Listening, Tasting, Reading, Touching: Interdisciplinary Histories of American Food
We are much more than what we eat. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and sociologists were some of the earliest researchers to uncover social meanings behind food cultivation, production, and consumption. The study of food demands an interdisciplinary approach, and food history has been inextricably linked to other disciplines since its rise to prominence in the 1980s. As historians endeavor to study people, practices, and tastes of eras past, they turn increasingly to material, visual, spatial, literary, and sensory approaches to illuminate foodways across history.
Approaching the study of food and society from a historical perspective, this panel uses food to explore social transformation in North America. Spanning the colonial period through the twentieth century, rural as well as urban sites, these papers analyze moments of consumption and ethnic encounter by examining four key pillars of American food: markets, restaurants, menus and cookbooks, and rituals. Using interdisciplinary research methodologies, we demonstrate how the ways people consumed food reflected and shaped their particular historical moment across a broad index of factors, including: nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality.
Carla Cevasco uses a material culture analysis of English Puritan, French Catholic, and Huron communion vessels in colonial America to argue that violent imperial conflict troubled the boundaries between spiritual and secular eating and cannibalism and communion in these three cultures. Cevasco’s paper testifies to the value of material culture methodologies to the historian seeking to understand the belief systems of marginalized people who left faint traces on the historical record. Drawing on the techniques of sensory history, Ashley Young listens to the sounds of the late-nineteenth-century French Market in New Orleans to unearth the pivotal role of immigrant vendors in shaping the food culture of the postbellum city. Young argues that sound, more so than sight, touch, taste, or smell, informed the ways in which ethnic identity was imagined and recast in the ethnographic literature of the late-nineteenth century. Heather Lee employs 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. Lee argues that New Yorkers patronized Chinese chop suey joints during the 1920s and 1930s not to sample unfamiliar tastes, but because the restaurants allowed patrons to experiment with their sexuality. Theresa McCulla reads restaurant menus and cookbooks from New Deal-era New Orleans not as prescriptions for shopping lists or meals but as self-conscious expressions of a Creolized ethnic identity. Following the lead of scholars of English and Women’s Studies - who read such texts for explicit and implicit economic, social, and cultural histories - McCulla finds conflicting messages of modernization, nostalgia, and persistent segregation in the city’s public and private dining cultures.
Together, these papers affirm the inherent interdisciplinarity of food history as a strength. While we each benefit from scholarship outside of history, our collective goal is to demonstrate the value of food history to the broader study of American history and encourage a similarly expansive and creative approach to investigating all historical questions.