Thursday, August 23

Kitchen to Classroom: A Taste of Foodways Scholarship

Students at McKinley High School in Washington, DC, learn about nutrition and food rationing during WWII. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley.

This week my award for "Academic Article I Wish I Had Written" goes to Andrew P. Haley at the University of Southern Mississippi for “The Nation before Taste: The Challenges of American Culinary History,” published in the recent food issue of The Public Historian  (vol 34, no. 2, May 2012).*

Kudos to The Public Historian for being the latest scholarly journal to center an issue on foodways. As an important component of material culture, food can communicate history to the general public through many different forums. Making the contributions of interdisciplinary food scholars more accessible is an important goal of the practice of public history.

Haley’s article reminds us, however, that food in popular culture sometimes can focus too much on nostalgia and myth. It is important, he says, to frame food writing and programming in its appropriate historical context. Achieving this involves recognizing, for instance, that the American fascination with taste is a rather recent phenomenon. Turn-of-the-century diners, according to Haley, rarely acknowledged the sensory experience of food. They focused instead on the prestige of the dining experience—the status of the chef, the ostentation of the surroundings, or the prominence of their fellow diners.

Understanding this context involves explorations of period-specific constructions of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body—not just the food itself. Americans—and Southerners—of earlier eras attached different meanings to food. Haley reminds us of the need to explore these meanings and avoid imposing contemporary values on the act of eating. I invite you to check out Haley’s article or his larger work Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of America’s Middle Class, 1880-1920 (which won a James Beard Award earlier this year) to get a little taste of some delicious scholarship.

—Angela Jill Cooley

*If you have access to JSTOR, you can read the latest issue of Public Historian by clicking here.