Food as Material Culture, and Cultural Studies

With a bit of a shift in topical focus this last week, I duly changed course for my secondary resource review. To sum up discussions and class—why can’t food be considered material culture? I’ve since started exploring sources in this area. Over the last week, I’ve been spending time reading the articles in Cultural Studies Review, volume 19: “Food Cultures and Amateur Economies.” In this collection of articles, scholars explore the cultural aspects of food and food production through a variety of studies, and help to establish that the scholarly foundations of food studies are still being built. It was particularly interesting to see this collection of articles as a whole, and to consider that they were published in 2013. It offered a very tidy state-of-the-field type reading for which I was grateful; I certainly need to know what is happening in the realm of food studies.

“The material culture of food, and its associated practices and taste formations, have long played a key role in the creation and maintenance of social identities based on ethnicity, nation, gender and class,” begin Isabelle de Solier and Jean Duruz.[1] While their introduction focuses mainly on the development of these concepts during more modern times than I am studying, theirs and subsequent articles provide examples of how food-based cultural history can be accomplished. They acknowledge that cultural historians lacked involvement in food studies until fairly recently, yet point to a foundational text: Food and Cultural Studies, by Bob Ashley, Joanne Hollows, Steve Jones, and Ben Taylor. I was previously unfamiliar with this 2004 work, but it is on my list of sources to check this upcoming week. Bonus points to this volume for pointing me in the right direction!

Taking a look at family culture and identity, food preparation’s significance, and how this relates to cookbooks, Sian Supski offers a gendered case study in “Aunt Sylvie’s Sponge: Foodmaking, Cookbooks, and Nostalgia.” Using her female forebears’ recipe for sponge cake, Supski weaves an intimate tale blending her own experiences with an analysis of vernacular cooking and recipe sharing. In her work, Supski explores the concepts of nostalgia (positive, productive, and ambivalent), space and place as meaning-making; she additionally applies Lisa Heldke’s concepts of “thoughtful practice” and “anxious practice” to her own experiences with baking and recipe sharing. She argues that one recipe can tell the stories of an individual and family, and that food making can be a conscious act of nostalgia. Though taking place in 20th century Australia, this article is a rich source for me because it tidily organizes many of the thoughts I’ve had in one academic space—the concepts discussed above are assumptions that I had been working off of previously. Now, though, I have a road map to where and how I can find support for these thoughts. Again, of great utility from this piece comes her nods to scholars who have already traversed these grounds, including Janet Theophano (whose work I have already explored), as well as Lisa Heldke, Jon Holtzman, Jean Duruz, and Susan Lenoardi. While the latter authors are new to me, I am looking forward to seeing what offerings they have as I move forward. Another useful bit of this article is its style and construction. I was impressed with its construction and tone; while being scholarly, it was also personal and an engaging read. Going into a burgeoning, interdisciplinary field which has a large population of food writers in its ranks, I believe it is important to know how accepted published works are being written.

I had many similar reactions when reading Tamara Kohn’s article, “Stuffed Turkey and Pumpkin Pie: In, Through, and Out of American Contexts.” In this work, Kohn argues that identity can be directly related to food and food habits—including how and why one eats, and how and why one prepares food in a certain way. In short, food habits represent personal expression and therefore embody deep meaning. She does this through studying the concept of the Thanksgiving feast through time, determining that it has been and remains an inherently cultural manifestation and message.[2] Looking at food studies from a background in anthropology, she states that, “How these processes [migration, globalization, change, hybridity] are played out in the context of foodways is, I would suggest, particularly interesting, because one can explore how they manifested alongside often complex indications of locality and belonging.”[3] Exploring how the organized feast of Thanksgiving can do this, she asks how individual dishes can manifest these ideals. She concludes that recipes are commodities that convey meaning as much as they carry taste, and that both are important in the development of cultural meaning. “Food is a field of action,” she says, one in which many stories can be told.[4] Again, Kohn nodded toward scholars whose work I need to consult, while also solidifying for me assumptions that I had held. I was once more struck by her blend of personal and academic in her writing, bringing in her own experiences with her mother’s celery root salad as a way to illustrate and enliven her argument. For me, both of these works exemplify what I would like to do with my project, and both have given me a [hopefully] clearer path forward.


[1] Isabele de Solier and Jean Duruz, “Food Culture Introduction,” Cultural Studies Review 19, no. 1 (2013): 4.

[2] Tamara Kohn, “Stuffed Turkey and Pumpkin Pie: In, Through, and Out of American Contexts,” Cultural Studies Review 19, no. 1 (2013): 1-3.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 8.


Filed under Research Methods Assignment

7 Responses to Food as Material Culture, and Cultural Studies

  1. Laura

    Hi Sara,

    I think it is interesting that in Tamara Kohn’s article, she looks at food from an anthropological perspective. Do you think this will be useful for you, to think in terms of food with an anthropological slant? Perhaps this is worth exploring a bit more, particularly due to history’s often intertwined relationship with anthropology. Just a thought!

    • saraevenson

      I believe the concept of thick description is worth being conscious of as I continue researching. Since food studies is such an interdisciplinary field that has been influenced by anthropologists, I definitely think it’s important to approach be conscious of this during research. It’s lent a great amount of depth to the analysis of food, so I do anticipate moving forward with my project with this in mind.

  2. KJ

    Sounds like you have a really valuable week of reading. In the 1980s historians fell in love with anthropology – especially Geertz and thick description. Seems like peeling back layers to get to deeper and deeper meanings of recipe sharing might be a framework to consider. I don’t see nostalgia in anything you’ve written/asked so far about your cookbook, but generational transfer seems written all over your project. It makes me think of Martha Ballard and the communal work of childbearing in the late 18th century.

  3. Kevin "Tiny" Dawson

    I agree fully that food can be considered a part of material culture, as it involves material objects and items to make it and in the end, we are eating objects, are we not? I keep going back in my mind to the food program at Colonial Williamsburg. I worked there for four years and they had an extensive foodways program. If I were you, I might consider contacting them about possible 18th century research on the use of foods in the everyday life in the colonial era. That might be a track of information which might be useful to mine . if you chose to. Good luck with the reading you have uncovered.

    • saraevenson

      Thanks for the thoughts, Tiny! Colonial Williamsburg certainly has an exemplary foodways program, and I’ve been lucky to get to know some of their interpretive staff over the years. They’ve always been and continue to be a great resource!

  4. I also concur to Tamara Kohn’s idea that our identity may be influenced by our food habit. I’ve often found that people who monitor how they eat and what they eat can also monitor important aspects of their lives.

  5. I don’t think our food habit can influence our identify or vice versa. Although if we do think this is the case, we might be able to convince our mind to believe the same. And until there are conclusive evidence, I’ll say this isn’t the case at all.

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