Category Archives: history

Meal Kits: Our Culinary Future?

photo of a toast

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Amy B. Trubek, University of Vermont

Americans spend more and more money on food prepared outside the home, and every day cooking becomes more episodic and less linked to gender and domestic obligations. Your grandmother would be surprised by your dinner preparations whether she was born in 1900, 1920, 1940 or 1960, whether she was or is a good cook, a terrible cook, a happy cook, a hostile cook.  At the same time, she would also find much that is familiar, especially the cycle of organizing, shopping, cooking and cleaning up. The past 50 years have borne witness to major social, economic and technological transformations to an obligatory chore. Highlighting the broad transformations and the immediate realities of making a meal is a new intervention in addressing the demands of everyday cooking – meal kits – that would intrigue anyone’s grandmother. You can now purchase all the components of a designed meal – the recipe along with the portioned ingredients – and have them delivered to your house. Although in the United States each meal kit service promises uniqueness – we’re vegan! Our packaging is compostable! We source locally! – there is a similar structure to all of them (for example, Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, Hello Fresh, Chefd ). The customer either subscribes to the service or orders individual meals from an online platform that provides a diverse array of meals to choose from. The ingredients and recipes are delivered to your home. But then you transform it from the raw to the cooked.

Are meal kits our future? My own research is preliminary but intriguing. In 2016, in the midst of finishing my book Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today, a University of Vermont undergraduate, Adelaide Cummings, approached me after a lecture on the topic about her interest in doing an honor’s thesis exploring these. I had been following the launch of Blue Apron and Purple Carrot with great interest. Why not? We worked together to create a feasible pilot project, combining a qualitative experiment with non-users of meal kits (providing a week of meals and doing follow up interviews) with a quantitative survey of consistent users of them (providing a combination of open ended and multiple-choice questions). By the end of this small research project, we were cautiously confident that meal kits are here to stay.

We who do research on food and nutrition should investigate meal kits – their very existence reveals our cultural preoccupations and our culinary navigations. But they might also have predictive power, providing a window into the cooks and eaters we may become, serving as a talisman in a story of transformation to our everyday lives. Meal kits signal our on-going liberation from a long-standing reality: that in order to feed and nourish, first someone must prepare the meal. In 1960, Americans, on average, spent 80% of their food dollars on foods to be prepared inside the home. By 2015, that expenditure was down to 50%. What will we be doing in 2060? If meal kits allow us to create the cultural object we desire – a meal that nourishes and nurtures and comes from somewhere known, an endeavor that involves some effort but not much planning, a result that tastes good and not boring, repetitive or bland – then by 2060 they just might be the new normal.

The idea and the entrepreneurial activity to realize this idea are distinctly 21st century. The idea, interestingly, originated in Sweden, a nation and culture held up in the United States as a model of work/life balance, but where even so, making dinner every night can be a chore. The ‘invention’ is credited to Kristina Theander, a Swedish project manager interested in helping families figure out the ‘life puzzle’ of every day family activities. She launched Middagsfrid, which delivered bags of groceries with recipes to people’s doors in Stockholm; the business has expanded to deliver throughout multiple countries in Europe (Case Study) The first business in the United States based on delivering the components of a meal to be prepared at home was Blue Apron, founded in 2012 by three tech entrepreneurs. Other entrepreneurs (and now major companies such as Amazon) jumped into the game and now American companies generate over 1.5 billion dollars a year in sales of meal kits (See articles in the NY Times and Business Insider) .

Meal kits can be construed as a convenience product, but do they fall into the same category as frozen dinners and take away rotisserie chicken? The ingredients are compiled together in a warehouse and distribution center and then shipped in a cardboard box, ultimately delivered to the customer’s home. Each box contains ingredients that have been pre-measured and sometimes prepped for that specific recipe, as well as a recipe card with pictures to walk customers through the cooking process. Many companies, including Blue Apron, offer instructional videos for subscribers to learn different cooking skills that may appear in the recipes they receive.

Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cooking, cuisine, culture, history

Before Farm to Table Fellowships

See below for information on semester-long fellowships at the Folger Shakespeare Library on early modern foodways. Follow the links for instructions on how to apply.

