Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

Paper Abstracts

Ishita Banerjee-Dube
"Curry, Kebab and Authenticity in Indian Cuisine"

My intervention will track the piquant history of ‘Indian food’ through a focus on two of its representative items, the ‘curry’ and the ‘kebab’, and trace their influence on the evolution of a ‘regional’ cuisine over the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Highlighting the inherent, innovative blends of Mughal and Anglo-Indian food that went into the making of  ‘modern Bengali cuisine’, and ‘Indian food’ in general, it will interrogate notions of the ‘pure’, the ‘natural’, and the ‘authentic’ that shore up cultural boundaries and rigid frontiers.  The purpose is to deploy entwined histories of food and cuisine in the understanding of social worlds and argue in favor of the ‘impure’, the ‘inauthentic’, and the invented as components of contingent identities.  Keywords: Curry, Kebab, Invention, Authenticity, Regional Cuisine, ‘Indian food’

Nadia Berenstein  abstract forthcoming
“Space-Age Flavors and Population Bombs: Flavor Research, Synthetic Foods, and Technologies of Abundance in Cold War America”

Yong Chen
"The Invention of the Chinese American Cuisine"

This essay tries to answer a question that many have asked: does America’s Chinese food, known as the “Chinese-American cuisine,” represent a cuisine that is authentically Chinese? It begins with an examination of two important features of the cooking of China. First of all, its reputation has been achieved through the numerous regional culinary traditions, rather than a central one. Second, it has been continuously evolving and expanding, which is marked by the creation of diasporic cuisines. This paper shows that America’s Chinese food is one of these diasporic Chinese cuisines. It analyzes the emergence of the Chinese-American food beginning with the bifurcation of Chinese food in the United States and discusses its basic characteristics as a highly commercialized restaurant food, consisting of inexpensive and simple dishes. It has been widely recognized as a distinctive cuisine associated with the United States for a long time. In essence, nonetheless, it is still a Chinese cuisine, which has maintained closer ties to the cooking of China than other diasporic Chinese cuisines such as chifa and baba food.

Rebecca Earle
"The Nature of Nourishment"

Eighteenth-century European writers frequently described foods as ‘nourishing’. What did they mean? Over a century would pass before scientists elaborated a nutritional paradigm that quantified food’s nutritive qualities. Prior to that, the embodied experience of plebeian eaters remained a central measure of a food’s status as nourishing. Drawing primarily on material from Britain and France, this article charts eighteenth-century efforts to define the nature of nourishment. After connecting eighteenth-century discussions of nourishing food to debates about political and commercial prowess, it explores varied understandings of how the body derived sustenance from its diet, and the ways in which these ideas informed both schemes to promote particular ‘nourishing’ foodstuffs, and also the dietary opinions of the labouring peoples at whom these campaigns were largely aimed. Healthful food, as this article demonstrates, was of central importance to eighteenth-century conceptions of national strength and prosperity, but neither statesmen nor scientists could agree on objective, quantifiable methods for evaluating a food’s potential to nourish. As a result, elite programmes to promote particular foodstuffs as suitable for the labouring population relied not simply on the expert opinions of doctors and scientists, but also on the bodies and purported views of the very people at whom these campaigns were directed. With the rise of nutritional science in the late nineteenth century, the opinions of ordinary eaters lost their epistemic authority; during the eighteenth century the embodied experience of working people remained stubbornly central to learned discussions of the nature of nourishment.

Xaq Frohlich
"The Institutional Origins of Nutritionism in the U.S. Today: The FDA’s Turn to Nutrition Labeling in the 1970s"

This paper argues that the institutional origins of our present-day nutritionism can be traced back to a moment in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s when policymakers decided it was necessary to open up food markets to health claims and nutrition labeling so as to empower an increasingly health-conscious public. The introduction of informative labeling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1973, in particular its “Nutrition Information” panel, dramatically transformed food interest-group politics and the marketing of old and new, nonstandard foods. I look at the FDA’s posturing of the new labels as a politically neutral platform for reform and show how an important dimension of its policy shift was the way in which nutrition science was treated as a culture-free language with which to evaluate foods and disclose, in the agency’s view, “objective” information about them. The turn to labeling in part continued an old progressive concern with liberal protections of “market transparency.” But it also portended the beginning of a new understanding of who was the “ordinary” consumer food regulation was intended to protect. The new consumer was one that could not only handle more health information, but demanded it. In a period when there was low public opinion of FDA regulators, and strong support for individualistic, self-empowering solutions, informative labeling was celebrated by both the Right and the Left. The perceived neutrality of nutritionism served the FDA’s purposes in the 1970s of selling its new labeling rules as a form of noninterfering, hands-off governance. By opening up food markets to diet and nutrition labeling, however, the FDA ushered in an era of “healthism” centered on the governing ideal that it is an individual’s liberty (and responsibility) to choose one’s own healthy lifestyles and risks.

