Cultural Foods, an evaluation

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.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to Cultural Foods, an evaluation

  1. Laura

    Hi Sara,

    I am glad to see that THOMAS is benefiting you, at least to some extent. I have also found that it can be helpful alongside some other strategies and techniques. Do you think you will continue to use it as you research?

    I have also discovered that those books that may not seem “academic” at first can be highly useful. I suggest continuing to look into such sources and continue to give them a chance (versus dismissing them at first glance). You will never know what you will find!

    • saraevenson

      I do think I’ll keep using THOMAS as I move forward, Laura. It’s such a tidy system. I definitely use it in conjunction with other techniques, but I have found that it keeps my reading on track. And I agree about seemingly non-academic sources! I’ve found it a bit difficult to get used to different methods of writing and citation, but have found that these sources definitely have value and contribute to my understanding of the topic.

  2. KJ

    I agree — it’s sometimes difficult to engage with readings that come from other disciplines or readings written for popular audiences. THOMAS doesn’t seem to work as well outside of history. Sometimes reading these works as primary sources can be an interesting approach — what is the culture that constructs this argument, asks this question; how does the work I’m looking at illustrate that culture?

  3. Melanie Kiechle

    I also often find that work from other disciplines or for popular audiences are useful as a guide to primary sources. As a historian, I’ll read those differently, but it really speeds the process along to have sources pre-identified and located by someone else. In fact, in my note taking process for books and articles, I keep two docs–one with notes on the piece itself, and one of cited works I’m going to track down (both primary and secondary).

  4. Food has a history. When we cook and eat we can delve into the origins and meaning of these foods which helps us to appreciate what a long twisted history it is.
    I like your method and approach to studying books. I’ve once read “how to read a book” or something similar by Mortimer that outlines a lot of strategies for getting the most out of books. If I feel like returning to indepth study, I may try out your method.

  5. One thing I’ll also recommend is A Balanced Diet
    To stay healthy we not only need all of the above 5 nutrients in our diet but we also need them in the correct quantities – this is what we mean by a balanced diet.

    The consequences of not having a balanced diet are numerous: if you do not eat enough protein, you will not be able to grow properly; if you do not eat enough energy containing foods (eg carbohydrates and fat), you will feel very tired; and if you eat too much energy containing foods you will become overweight.

    Many people in the developed world eat too much of some types of food, for example a lot of saturated fats, and become overweight. Obesity is becoming a big problem in the developed world. One third of all Americans are obese. Being obese has serious health implications including increasing your chances of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, having a stroke or getting a number of forms of cancer.

  6. I love the way you approach the study of cultural food.

    As for me, I really believe that the food we eat have a lot of impact on our growth.

    In fact, the consequences of not having a balanced diet are numerous: if you do not eat enough protein, you will not be able to grow properly; if you do not eat enough energy containing foods (eg carbohydrates and fat), you will feel very tired; and if you eat too much energy containing foods you will become overweight.

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