Making The Case for Food & Public History

In so many of our public history classes the issue of relevance always seems to sneak its way into the conversation. We have been taught that the most successful museum exhibitions are those that are relevant and engaging to visitors and those that allow them to make meaningful connections between the past and the present. Yet this is much harder than it sounds – especially considering the fact that our audiences range widely in age, class, politics, ethnic identification, and so many other characteristics. How can we find a topic in history that is relevant to all members of our diverse audience?

As an open and admitted foodie (sometimes, much to the annoyance of my cohort), I have found a deep passion in cooking, gardening, and learning more about traditional foodways – from grinding my own cornmeal for tortillas to making my own ricotta cheese and everything in between. Thus, it was not all that unusual that the answer to my relevancy question revealed itself as I put the finishing touches on my mother’s best guacamole recipe.

Food. All people eat food. Food is relevant to everyone. Everyone.

During this time, I was on the summer internship hunt. I thought, “Surely, this is the answer. I will work at a food museum. Problem solved! Advisor happy! Chelsea relieved!” So I hopped over to the all-knowing Google and typed “food museum.” I got two promising hits. One turned out to be a now-closed food museum on the Lower East Side of New York City. The other was The Food Museum, a blog/digital exhibitions/video collection/wonderful thing run by Tom Hughes and Meredith Sayles Hughes and dedicated to “discovering, exploring and promoting the world’s foods, their histories, and relevance today.” They have no physical space for their museum, but, according to their website, are actively working towards “the establishment of a national museum dedicated to food, possibly on the Mall in Washington, DC.”

Yet this dearth of places dedicated to something so essential, so universal, bothered me. Why have public historians failed to engage with food?

Granted, it’s not like food is missing from museums. Take for example, the Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian. Certainly one of the most praised and visited museum cafes in the country, Mitsitam “enhances the museum experience by providing visitors the opportunity to enjoy indigenous cuisines of the Americas.” While it certainly focuses on providing visitors with fresh, healthful, delicious food, it does not always stay true to preserving indigenous food ways (buffalo burgers with chipotle mayonnaise?) a more immersive food experience can be found at Eagle Tavern in The Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. An 1831 inn that automaker and historic site collector Henry Ford picked up off of US 12, the old Detroit-Chicago Road, Eagle Tavern boasts chefs who do a good job recreating traditional meals of the 19th century. Likewise, the folks at the Colonial Williamsburg do a fantastic job researching early American cookbooks and recreating recipes (a salmagundy? really?) for their many “Historic Dining Tavern” experiences. They also run a great food blog for amateur chefs who love both food and history and may want to host 18th century dinner parties in their small Chicago apartments. If there were people like that.

There are also many museums across the country dedicated to food businesses. Think about the
Mill City Museum in Minneapolis or the Hershey Story in Hershey, PA. Yet these museums don’t necessarily explore broader cultural or social issues in US history relating to food. Rather, they are entrepreneurial exhibitions that share a celebratory narrative of strong work ethic, craftsmanship, and nostalgia.

Yet there are also museums across the country doing some wonderful exhibitions that focus on food and American food culture. The National Museum of American History’s ongoing exhibition “FOOD: Transforming the American Table: 1950-2000” takes an interesting look at how technology and social changes impacted how and what Americans ate. “FOOD” also encourages the museum audience to sit at a communal table in the center of the exhibition space where they can share their own thoughts and experiences about food and change in America. The American Museum of Natural History’s “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture” exhibition focuses on the food system – growing, harvesting, transporting, cooking, eating – and how that system has evolved over time in different societies. Importantly, the exhibition places the audience and the choices they make about their food and their environment within that food system, letting them become an important history-maker.

Perhaps most significant is the work with food and foodways is done by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Their programming on the food life of immigrants in New York City offers visitors of all ages – from grade school “Taste of Tenement” tours to adult walking tours of Chinatown – an opportunity to experience a small piece of what life was like for residents of the Lower East Side. These programs highlight the intersection of immigrant food traditions with American abundance and biodiversity and use food as a lens to explore how new immigrants navigated an unfamiliar and often challenging environment. The focus on such a universal part of life help to make the complexity of immigrant history more accessible and relatable to visitors. The Tenement Museum also uses food to tie the past to the present in their “Culinary Conversations” program, which features talks and demonstrations from local cookbook authors, butchers, historians, chefs, and farmers. These varied guests share the exciting ways that they are keeping traditional foodways alive in New York City and bring much needed attention to preserving the city’s unique culinary heritage.

