How did I get so far from Food History?

I can hardly believe that I am already back in Blacksburg and starting my second semester of grad school. I’m not quite out of my former work schedule yet, which means that right now I feel like I should be teaching preschoolers about farm animals. You see, every January and February our museum educators would visit county Head Start sites in anticipation of a field trip to our institutions later in the spring, and would teach a lesson. It was one of my favorite times of year, so if you stop by my office and I try to teach you about the different parts of a chicken and how to count, you know why.

Another semester means new classes, and I am excited for this Research Methods course. I know I will be able to define and refine my thesis topic this semester, and I am excited to embark on my research! Currently, I am hoping to research a 1795 manuscript cookbook I stumbled on a few years ago. It is currently attributed to an anonymous author, though I think that, by reading the book as material culture, we can determine the actual author of the work (I believe it was the second wife of a pastor in London, England). Through analyzing the receipts included, I believe we can also begin to determine the type of community in which the author was living, and begin to consider the type of life being led in (what I believe was) a fairly well-off English family during the late 18th century. In short, I want to go all Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on this cookbook. I know, I know, I’m not on the same scholarly level as Ulrich…but does that mean I shouldn’t try? The other interesting facet of this cookbook is that its provenance claims that it was owned by a 20th century American author and cookbook writer. I would love to see if there are any connections or influences from the 18th century cookbook on the 20th century writings, and to see how the two works communicate with each other and how we can compare the two communities in which these women were writing. I suppose the largest concepts I’d like to explore are community, identity, and books as material culture. My challenge here is…I have always wanted to study 18th century American/Atlantic food history. That is, a “food-first” study as opposed to what this thesis project arguably is—a socio-cultural study of women in 18th century England, or 20th century America. What?! How did this happen?! Luckily, I anticipated some uncertainty in my topic last semester. For two courses, I was required to write historiography papers. Knowing that my topic would involve food history in some way, I completed one on that topic. My other was on material culture studies, since I have an interest in that field. Moving forward, I feel that I have a decent background in these two fields to know where to look for more information, and how the fields have and continue to evolve.

For my faculty meetings, I spoke with Drs. Kiechle, Ekirch, and Thorp, as well as informal discussions with Drs. Mollin and Dufour. In speaking with Dr. Kiechle, she suggested some excellent secondary sources that might provide me with both a model for my research as well as background information. One of the works that studies material culture in a gendered sense she suggested was The Age of Homespun, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Additionally, she suggested Janet Theophano’s Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote. Though I’ve only begun to thumb through these books, the have both proven to be both interesting and relevant so far. Dr. Kiechle’s background in cultural history allowed us to have an awesome conversation about my topic, and I look forward to exploring it more with her in the future. Dr. Ekirch provided an entirely different perspective, though he is also interested in the quotidian fabric of 18th century life. While he was intrigues by my topic, he worried that I might find supporting primary sources limited. He suggested that I start exploring newspapers, and potentially other known journals once I am able to narrow down the location in which my 18th century author was living. Finally, I met with Dr. Thorp, again with an interest in early American material culture who perhaps offered me the most important advice. “This sounds like a study of British, Georgian culture,” he said. He also voiced concern that it may be difficult to connect my two books, given that they are separated by an ocean and over 100 years. How had I so far missed these points? I’m still trying to figure that out! Both Drs. Mollin and Dufour also offered me excellent sources and advice pertaining to gender and bibliographic material culture sources, respectively, and I look forward to speaking with them if this topic progresses. All in all, my conversations with these individuals were both reassuring and thought-provoking, and excited me to see in what direction my research progresses.

As a final part of our first assignment, we were asked to read a prior thesis. Though I’ve read sections before, I opted to re-read Kimberly Staub’s work, “Recipes for Citizenship: Women, Cookbooks, and Citizenship in the Kitchen, 1941-1945.” This, of course, seems natural given our similar research interests. What I found intriguing about this thesis, though, was Staub’s firm planting of cookbooks within a cultural backdrop. I admire how well Staub situates her research within the historiography of her topic, and I very much enjoyed noting familiar names throughout her research. Her attention to formatting and editing is evident, something which I greatly admire.

And now, off to continue reading!

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One Response to How did I get so far from Food History?

  1. KJ

    I, too, will be interested to see how this project continues to evolve, as you begin with an object and weave a story around it. (And one could do much worse than see Ulrich as your model!) You’ve taken a major first step, situating the object in the broader context of women’s lives. So you have some gender history work to do this semester!
    Your description of looking for connections made me think of “Julie and Julia!” What do you know about the 20th century author?
    Did you find Kim’s questions helpful? Did she ask questions that you might also ask about your cookbook/author? For Kim, cookbooks served to define women’s patriotic duties during war, reaffirming gender roles. What will you be looking for in the recipes and notes left by the author? And what is it about cultural history that intrigues you and let you have an “awesome” conversation with Dr. Kiechle? Oh…so many questions.

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