In Defense of the (Historical) Study of Food

I was thinking again this week about a conversation I had with my advisor back in graduate school. I was already on the job market and we were talking about how I was marketing myself in cover letters. My first book project would obviously be the revised version of my dissertation project and I had (and have) plans for a second book that is a natural continuation of that research. But I was already starting to lay the groundwork for a new research project into bread in ancient Greece.

The trajectory of my research has never been solely dictated by the relationship with my Doktorvater, but this was a conversation about how to market myself to jobs and branding is something he is particularly good at. Ultimately, his concerns about mentioning this future project came down to two points:

  1. That this project marked too great a departure from my current research such that there might be questions about my creating a coherent research portfolio. Scholarly publications often build on each other, as it were, with books begetting articles and new leads, so too much dilettantism can just be a distraction.
  2. That telling people I wanted to study food would mean that my research is not taken seriously.

His first point is both more and less valid than it was when we had this conversation maybe a half decade ago. I suspect that there is some benefit on the job market to being a generalist unless you happen to research the specialty that is hot in a given year, provided, of course, that your research in whatever you do is compelling to committees. But, at the same time, I have recently found myself wondering if the various strands of my research are too dissimilar from each other. That is, I currently have ambitions to write four books (three non-fiction, one fiction) after the one I am currently writing. Each one scratches a different itch that I have as a person, but they only tangentially intersect with each other.

However, the second point is the one I want to develop further here. Some of my advisor’s concern is a matter of his personal research, which skews to the political and diplomatic with a heavy dose of biography. He is not so myopic as to think that these are the only things that matter as far as I am aware, but he raised the possibility that the study of food might be regarded as too frivolous to be taken seriously.

I suspect that he is right, at least in some circles.

Without question, some of this is discipline- and sub-discipline-specific. For instance, here are excellent books on food written by modern historians. For instance, I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco and my friend and graduate school colleague Christopher Deutsch is working on the delightfully-titled Beeftopia, which looks at how the United States became a beef-eating country. Although Maria Balinska is a journalist by trade, my favorite one-star Amazon review calling her The Bagel “Jewish social history” warrants honorary status.

My casual survey of work from the ancient Mediterranean suggests that food studies receive more attention among archaeologists. Patrick McGovern, for instance, is a molecular archaeologist who collaborated with Dogfish Head brewery on their Ancient Ales series and delivered a keynote address at the AIA meeting in Philadelphia in 2012. Likewise, Farrell Monaco and J.T. Benton are both archaeologists who work on bread and technology in the Roman world. And yet, just two years ago the zooarchaeologist Flint Dibble nevertheless published a “manifesto” at Eidolon where he conducted a survey of recent research and defended the study food because of what it can reveal about climate and a given society.

In a similar manner to Flint in his manifesto, I want to suggest that food isn’t just a valid topic of historical study, but an important one.

The truth is that I receive very different responses from people when I talk about my work on Ionia (that is, all of my publications so far) and when I talk about even the little bit of food research I have done to this point. This is not meant as a strike against my other work. I think it is important and hope that the book will help change some ideas on how to look at Classical Greece, but I also once delivered a paper on Ephesus, perhaps the best-known of the cities in the region, and had an ancient historian tell me on the way out that he wouldn’t have been able to identify Ephesus on a map. That is, there are more barriers to entry for my work on Ionia. Sometimes it results in long, sprawling conversations. Sometimes I can see eyes glaze over.

The latter almost never happens when talking about food.

There is an appetite for learning about food. This likely explains the burgeoning market for food-related books, almost all of which are historical in nature but relatively few of them are actually written by historians. (To say nothing of Gastropod, which looks “at food through the lens of history and science.”) Other than a handful of exceptions like those listed above, two broad groups of people write these books: journalists and scientists. Both make sense. Journalism is where a lot of food writing takes place and books are a logical extension of this form in much the same way that science journalists turn their reportage into books. Thus you get Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. Scientists, on the other hand, have multiple points of entry. Food involves at minimum chemistry, biology, and agronomy, so books like Cheese and Culture (Paul Kindstedt, a chemist and food technologist) and Sourdough Culture (Eric Pallant, an environmental scientist) are natural extensions of these disciplines. After all, the Global Sourdough Project at North Carolina State University belongs to the Ecology Department.

These are all fascinating projects, but their history is, to put it nicely, wildly inconsistent. I will write a full post of Eric Pallant’s Sourdough Culture later this week, but it can stand in as an example here since I just finished reading it.

Pallant is telling a particular story about trying to trace the origins of his Cripple Creek starter, in much the same way that Kindstedt’s book follows a particular arc for cheese and Balinska’s book largely treats New York bagels as normative until starting a discussion of how the Lender’s company took the bagel mainstream. What Pallant does here is blend the story of learning about his starter with a longer discussion of attitudes toward sourdough breads. In this second objective, his discussion of the transition to industrial bread was particularly fascinating. Not coincidentally, this was also a topic that had served as the basis of a Fulbright project. By contrast, other parts of his historical discussion weaker and included a few turns of phrase that made me physically wince.

Sourdough Culture is not the sort of book designed to have a comprehensive bibliography and a review of the references revealed omissions that could have strengthened the book. At the same time, though, I found myself reflecting on how at least some of the limitations reflect the contours of the existing scholarship, meaning that Egypt and Rome are better represented than was Greece. This is understandable, at least to an extent; Pallant is not an ancient historian. However, it did lead him to give Greek in particular only cursory treatment when there is a more compelling to story to tell there.

I like these books, broadly speaking, and am not at all saying that scientists and journalists need to stop writing about historical food. However, when historians pass the responsibility for writing about historical food to non-historians then they forfeit the right to complain when their historical periods get misrepresented.

Providing material for scientists to improve their books is just a side benefit. Food offers insight into a whole range of historical topics, from gender roles, to cultural values, to turns of phrase, to economic and political systems. Food also provides opportunities for historical work to be interdisciplinary in the best ways possible. Not every scholar needs to start studying food, of course. But where food’s ubiquity may make it seem banal, the very fact that food (or its absence) is intimately connected to every single person’s daily existence means that it is threaded into every historical time and place, if we’re only willing to look for it.