Before Farm to Table: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, the inaugural project of the Folger Institute’s Mellon initiative in collaborative research, announces a competition for semester-long fellowships to be held in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in one of two semesters: either Spring 2019 or Fall 2019, for three to four months.  Each Before Farm to Table fellow will be awarded $10,000 for work in the Folger collections on topics relating to early modern food and foodways in the British world, broadly conceived.

The Before Farm to Table project uses the pervasiveness of food in everyday life as a window into early modern culture. Food, then as now, is a basic human need. It also has a history and is a gateway to understanding society and culture. In the course of this project, we will investigate big questions about the way food participates in and actively shapes human knowledge, ethics, and imagination. Such issues as the unevenness of food supply, the development and spread of tastes with their darker supply sides of enslaved labor, and the socially cohesive rituals of eating together will be explored. With fresh understandings of a pre-industrial world, this project also gives us purchase on some post-industrial assumptions, aspirations, and challenges encapsulated in any idea of recovering simpler, local, and sustainable food chains.

Questions about the program, details on how to apply, etc. can be found here.

Deadline: September 1, 2018.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, food history, history, postdocs

Culinary Historians of New York Scholar’s Grants

CHNY logo

CULINARY HISTORIANS OF NEW YORK ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS FOR 2017 SCHOLAR’S GRANTS

INCREASED FUNDING BY JULIA CHILD FOUNDATION FOR GASTRONOMY AND CULINARY ARTS

APPLICATION DEADLINE JUNE 2, 2017

Culinary Historians of New York invites submissions for the 2017 CHNY Scholar’s Grant in support of research and scholarship in the field of culinary history.  Since 2012, the CHNY Scholar’s Grant has been recognized by the Julia Child Foundation with generous financial support.  We are pleased to announce that the support has been increased this year, allowing CHNY to award three grants in the amounts of $3,500, $2,500, and $1,500, respectively.  The grants are open to all individuals age 18 and older and are merit-based. Further details and application requirements and forms can be found at http://www.culinaryhistoriansny.org by clicking on the “Scholar’s Grant” link in the Awards tab.  The awards will be announced in July.

The CHNY Scholar’s Grant promotes research and scholarship in the field of culinary history and is awarded annually to individuals seeking financial support for a current, well-developed project that will culminate in a book, article, paper, film, or other scholarly endeavor, including ephemera. The grants are unrestricted and can be used to defray research expenses, attend conferences, or engage in other activities related to the applicant’s project. The CHNY Scholar’s Grant is merit-based; financial need is not considered in making the award.

Previous CHNY Scholar’s Grant winners include:

2016:  Stacy Williams, “Recipes for Resistance:  Culinary Writings from American Feminists, 1875-2005” ($3,500)

Anthony Buccini, “From Kongri to Diri ak Djondjon:  Slavery, Creolization, and Culinary Genesis in Saint Domingue and Independent Haiti” ($1,500)

2015: Francis and Bronwen Percival, “Every up-to-date cheesemaker knows: How starter cultures changed cheese, 1880-1930” ($3,500)

Professor Emily Arendt, “Making Politics Palatable: Food and Partisanship in the Early American Republic.” ($1,500)

2014: Professor Joy Fraser, George Mason University, “Honest Poverty versus Foreign Fakery: Popular Histories of Haggis and Culinary Historical Corrective” ($3,500)

Scott Alves Barton, PhD candidate, New York University, “Feeding the Gods: Afro-Brazilian Street Foods and dendé” ($1,500)

2013: Professor Jennifer Wallach, University of North Texas, “Eating High on the Hog: African-Americans, Food Reform, and Racial Uplift.” ($3,500).

Professor Eric Dursteler, Brigham Young University, “Around the Mediterranean: Foodways and Identity.” ($1,500).

2012: India Mandelkern, PhD candidate, University of California at Berkeley, “In Da Club: Dining and Taste-making in 18th Century London” ($3,500).

Professor Larry H. Spruill, Morehouse College, “Down By the Creek: Cooking with Rebecca Taylor in Early Eastchester’s Guion Tavern” ($1,500).

