Special Series: What Does Food Studies Even Look Like?: A Reflection on Organizational Methodologies

Food history is a growing field whose parameters are still in the process of being defined. Currently within the field, a myriad of works ranging from biographies, micro-histories, ethnographic histories, touch on wide-ranging topics such as focusing on a single chef, tracing a single food product like sugar around the world, and telling the story of the oven. The field of food history appears fairly interdisciplinary and possibly blurs the distinction between popular and academic history. Darra Goldstein, founding editor of "Gastronomica," furthermore has spoken to the way that food history is situated at the margins in academia in such a way that it has not been wholly fully integrated into the research and curricular agendas of the academy.

Today’s post is the first of an ongoing series, which will discuss some of the key issues in food history and food studies at large, primarily within the North American context. With this approach I hope to find historical patterns and dissonance, as well as remark on the field’s place within and outside of the academy.

Food is “the heart of living. [It] brings us together socially, defines health, culture, and ethnic identity ” (Driver, Culinary Landmarks).  Food is  agriculture, ecology, man’s relationship with nature, climate, nation building, cultural struggles, friends, enemies, alliances, wars, religion, memory, tradition, and sometimes sex (Kurlansky, Choice Cuts).  Food is “history” (Tannahill,  Food in History).  Many texts within the field argue that food is anthropocentrically important and by extension, the field of food studies is worthy of intellectual inquiry.  Authors from the various disciplines within the field focus on a myriad of aspects of food in culture, food in society, and sometimes food in nature, by utilizing different disciplinary, organizational, and methodological techniques. Today’s post will reflect on these various organizational techniques by analyzing a collection of eleven texts (see the list at the end) that I view as great introductions to the field of food studies at large.

This set of books consists of six texts that I have classified as “collections and anthologies,” three works that rely on a single narrative, and two pieces that are dedicated to sources and methods. Each organizational style offers benefits for the field of food studies. Many of the collection pieces are able to speak to the various themes within the field. The inclusion of multiple authors can allow for experts to demonstrate different perspectives on the importance of food for humans, culturally, socially, or biologically. The editors are able to show the many layers of the meaning of food. Each article or essay allows the reader to closely focus on a single topic. However, narrative works allow for a single author to explore the progression of the meaning of food for either a specific place or time frame, even if that place is broadened to the “globe” and the timeline begins at pre-agrarian society and continues to present day. These narrative works sometimes appear to be overly ambitious; the writers would not have the ability to be experts on every component of these long, single narratives, especially when the scope extends to the global analysis. However, by providing a single storyline, the reader is better able to contextualize the various aspects of food history relative to each other.  Finally the methodological works, both by Elizabeth Driver, allow the reader to understand the utility of a certain source, in this case, cookbooks, and learn where to find more primary source material. Her bibliographical work, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949, provides the tools necessary for scholars to begin work in the field of Food Studies, while her article, “Cookbooks as Primary Sources for Writing History,” demonstrates the importance of biographical evidence for understanding cookbooks and to food culture more generally. Although each organizational style is dependent on a different set of methodological techniques and relies on different epistemologies, all of these methods are accepted within the field of Food Studies.

 Within the first category there are two different types of works: collections of texts by multiple authors from a variety of disciplines and essays by a single author. Two of these texts focus on Canada and one on the United States. Franca Iacovetta, Valerie Korinek, and Marlene Epp’s Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History is comprised of a variety of academic articles written mostly by historians and arranged thematically. The pieces complicate the idea of a singular Canadian food tradition and explore the diverse food culture and varied relationships that Canadians have historically had with food practices. As a whole, the work argues, “knowledge of Canada’s peoples, institutions, cultures, and identities is enhanced by probing the past and using food as a lens of examination” (Edible Histories, Cultural Politics). The collection is not about Canadian food culture but about what Canadians have historically eaten and what such knowledge means. Nathalie Cooke’s What’s to Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History similarly does not try to define Canadian domestic food culture but rather identifies elements of Canadian domestic foodways in order to inspire greater investigation into these food practices. This smaller collection is arranged loosely chronologically, yet historians did not solely author it. From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food, edited by Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber, also uses an interdisciplinary approach. This collection, which focuses on the United States, incorporates Food Studies and gender studies by using a women’s study approach that depends on an analysis of race, class, ethnicity, colonialism, and capitalism. Their integrative style forces Food Studies to not just add women to academic works but also rather incorporate these different levels of analysis into every piece. The book is thematically arranged around the marketplace, histories, representations, and resistances. All three of these collections depend on a specific geographical location and include the work of scholars.

    Two of the collection pieces are broad in both their methodological approaches and their geographic focuses. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik’s Food and Culture: a reader aims to take a global look at the social, symbolic, and political-economic role of food; examine meanings of food and eating across cultures with particular attention to how men and women define themselves differently through their foodways; and help define and legitimize the field of food and culture studies, which they argue, barely existed in 1997. The editors chose what they believed to be definitive works by more than thirty-six scholars from the fields of anthropology, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, and sociology. The articles are arranged thematically, as are the writings in Mark Kurlansky’s text. However his collection, Choice Cuts: a Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History looks quite different. His collection, too, claims to be global in scope, despite a larger leaning towards the West and most specifically the United States, England, France, and Germany. Additionally Kurlansky does not include full academic articles. Rather his work contains around 400 short essays divided by thirty different themes that vary from the stories about a particular substance, geographic locations, philosophical musings, and memorable figures.

