here with such a brilliant and generous group of scholars. I am deeply thankful to Peggy Brunache, Eleanor Barnett, Juneisy Hawkins, and Kate Mulry for sharing their thoughts on my book and its place in the field of food history, and to Amanda Herbert for proposing the New Work Forum series. I will conclude the series with a few reflections on each of the essays and how my thoughts on hunger are continuing to evolve in conversation with these authors.

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. https://americanindian.si.edu/collections-search/objects/NMAI_30154
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. https://americanindian.si.edu/collections-search/objects/NMAI_30154

Brunache’s contribution, drawing on her scholarship about foodways, drawing on her scholarship about foodways, identity, and resistance, centers on how Indigenous peoples have “performed culinary resistance through a politics of food and stood culturally resilient against colonial manipulation and assimilation.”

One of the most striking aspects of completing Violent Appetites in the first year of the covid-19 pandemic was seeing how Indigenous food sovereignty movements across the continent have mobilized in response to the crisis. These movements attest to the power of Native traditional hunger knowledges, which have endured hundreds of years of colonial invasion and stand ready against the crises of the present moment.

One of my hopes is that the concept of hunger knowledges as I’ve developed it will be useful to scholars looking at many different contexts; people have always worked to overcome hunger, and these traditions are vital in confronting hunger in our own time.

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.

Barnett brings her expertise as a historian of early modern religion as a historian of early modern religion and food to her examination of how “food has long been tied to spiritual beliefs regarding divine intercession,” and analyzes “the centrality of food in the expression and formation of different” Indigenous and colonial “religious identities” in early America.

When I first started writing the book, I did not anticipate how crucial religion would turn out to be, from the theological debates over cannibalism among Protestants and Catholics in early modern Europe, to the southern New England Indigenous Christians whose practices of fasting and repentance mirrored Reform Protestant rituals but were rooted deeply in Native traditions of communal mourning. I especially appreciated Barnett’s description of these beliefs and practices as “spiritual foodways,” a phrase which elegantly encapsulates what it took me many words to discuss.

Beluga whale skull. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Beluga whale skull. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Hawkins, who specializes in food economies, provisioning, and Anglo-Spanish relations in the colonial American southeast, begins her essay by noting that the field of Food Studies has only recently begun to wrestle with hunger rather than plenty: “What happened when people did not have food? What happened when communities were confronted with the possibility of starvation? This field, which as far as I know has not been officially named, can be understood as Hunger Studies.”

Hunger Studies does exist, but as an applied field that seeks solutions to the problem of hunger in our current moment. It is not a neat parallel to the field of Food Studies, which asks both “what is food?” and “what does it mean?” I believe that soon Hunger Studies will be asking similar questions, as an increasing number of historians including myself, Rachel Herrmann, James Vernon, Nicholas Crawford, and Tom Scott-Smith, among others, have turned to understanding the changing meanings of hunger in different places and times.

And, following on the work of archival theorists like Marisa Fuentes, it is becoming clear that hunger, like many forms of historical inequity, has profound effects on the production of the historical record, as Hawkins explains at the conclusion of her piece.

Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Lightning-blasted tree. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Finally, Mulry, whose work examines the relationships between environment, health, and the body in the Anglo-Atlantic world, draws out the connections between hunger, colonialism, and imperial demography in her essay: “As imperial authorities sought to increase their own numbers while violently displacing Native peoples, they sought more food. The English and French invaders understood food as an instrument to achieve social and political control,” while Native peoples used food to resist imperial incursion.

As Mulry reminds us, feeding the populace has always been a political project, and hunger is far more often politically imposed than completely inevitable.

I’ve worked on Violent Appetites for the better part of a decade and it’s surreal to finally have the completed book in my hands. I am grateful to everyone at The Recipes Project for using this forum to welcome the book, and look forward to continuing the conversation.

The book may be done, but I will never be finished thinking and talking about food and hunger. More than 38 million people in the United States, including 12 million children, are food insecure as of 2020, with even more going hungry during the pandemic. Hunger is concentrated disproportionately in communities of color. While these numbers are horrifying, beyond the statistics lie many hunger knowledges, the resourceful, ingenious ways that food insecure people survive day by day. In seeking solutions to the problem of hunger, it is crucial not to disregard the strategies that people are already using and have been using for generations. Hunger knowledges deserve to be celebrated as legacies of resilience that can also inform the future of how we fight food scarcity.

