Moral Economies of Food: Ingredients, Identity, and the State in the Process of Cultural Creation

AHA Session 45
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 2B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Carol Helstosky, University of Denver
Robert G. Weis, University of Northern Colorado

Session Abstract

In both material and symbolic ways, food preferences reflect not only who we are, but also what we value. Differing perspectives on what is good to eat and why constitute meaningful expressions of identity and moral judgement that have shaped the processes of state development, acculturation, and self-definition within a variety of historical periods and settings. With such concepts in mind, this panel will explore the impact of dietary preference, food regulation, and the economics of food supply upon the formation and assertion of a moral economy.

Nicholas Foreman’s paper examines the supply, sale, and consumption of wheat flour in the Lower Mississippi Valley during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century and that commodity's impact on the boundaries of morality and cultural membership a region so often defined by perceptions of disorder and depravity. For the French Creole, Spanish, and Anglo settlers who hoped to set themselves apart from their black and Indian contemporaries, corn and rice were seen as inferior, morally bankrupt foodstuffs. White bread stood in opposition to these supposedly uncivilized foodways and symbolized the notions of modernity, rationality, and cleanliness so central to their European aesthetic. As such, wheat stood in a rarified place between commodity and cultural sine qua non, and its proper production and regulation were consequently laden with a moral weight that heavily influenced perceptions of the region's social, economic, and administrative character during its most drastic period of growth.

Continuing the discussion of Louisiana’s moral food economy, Ashley Rose Young’s paper will discuss the tensions and negotiations between the vendors and administrators of New Orleans’s public market itself. Through officials' attempts to regulate commerce, police private retailers who frustrated their efforts at centralization, and maintain perceptions of order and virtue in the arena of food supply, Young will parse the competing imperatives of shopkeepers, huxters, and police, to trace the development of a governmentally enforced moral economy in nineteenth-century New Orleans. By appealing to honor in their lobbying against private grocers, Young argues that local comestibles and public vendors effectively monopolized food supply in the city, staving off privatization and helping to shape New Orleans's unique culinary identity in the process.

Finally, Dr. Sandra Aguilar-Rodriguez will round out the chronological arc of the panel and provide some grist for comparative discussion through an examination of food’s role in the promotion of middle class values and cultural reform in mid-twentieth century Mexico. As that country attempted to “modernize” in the wake of a lengthy and socially disruptive revolution that ended in 1920, many of the nation’s doctors, scholars, teachers, and administrators took up the mantle of progress by promoting specific, state sponsored conceptions of morality and civic decorum. Through an examination of cook books, women’s magazines, governmental records, medical journals, and oral histories, Dr. Aguilar-Rodriguez will stress the role of middle class reformers on the development of modern Mexican values, as well as the various responses demonstrated by the middle and working class households they targeted.

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