    The outlier in the collections section is From Hardtack to Home Fries: an Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals. Barbara Haber singularly wrote this collection of essays, which focus on a variety of micro-histories as a way to understand how the study of food bolsters our comprehension of American history and to demonstrate the utility and breadth of the Schlesinger Archival collection. Although the topics range from the Irish famine immigrants to the United States; home cooking in the White House; Civil War nurses preparing meals for wounded soldiers; and the heritage of African American cooks, she pulls the pieces together to argue that when all other aspects of a peoples’ history disappears, food remains to preserve their identity and connect them with one another and their homeland.  Her work, like the other collections, allows for a deeper understanding of specific aspects of Food Studies yet as a whole lacks a strong storyline.

    The narrative works, Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, Richard Hooker’s Food and Drink in America: a history, and Elaine McIntosh’s American Food Habits in Historical Perspective, attempt to provide the reader with a single narrative. Tannahill’s book is a world history that examines the forces that have shaped nature of a man’s diet through the course of 30,000 years and tries to show that the pursuit of more and better food has directed movement of history. After working his way chronologically through different geographical regions, he ends by arguing that government administrations don’t have long term food plans and this inattention is alarming since food will continue to have an important role in the future of humankind. I generally find world history projects to be over-reaching but I found this an interesting exercise in the discipline. The book has lots of interesting micro-histories of certain food products but it is ultimately telling a teleological study leading to the end point of current England and the United States of America. While his rhetoric is fascinating, he never really proves his thesis that food has not only shaped but actually driven history. McIntosh’s book is of a slightly smaller scale. Although her ultimate goal is to put current American food habits into historical perspective in order to critique the nutritional content of the foods that Americans consume, her stark periodization does not portray the intellectual and cultural historical flow in a nuanced manner and her definitions of different types of food: “pop,” “mainstream,” and “regional,” are also lacking. Hooker writes a more effective history of American food, which includes rather than centers nutrition. Rather than relying on strict periodization like McIntosh, Hooker argues that although there are lots of changes, which occur over the four centuries that he describes, there is also lots of consistency.  He successfully describes American food and beverages form the first English settlements in North America throughout the twentieth century. His use of separating the history of food from the history of drinks and arranging the content chronologically allows for a smoother understanding of American food habits.

    These works share a variety of common themes and interests. One component of the arguments of all of the works include some sort of justification for dedicating a book entirely to the study of food in a way that does not exist in texts studying warfare or the history of presidents. In part, such justifications come from the relative newness of the field compared to political history, for example. Despite their different arguments, all of the works ultimately conclude that by learning more about food, whether it be the history of agriculture, technology of pots and stoves, greater understandings of food safety practices and nutrition, or the tale of a dish or substance, we are able to better understand humans on a cultural, social, community, and individual scale in a way unique from other fields.

    To end, I would like to touch on a theme that I is harder to measure but which many of the authors discuss as important in the field of Food Studies: pleasure. Many of these works are in fact gloriously pleasurable to read. Between the eleven texts, many of them filled with dozens of articles, I wanted to mention three of my favorites. I was fascinated by Anne Allison’s article “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus” from Esterik’s Food and Culture: a reader. Catherine Carstair’s “The Granola High: Eating Differently in the Late 1960s and 1970s” from Edible Histories inspired me to think of another important component that I should consider in my dissertation. Finally, I really enjoyed Tannahill’s Food in History. Although I think that trying to do such a far-reaching book over such a vast time span has its downsides, his integration of micro-histories of various foods; his reliance on texts, archeological records, and anthropology; and his general writing style kept me intrigued throughout.

Stay tuned for more posts in this special series on the meaning of food studies!
Franca Iacovetta, Valerie Korinek, and Marlene Epp’s Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History (2012)
Nathalie Cooke’s What’s to Eat? Entrées in Canadian Food History (2009)
Elizabeth Driver’s Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (2008).
Avakian, Arlene Voski, and Barbara Haber. From Betty Crocker to feminist food studies: critical perspectives on women and food. Liverpool University Press, 2005.
Driver, Elizabeth. “Cookbooks as Primary Sources for Writing History A Bibliographer’s View.” Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 12, no. 3 (2009): 257–274.
American food habits in historical perspective. By Elaine N. McIntosh. Westport, CT, Praeger, 1995.
Choice cuts: a savory selection of food writing from around the world and throughout history. Edited and illustrated by Mark Kurlansky. New York, Ballantine Books, 2002.
Food and culture: a reader. Edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York, Routledge, 1997.
Food and drink in America: a history. By Richard J. Hooker. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1981. Food in history. By Reay Tannahill. New fully rev. and updated ed. New York, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989.
From hardtack to home fries: an uncommon history of American cooks and meals. By Barbara Haber. New York, Free Press, 2002.