Review: Baking, Bourbon and Black Drink

Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink: Foodways Archaeology in the American Southeast. Edited by Tanya M. Peres and Aaron Deter-Wolf. The University of Alabama Press. 2018. ISBN: 978-0-8173-1992-2

Kimberley G. Connor
(Stanford University)

As Tanya M. Peres and Aaron Deter-Wolf point out in their introduction to Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink: Foodways Archaeology in the American Southeast, it is no longer sufficient for archaeologists to just identify food remains in the past; they must “look beyond the data tables and pursue the larger picture of food and its role in human cultures—that is, the foodways of past societies” (2018:1). In practice, this is a difficult task. The nine chapters in this edited volume show both the great potential for using archaeology to study social practices and cultural meanings related to food, and the challenges for those who try to move beyond ‘laundry lists’ of animal and plant species.

Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink responds to a growing interest in modern and historic cuisine from the Southeastern United States (from the Atlantic Ocean into Arkansas and Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio River Valley), but expands the genre by introducing a range of archaeological approaches and increasing the time-depth to include the past 14,000 years. The temporal and methodological diversity of the chapters is one of the great strengths of the book, although that multiplicity also makes it difficult to bring them all together in a coherent narrative. While the chapters are arranged thematically in sections—feasting, social and political status, food security and persistent places, and foodways histories—the divisions often feel rather arbitrary.

The first section on feasting contains only one chapter by Megan C. Kassabaum on the importance of integrating ceramic, faunal and botanical datasets for studying feasting. The evidence she presents from Feltus, a Woodland period ceremonial mound site, raises questions about the role of feasting in pre-agricultural societies with low levels of social differentiation. This poses a challenge to traditional models which assume that agriculture is necessary for large-scale feasting, and that feasting is inherently linked to the creation and maintenance of social inequality. The emphasis on quantity rather than rarity of food items is welcome, although it is difficult to rule out the presence of labor-intensive foods without more evidence about food preparation techniques.

The second section deals with social and political status in southeastern foodways. Two chapters, one by Tanya M. Peres, and one co-authored by Peres and Kelly L. Ledford, provide zooarchaeological evidence for social stratification at Moundville in Alabama. One of the great highlights of the volume is Thomas E. Emerson’s chapter on Black Drink, a beverage made from caffeine-containing yaupon holly and very hot water used as both a social drink, and as an emetic for ritual purification. Emerson combines historical and ethnographic accounts with ceramic analysis and iconography to contextualise recent residue analysis which identified Black Drink at Cahokia. Following on in the vein of beverage studies, Nicolas Laracuente provides a strong introduction to the archaeology of whiskey production in Kentucky. As Laracuente notes, the role of women and enslaved African Americans has been sidelined in histories of the distilling industry and it would be very interesting to see a development of archaeological work which could illuminate the contributions of those groups.

The third section deals with food security and ‘places which persist’ as food preparation and consumption areas for long periods. Stephen B. Carmody, Kandace D. Hollenbach and Elic M. Weitzel use a diet breadth model—which predicts that foragers will preferentially go after higher ranked food products (based on the net cost of the caloric return minus the cost of energy to acquire and process it) but that as resources become rarer they will turn to a broader range of lower ranked products which provide less calories and/or require more processing time—to suggest that foragers at Dust Cave, Alabama shifted from a more general subsistence strategy to intensive mast collection and processing during the Middle Archaic in response to a changing climate. Meanwhile, Lauren A. Walls and Scot Keith look at the transformation of earth ovens from Woodland Period sites in Tennessee and Georgia as a sign of broader social changes.

Finally the section on foodways histories contains two chapters using “new methods of examining foodways to challenge the idea of monolithic cultural continuity during the Woodland and Mississippian periods” (9). Both deal much more with meals and cuisine than do the previous the chapters. Neill J. Wallis and Thomas J. Pluckhahn use shifts in the size and wall thickness of ceramic vessels to suggest changes in food preparation techniques that have not yet been recognised using faunal or botanical studies. The importance of considering food preparation techniques is reinforced by the final chapter, by Rachel V. Briggs on different forms of the hominy foodway. She uses a historical anthropological approach to demonstrate why the Native American technique of nixtamalization for maize was adopted within the African American hominy foodway, but not the European one.

The chapters which really stand out in this volume, especially those by Emerson and Briggs, are those able to really get at what Briggs calls “the vital relationship between what we eat and who we are” which “is not simply that we make choices about what we eat, but that the practices involved in what we eat, those we reproduce every day, are also generative” (161). It is no coincidence, I would suggest, that it was the chapters focusing on meals, cuisine and cooking rather than diet and subsistence which were particularly successful. Offering an excellent overview of archaeological work in the region, this book will clearly be important for those studying or teaching about southeastern foodways. However, it is also an interesting model for any archaeologist trying to figure out not just what was eaten in the past but what it means.

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Filed under anthropology of food, archaeology

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