“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

4 Responses to “Subject or Signifier?” and Tracking Method

  1. Laura


    I really like this idea of food as both subject and signifier. While it seems blatantly obvious to me now, I had never really considered it prior to reading this post. Do you think these ideas will prove pivotal to your project (i.e. will it be a part of your central methodology)? Certainly, context is an important factor in really any kind of history you are studying. But it seems with food that it is absolutely necessary to include it.

  2. kj

    Seems like a thoughtful and useful article about how to approach food as a historical subject, and by discussing “embodied meaning” and “context” he also seems to be claiming a space for the historian/historical method in food studies. I can see how this piece will be helpful for establishing the significance of your own study. Note #2 looks like it captures LaCombe’s method — looking at both meaning and experience/behavior. Are you seeing this same duality in other secondary sources on food history?

  3. Kevin "Tiny" Dawson

    Hey Sara,
    As always, I enjoyed reading your post. I am curious whether or not you have considered regional receipts and if they were considered part of the cultural history of an area/family etc. or whether there were any differences between regions and families which showed much change, and if so, what could this tell of regional preferences in the history of foodstuffs? I hope t hat I didn’t completely confuse you with that…lol

  4. Melanie Kiechle

    Excellent find! I suspect you’ll return to this article, theory and method again and again…and that it will return new dividends each time.

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