|Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress|
Food history is coming out of the academic closet. Last year, Radical History Review published a panel discussion of historians who teach food history classes. “Eating in Class: Gastronomy, Taste, Nutrition, and Teaching Food History” describes the often-indirect paths professors have taken to engage students in foodways scholarship.
Many historians surreptitiously introduced food studies into their syllabi in decades past. University of Minnesota professor Jeffrey Pilcher “smuggled food” into core curriculum classes, “finding all the places where food has shaped history.” University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Warren Belasco recalls working “under the deanly radar” to pioneer the study of food history in the 1980s. He still supposes that colleagues view him with “amusement and suspicion.”
Foodways can be important for what they reveal about larger historical trends. New York University professor Amy Bentley believes food helps students make sense out of otherwise “complicated topics [that seem] far from their experience [such as] politics, international trade, and empire.” She uses Sidney Mintz’s 1986 now-classic Sweetness and Power to explain how sugar was connected to slavery, industrialization, empire, and modernity.
Despite its covert beginnings, a brief scan today reveals a smorgasbord of food studies offerings. My classes at the University of Mississippi use food as a lens to view culture and history. Last spring,with an ambitious group of undergraduate students, I contextualized and problematized The Help by studying the history of food and racial labor in the South. University of Texas professor Elizabeth Engelhardt encourages students to analyze the “texts” of food including “recipes, food labels, garden histories....” Duke University professor Sharon P. Holland asks her graduate students to explore new ways to examine the intersections of food and race. In short, if you attend college today, chances are good that the cafeteria will not be the only place that you’ll encounter food.
—Angela Jill Cooley