Food and History: Setting the Table for an Interdisciplinary Discussion

AHA Session 194
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, University of Toronto
Can Food Be Disciplined?
Julia Abramson, University of Oklahoma
Teaching Food History in an Interdisciplinary Program
Kyri Watson Claflin, Boston University
Sensorial Histories
Amy Trubek, University of Vermont
Backstories of Global and Local Food
Susanne Freidberg, Dartmouth College

Session Abstract

This roundtable will be a conversation across disciplines about how historical methodologies and approaches, particularly attention to chronology and causation, can contribute to understandings of food, culture, and society. In addition to two historians, we have invited panelists in allied disciplines -- anthropology, geography, sociology, and literary studies -- who are active in the field of food studies and audience members to engage in a discussion about the role of history in this highly interdisciplinary field.

The field of food studies has recently experienced phenomenal growth in American universities, spurred largely by the increasing public focus on food and health, social justice, immigration, and culture.  Generally, student demand more than administrative innovation has been driving this growth. Food history classes regularly draw hundreds of students, but there is still not a single Ph.D. program in the United States offering a field in food history. A principal stumbling block is the lack of agreement on where food studies programs fit within the university.

Food studies is an interdisciplinary field not only because of the many different ways that food intersects human lives and society, but also because the study of it has come from the margins of a number of established disciplines. Perhaps only anthropology, with its traditional attention to symbolic meaning and everyday life, has a long history of placing food at the heart of the discipline. Sociological attention to food was long consigned to the backwoods of rural sociology, although food as an element of consumption studies has recently become more central to the field. Geographers have become interested in the multiple scales of food politics, from global commodity chains and to local food politics, but this is a recent phenomenon. Among historians, food made inroads in subfields such as economic and social history, especially through the work of French Annales school, although cultural analysis of the meanings of food was limited before the 1990s.

Our roundtable will bring together scholars doing cutting-edge work in food studies from a range of disciplinary homes and with experience working across disciplines. This interdisciplinary AHA roundtable will offer a valuable forum for conversations across these lines on researching, writing, and teaching food studies – a subject area that increasing numbers of teachers, disciplines, and departments are trying to accommodate in program offerings. We will examine the pitfalls, advantages, and successes when food historians stride into interdisciplinary waters. We will explore how scholars in other disciplines understand the place of history in the larger field of food studies. The roundtable is intended, as well, to draw out the ways that food scholars in other disciplines draw on history in their work.

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