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

Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

By Kate Luce Mulry

A well-fed and numerous colonial populace enhanced imperialists’ military power and colonizers’ claims to sovereignty over the homelands of Indigenous peoples in northeastern North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not only did colonizers aim to remove Native communities and replace them with their own, but they also sought to increase their populations to fend off the incursions of rival empires. They required numbers to “invade a continent” (21). Without food they would be unable to feed the armies and navies that maintained and violently extended European empires. Imperial authorities also sought “stable populations of colonizers and colonized labor” (173); more colonists would oversee the labor of Native and enslaved people they required to cultivate colonial commodities. As Carla Cevasco reveals, “an abundant food supply would be key to this effort to maintain and control populations” (174). Colonizers fantasized about which populations would eat and which populations would starve.

Cevasco’s innovative book reinterprets the histories of settler colonial projects in northeastern North America by centering hunger and ideas about hunger in her analysis. Instead of a land of plenty, she introduces readers to hungry colonists and anxious imperialists. In the northeast, numerous people with vastly different experiences with and cultural understandings of hunger and food came together. While acknowledging the violence, disruption, and displacement of Native peoples that were features of European imperialism in North America, Cevasco also emphasizes how their ability to sustain communities and survive hunger demonstrates critical forms of resistance and resilience. Colonizers, including the English and French, arrived with fewer resources for surviving food insecurity whereas Indigenous peoples possessed a broader range of survival strategies. By highlighting the knowledge that enabled Native peoples to survive the food scarcity that accompanied colonial incursions, Cevasco reveals stories of Indigenous resistance to European imperialism, including fighting “hunger with ethics of reciprocity” (172).

Colonizers often claimed that the health of their bodies and their growing colonial populations offered symbolic evidence of their suitability to North American environments. At the same time, they asserted that hungry or ill Indigenous bodies were not suited to their homelands. Colonists regularly denigrated Native peoples and claimed they were “incapable of properly feeding themselves” (4). This was one of many rhetorical strategies designed to justify their imperial projects. But if colonists claimed their own bodies were better suited to Native homelands, their rhetoric masked the reality of the colonizers’ own hunger. What did it mean if the colonists were constantly hungry and required the assistance of Indigenous peoples to survive in North America? How could they maintain a pretense of imperial power when they struggled to survive and experienced constant waves of food vulnerability? Moreover, as Cevasco reveals, this period of food precarity lasted far longer than most historians have recognized and anxieties about and memories of their vulnerability to hunger continued to shape colonizers’ actions “long after the reality of it” (13).

Preventing hunger was important to colonial and Indigenous peoples alike, in part because they understood the potential connection between food scarcity and social and political instability. For example, British authorities recognized that hunger often led to resistance among borderland soldiers, whereas “feeding people was a primary means of controlling them” (170). As imperial authorities sought to increase their own numbers while violently displacing Native peoples, they sought more food. The English and French invaders understood food an instrument to achieve social and political control. While colonizers sought to deploy hunger as a weapon, Native peoples responded with a range of resources and knowledge about food in their homelands to combat and survive periods of scarcity.

But colonists’ concerns about food were not limited to quantities of food. They were also deeply concerned about food quality, and particularly desired familiar foods. In other words, defining hunger was also about defining what constituted food. Indigenous people had “hunger knowledges” (8) – defined by Cevasco as the many “ways that people respond to and survive hunger” (8) – that allowed them to be more flexible about what to eat and how to eat a range of foods. Colonists, on the other hand, had fewer defenses against hunger and were less familiar with the variety of foods that might be foraged and consumed for survival. According to Cevasco, “Ignorance about North American landscapes, about wild food provision, and about how to eat a diverse diet more generally, placed the invaders at a tremendous disadvantage to Indigenous hunger knowledges” (90). Moreover, colonizers feared their health, appearances, and identities might be transformed by eating unfamiliar or taboo foods, which put any imperial project at risk. A rhetoric of disgust served colonizers’ purposes. Criticizing to the so-called savagery of Native diets became another strategy by colonists to justify their colonization. Leveling claims about widespread cannibalism was one such rhetorical maneuver to reinforce colonizers’ narratives about Native communities’ savage or animal-like appetites as opposed to their own civilized appetites. However, time and again, colonizers’ own “hunger profoundly challenged colonists’ narratives of their superiority over Native peoples” (91). Imperial authorities sought to enhance colonial populations and imperial stability by securing food, but Violent Appetites reveals the persistence of colonists’ hunger and anxieties about food scarcity.

Kate Luce Mulry is a historian of medicine, the body, and the environment in the early modern Atlantic world. She is an associate professor of history at California State University, Bakersfield, and is the author of An Empire Transformed: Remolding Bodies and Landscapes in the Restoration Atlantic (New York University Press, 2021).

