Histories of Food and Hunger

Rachel B. Herrmann is a Lecturer in Early Modern American History at the University of Southampton.

Here’s the thing about histories of food and hunger: they’re tricky to write because food and hunger are everywhere and nowhere. Food is everywhere in the sense that it often gets mentioned in passing in works of history that don’t focus on food—particularly histories of the environment, and histories of contact between different groups of people. Food also appears to be everywhere when one thinks about culinary microhistories, or narrative histories of individual spices, fruits, and other edible items that “changed the world.” One could say that food was nowhere as of ten or twenty years ago, because although lots of people had written culinary microhistories, only a small number of chronological histories existed—and many of them focused on the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recently, historians have turned their attention to the colonial period and the early nineteenth century, asking questions about race formation, power relations, and environmental changes over time. People in the historical record itself also sometimes recorded the physical absence of food, which is where I think things get really interesting. Food absences have yielded provocative histories of hunger and protest that are just as much about imperialism and modernity as they are about starvation.

Places to Start

This is one of those books that’s not explicitly about food, but Cronon’s focus on environmental history and on contact between English colonists and Native Americans yields lots of commentary on changing crops, domesticated animal use, and by inference, eating habits. The book (which started as a paper that Cronon wrote while in graduate school—and who doesn’t like to aspire to the idea that your grad school term papers can become your first book?) combines scientific data like pollen counts with textual sources to explore the effect of European colonization on New England’s plants and peoples.

Mintz’s book is where culinary microhistory started, but his take on sugar is so much more than that. Mintz managed to tackle questions about production, consumption, Caribbean slavery, and the English working class. His training as an anthropologist also made him more attentive to the symbolic meanings of sugar in addition to the practical ones, and historians have had to follow suit since then. This book is also important because it implicitly argues against the idea that food brings people together; by writing a book about the violence of sugar production, Mintz set food studies scholars down the path of asking big questions about food’s relationship with power.

Everything you wanted to know about why nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans were really into covering food with white, gloopy sauces. In all seriousness, though, Shapiro’s book was significant for its ability to think about how and why race mattered to white middle-class cooks at the turn of the century. By professionalizing cooking—making ingredients measurable, standardizing cooking times, and making recipes scientific—middle class progressive women sought to elevate the domestic, private roles of housewives. The Boston basis of this move toward standardization meant that New England dishes were readily accepted, while heavily-spiced immigrant dishes were not. White food and white sauce also added a pure, racial element to discussions about food at the time.

Digging In

This is an animal history, not a food history, but I think it’s crucial to think about such histories as ways of thinking about food and eating because the line between animals and meat is sometimes fuzzier than we think it is—especially during the colonial period. Today cows and pigs become “beef” and “pork” once they are dead, thus linguistically distinguishing live animals from edible meat. During the eighteenth century when people stole cattle, or listed them as necessary treaty articles, they referred to them as “beeves” or “beef cattle.” Battles over animals are the focus of Anderson’s book. She argues that after seventeenth-century English colonists introduced cattle and pigs to New England and the Chesapeake, Indians reacted to these animals in different ways. Sometimes animals, because they were not fenced in, preceded colonists’ imperial expansion (so Indians maimed them as a new type of violence). Sometimes they were status symbols for Indians interested in new forms of property (so they accumulated them for redistribution). Only sometimes were they just meat.

By now we’re probably all familiar with the term “hangriness,” or the feeling of being simultaneously hungry and angry. Today we feel justified feeling angry when we’re hungry because for many of us, food shortages are not a problem. Yet as James Vernon reminds us, this is a very new development, indeed. In this book, Vernon suggests that only during the nineteenth century did people begin to hold the state responsible for hunger prevention. He traces how Great Britain acknowledged hunger as an imperial and then a global problem requiring political movements, statecraft, and new forms of international redress to avoid hunger.

Bohstedt’s book is impressive in two respects: its ability to quantify and locate patterns in crowd protests about hunger, and its revision of the term moral economy. The idea of the moral economy was coined by the historian E. P. Thompson in 1971, and illustrated how, during times of scarcity, common folk in the early modern period stopped accepting inequalities of power and wealth to pressure wealthy men into guaranteeing access to food at a just price. Bohstedt thinks that a market economy was more important than the moral economy, and argues that people protesting hunger were acting out against the abuse of the market. His study of food rioters suggests the political motivations behind crowd action, but it also separates out the different types of food riots people participated in, and tracks how these behaviors changed over time.

New Moves

LaCombe is a master at negotiating between the practical implications of food and its symbolic connotations. I don’t think people really think about how hard it is to do this until they try to write about food themselves. In this monograph, LaCombe explores the food-related misunderstandings that occurred when Native Americans and European colonists came into contact with each other in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He’s interested in asking questions about authority, representations of dependency, and humanism. He also has an excellent discussion of the first Thanksgiving.

Every time I talk about this book, I quote the same line: Tompkins hopes “to nudge food studies’ interests and methods away from an unreflective collaboration in the object-based fetishism of the foodie world, a collaboration that has produced an unending stream of single-commodity histories and ideologically worrisome localist politics.” My take on Mintz, above, should suggest how useful I think some culinary microhistories can be. But I agree with Tompkins that looking too hard at individual commodities makes readers think too much about what was eaten, rather than why and how it was eaten. Tompkins, by examining different sorts of material culture—chapbooks, cookbooks, poetry, novels, and visual culture—traces how eating became a political act that created “fictions of national unity.” I also really like this book because it’s a great reminder that anyone interested in food would do well to venture across the disciplinary aisle to think about what people in literary studies, food studies, and anthropology have to say.

Before Shprintzen, there was Stephen Nissenbaum, and his book Sex, Diet, and Debility, which focused on the kind of wacky health reform efforts of Sylvester Graham, he of the eponymous Graham cracker. (Spoiler: the original Graham cracker was neither delicious nor a good s’mores vehicle.) Shprintzen’s work moves the narrative forward by looking at diet reform, particularly vegetarianism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and tying it firmly to concomitant social reform movements. I’d never known about the close connection between diet reform and antislavery, and it was fascinating, which makes this one of many reasons you should add it to your list.

When people ask me why I’m into studying cannibals, my standard, glib response is that people are food, too—at least in some contexts. Watson’s book is excellent at examining multiple contexts in which ideas about cannibalism circulated: the Caribbean, Mexico, New France, and New England, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. She’s interested in looking specifically at how discourses, or portrayals, of cannibals were tied to ideas about gender and sexuality, and how those portrayals gave Europeans a firmer, more masculine hold in the New World.

Voices and Lives

Sidney’s Mintz’s questions about power take on new life in this book, which considers a wide array of topics from an American Studies perspective. Williams-Forson covers the history of black hucksters, as well as the uncomfortable place of chicken in portrayals of African American food and eating—but at the heart of this book is the revisited question of power relations. Williams-Forson’s emphasis on chicken, then—through her study of history, film criticism, literary sources, postcards, travel narratives, oral history, popular fiction, and comedy stand-up—makes this book more than a culinary microhistory. It explores how black women used chicken to define and exert themselves in racist and hostile environments.