Anyone wishing to donate to the CHNY Scholarship Fund please contact us via the web site or inquire at CHNYdonations@gmail.com

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, grants, history

Southern Provisions

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

southern provisions cover

Shields, David S. (2015) Southern Provisions.  The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Did you ever wonder where Carolina Gold Rice and other southern rices come from? Or what kinds of beans and peas, root vegetables and herbs, were typical of these “lowcountry” cuisines, and how these products were introduced and integrated?  Do you care about regional U.S. cooking and revivals, and the place of culinary history in such constructions or reconstructions?  Then this is the book for you.  The author, who is the principal of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which provides the seeds for this Carolina Gold Rice and southern culinary revival, has done exhaustive research.  He documents how scholars and food professionals and amateurs interested in rediscovering the flavors of traditional southern dishes worked from cookbooks, gardening records, and other historical culinary documents to create the historical “table” of 18th and 19th century southern cuisine, and then went about the arduous but ultimately rewarding tasks of finding the food varieties that farmers could plant and harvest to make these reconstructions possible.  This reversal of the usual “farm to table” mantra is supremely effective as an organizing tool, as the first half of the volume describes the history, institutions, concepts and methods, and the second half charts, crop by crop, the findings, which allow the understanding of cookery, gardening, field crops, and meals to inform the recovery of seeds, soil and water conditions, that revive the historical flavors and values of these foods and combinations.  The sheer diversity of plant materials is daunting.  In the earlier chapters, Shields lists the historical seed sources for 31 different varieties of beans, 37 different varieties of peas, 24 different kinds of turnips, ten different broccolis (white, purple, and green), and so on, although he finds evidence of only one potato and and a single tomato variety.  The seeds for these various crops came from Europe, the Northeast (NY) or in some cases, fellow southerners.  But the point is to recover and revive the foods, not only the seed sources.

I was particularly interested in Carolina Gold Rice, which must be distinguished from the modern GMO Golden Rice prototype, where the golden color permeates the edible seed. Using modern genetic mapping technologies, scientists have now traced Carolina Gold’s genealogy to a variety in Ghana, although the route by which this rice reached the Carolinas is open to interpretation.  The Carolina rice’s husk is gold, as are the (unhusked) seeds.  After reviving this variety, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation also revived an aromatic Charleston Gold Rice, which is similarly attractive in basic characteristics and adds scent.  Alongside these varieties, Shields sorts out the many European, Asian, and African sources that contributed to the South’s seed selections; their agronomic (productivity) and flavor (all sensory) profiles, as these influenced the rice preferences of producers, cooks, and consumers.  An indication of the precise, sensory-rich, detailed writing is the description, that “Gold seed yielded more per acre than the Piedmontese rice, exceeded it for pearly translucence,and surpassed it in lustrous mouth feel and wholesome taste” (p.237).  Knowledgeable cooks could furthermore distinguish the particular places or farms that produced their rice, which carried the very distinctive flavors of their soils and river-water of origin.  The reader also learns that this rice must be produced organically; additional enrichment of soils with chemical fertilizers will cause the rice vegetation to grow weedy and the seed heads plus stalks to lodge and fall over.  The reader also learns about weedy rice pests, especially red rice, which effectively competes with the cultigen, and the low-tech ways farmers must distinguish rice seed with lower or higher weed seeds by visually sampling and inspecting their contamination, or later invest significant manual labor in weeding.  Numerous historical supply notes and recipes indicate that white rice, as a staple food, was often paired with hominy (corn grits) and pulses (peas or beans). Rice furthermore served as a major ingredient in breakfast foods, in addition to later-day meals, at a time, prior to the technology of puffing rice for breakfast cereals, when the first major meal of the workday demanded hearty fare.  Additional chapters give similarly detailed histories of sugar cane, sorghum, oil, and peanuts, with a final concluding chapter returning to the distinctive taste of the south’s distinctive white flint corn.

