Focusing on a Focus Statement

A focus statement. Yikes. I suppose the most comforting part about a focus statement is that it will change as my project progresses. That, at least, is comforting! To begin hashing out what my focus statement should be, I took advice from Single and answered the series of questions she poses in Demystifying Dissertation Writing. Though I didn’t collaborate on asking these questions with a partner as she suggests, it was still a very useful exercise. It made me think critically about my project, my expectations and limitations, and what the point of the entire project was. I asked myself the following:

What is your project about? My project is about a 1795 cookbook, and how the included recipes can help us to better understand everyday life during the period in which it was composed.

Why am I conducting this research? I find it personally interesting, and believe that it is important to continue contributing to the growing field of food history.

Why should anyone care about this project? Food is a universal, and as such can be used as a powerful tool to help us understand the lives of those individuals involved with its production, consumption, and intangible collection. Everyone eats, everyone lives, let’s work to better understand how the two interact.

What is the big picture? It is important to pursue this topic for a few reasons. First, food history is a developing field in which new voices are both needed and sought. Second, this manuscript has never before been studied.

When I’m finished with this project, what is the point I wish to leave with my readers? Eek. I suppose I’m still figuring this out, but I’m hoping it’s something along the lines of—there’s so much more to a recipe or a dish than meets the eye.

What theories or methodologies will I use? I’m hoping to use material culture analysis and cultural studies to help me evaluate sources and reach conclusions.

What data, sources, texts, or objects are most appropriate for me to work with? How readily accessible are they? As mentioned above, my primary resource will be a 1795 cookbook to which I have decent access. I’ve transcribed most of it, and am able to travel to the archive where it is stored. I will also need to consult other primary sources, though I’m still developing what they will be. I’m thinking perhaps newspaper articles, merchant records, ship manifestos, and advertisements. Many of these will be available online through databases.

What will be the contribution or implications of my project? It will offer a historically-based, food-first evaluation that interacts with food history historiography, on a previously unstudied resource.

How does this topic align with my professional mission and career goals? Honestly, this project has been over a decade in the making. From the first time I lit a fire and started learning how to do open hearth cooking, I’ve been contemplating the meaning of food in history. I plan to return to working in museums and hopefully working in some way with food history, so producing an academic work will be an added benefit. I’m still considering whether or not to include a Public History project with this, though it would also prove to be a wonderful skill-builder!


And so, I developed the following focus statement: My project is a case study of how recipes/cookbooks can be used to provide important insights into the significance food played and plays in everyday life, how food choice and recipe collection can be indicative of greater societal trends and self-definition.


I look forward to refining and further defining this statement as I continue my research and conversations with my advisor, professors, and colleagues. Who knows…perhaps it will entirely change by the end of the month!


Filed under Research Methods Assignment

2 Responses to Focusing on a Focus Statement

  1. Kevin "Tiny" Dawson

    Hey Sara, congratulations on your new discovery of the Culinaire website, it sounds like it will provide a wonderful source of information and contacts within your field of study. Have you tried contacting the people out at Smithfield Plantation here on campus? They are very helpful and could possibly provide some help in the field of food studies, as I know that they have a wealth of information about the site, the household, and the local area. Also, being a living historian yourself and having worked in the museum field, they provide an opportunity to work with the staff on a volunteer basis to promote the education of the public through docents and other period style interpreter positions.

  2. davidatkins


    A public history project is a good fit with your project and your career goals. With the age of your cookbook I would not think you would run into any copyright issues (Check with one of the archivists to be sure.) A digital library with images and descriptions of the book might be a good fit or just a traditional website. Omeka is one option to consider and I can help some and put you in touch with people who have much more experience with the program. I am thinking of including a website as part of my project as well, but I am just starting to look into it.

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