Sunday, 16 December 2018

Sitting at the Table: Food History as American History

Editor's Choice Mark Padoongpatt Journal of American History, Volume 103, Issue 3, 1 December 2016, Pages 686–689, Published: 01 December 2016 Matt Garcia has given a wonderful assessment of the main trends, approaches, methods, and turning points that defined and shaped American food studies over the last thirty years. Garcia anchors the essay by stating that writers of food history have “tended to address the subject through three interlocking themes: production, consumption, and distribution.” For him, food history is not new, but he is quick to point out that the rise of popular writing on food (assisted by television shows, films, and documentaries) has infused the field by generating more academic interest and informing the types of concerns and questions that historians address. He uses this interplay between academic and popular writing to frame his survey and, in doing so, underscores how the study of food helps bridge the so-called gap between the academy and the “real world.” Garcia's discussion of the interdisciplinary nature of food history, or the way “historians have had to become comfortable with methods outside of their disciplines,” also reveals that food historians are uniquely positioned among “traditional” American historians.1 Garcia argues that the best and most promising works in food history “explore the interactions among multiple actors and the influence of various policies and histories” to make legible the problems in our current food system that all writers recognize. At their best, he adds, these treatments analyze the connected processes of production, consumption, distribution, and procurement. His assertion is based on a recent turn in food scholarship concerned with dining out and buying organic, locally sourced products—practices that have become all the rage among white, educated, urban professionals and allowed popular writers to channel “these interests into wider consciousness about farms, the body, and the planet.” Yet he calls popular writers' treatment of food studies “a mixed blessing for those who want to tell a more complex history of our food past” because it privileges the experiences and desires of white middle-class consumers and tends to “offer overly prescriptive solutions that often miss an opportunity to move beyond individual considerations of the problem.” If the field is to flourish, according to Garcia, it must embrace interdisciplinarity and complexity, and resist simplistic interpretations of the food systems that promote only local ways of eating and that perpetuate exclusivity and class and racial boundaries.2 In emphasizing food production, Garcia makes a much more subtle yet provocative argument: scholars must turn away from what it means to eat cuisine, or the consumer-based “you-are-what-you-eat” approach centering on the relationship between food, cultural heritage, and identity. His essay can be read as a response to scholarship that prioritizes consumption and the pleasures of eating over production—a major trend and a hallmark of the field of food studies. Garcia does not explicitly critique such approaches. Instead, he simply omits works that address food as cultural-heritage consumption. And when Garcia discusses consumption he does so in terms of diet, health, obesity, food justice, food security, food deserts, and food-related illnesses—excluding identity as well as gustatory and olfactory consumption practices. Food scholars have had difficulty avoiding the reality that when most people hear or read food they immediately think of eating mouthwatering dishes. And, in fact, we have proven to be quite hip at playing with this association to expand our audience and, more importantly, to introduce that audience to power relations and issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, empire, immigration, industrialization, service work, and nation-state borders. Garcia recalls organizing panels on agricultural history for academic conferences that yielded low attendance; “by simply replacing ‘agriculture’ with ‘food’ in the session title, I attracted many more interested scholars and graduate students.” The same creativity has been applied in the classroom. The historian Mario J. Sifuentez at the University of California, Merced, offers a course titled “Local Harvest, Global Industry: History of the Production and Consumption of Food.” Most students who enroll are unaware that the class is a labor history course that uses food to allow students to link their consumer habits with real experiences of labor and production—an opportunity that students might ignore if, instead of “food,” the words “labor,” “agriculture,” or “farm worker” were used in the title. My research on the history of Thai food and Thai Americans in Los Angeles has also greatly benefited from appealing to peoples' familiarity and desire for Thai cuisine. Before I focused on food, only a handful of people saw the value of a project on Thai American community and identity formation. Once I began writing and talking about Thai food as a window into Thai American community and identity formation, however, the glazed-over looks and rejection letters suddenly turned to raised eyebrows, nodding heads, and publication and funding opportunities. Whether with research or teaching, inserting “food” into a title works because it evokes warm feelings and nostalgia through eating practices that are critical to peoples' identity. Food represents a tangible, familiar, and intimate reference that structures broader narratives.3 Food is, as other food historians have stated and Garcia makes vividly clear, central to almost all the major threads in American history. It is a real issue—a serious, legitimate subject worthy of historical thought and intellectual energy. Those who argue otherwise have not been in tune with the cutting-edge scholarship produced in the last decade or have not thought expansively about food as a system. Garcia's discussion of the history of Mexican and Jamaican guest workers in U.S. food