Do Objects Lie? Teaching About Food, Material Culture, and Evidence

Carla Cevasco

During my most recent move, I observed (while sweating, and swearing, and trying to keep the packing tape from sticking to itself again) that kitchen items occupied more boxes than any other category of my possessions. Not even books could compete with the weight and bulk of my kitchen, from a sturdy stand mixer to far more glassware than any reasonable person should own.

It was a vivid illustration of how objects for storing, cooking, and eating food surround us. They are intimately related to our bodies, containing the food that we will incorporate into ourselves; some of them, eating utensils like forks or chopsticks, actually enter our bodies. Kitchen and dining items are powerful, and they are part of us.

In my teaching on American food history, I argue that food-related objects offer a rich site of interpretation, as part of my greater mission of teaching with things. Even if I can’t always bring physical objects into the classroom—like gingerbread made according to Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe, or a bottle of the Silicon Valley food replacement beverage Soylent—my students engage with visual or material culture in every class. Elaborate tea services illustrate tea’s value as an imperial luxury good for eighteenth century Americans—and emphasize its potency as an instrument of protest in the leadup to the American Revolution.[1] Racist images advertising baking powder and tinned meats in the late nineteenth century demonstrate both the growing business of industrial food, and the ways that stereotypes pervade everyday life, past and present.[2] Trays from mid-twentieth-century university dining halls reveal the shift to military-style dining after the second World War, and the growing concern about public health and nutrition for institutions, governments, and researchers in that period.

My students sometimes argue that material and visual culture are more inscrutable than texts, until I point out to them that they are the most visually-literate generation perhaps in all of history, spending hours navigating completely image-based social media applications. And, in fairness to my students, I didn’t encounter material culture as a field of study, or learn about the methodological rigor of art history, until I arrived to my PhD program and studied with an art historian and other scholars of material culture. But why do objects—despite the many many many examples of wonderful material culture scholarship on this site—seem so untrustworthy to students raised on Instagram and Snapchat?

So, when given an opportunity to make a pedagogical film at the Chipstone Foundation, a center dedicated to, among other fascinating things, research on early British and American ceramics, my colleague Christopher Allison and I decided to confront these questions head-on. How should we use objects as evidence? What can they tell us about the everyday lives of people, and the creation of archives? What if these objects are lying to us? (You can read more about the process of making the video here.)

The result is a Youtube video called “Do Objects Lie?” In it, Chris and I examine a variety of food-related items, from teapots shaped like fruits and vegetables, to pitchers depicting famous battles; from anthropomorphic teacups to, uh, chamber pots. These objects misrepresent the truth, or leave out important details. These omissions and elisions are, in fact, the most interesting part of the story, enabling us to ask questions about how history is made, how collections and archives are formed, and what these processes can tell us about ourselves. We have to engage mindfully with sources (textual or material), look for as many pieces of evidence as possible, and ask questions about how we know what we know. Teaching these practices to our students has taken on a fresh urgency as issues of history, media literacy, and truth itself dominate the news cycle.

I’ll be showing the video as I teach about questions of evidence and interpretation in classes on early American studies, American Studies methods, food history, and material culture. I hope it will be useful to teachers and students across disciplines, from history and art history to food studies and beyond. How might you use this video in your classroom? I look forward to hearing your ideas.

 

[1] Caroline Frank, Objectifying China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), Chapter 5.

[2] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: NYU Press, 2012).