Laura Giannetti

"The Sexual Life of Fruit and Vegetables in Sixteenth-Century Italian Poetry"

This paper examines a group of sixteenth century Italian poems that amusingly exploited the sexual humor granted by comparing fruit and vegetables to sexual organs and sexual acts. It was not simply fun poetry but a more engaged type of cultural work. My research considers the contemporary materiality and the cultural abstractions of the poetic imagination embodied in a carrot or a fig and shows how those poems deeply participated in and challenged the cultural world of the time. The poems discuss high and low food culture, medical knowledge and philosophy, social hierarchy and sexuality, vernacular language and poetic conventions. Moreover, the sexual representation of fruit and vegetables contribute to the construction of a positive notion of the sense of taste in the first half of the sixteenth century. In so doing it challenges a consolidated scholarly notion that maintains that a positive notion of taste can only emerge in the eighteenth century when taste acquires an aesthetic and spiritual sense and is “rehabilitated” from its previous physical dimensions. These poems offer an alternative way of understanding how positive ideas of taste were formed in the sixteenth century, helping to bridge the gap between ideology and practice, sensory perceptions and imagination. A discourse on taste was very much present already in sixteenth century Italy, and positively endowed with the physicality of the pleasures of food and sex.

Roger Horowitz
“Industrial Kosher: Embedding Jewish Law in Modern Food Production”

I focus on the remarkable expansion of kosher food options in mass produced food, especially after 1970s, and address the obvious conundrum: why have kosher goods became so widely available when observant Jews comprise far less than 1 percent of the US population? My answer relies on four contrarian analytic vectors: 1) The benefits of focusing on production and acquisition of food, rather than culinary preferences; 2) the positive contribution of industrial mass produced food to food diversity; 3) the constraints of neo-liberal food regulation on food producers; 4) the centrality of institutional demand, and moreover, seeing institutions as food consumers whose preferences profoundly shape our food system.

Michelle T. King
“Nation, Regions, Culture, Cuisine: What is Chinese Food?”

What is Chinese food? Does it even exist as a coherent national cuisine, or is it really just a loose collection of regional cuisines? What is included or excluded in its many definitions, and why do these questions matter? This paper examines three different historical definitions of Chinese cuisine, occurring in the eighteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Rather than move through these moments chronologically, we move from the most familiar contemporary moment, back to the late imperial past, before landing in the critical turning point of the early twentieth century. The twenty-first century moment is represented by the blockbuster CCTV (the PRC state-run television network) documentary series, A Bite of China (Shejianshang de Zhongguo), as well as a controversial poem by Calvin Trillin. The eighteenth century is represented by the writings of the quintessential gentleman gourmet and literatus, Yuan Mei (1716-1797), who wrote one of the most famous and enduring Chinese language treatises on cooking and eating. Finally, the crucial turning point in twentieth century is represented by Lin Yutang (1895-1976) and Qi Rushan (1877-1962), both of whom were known as gourmands and cultural critics. The overall trajectory of these culinary writings and visualizations moves from an exclusively Han-centric, cultural definition of regional cuisines in China to a geopolitically-determined, explicitly multicultural definition of Chinese cuisine, coterminous with the borders of the PRC nation-state.

Carolyn A. Nadeau
“‘Mas algunos señores no gustan de ello’ [but some lords don’t like it]: Attending to Taste in Francisco Martínez Montiño’s 1611 Cookbook”

The concept of taste in early modern Spain, not too different from our 21st-century understanding of the term, focused primarily as a referent for one of the five senses, as the flavor of things either naturally or by way of seasoning, and finally, as a reflection of one’s aesthetic judgment. Drawing from concrete data on the recipes and their primary and secondary ingredients in Francisco Martínez Montiño’s 1611 court cookbook, Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería y conservería [The art of cooking, pie making, pastry making and preserving], this essay examines concepts of taste as presented in this culinary artifact. Data analysis of close to 5,000 individual references to ingredients allows today’s scholars and gastronomes to gain access to what was being prepared in the royal kitchens and to establish for the first time the culinary scaffolding for what was eaten at court in early seventeenth-century Spain. This essay also provides readers with intimate knowledge about the food habits of the king and queen and questions of taste among the aristocracy. In short, it provides a map of selective taste that both guided future cooks and today reveals to scholars those very taste preferences at court in early modern Spain.

Mary Neuburger
"Gastronomic Geographies: Travel, Tourism, and the Meandering Paths to a National Cuisine in Modern Bulgaria"

This article explores the ways in which the Bulgarian socialist regime integrated a newly elaborated culture of food and drink into its promises for the “good life” and a utopian future.  With a focus on Black Sea coast tourism, it argues that the development of more refined food and drink offerings and public dining venues, played a dual role of shaping and catering to a modern socialist citizenry. With tourism as a major engine of the Bulgarian economy, catering to Bulgarian, Bloc, and Western tourists meant that creating a gastronomic utopia by the sea was part and parcel of “building” and showcasing socialism. This was intimately tied to bolstering state legitimacy, tied to the provision of leisure and abundance, but also a newly minted Bulgarian national cuisine. By the end of the period, however, the Black Sea tourist phenomenon both exacerbated and exhibited the problem of growing shortages and hence the deep crisis of the system itself.