production, for example, touches on diplomacy, immigration, and labor. Building on the principal themes addressed in his essay, I can think of a range of exciting and relevant topics ripe for historical inquiry that can serve as lenses into larger social, cultural, political, and economic issues. A history of restaurants is a prime topic. As Saru Jayaraman, Jeffrey Pilcher, Donna Gabaccia, Madeline Hsu, and Natalia Molina boldly illustrate, the restaurant industry is inextricably intertwined with labor, immigration, gender, race and ethnicity, community, public health, borderlands, transnational history, colonial history, and urban history. In addition, restaurants allow for examinations of the nexus between production, consumption, distribution, procurement, and representation.4 Food history has achieved a semblance of respectability within the academy. It has a seat at the table. Yet there remain a few dilemmas that food historians must grapple with if we wish to strengthen the interpretive and explanatory power of food and thus ensure the field greater significance. First, the debate over whether food is valuable because it serves as an “entrée” into more important themes in American history or if it is inherently valuable is still unsettled but is as pertinent as ever. One answer, of course, is that food has intrinsic value as a subject but is also a fascinating window. It seems that many scholars lean toward the “food as entrée” approach without considering what makes food unique as an analytical category. Moreover, several historians have, as Garcia astutely observes, unintentionally generated new insight into food studies as a by-product of studying topics seemingly unrelated to food.5 When I read works on labor relations in food production or immigrant foodways and identity, for example, I often find myself wondering how the story is different from histories of labor relations in mining towns or the automobile industry. How is this story of food and immigrant identity formation different from histories of immigrant identity formation through music or sports? Why does American history even need food as a framework? Does it allow us to interpret and understand significant turning points and historical change in original ways? Are we merely covering old ground, only entering through a different door? Paying more attention to and integrating the intrinsic elements of food—perhaps the specific type of labor required to produce certain foods, chemical makeup, or the roles of taste and smell—can expand historical narratives while highlighting the validity of food as a way to interpret the American past. Second, further consideration of the inherent value of food answers Garcia's call for future research to embrace interdisciplinarity and complexity. This requires intentional engagement with insights from other disciplines and areas of study to advance historical knowledge, and, more importantly, deeper reflection on what we, as historians, contribute to interdisciplinary fields such as food studies and the natural science–driven nutrition and public health. How might food historians deal with obstacles such as the privileging of food science research, deemed more legitimate because its findings are based on “hard” and “real” data, whereas historians and other humanities scholars are perceived to be drawing on “soft” and “subjective” experiences and intangible social constructs? So as we ask what food studies can do for history, we must also ask what history can do for food studies. In a similar vein, amid the explosion of foodie writing and food documentaries, television series, and podcasts that frequently portray snapshots of America's food history, what is the role of the historian in popular food culture? Conversely, what insights might foodies—as journalists, bloggers, home cooks, and chefs—bring to historical scholarship? Who is a food historian? What sets historians apart from popular food figures? These are not issues of terminology. Rather, these queries capture the urgency and relevance of learning from history. At a time when many Americans have become increasingly enamored with eating, or more precisely with the experience of eating, food has offered historians a novel opportunity to travel and to tell more nuanced, complete, and accurate stories about the United States and its food past. Therefore, I write these thoughts and pose questions in the same spirit and with the same care as does Garcia, rooted in the desire to keep the field of food history moving forward. “Moving forward” does not simply mean making contributions to the traditional study of American history. On the contrary, it involves being committed to finding ways to transform standard American historical narratives altogether. In other words, we should seek more than a seat at the table, to be more than just diners. We must bring something new to the table. 1 Matt Garcia, “Setting the Table: Historians, Popular Writers, and Food History,” Journal of American History, 103 (Dec. 2016), 656–78, esp. 660. 2 Ibid., 677. 3 Ibid., 657. 4 Saru Jayaraman, Behind the Kitchen Door (Ithaca, 2013); Donna R. Gabaccia and Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “‘Chili Queens’ and Checkered Tablecloths: Public Dining Cultures of Italians in New York City and Mexicans in San Antonio, Texas, 1870s–1940s,” Radical History Review, 110 (Spring 2011), 109–26; Madeline Y. Hsu, “From Chop Suey to Mandarine Cuisine: Fine Dining and the Refashioning of Chinese Ethnicity during the Cold War Era,” Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture, ed. Sucheng Chan and Madeline Y. Hsu (Philadelphia, 2008), 173–93; Natalia Molina, “The Importance of Place and Place-Makers in the Life of a Los Angeles Community,” Southern California Quarterly, 97 (Spring 2015), 69–111. 5 For the debate about the academic value of food, see Daniel Bender et al., “Eating in Class: Gastronomy, Taste, Nutrition, and Teaching Food History,” Radical History Review, 110 (Spring 2011), 197–216. Issue Section: ROUND TABLE © The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: