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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5 Responses to A Developing Focus Statement

  1. kj

    Should have read this post before commenting on the methods post! This project has really come together over the past weeks. I am glad you mentioned “families of a certain economic standing” in the last paragraph — the need for that recognition was becoming more and more apparent as I read through the beginning of the statement. The project is exciting and you make a good case for its significance — my one concern is the breadth of what you are proposing. Do you need a specific case study that would enable you to test these ideas but set limits on the amount of primary research involved? I do like the “change over time” component in the statement; is there some other way to rein things in? Something to talk over with your advisor.

    • saraevenson

      I agree, a case study may make this project manageable and even more interesting! Part of this depends on where the resources are, so I will definitely need to explore that.

  2. faithskiles

    Hi Sara,

    Wow…this sounds fascinating and interesting. Food as a political statement…never thought about it… I think a comparison is interesting too. Perhaps, cookbooks from a very particular region…like the Boston area??? Or of people in the same occupation, British and American, like a clergyman’s family???? Just very random thoughts….

  3. Melanie Kiechle

    This is really coming together! That is, if you want your project to be about identity, so we should discuss how your thoughts are evolving on that front. One note of caution–you create an unneccesary dichotomy here, between relying on cookbooks and relying on vernacular methods passed down through generations. Rather than seeing those as two opposing and divergent approaches to food, I encourage you to think about syncretism.

  4. Kevin "Tiny" Dawson

    Hey Sara, I was very intrigued to read about the political side of food choices after the Revolution. Did this continue on after a few years, or was this something that became a routine, thus making it not a political statement, but rather a habit? This is a fascinating take on the topic and i am excited to read your final thesis, as it will help to possibly re-interpret the past, especially at museums and living history sites. Good luck with your research.

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