Secondary Sources and Active Reading, and Being Advised

Near the end of last semester, I started to panic about my thesis. I didn’t feel nearly far enough along, and had an assortment of disorganized ideas bouncing in my mind. One of the most productive things I was able to do at that point, I found, was to find a thesis advisor. I had been working long-distance with Dr. Kiechle on some research for her, and we had engaged in some wonderful conversations over the course of the fall. Though Dr. Kiechle’s research focuses on a somewhat later time period than my interests, her interest in and experience with cultural history seem to fit perfectly with the angle I hope to pursue. In speaking with her about my project, she seemed genuinely excited and invested in helping me to produce my best work. And, after agreeing to be my advisor, began actively suggesting sources for me and directing my efforts. Two of those sources were The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thacher Ulrich and Scraping By by Seth Rockman. While I have begun to read Ulrich, I now want to revisit the work with active reading and note-taking in mind.

With active reading and note-taking in mind, I did however set out to read Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. While her work spans centuries and locations, Theophano began the work that I hope to be a part of—a way in which we can see cookbooks as more than just a collection of recipes, a way to see the lives of the authors as manifested through their writings. Her work seems to lay a very nice foundation for my research to build on, as it presents much basic information about the nature of cookbooks (for example that they were frequently created with the input of a community via one person) as well as some of the theories I had begun to speculate about (an example would be the differences between the authorship of manuscript and published books). Some of the active notes I took included:

(Theophano, 2002) Exploration of cookbooks as insights into women’s lives and communities. Writings are an inherent reflection of the world in which the author lived—ingredients and style of receipt indicate social status and access. Yet, how can one author appropriate the thoughts and ideas of others?

(Theophano, 2002) Collective writing as the expression of community—creation of cookbooks (especially manuscripts not meant for publication) was a collaborative effort.

(Theophano, 2002) Conversation between manuscript and published cookbooks.

(Theophano, 2002) How cookbooks can serve as indicators of the vernacular and inherited traditions of cookery and therefore habits and community.

Additionally, I took some time this week to become familiar with Sandra Oliver’s work, Saltwater Foodways. While this work looks at 19th century American foodways, I find Oliver’s treatment of her sources to be particularly useful to me. I hope to be able to produce something that is more than cultural history, that at leads nods to the growing trend toward food studies, and I believe that this book is a wonderful example of how sources can be used to this end. Oliver charts the food and food culture of regions of New England through the recipes used by and composed by its inhabitants, giving keen insight into the lives they led. While ostensibly quite different from Theophano’s work, both authors repeatedly intone the basis of my work from every page: food is more than just energy, food has meaning, we can understand people and culture better by looking at the foods they prepared and consumed. For me, at least, this was comforting. It’s as if the authors were saying “You’re not crazy, what you want to do is rooted in existing scholarship, just no one has ever had your cookbook or your particular set of circumstances. Let them say what they have to say.”


And so, with that, I continue on hopeful that I will actually having something meaningful to say!


Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

5 Responses to Secondary Sources and Active Reading, and Being Advised

  1. KJ

    Finding your “conversation” is one of the most important steps you can take at this stage in the research process. I like that you were able to both utilize and juxtapose your interests with those of the two sources you read this week. Am looking forward to see how you do “more than cultural history” and what exactly you mean by “food studies.”

    • saraevenson

      For me, Dr. Jones, “food studies” is an area of focus that puts food first. Instead of past historians who only glancingly mentioned food or used it as a uniform commodity in nutritional or economic studies, food studies looks at the unique characteristics of food to see how that can inform us about broader themes and topics. While I’m excited to know more about the author of my cookbook and the community in which she lived, I’m equally interested to see what the ingredients and dishes in her cookbook have to say and, for my own personal gratification, taste. There’s nothing better than replicating a historic recipe in your own kitchen!

  2. Kevin "Tiny" Dawson

    Good morning Sara,
    I always enjoy reading your posts and wanted to say that I am truly excited about reading your final thesis. As you may recall, I worked at Colonial Williamsburg for four years and I know that they have a great source for their cooking and foodways programs. Have you considered a field trip or possible internship with them at some point? I think that a good way to look at your idea may be to look into the research that they found to build their programs. Although CW is a living history museum museum, it is also a great source of research materials. Good luck with this project.

    • saraevenson

      Thanks for the tip, Tiny! I’ve been in touch with their staff over the last several years, and have visited a few times both to see their living history foodways interpretation and to visit their museums. I agree–what a great resource!

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