Monthly Archives: March 2015

Secondary Source Readings: A Revolution in Eating

One of the sources I reviewed this week was A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America by James E. McWilliams, published in 2005 by Columbia University press. I suppose you could say that the two of us have a bit of a complicated history.

In 2009 I wrote my undergraduate thesis, a pretty terrible paper on the development of an American culinary identity during the late 18th century. I say pretty terrible, but it had potential. I was both happy and desperately saddened when, years later, I picked up McWilliams’ work only to read the paper I had hoped to write if I had had the time and resources. My great idea had already been thought. And yet, this is the very book that prompted me to return to school. The more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with him and thought that there needed to be additional and more varied research on this topic. Plus, he clearly lacks a comprehensive understanding of how butter is made. If that’s not reason enough to take issue with this work, then I don’t know what is…

In this book, he argues that food acted as an indicator if identity during the 18th century and, more importantly, during the early years of the new republic. Early food choices were based on necessity, regional differences, lack of choice, and an unconscious need for identity. The plainness of “American” food, he claims, was an act of identity-making, a rejection of British-influenced foods. Corn became an American standard, as did domestically brewed beer. This, essentially, became the root of an American culinary identity.

I find this work slightly problematic. He uses a very casual tone which is perfectly fine, but he fails to provide footnotes to back up his airy claims. He provides endnotes, but they are associated with a particular page as opposed to a specific sentence. He also doesn’t approach the idea of whether or not taste preference played a role in his purported transitions, and, I believe, doesn’t give enough credit to other global influences. He is almost Turner-esque in his portrait of American settlers developing a diet of frontier necessity, while I believe there is more credit due to the vast trade networks already in place by the early 18th century.

However—he has pointed me to some important resources that I need to consult concerning the politics of American identity-making, ideologies of the AWI, and also potential primary sources that could help in my research.


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Learning Methodology from Historians

I was so very excited to hear Dr. Mark Smith’s keynote at the Bertoti Conference last week—I had recently been advised to read his work The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege and was interested to hear what he had to say about sensory history. It seems my ill-luck was to be two-fold, last week. The VT library not have Smith’s book, and interlibrary loan didn’t get it in time for me to read it before his lecture. Not that it would have helped all that much, as I fainted halfway through and spent the remainder with the beginnings of what proved to be a massive migraine. Yes, this is me whining. I’m sorry, but I’m very bummed about it all. That being said, I was coherent enough to hear Dr. Smith note that he doesn’t see sensory history as a subfield, but rather as a habit, as an ingrained approach to history. Though I have yet to read his book, my research hopes to explore taste, and how it operated as a manifestation of identity and was influenced by consumer culture. While it is new to me, I feel that sensory history will have a place in my research. I am very excited to explore Smith’s work to better understand the methodology involved with sensory history, though I am sure Dr. Kiechle will be able to point me in the direction of other useful sources.

I also believe that using economic history will be important to my research, since I hope to explore how food was a consumer item during the mid to late 18th century. T.H. Breen’s concept of a consumer revolution helping to homogenize culture will be central to my argument. His treatment of material culture and food items within a framework of economics and consumption are also very important for my research, and have helped me to learn how to approach food as a signifier (to borrow Michael LaCombe’s term) of greater social, political, and economic trends.

I have always seen myself as a cultural historian, and hope that my research will continue in this vein. While hoping to utilize the methods of the above historians, I plan to focus on individuals and their specific place within a specific history. I will need to rely on identity theory, while also understanding and appreciating the nuances of food as a subject in its own right. Finally, I will need to approach cookbooks in a unique way, as more than just a collection of recipes. Works by Janet Theophano and Barbara Ketcham Wheaton will help me to approach these sources with an appropriate frame of mind.


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A Developing Focus Statement

What does the changing taste of “American” palettes have to say about greater social, economic, and political trends during the mid to late 18th century? By studying cookbooks, travel narratives, and diaries, it can be concluded that taste and food consumption served as an intense field of political discourse. Fueled by what historian T.H. Breen calls a consumer revolution, the oppositional forces of Anglicization and creolization worked to define colonists by the cultural items they purchased and intimately interacted with on a daily basis. I believe that there was a unifying and anglicizing trend from the middle of the century on, which mitigated regional differences and ethnic diversity in an effort to create an identity of “British American.” By approaching cookbooks as prescriptive literature, we can discover the recommended social norm—an adaptive yet distinctly English table, with as much (if not more) emphasis on items from throughout the British Empire as on native American ingredients. Taste itself became an embodiment of identity during this period, with food acting as much a consumer item as the openly controversial glass or paper. What you served on your table and what you enjoyed eating was a statement of identity as well as a politicized act. Historian James McWilliams argues that American cuisine changed following independence, rejecting British influence and becoming the plain fare that seems so indicative of the 19th century. Was this a change in the American palette, a transition in taste, or a continued political statement learned during the American War of Independence?

