I started working on food history in 1996. People often smirked when I mentioned it. It seemed like a little topic, something that wouldn’t help answer the big questions about human identity and experience. Yet eating is one of the few universals: thinking about how differently it has been organised across time and space provides amazing insights into class, gender and ethnic identities. With the choice of ‘Food in History’ as the theme for this year’s Anglo-American Conference, food history has finally come of age. A wide range of periods were covered, from classical antiquity to the Arab spring, and everything in between. Some people discussed a particular food, such as milk or bread. One intriguing paper, (by Rebecca Ford, University of Nottingham) was even more specific, focusing on the social and cultural geography of watercress in nineteenth-century England. But ‘Food in History’ was given a wide scope, going far beyond discussions of food and recipes, in ways that showed the possibility for telling all sorts of cultural and political stories by understanding what we eat, with whom, how we shop for it, and the routes it has had to travel to reach us.
- Ken Albala gave the first plenary:
- Albala's plenary opened up many possible areas to consider, several of which recurred in subsequent panels. For example, the question of want and plenty (always central to research on food) was addressed in panels on famines and on the dietary choices of the wealthy. The issues raised about the fashion of food were central. However, some of the cookbooks Albala discussed when he came to the modern period raised possible questions about the importance of new technologies as they intersect with convenience foods. New technologies were another theme throughout the conference.
- A panel on food, migration and national identity fit well with my own interest in eating and identity. Three scholars working on different countries in Europe all noted the links between racism and food, but with the final paper (by Panikos Panayi, de Montfort University), there was a sense that as the meaning of a food such as fried fish changes, it can travel the distance from being 'foreign' (in this case Jewish) to becoming the dish which a people sees as defining its own identity--i.e. fried fish, combined with chips, for the British.
- Is the food we eat always part of our identity? A new way to think about that possibility was raised by Stef Eastoe, who spoke about the use of meals in the treatment of long-term asylum inmates. Food there was considered part of patient's treatment, providing nourishment and comfort, as well as work for some of the patients.
- After thinking about what food meant in the asylum, it was an easy transition to Steven Shapin's plenary about the changing understanding of how food makes us... that is to say, an in-depth musing on the idea that 'we are what we eat.' He argued that an early modern understanding of food as combinations of humours has been replaced by an idea of food as combinations of chemical properties.