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).

Workshop Notice: “Kitchens in Britain and Europe, 1500-1950” (London, 18th Jan 2017)

For all of you interested in kitchens and material culture – this workshop sounds like it’s a must-go! Take note: Registration closes 11th January, 2017.

kitchen-graphic
Koch unnd Kellermeisterey (1550). Image courtesy of the Welcome Library.

The Centre for the Study of the Body and Material Culture is hosting a one-day workshop, ‘Kitchens in Britain and Europe, 1500-1950’, 18th January 2017 at Senate House, University of London.

In recent years the home has come to be the focus of multidisciplinary and cross-period inquiry, yet the kitchen, although seen as the ‘heart’ of the home in some places and periods, is still a relatively under-explored space. Studies of material culture, technology and domestic work all point to the kitchen’s wider social and cultural importance.  Since the early modern period, kitchens have been a nexus of class interaction, and the place of domestic food production. Subsequently, studies of the kitchen have the potential to contribute to social and cultural histories of everyday life. This workshop brings together scholars researching the histories of the kitchen from a range of geographical and chronological perspectives.

The deadline for registration is Wednesday 11th January. For more details, including the programme and how to register please see:

https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/history/research/researchcentres/csbmc/kitchens-cfp.aspx

Questions? Get in touch with the organiser Katie Carpenter @ Katie.Carpenter.2010@live.rhul.ac.uk.

From the dry sands of Egypt… Greek medicine labels on papyrus

By Isabella Bonati

Amongst the many objects depicted in the “unswept floor” mosaic by Heraclitus (II cent. CE) there is a drug container (unguentarium) with a narrow, probably folded, papyrus tag suspended from its neck. This tag likely offered the identification of the content, possibly an ointment or some aromata, stored into the unguentarium. This striking mosaic provides archeological evidence of the common use of medicine labels across the ancient world. [1]

imm1-unswept-floor-mosaic
Drug container with papyrus label. Detail of the asàrotos òikos mosaic (“unswept floor”) by Heraclitus, Gregorian Profane Museum (Vatican Museums), cat. 10132.

Like the modern patient information leaflets, the practice of labeling containers was particularly useful in medical contexts. In spite of the perishability of their support, some of these labels on papyrus have been preserved by the dry sands of Egypt. One example is a strip of papyrus cut on all sides (8,5 cm x 22 cm), dating back to the first half of the III century BCE on paleographical ground (SB XIX 12074).[2]

imm2-papyrus-with-a-list-of-spices
Ptolemaic list of aromata and honey on papyrus (SB XIX 12074), Ann Arbor, Michigan University, Library P. 3243

The papyrus contains a list of five spices – cassia, cinnamon, nard, myrrh and saffron – and two specific kinds of honey – the Cretan and the Theangelic – commonly used in medical recipes. The strip was folded vertically down the center in order to obtain five panels of equal size. Then a notch was cut along the right-hand fold producing two holes. It is likely that a string was passed through the holes to suspend the folded sheet from or attach it to some other object, such the container storing the remedy obtained by the ingredients mentioned in the list, like in the mosaic image above. Thus, this papyrus seems to represent a concrete specimen of the practice illustrated in the “unswept floor” mosaic.

This particular medical label belongs to a broader context. Greek medical papyri coming from Egypt, dating from the III century BCE to the VII century CE, represent a body of evidence offering a rich and veritable picture of medical tradition over this thousand-year period.[3] Indeed, aside from literary fragments and adespota handbooks copied by professional scribes, practical medical texts constitute the largest group of surviving papyri. Thus, collections of drug recipes used by physicians and medical prescriptions written on single papyrus sheets attest to the wide variety of remedies circulating in Egypt at the time.

Among the medical papyri discovered and published so far, just a few of them – about 10 items – may be interpreted as medicine labels. These share formal and material features. Often the writing is concise and the small papyrus is expressly cut from a larger sheet of a particular thickness. According to the kind of information they contain, these labels on papyrus, parchment or ostraca may be divided in three categories: some of them carry only the name of a drug or medicine, others only the therapeutic indication introduced by pros (“against”) plus the name(s) of the disease(s) in accusative, reproducing the typical formula of the epangelia of the medical prescriptions. A third category displays both the therapeutic indication and the name of the medicinal substance, occasionally followed by the quantity. So, these last specimina have features more similar to actual recipes. A papyrus strip measuring 10,6 x 4 cm, P.Prag. III 249 (VII CE),[4] may serve as an exemplar of this category:

‘Against spreading ulcers. Of incense ounce(s)…’

imm3-p-prag-iii-249
Medicine label on papyrus (P.Prag. III 249), Prague, National Library P. Wessely, Prag. Gr. III 1204 v

In conclusion, in the everyday practice, these tags were attached to – or stored with – small containers or boxes for aromata and medicaments by the pharmacopolai, the apothecaries who were used to sell drugs and pharmaceutical products to the doctors. These inscribed labels likely identified the content of small jars or vases circulating on the trade-market: they are a surprising witness of both the medical practices and the commerce in the ancient world, as is concretely revealed by the dialogue between the archaeological and papyrological evidence survived from the telling silence of the past.

[1] The “unswept floor” mosaic asàrotos òikos is in the Gregorian Profane Museum (Vatican Museums). This detail is taken from L. Taborelli, Sulle ampullae vitreae. Spunti per l’approfondimento della loro problematica nell’ottica del rapporto tra contenitore e contenuto, ArchCl 44 (1992) 311, cf. pp. 326-7 for description and bibliography. For the entire mosaic see http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/MGPs/MGPs_Sala01_03.html#top.

[2] Editio princeps by A.E. Hanson, A Ptolemaic List of Aromata and Honey, TAPA 103 (1972) 161-6. For the image reproduced below see http://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/apis/x-1906.

[3] On medical papyri see, e.g., I. Andorlini, Prescription and Practice in Greek Medical Papyri from Egypt, in H. Froschauer-C.E. Römer (Hrsg.), Zwischen Magie und Wissenschaft, Ärzte und Heilkunst in den Papyri aus Ägypten. Katalog der Asstellung, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Wien 2007, 23-33.

[4] Editio princeps by R. Luiselli, Etichetta di sostanza medicinale (Gr. III 1204 verso), in R. Pintaudi-D. Rathbone (eds.), Papyri Graecae Wessely Pragenses (P.Prag. III), Firenze 2011, 157-8, from which the image is taken (Pl. XLVI).

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Isabella Bonati is currently completing a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Papyrology at the Department of Letters, Arts, History and Society (L.A.S.S.) of the University of Parma, Italy, where she is involved in research activities in the ERC project DIGMEDTEXT (Online Humanities Scholarship: A Digital Medical Library based on Ancient Texts). She holds a PhD in Papyrology from the University of Parma and she received an Yggdrasil grant 2012-2013 at the University of Oslo. Her main research interests are concerned with papyrology, especially lexical studies. Other research interests include classical philology, linguistics, archaeology, history of medicine. For list of her publications go here.

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.