Defining Food History: Issues Within the Field

This afternoon, a sweet and helpful professor passed on a link to the University of Toronto at Scarborough’s website, Culinaria. I had never before heard of this project, which is a multidisciplinary effort to engage with the culture and diversity of foodways by both graduate and undergraduate students. There’s even a journal I had never heard of—Global Food History. How Had I missed this? I quickly perused the listing of members of the editorial board and found some familiar names: Michael LaCombe, Peter Scholliers, and Paul Freedman. All three are cultural historians who have produced working concerning food in history, and I have explored and am continuing to explore their work. However, the Culinaria website makes it a conscious effort to explain that it is involved in a multidisciplinary project. Indeed, their website showcases projects that aren’t strictly historical, such as an exploration of the role of food as it relates to identity in diaspora communities. I pushed these new findings to the back of my mind as I attempted to get back to my assignments for this week, and duly started thinking about my blog assignment.

As I tried to think of current issues that are being addressed within the food history community, Culinaria kept nagging at the back of my mind. I couldn’t help but wonder—what, exactly, is the “food history community,” and who are its constituent members? Without realizing it, I’ve been attempting to address this confusion throughout my research. I have tried to map out a historiography of the field, but have failed. LaCombe offered some insight into this in his 2013 article “Subject or Signifier: Food and the History of Early North America,” though he too questioned the precise role that food plays in historic scholarship. Much as I have seen in my readings, he argues that food has been used as a tool in diverse scholarship over the past few decades, though it has not become a primary area of study until recently. He concludes that food can be a useful cultural indicator, which I certainly agree with. Despite this, though, I’m left with a bit of bewilderment—how will this be done, and by whom?

I suppose the greatest issue I see that resonates with my research, then, is defining the depth and breadth of food history and who takes part in that conversation. This directly relates to my research since I am reaching for a variety of sources from a multitude of fields. I appreciate and admire the interdisciplinarity of food studies and am excited to be a part of it, yet it is likewise challenging. In a field that is currently developing its own identity, how will I learn how to be its scholar? Who will teach me how to do this? I can only conclude that I must keep reading, keep learning, and start talking. Until I am able to interact with other scholars who have studied food, I won’t fully understand what I’m trying to get myself into. Don’t worry—I meant that a bit wryly, though I do sometimes wonder!

As far as research questions are concerned, this does prompt me to wonder about what methodology or theoretical approach is best for my work. At this point, I suppose I don’t know. However, I know what I’m going to do next. I am going to take the list of editorial reviewers for Global Food History, go to Summon, and do a massive search. I think reading their work will be very helpful in developing a sense of the field, a feeling of where things have been and where they may be going, and how they’re getting there. Hopefully my issue of trying to define a shifting and developing field will become a bit more graceful as time goes on, though its fluidity is one of the most attractive things about it.

 

3 Comments

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3 Responses to Defining Food History: Issues Within the Field

  1. KJ

    Sara,
    It seems to me that with every blog post you are engaging with other scholars and developing your own understanding of the field! (Do any of these scholars have blogs? A good place to begin to “talk” to others.)
    Any time we put forward a new category for historical analysis, we work through the sorts of questions you are mulling over, and I think recently of the emergence of “childhood studies,” and “animal studies” as phenomena similar to “food studies.” So what are the questions that cross the disciplinary boundaries in this field? And what do you think the historian, the historian’s perspective, can add that others cannot.? Or, do the questions in food studies requires scholars to unite the disciplines to find answers? It seems to me that understanding what your discipline adds to the new “study” is an intellectual search your thesis will let you undertake.

  2. Melanie Kiechle

    I agree with Kathy–these are the same questions and frustrations I had when starting work in “sensory history.” As with any “new” field, getting starting can be an uphill battle because you feel like you have to defend what you’re doing and how you’re doing it to people who haven’t thought that way previously. You’re well on your way, so keep going!

    I want to push you though, both in relation to this post and to your focus statement, to think about 1795 and what the world was like then. How does your cookbook and the approaches of food studies open a window onto that world?

  3. KJ

    And I will second Melanie’s “push.” Something we’ve talked about in class when discussing your project, so I know it’s not an idea that hasn’t crossed your mind. Will be interested to see how you respond — either here or in assignments later in the semester.

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