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.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Secondary Source Research and an Argument

  1. KJ

    Sara.
    I like the overall approach you are describing, particularly the point that as we look back, they were looking forward. My suggestion is that you focus the MA on “they” rather than “we.” Present becomes a point of reference that has helped you ask new questions about the past. The comparison will be implicit in your use of blogs and other current discussions of heritage recipes to show interest, but your focus has to be on how and why these discussions lead you to look at the past differently. I think a comparative history would be, perhaps, too much to hope for in the timeframe of writing an MA thesis. Will be interested to see Dr. Kiechle’s response. (And you’re right, you can’t use one time/place as indicative of a movement — you can use a case study to suggest the questions historians should ask and the answers that appear in your case study — hope that distinction makes sense. You create a conversation and invite other historians to join.)

  2. Melanie Kiechle

    What a breakthrough, and how exciting! I think I would bracket the modern foodie culture to your intro and conclusion, so you can focus on what your cookbook author was doing and how she with others constructed an elite culture through their recipes. And now–finally!–let’s talk about taste. That’s there, both the taste of the food and the refined metaphoric taste of elites, in considering food culture. I recommend a really quick read for you to get started in thinking about taste and how it is constructed as a cultural category through food: chapter 4, a mere 30 pages, of Mark M. Smith’s The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege. In this chapter, he writes about the pre-war refined palette of Vicksburg, and assembles a useful range of sources to establish the “refined palette,” before he gets to what it meant to the elites of Vicksburg that they were eating rats ($1 each!) during the siege. As a bonus, you can then chat him up with details and your knowledge at the Bertoti conference.

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