Anthropologist and Public Historian Cathy Stanton, author of The Lowell Experiment, received the National Council on Public History’s Excellence in Consulting Award for her book Plant Yourself in My Neighborhood, which examines the Her blog, History at the Table, is a wonderful resource for public historians interested in food, foodways, and agriculture. The blog particularly focuses on the emerging role of historic sites and museums in creating and sharing collective knowledge about both the past and present of farming and traditional foodways. According to Stanton this new role serves as “a way to help clarify the complex history of individual and political choices that created industrial agriculture and the equally long history of questioning and resistance that has contributed to a variety of “alternative” models over time, including the many efforts currently underway to build more equitable and sustainable modes of food production and consumption.” In other words, this is a seriously incredible blog devoted to incredibly serious issues regarding the food we eat both in the past and in the present.

Food is increasingly becoming an essential part of the historic narrative. But there is still a great deal of progress to be made in the ways public historians utilize food as a resource to connect with their audiences. Hopefully in the years to come, we will see public historians utilizing food and foodways in order to connect with visitors and create meaningful and relatable experiences for their audiences.

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10 thoughts on “Making The Case for Food & Public History

  1. Joshua Wachuta

    Food history has great potential to bring alive historic houses as well. Villa Louis, the Wisconsin Historical Society house museum where I work, offers regular historic cooking workshops in which participants learn to use local ingredients and period receipts (or recipes) to prepare themselves a meal in a Victorian kitchen with 1890s appliances — including a Sears, Roebuck & Co. “Acme Royal” wood-burning stove. The hands-on experience is terrific, and the work helps bring to life the domestic labor needed to make a big house function, but we still have interpretative work to do in building more of the wider context of food in society and change over time into the immediacy of the kitchen experience.

    1. Chelsea Denault

      Your program at Villa Louis sounds very exciting! Sometimes I think smaller historic homes and museums have an advantage in being able to do exciting and locally-focused programs like that. I think though that because of that, food and foodways maybe aren’t getting the attention they need to become vital to museum and their interpretation efforts on a larger, national scale. I suppose until that attention comes, smaller museums just need to keep producing interesting and relevant programs for their local communities.

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  3. kimconnelly

    I think it is interesting you bring up foodways on a national scale, when the recent trend has been to localize foodways. From my perspective food and food culture has always been a pertinent to the local community. The factors being availability and cultural influence on the food that is produced and the tools used. When analyzing foodways within a national context, the topic becomes more focused on corporations, the development of them and their influence over food/foodways (also the government). Just my thought.

    1. Chelsea Denault

      I totally understand your point Kim! I guess I was thinking more about bringing attention to food or creating a consciousness on a national scale. Of course foodways are localized because they are a response to their unique local environment and food availability. Those are the traditions that we are most in danger of losing and need to be preserved in some way. But in order to make sure more local foodways are preserved, a consciousness about their importance needs to be created on a broader scale I think.

  4. Anonymous

    Sorry for my delayed response but I’m just not catching up on my blog reading! What an awesome post! I will say Kim’s thoughts are very fascinating, especially how local food movements might affect how we think about the history of food and its impact on culture and vice versa. Part of what I found so well done about the Tenement’s Foods of the Lower East Side walking tour is that they very specifically look at how food affects culture, rather than strictly how culture affects food (as Kim mentioned). So, for example, they examine the ways in which foods of the Lower East Side, a small, insular community for much of its history, reflects larger patterns of immigration and has influenced the larger narrative of food’s role in Americanization in US history. Not sure if this wholly makes sense, but I have a copy of their tour script if you want to take a gander! (Shh!)

    1. Chelsea Denault

      Thanks for your awesome insight into the Tenement Museum’s program Annie! I was hoping you would have something to share. I agree that it is so important and so helpful for museums to especially rely on food and foodways to share the complex stories of immigration. I would love to see that script sometime!

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