In an effort to continue expanding my knowledge of the cultural history of food, this week I read Cultural Foods: Traditions and Trends by Pamela Goyan Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher, published in 2000. I was unsure of what to expect when picking this book off the library shelf, but it had appeared repeatedly on a number of searches I did and so I decided it was worth looking into. At first glance, it is easy to tell that this is not a traditional work of historical scholarship. This can frequently make a work easy to dismiss as being non-academic. However, Kittler is a Cultural Nutrition Consultant and Sucher is a Registered Dietician, and so I approached the work as an opportunity to more fully understand the interdisciplinary roots of food studies.
I’ve started taking a more strict approach to my readings, employing the “THOMAS” method of identifying the Topic, Historiography, Organization, Method, Argument, and Significance of a work. Additionally, I’ve put more effort into taking citable notes. I’ve found that a combination of these two strategies helps me to quickly evaluate a source and determine its relevance and utility. Plus, it’s just kind of fun to have a method and personal set of standards to adhere to.
And so, here are my thoughts and notes on Cultural Foods:
Topic: The background culture of food and the cultural significance/manifestation of food habits and choice, both traditionally and within modern situations.
Historiography: The work doesn’t interact with many historical works, though I think it is interesting and important to note that both William Woys Weaver and Karen Hess (early non-historians who are credited for influencing the beginnings of food history) are referenced in the notes. I believe it is also important to note that this work is not necessarily intended to interact with other works of food history, as it was written for an audience of food service professionals and those interested in cultural studies. This in and of itself, though, is a significant point to consider. See “Significance” below for more thoughts on this.
Organization: The work is organized thematically, giving an introduction followed by separate chapters exploring different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups present in America. Each section is also broken down further with a brief history followed by traditional foodways and modern interpretations of food culture.
Method: The authors evaluated primary and secondary sources to develop their theory of an “American” worldview. They relied heavily on scientific documents and publications, into which category I would place publications by the American Dietetic Association and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, as well as food industry resources such as menus produced by the National Restaurant Association. There was also a reliance on works of sociology to offer a cultural underpinning. Their primary resources were cookbooks, both older and more contemporary. By looking at the ingredients, methods of cooking, and implied significance of recipes in culturally distinct cookbooks, the authors were able to craft their argument.
Argument: Through an analysis of demographic data, food service publications, and eating habits, it can be determined that “American” cuisine is far more complex than mainstream media and thought claims. Far from being a “meat and potatoes” culture, American food is a consciously diverse blend of old and adaptively new cultures.
Significance: For me, the main significance of this work is that it is an earlier (2000) example of food studies. It provides a clearly articulated historiographical point proving the interdisciplinary roots of food studies. While some food historians may have been included in this, the beginnings of the cultural evaluation of food certainly wasn’t the realm of historians.