The first published cookbook composed by an American author was not released until 1796, a considerable period after America declared herself politically independent. Prior to this point, households relied on British cookbooks that were either imported or reprinted in the American colonies, or on vernacular cooking habits passed down through families and communities. Comparing published cookbooks from this period with surviving family recipe books demonstrates that, for families of a certain economic standing, there was a marked influence from these British cookbooks. Travel accounts, and personal diaries offer a counterpoint to these suggested norms, giving insights into what quotidian consumption actually was. Studying these resources from 1740 until 1840 provides a lively discussion of what it meant to become American, both as a subject of the British crown and under the new Republic, and allows us to consider food as commodity as well as taste as an indicator of political and social identity.


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“Subject or Signifier?” and Tracking Method

While focusing on how food studies can and does relate to early American History, I find Michael LaCombe’s article “Subject or Signifier?: Food and the History of Early North America” to be critical to my work. Though he intends the article as a discussion of historiography, he also discusses the developed and developing methodology of historians working with food as their subject and, of course, as a signifier for other events. The two are inextricably tied together (for example, tea as a commodity product and tea as a politicized item speaking to a greater issue), though one is no more or less significant than the other.

LaCombe here advises not how to conduct research, but rather how the subject of food can be used as an integrative tool in early American studies considering that, as of 2013, he believed that there was not yet a developed field of early American food history. “At any given place, time, and occasion,” he writes, “food can be a subject in its own right, a signifier with multiple connotations, or both: food is at once a biological necessity, the focus of daily life and household labor, a marker of identity, and a measure of social inequality. Given this complexity, newer literature has called into question historians’ understanding of how cultures and identities are transmitted from place to place or generation to generation and has articulated a more nuanced understanding of cultural exchange and encounter.”[1] How, then, to tease this out? To be sure that food is integrated into a historical understanding of a space, place, or event?

In his article, LaCombe says that he has “…come to understand the term ‘food’ to embrace, first, culturally specific sets of meanings embodied in certain foods and occasions; and second, the employment of those meanings by men and women rooted in history, in a specific place at a specific time, toward specific ends.”[2] With this in mind, food should be approached as both subject and signifier in research, as both indicative of inherent meaning and associative or situational significance. Methodologically speaking, this means approaching a situation with respect for the embodied history of food as well as an understanding of the broader historical context in which it was operating. With this in mind, food has been used by authors such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Peter Wood as a way to shed light on minority histories of women and African Americans. While employing strong and accepted historical methodology, these historians did not fully use food as the source it is. Instead, he suggests that food acts as a nuanced and fluid entity within history, and that an understanding of this is critical to approaching food in a historicized manner. With these discussions and structures laid bare, it is more useful, now, to return to reading to better understand how and why authors conduct their study—to better understand where in this spectrum of method and understanding and theory they lay, and to understand that in a way that can better help shape my own project.


[1] Michael A. LaCombe, “Subject or Signifier?: Food and the History of Early North America,” History Compass 11/10 (2013): 859.

[2] Ibid., 860.


Filed under Research Methods Assignment

One of my Primary Primary Sources

As one of my primary sources, I will use Approved Receipts, a 1795 manuscript cookbook currently attributed to an unknown author. I chose this work because of what it is—an unpublished collection of household recipes, which opens up a world of discussionARCovers.

At first, this manuscript collection may appear no more significant than any other 18th century cookbook. Similar recipes can be found in this as can be found in many others; it is only important to me because I found it, and held it, and loved it. It may not, in fact, have anything significant to tell us about life in Oxfordshire during the late 18th century, or about women’s authorship. It may just be another cookbook among the many. But—it does have a unique position among cookbooks because it is a manuscript. It was composed intended for household use, rather than publication. This allows it to perform as a pivotal piece used in comparison with other cookbooks composed for publication, and also in comparison with what we know common people were preparing and consuming during the same time period. It bridges the important gap between lower class behavior and prescriptive literature, by offering a comment on what fairly well-off families were accomplishing and aspiring to in the privacy of their homes.

Used in conjunction with other manuscript cookbooks, this cookbook will help to establish a balanced definition of what was practiced, and what was aspired to by individuals of means. Hence, it is an excellent representation of many of the works I will be consulting in my research.


