Reflecting on The Potential of Food History

In today's post, the editor of The Historical Cooking Project, Dr. Alex Ketchum, explores the influence of food history on her work. She proffers that food history provides a valuable framework for thinking beyond food.

For the past five and a half years I have edited The Historical Cooking Project. During that period of time I completed a MA and PhD in History and Women and Gender Studies and was hired as the full time Faculty Lecturer of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at McGill University. My research interests have varied over the years, yet even when some of my research projects seem to be explicitly about gender and technology, I always return to food.

What is it about food that draws me in? What does food history offer me as a researcher, writer, and educator?

Food history allows us to think about potential in exciting ways. While foundational food studies scholars such as Sidney Mintz (Sweetness and Power, 1985) were interested in ideas of consumption, these works were always simultaneously about production. Food history then is about the continual work of making and remaking-- or as Silvia Federici would call it, "reproductive labour" (2012). In the ritualized processes of cooking, there is space for creativity, and in some ways the potential for a re-making of the world, even in small, often overlooked ways.

It is this potentiality that excites me and provides a framework with which I employ to better understand the world. Whether I am researching feminist restaurants, 18th century beer and bread recipes, or social movements and community building, the re-making of the world through product or ideals undergirds my work.

I spent the last seven years particularly focused on loss within spaces of food production and what that meant for feminism. The loss of these women centered spaces, including but not limited to feminist restaurants, is noticeable. Although less attention has been given to the loss of feminist restaurants, a similar kind of institution, the lesbian bar, has been the focus of more attention within recent years. On April 2, 2014 owner Lila Thirkield locked the door of the Lexington, San Francisco's last lesbian bar, for the final time. In the Lex’s last days, regular customers shared their memories at the bar over drinks, editorials bemoaned “the end of an era” (Roberts 2012), and a series of think-pieces questioned why San Francisco, a mecca of lesbian, gay, and queer culture in the United States, no longer had a bar specifically for lesbians. The typical rationale blamed rising rental costs compounded by the lower profit margins from women consuming less alcohol than male bar patrons (Kost 2015). The loss of lesbian and women's spaces is not unique to San Francisco. Women's spaces have been closing at a rapid rate. Feminist bookstores have disappeared quickly, going from 130 at their height in the early 1990s in the United States to less than sixteen remaining worldwide (Hogan 2016: xv). Most lesbian specific bars in major American and Canadian cities have closed (Samson 2015). Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian Restaurant is the last remaining restaurant of its generation. While the rise of the internet has allowed lesbians new places to network (Rothblum 2005 and McKinney 2015) and queer communities have replaced certain lesbian spaces, the loss of physical space matters.

By centering food in my engagement with the topic of feminist restaurants and lesbian feminist businesses, I was better equipped to examine the relationship with production, consumption, and community building. Food enables the researcher a kind of intimacy with which to connect to her work.

I do not argue that food history as a frame of study inherently produces familiarity with subject matter, but its materiality grounds the research. I find food history becomes a more tangible, tactile, and rooted framework for understanding the past. 

All this is to say, five and a half years later, I still believe in the intentions behind our founding of The Historical Cooking Project. I hope you continue to explore food history with us. 

Works Cited:

FEDERICI, S. (2012). Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction, and feminist struggle. PM Press.

HOGAN, K. (2016). The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability. Duke University Press.

KOST, Ryan. “Last Call for City’s Last Lesbian Bar.” San Francisco Chronicle, accessed 18 April 2015: http://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Last-call-for-city-s-last-lesbian-bar-6209121.php?t=693bb9cdb9&cmpid=fb-premium&fb_ref=Default#prev

MCKINNEY, C. (2015). Feminist Information Activism: Newsletters, Index Cards, and the 21stCentury Archive. Dissertation: York University.

MINTZ,  S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. Penguin.

ROBERTS, A. 2013. “We Thought the World We Built Would be Forever”, Open Space of The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, accessed 16 June 2012: http://openspace.sfmoma.org/2012/06/we-thought-the-world-we-built-would-be-forever-an-interview-with-lenn-keller/

ROTHBLUM,, E. D., & Sablove, P. (2005). Lesbian communities: Festivals, RVs, and the Internet (Vol. 9, No. 1-2). Psychology Press.

SAMSON, JD. “Searching for the Last Lesbian Bars in America”, Broadly, accessed 2015: https://video.vice.com/en_us/video/last-lesbian-bars/55cce8601ce00c683baee80b

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