The history of food, long derided as an amateur’s avocation, has finally won professional respectability based on a generation of high-quality scholarship. Food matters, not only as a proper subject of study in its own right, but also as a captivating medium for conveying critical messages about capitalism, the environment, and social inequality to audiences beyond the ivy tower. Places and stories, the themes of the AHA Program, are crucial to debates about the history of food, as well as to the highly polarized contemporary politics of food. As William Cronon pointed out, the global commodity food system was built around technologies of production, distribution, and finance capital that sought to standardize categories of foods, erasing their places of origin, the labor that produced them, and the cultural expressions that gave them meaning. Subsequent scholarship and food activism has sought to reclaim foods from the global industrial food system, reconnect to meaningful places (often referred to in French as “terroir”), and recover subaltern histories. Yet advocates of the good food movement, and their academic interpreters, must be careful to avoid perpetuating gendered, racialized, and nativist inequalities; after all, the Nazi conquest of eastern Europe was justified by a policy of “blood and soil.”
This roundtable brings together scholars working on food from a range of different perspectives to discuss their past work and their visions of the future of the history of food. Yong Chen will talk about food, race, and ethnicity based on his work on Chinese immigration history. Alison Smith will examine the way cuisines have been nationalized to support diverse political projects. Bertie Mandelblatt will bring a historical geographical perspective on the early modern construction of commodity chains in the Atlantic World. Enrique Ochoa will consider contemporary popular efforts to reclaim food sovereignty from neoliberal regimes. Rayna Green will discuss the contentious politics of food-centered public history based on her experiences with scholars, audiences, funders, and staff at museums in the United States. Jeffrey Pilcher, the author of several books on food in Mexican and world history, will chair the discussion.
These various approaches all address the theme of lives, places, and stories in different ways. Smith and Chen work on the intersection of food patterns and individual lived identities. Mandelblatt’s work on the geography of food is integrally tied to the question of place. Green and Ochoa both address different kinds of narratives of food histories, telling stories conceptualized either as public or as political history. These separate parts will come together in a discussion that seeks to recognize the contributions of early scholars, consolidate our understanding of the field, and point out new challenges for future researchers.