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Secondary Source Research and an Argument

This week’s secondary research has been a bit unorthodox, to say the least, and I hope I’ll be forgiven for straying from expectations. You see, I shifted my research late in the week and haven’t been able to compile notes for a blog post yet, so I want to share what research I’ve been doing in another realm—trying to figure out what I’m actually doing.

I hope my blog doesn’t seem as if I’m facing a crisis each week; I certainly don’t wish to seem overly dramatic, but there have been a few twists and turns along the way as I’ve gone about my secondary research. I feel a bit as if I don’t know where I’m going, so thought it would be worthwhile to spend some time doing some research to figure that out!

In an effort to get a firmer understanding of what food historians are doing and how they are researching, I stepped out of the library and into the internet. I looked deeper into some of the food history blogs I’ve been nonchalantly following for the past few years in an attempt to better understand what, exactly, is going on and what they’re doing.

First on my list was Sarah Lohman, who blogs at Four Pounds Flour. I’ve been following Lohman for years, and admire how she has been able to combine food history, journalism, and public history. Though trained as an artist, through her experience and work she has come to call herself a “historic gastronomer.” Her work explores how the study of food history can help to develop a personal link with history, as well as the cultural implications that recipes can reveal. By exploring food through a hands-on approach, she is able to see how taste, the ease or difficulty of preparation, and storage techniques may offer insights into history and its transformation into the present. Many of her posts explore the intersection between modern and historic palettes, as can be seen through her exploration of lima bean, bacon, and marshmallow casserole…

Next up was an academic endeavor, Cooking in the Archives. This project is sponsored by UPenn, and is managed by Alyssa Connell and Marissa Niscosia. In this project, recipes from rare books composed between 1600 to 1800 are explored, transcribed, and shared as a way to understand food culture during the transition from the early modern to modern period. This site offers a virtual space for discussion of historic recipes. One of their stated goals is to be ”…able to address contemporary public interest in food cultures  (proliferating on food blogs and websites, for instance) and contribute to the study of early modern culture. We will use the tools of book history and bibliography to decipher our sources, utilize digital humanities methods to exhibit our findings to the general public, and deploy our shared expertise in cooking to prepare early modern dishes in our modern kitchens.” By addressing the cookbooks in their archives, they are employing interdisciplinary theory and commenting on both history and the present, as Lohman also accomplishes in her project.

I then took a stop over at The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, a year-long project sponsored by the Westminster City Archives. This project explores a cookbook compiled by one or more anonymous authors during an unspecified time frame. Certain specific recipes can indicate composition at a certain time period, though it is likely the book was compiled over a span of time. Much like the other projects mentioned, this one transcribes, translates, and creates historic recipes, contemplating the matters of taste, production, and significance.

All of this, compounded with my recent readings, set me to thinking and (potentially…) helped me to frame an argument. All of these people, who have completed projects that I admire, have bridged the gaps between food writing and food history, which is something I find intriguing. In their own right, they have become social gastronomers in that they speak to modern food movements in conjunction with historic food movements.

Last week, I offered 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.

This week, I would like to offer this: In my project, I will explore the development of 18th century food elitism, and their relationship to modern day “foodies.” Where 18th century food elites acknowledged that food and its preparation was a status symbol and turned to modernization and a diverse palette, modern gastronomes are focusing on heritage cooking as a way to define excellence in the kitchen and social success. Yet in looking back, modern food writers are failing to notice the forward-thinking of their subjects. I will be able to rely on both published and unpublished manuscript cookbooks as primary sources to help me determine what was and was not common. Taking cookbooks as prescriptive literature, I will be able to compare them to privately composed recipe collections to see if there are any differences. I will also be able to use 18th century newspapers and diaries to provide a social context and comment on food and eating habits (such as The Secret Diary of William Byrd).

Broken down:

My topic will be food as an indicator of social constructs, as seen in a comparison of 18th and 21st century food writing.

My questions include how our relationship to food has changed over time, how our relationship to food indicates greater social implications, and how these are manifested through food literature.

My argument is that food, food choice, method of preparation, and food literature were and continue to be utilized as social indicators.

Warrants involved in this project are that food was a social indicator, and was actively used as a social tool during the 18th century.

My evidence will be food literature (cookbooks), diaries, travel accounts, and newspapers, from both the 18th and 21st centuries.

This project should be undertaken because of the abundance of modern foodways trends and the growing attention being given to food. To look back, as is being done more and more frequently, we should understand that those we are observing were looking forward.

Potential issues or objections will certainly include my time frame—how can I choose one geographic area and just one time period to act as indicators for an entire movement? Since this is a case study and limited to the scope of an MA thesis, my project needs to be duly confined. It will offer a comment to a greater context and topic.


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