Marcy Norton
"Reflections on Embodied and Material History: Chocolate as Technology, Sensation, and Reflexivity c. 1631 & in the Longue Durée"

This essay centers around a recently re-discovered painting that was created c. 1631 and may be the first visual artwork created in Europe devoted exclusively to chocolate. It also inaugurated a genre of the chocolate still life that became hegemonic for depictions of chocolate in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. This painting offers an opportunity to make explicit the methodology I used to write food history in Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. I will consider how chocolate, like any food, can be productively and simultaneously approached as  technology, sensation, and reflexive discourse, as well as a commodity, and that such an approach is particularly suited to understanding cross-cultural entanglements.

Rebekah E. Pite
"Infusing Regional and National Identities: A History of Yerba Maté in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Argentina and Uruguay"

In this paper, I begin my quest to explore how the history of mate-related ideas and practices allows us to think about how identities in the Río de la Plata region have been constructed in daily and transnational interactions, with a focus on the emerging, top-consuming, and neighboring nations of Argentina and Uruguay.  I do so by drawing from traveler’s reports, scientific manuscripts, oral histories, and visual sources that include paintings, photographs and postcard collections.  This evidence helps reveal not only the history of mate consumption in the region, but also the process of forming and representing regional and national identities.  In step with broader transformations, during the nineteenth century, locals and travelers alike depicted mate drinking as a regional or local ritual, but as the construction of national identities heated up during the early twentieth century, mate acquired a national charge that served to both link and separate Argentines and Uruguayans.

Krishnendu Ray
"Immigrant Restaurateur and the American City: Taste, Toil and Ethnicity"

The sociology of food consumption has emerged as a robust field with rich empirical material and engaged theorization about taste, omnivorousness, distinction, and practice theory. Nevertheless there are continuing empirical and conceptual lacunae. For instance, although transnational and rural-to-urban migrants play a crucial role in food businesses in many global cities, they are mostly unaccounted for in the sociology of taste. Taking the American case, in particular drawing on the work of American historians of labor and migration, this paper provides reasons for that gap and shows what might be gained if migrants are brought back into the urban sociology of taste.

Jonathan Rees
“More Than Meat: The Ice Industry and the Transformation of the American Diet”  

In the late nineteenth century, the American ice industry greatly expanded its production capacity thanks to a wide array of technological innovations. The increased availability of ice in turn revolutionized the preservation of many different perishable foods, making them cheaper and more accessible to consumers of all classes. While the effect of ice on meat distribution is well known, this paper reviews the impact of more ice on everything from beer to cantaloupes and from milk to ice cream.  By demonstrating the existence of a market for refrigerated foods of all kinds, the late American ice industry served as a vital precursor to the vast refrigerated food infrastructure of today.

Helen Zoe Veit
"Eating Cotton: Making Cottonseed, Crisco, and Other Industrial Food Good to Think"

Cottonseed oil is a fabulously successful commercial product that served as an ingredient in all kinds of processed foods and as the basis of a range of supermarket fats during the twentieth century. Yet, for most of its history, cottonseed oil has been successful in secret. Huge numbers of Americans have bought it and eaten it, but relatively few people have known they were doing so. The secrecy around cottonseed oil’s big role in the American food system was not inevitable. During the Progressive Era, marketers were open about the cottonseed content of their products, and consumers in growing numbers bought cottonseed products openly advertised as such. Indeed, many in the Progressive Era celebrated cottonseed as a modern miracle: a former waste product transformed through the ingenuities of industrial processing into a source of affordable fat and protein and a uniquely clean, safe food whose purity was guaranteed not only by U.S. law but by industrial processing itself. The retreat from transparency about cottonseed content in the two decades after the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act speaks to American consumers’ growing trust in government oversight and their growing comfort with knowing virtually nothing about the ingredients in their processed food.

Jessica Kenyatta Walker
“The Invention of Soul Food: Politics of Cuisine in the Soul Aesthetic”  

This papers looks at how culinary theorist Vertamae Grosvenor applied a budding Black feminist aesthetic to food within the Black Arts Movement. With interlocutors moving through her kitchen like June Jordan, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, Grosvenor reframes this domestic site calling it the “world.” This meant the kitchen is a crucible for radical change, hospitality, anti-capitalist taste and a laboratory for early Black feminist thought. Grosvenor's work counters the Black performances of masculinity like those of Amiri Baraka and foregrounds her own unique conceptualizations of African diasporic foodways, politics, and gender.