Reading these descriptions in the wake of Mark Schatzker’s illuminating accounts of the subtle chemistry of flavors (The Dorito Effect., NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015) helps add to understandings of the agronomic as well as genetics of rice varieties and their sensory attributes.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, book reviews, history

Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity

Eating in the Side Room Cover

Review of: Warner, Mark S. 2015. Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Ashanté Reese
Spelman College

Mark S. Warner’s Eating in the Side Room reconstructs the foodways of two African-American families—the Maynards and Burgesses—who occupied the same house in Annapolis, Maryland from the 1850s until 1990.  Using archaeological data, archival research, and previously conducted oral history interviews, Warner crafts a narrative of food as a central site of resistance for African Americans. He illustrates this within several contexts: shifts in consumer culture, anti-black sentiments in the Chesapeake region and broader United States, the politics of freedom for African Americans (particularly those who were free during the early nineteenth century), and the racialization of food consumption.

The book is organized into eight chapters. Chapter one briefly lays out the central focus of the book, which is to: “explore how these families’ daily food choices within a newly emergent mass consumer society served as a relatively safe way to express a unique outlook and history, as well as offer a subtle, yet persistent, commentary of the racist stereotypes and violence that surrounded them (2015:2). Warner centers African American agency as salient to understanding communal and individual identities. Chapter two contextualizes the Maynard and Burgess families, detailing their economic lives within the context of Maryland’s growing and diverse African-American community. Chapter three explains the methods used to excavate the Maynard-Burgess house, detailing some of the politics of excavations in Annapolis, a city with a strong investment in colonial history. Chapter four presents the food assemblages discovered and offers analysis on how the Maynard and Burgess families acquired the pork, fowl, and fish that comprised the majority of the assemblages. Chapters five and six zoom out to contextualize the food choices made by the Maynards and Burgesses, demonstrating how their choices connected to broader trends in African-American consumerism and how they were contrary to choices made by whites. The final two chapters return to the Maynards and Burgesses, examining the legacies of food consumption and what those legacies reveal about sociocultural dynamics.

Warner argues that the Maynard and Burgess’ (and other African Americans’) consumption of pork was not due to economic constraints but was instead a form of resistance to shifts in mass consumer culture in which beef was becoming the meat of choice for whites: “while some might argue that a preference for pork is attributable to economic factors, a detailed examination of the archaeological, oral, and documentary record indicates that this was patently not the case. African American’s consumption of pork within this region was a profound expression of an identity as separate from white society. One need only survey forms of African American self-expression as distinct as quilts, blues lyrics, orally transmitted recipes, and folk poems to see the prominence of pork in the collective black consciousness” (2015:3).

This argument, a critical one, is one of the most ambitious and fascinating arguments made in the book. The archaeological and consumer data support the claim that African Americans consumed pork in greater quantities than beef and in greater quantities compared to whites.  Warner also presents an array of examples ranging from quilts to music lyrics to illustrate pork’s central role in African-American expressions. However, I was left wondering if, in fact, the resistance to beef could have been multifaceted? As he carefully shows in Chapter two, the Maynard and Burgess families were not wealthy, but they were economically stable (2015:7). While their reasons for eating pork may not have been economic, is it possible that—given the diversity in economic means among African Americans—it could have been an economic choice for others? This illustrates one of the challenges of writing about African-American foodways and one of the reasons why this book is timely and important. African-American foodways are woefully understudied and are often uncritically examined. In that way, Warner challenges the essentialization of African-American foodways by providing an alternative view of how and why pork was important in African-American foodways. At the same time, the argument rests on a binary: important because of economic constraints or not. Because no assemblages as detailed as that from the Maynard-Burgess house existed, Warner notes it was difficult to compare his findings with other sites (2015:74).  Even with the compelling evidence Warner presents—both archaeological and otherwise—I wonder about the economics of pork consumption for those who were not as economically stable as the Maynards and Burgesses. Is there room for multifaceted forms and interpretations of resistance?

Eating in the Side Room raises critical, important questions concerning African-American food consumption.  The writing style, range of data, and carefully crafted narratives that contextualize the Maynard and Burgess families make it suitable for a variety of courses on food and culture, African American histories and daily life, or courses that focus on the Chesapeake region or the south more broadly. For courses on African-American foodways in particular, an instructor should consider pairing Eating in the Side Room with the newly released Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama (2015, University of Arkansas Press), which is a collection of fifteen essays that examine forms of resistance in African-American foodways.

