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.

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