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

Beluga whale skull. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Beluga whale skull. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

By Juneisy Q. Hawkins

Within the field of Food History one of the most common approaches is to study recipes, meal-sharing, single-commodity histories, etc. What those themes often have in common is that they concentrate on plenty, on what happened when people had food. Carla Cevasco is one of the scholars pioneering a subfield that is concerned with the opposite. What happened when people did not have food? What happened when communities were confronted with the possibility of starvation? This field, which as far as I know has not been officially named, can be understood as Hunger Studies. Cevasco’s recent book, Violent Appetites: Hunger in the Early Northeast, is concerned precisely with those questions. This extensively researched work introduces us to the concept of hunger knowledge, which Cevasco defines as the way people and communities respond to and survive hunger. The historical actors in the book, which encompass Indigenous groups, British colonists, and French colonists, possessed different types of hunger knowledges shaped by their experiences and environments in different parts of the globe. As a result, some were better able to adapt to the harsh food landscape of the colonial Northeast.

The way these different people knew how to deal with hunger was not the only way in which their relationship with food differed. They also had very different ideas, Cevasco shows, about how food provisioning in the colonial context should function, which made diplomatic exchanges complicated and confusing at time. Rather than tell us the logistics of provisioning, Cevasco explores its socio-political contexts. Indigenous people like the Wabanaki, argues Cevasco, often used the language of hunger and demanded food from the British not because they were starving but as a way to force the British to adhere to Indigenous systems of reciprocity. This Indigenous way of asserting power and hierarchy was utterly misunderstood by the British, who took these actions to mean that the Wabanaki and other Indigenous groups were dependent on them for subsistence. As such, the British believed they, and not Indigenous people, held the power. But, as Cevasco claims, for much of the time period the book covers it was Indigenous people who had the upper hand due to their superior hunger knowledges that were adapted to the local environments.

Indigenous groups were not alone in using food as a form of resistance. British soldiers, too, used military provisioning as a way to resist British imperial authority and to disrupt the colonial project. Feeding borderland armies and garrisons was a problem throughout the colonial period, and colonial military authorities struggled with short rations, morale issues, diseases, and desertion – sometimes en masse – due to hunger and dearth. When the military could not feed them, some soldiers just left. Others, Cevasco explains, sought nourishment any way they could, creating their own hunger knowledge, and subverting military authorities’ attempts to police their bodies. The result of the military’s failure to foster the conditions that would allow them to live up to the hopes of a well-fed army was chaos. But these conditions were not the fault of the military. Military provisioning in North America was difficult for everyone. Like their French neighbors and the Spanish in the Southeastern borderlands, the British in the Northeast struggled to transport and distribute fresh foods, with dried, salted, or otherwise preserved items making up the majority of a soldier’s diet. To supplement their meals, soldiers sometimes farmed or foraged, which not infrequently led to illnesses like dysentery. This unbalanced diet was partly to blame for diseases, but soldiers sometimes actively rejected attempts to combat conditions like scurvy, which hurt their bodies and the efficacy of the British army. 

These acts of resistance and the deployment of food and hunger as tool of colonial dominance and Indigenous pushback demonstrate the precarity of the colonial projects in the Northeast. Hunger threatened their very existence and colonists continued to worry about this precarity well into the eighteenth century. Cevasco does warn us about the fallacy of taking Indigenous resistance and British soliders’ resistance as a common cause, which is a testament to the care the author has taken to highlight Indigenous people in a narrative that is ultimately based on colonial records. Record-creators often went out of their way to silence or misinterpret Indigenous voices, Indigenous experiences, and Indigenous actions. The Northeast was a multicultural space in which people with different understandings of food and hunger coexisted (however violently), intermingled, shared ideas and yet retained their own practices and their own beliefs. Cevasco successfully mirrors these conditions in Violent Appetites by carefully balancing the European and Native perspectives in a way that flows naturally. Violent Appetites joins a small but important and growing body of work on food, hunger and diplomacy in colonial North America, and its focus on hunger knowledges and how they functioned in the Northeastern borderlands adds an interesting perspective to the field of Food History.

Juneisy Q. Hawkins recently earned a PhD from the Department of History at New York University. Her field is United States History and she specializes in food economies, provisioning, and Anglo-Spanish relations in the colonial American Southeast in an Atlantic World context. She currently works as an Interim History Teacher at Collegiate School in New York City. At Collegiate, she teaches 7th Grade Civics, 8th Grade World History I, and 10th Grade U.S. History.

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. 

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