It also has contemporary relevance. As food studies scholars and practitioners continue to grapple with how food consumption reflects economic, social, and health disparities between African Americans and whites, Eating in the Side Room asks readers to step back to think about the roots of such inequalities and consider the ways African-American families have exhibited agency even when alleviation of inequalities seemed nearly impossible. More than just an examination of food remains, Eating in the Side Room places the Maynard and Burgesses’s food consumption in ideological, historical, and contemporary perspective to illuminate power dynamics and resistance.

1 Comment

Filed under African American Foodways, anthropology, anthropology of food, archaeology, book reviews, foodways, history

Food and the French Empire

French cultural studies

A special issue of French Cultural Studies (26:2) on “Food and the French Empire” is available for free through July at http://frc.sagepub.com/content/current.

Here is the table of contents:

Food and the French Empire
Guest editor: Sylvie Durmelat

• Sylvie Durmelat  “Introduction: Colonial culinary encounters and imperial leftovers”
• Blake Smith “Starch wars: Rice, bread and South Asian difference in the French Enlightenment”
• Nessim Znaien “Le vin et la viticulture en Tunisie coloniale (1881–1956): Entre synapse et apartheid”
• Christophe Lucand “Le commerce des vins de Bourgogne à la conquête des concessions françaises en Chine au début du XXe siècle”
• Van Troi Tran “How ‘natives’ ate at colonial exhibitions in 1889, 1900 and 1931”
• Lauren Janes “Writing about cannibal diets and consuming black Africans in France during the first half of the twentieth century”
• Rufin Didzambou “Le ravitaillement en vivres importés et ses incidences dans les chantiers forestiers du Gabon pendant la période coloniale (1920–1960)”
• Marie Caquel “L’impact du protectorat français sur l’industrie du poisson au Maroc”
• Tess Do “Le Palais du mandarin (2009) de Thanh-Van Tran-Nhut : Espace culinaire vietnamien et récupération postcoloniale”
• Robyn Cope “Gagging on égalité: French culinary imperialism on the island of Reunion in Axel Gauvin’s Faims d’enfance
• Angela Giovanangeli  “ ‘Merguez Capitale’: The merguez sausage as a discursive construction of cosmopolitan branding, colonial memory and local flavour in Marseille”

Leave a comment

Filed under Colonialism, Food Studies, France, history

Food and Work in the Americas

labor_12_1_2_CovPRINTfinal

Sent to us by Steve Striffler (Anthropology, University of New Orleans):

Food and Work in the Americas, a special issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History in the Americas, edited by Susan Levine and Steve Striffler, Volume 12 Nos. 1-2  May 2015

From the introduction:

Food studies is now a large and important field of research for scholars, journalists, activists, and others who have become increasingly interested in the history, culture, and politics of food. A sizable literature has emerged in the last two decades, largely from social scientists, which explores food from a multiplicity of angles, including foodways and identity, agricultural policy, the industrialization of food, nutrition, the body, commodity chains, alternative food systems, and globalization. Interestingly, however, very little of this recent work has taken a historical look at food and agriculture as sites of work. Workers remain marginalized in general, and historical treatments of labor and workplaces are even less common.

Labor historians, by contrast, have long considered food-related work sites. Classic studies of meatpacking occupy a central place within broader discussions of industrialization. An even larger literature has explored the variety of work and workers on farms, plantations, ranches, and haciendas throughout the Americas, shaping how we understand agrarian life and capitalist transitions. More recently, labor historians and others have moved further from agricultural production, beyond the farm or processing plant and into (food-related) domestic and service sector work sites. Yet, for the most part, these studies do not engage with food itself, in a broader sense, as a critical element in class, gender, ethnic, or racial life.

Our aim in this special issue of Labor is to challenge labor historians to think about food and work in ways that not only include the production of food itself, but the production and reproduction of working class life. We are interested in the work of food, its central location within the broader fabric of working class life, and the relationship between the two, but also in the connections between the production of food, the reproduction of working people, and the very nature and trajectory of capitalism itself.

1 Comment

Filed under anthropology, food policy, Food Studies, history, labor, work