Roundtable Conclusion: Food and Hunger in Vast Early America

Today, Rachel Herrmann concludes our food roundtable. You can read Carla Cevasco’s introduction here, Zachary Bennett’s post here, Bertie Mandelblatt’s here, and Rachel Winchcombe’s here. We hope we gave you some things to think about.

This week I spent three days reading three books, and I watched these posts go out into the world while thinking about my comps. I remember my comps year as the year of graduate school when I was more stressed than I can ever recall feeling, for such a protracted period of time, in my life.[1] But I think that it was the state of food history in 2009-10, when I was reading for my comps, that contributed to this feeling of panic.

I don’t mean the state of food studies; that discipline was already healthily expanding. I mean food history. I found comprehensive exams stressful because I knew that I wanted most to speak to early Americanists and early Atlanticists (and I think the distinction was more pronounced back then), but I was not convinced that there were very many early American food histories. There were food histories on other periods and other geographies; there were food studies books on single commodities like sugar and chicken and interdisciplinary food studies collections with foundational essays on method; there was some relevant work on alcohol, and on animals; and it felt like there was no roadmap for my dissertation.[2] That previous footnote, by the way, cites some of that scholarship, but also work that has come out since my comps, in spring 2010. The number of works appearing in 2009 might have contributed to that feeling of panic, but it also illustrates the problem with comprehensive exams that are based mostly on books rather than articles, which tell us what is coming for the field.[3]

All of this is a longish way of reflecting on how far we’ve come. None of the authors in this roundtable felt the need to justify their interest in food history, as I felt I had to do during my first few years on the early Americanist conference circuit. Our authors have written about several subjects—from vocabulary to violence—that might be used to spitball a bit about what I see as the direction of the field of early American food history, and to then say a tiny bit more about what else I’d like to read about.[4]

The first theme that seems evident to me is the subject of single-commodity studies and their continuing usefulness for period-specific histories. I mention this first because as a graduate student, I found it easy to criticize single-commodity studies (I also sometimes needed to punch Past Me in the face). I remember nodding in agreement while reading Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s critique of the “unending stream of single-commodity histories.” Thompson’s point was that these books were missing a more important discussion examining how political beliefs and structures informed “eating as a social practice.”[5] The field of food studies needed to have that discussion. Single-commodity works, however, remain important for historians because they often provide crucial contextual evidence. Mandelblatt needs the history of wheat to explain why colonists’ early embrace of cassava tells a very different story from eighteenth-century French bread riots. Bennett tells us about the lifeways of anadromous fish so that we understand why damming rivers killed them off.

Relatedly, I think that because histories of land are now more inclined to consider water, too, we’re coming closer to a moment in time when animal histories will need to be food histories and vice versa. Bennett is most explicit about making this link between land, water, and sustenance. The Powhatans whom Winchcombe describes withdrew their food aid from English colonists easily because the former had much better knowledge of river navigation than the latter. As climate change unfolds and as water levels rise, people concerned with the environment and its animals are also thinking about the animals we eat. Damming the alewife wasn’t bad for the Ninnimissinuoks because it hurt the environment; it was bad for them because they needed to eat them to survive. So we need to consider not only deer and beaver that yielded fur or cattle that yielded manure, but the sea vegetables, mollusks, whales, and fish that graced peoples’ eating vessels.[6]

The project of studying how people in the past bounded water and land has also raised new questions about technology and law. Bennett’s piece shows that the technology of damming—which preceded what we might understand as industrialization—privileged New England colonists and enabled them to take land from the Ninnimissinuoks. Often, laws about a source of food made it easier for one group to exercise power over another group. Other work by Lissa Wadewitz and Charlotte Coté, however, has shown that technology advantaged Native Americans when they got to choose how to use it. Wadewitz argues that Native Americans set borders and fishing traps that protected salmon fisheries.[7] Charlotte Coté has explored how Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth efforts to revive whale-hunting in the late twentieth century fell under fire from environmentalists who critiqued them for using mechanized harpoons. Her points are that of course Native Americans change, and that the technologies they use to sustain themselves both physically and culturally have never been static.[8] To this I would add: historians should not make assumptions about the inherent goodness or badness of the technologies used to harvest animals, and they should be prepared to view legal decisions as evidence of food-related physical and emotional violence.

The last organizing theme I’d like to highlight, then, is violence and its relationship to food. I chose the Library of Congress image for this post because it seems to me to be a useful example of how the distribution of food might have been an aggressive act. Winchcombe’s study of a breakfast time attack illustrates how visceral it must have felt to see one’s sense of trust broken. Mandelblatt tells us a story about how colonists’ enthusiasm for cassava laid the groundwork for the system of slavery. One of the things I cared most about as a graduate student was reminding people that food history wasn’t just a history of food bringing people together. It’s tempting to begin with a story of a shared meal, and to think of all the ways that food makes us feel good. But anyone who’s watched a wedding or feast scene in Game of Thrones should know that celebratory meals always contain the possibility of poison, or worse.

While you’re considering the Red Wedding, let me pose some final questions about things we haven’t really talked about. Vocabulary has not seemed to matter a great deal in these posts, which seems to me to be a missed opportunity, given how much we early Americanists care about language. I began thinking about this subject again earlier this month, at an excellent conference on food in twentieth-century international thought. Throughout the day it became apparent that twentieth-century historians of food assumed that food was contraband during times of war, which contrasted with my understanding of it as noncontraband in the eighteenth century.

Thus I had been thinking about how the word “contraband” might merit further study in early American food history. Given the focus on law, what legal terms might require closer attention? I’m always going to ask how “hungry” was similar to or different from “starving,” and who got to define it. Not related to vocabulary, but other questions I tend to ask about hunger include: What was the baseline for being well-fed in a year of good weather? How did men and women in the past break down responsibilities for growing, hunting, and gathering provisions? Which foodstuffs were valued, which were denigrated, and who was in charge of distributing them? What were the protocols for sharing a meal without frightening your guests into thinking they’d be murdered?

I hope you’ll join me in continuing to think about these questions as the field of early American food history comes into its own.


[1] Christopher Rose has recently published a great couple of posts about comps, one explaining why they’re so stressful and another with strategies for dealing with them—go read them!

[2] Food histories on other periods and other geographies at the time included Stephen Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); Laura Shapiro, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986); Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Donna R. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Richard Pillsbury, No Foreign Food: The American Diet in Time and Place (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998); Hasia Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Kristin L. Ahlberg, Transplanting the Great Society: Lyndon Johnson and Food for Peace (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008); Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (New York: Harvard University Press, 2010). For food studies books on single commodities (which may not have been billed as food studies books at the time, but have since become key texts), see Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking Press, 1985); Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006). Later, see Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008). For food studies collections with foundational essays on method, see Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, eds., Food and Culture: A Reader, 2nd edition (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), 36-37. For alcohol and animals see Charles S. Elton, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1958); Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Cronon, Changes in the Land; Silver, A new face on the countryside; Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Peter C. Mancall, Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Peter Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); Jon T. Coleman, Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004); Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Sarah Hand Meacham, Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); David Hancock, Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

[3] I did read articles for comps, of course. But there was nothing quite like Michael LaCombe’s survey essay at the time; or if there was, I didn’t find it. Michael A. LaCombe, “Subject or Signifier? Food and the History of Early North America,” History Compass 11/10 (2013): 859–868.

[4] I’m going to bury this in a footnote, but I’ve just joined the editorial board at the journal Global Food History. I am excited to build our representation of early American food history (so submit something!), and I am also hoping to build up our list of peer-reviewers (so please register your interest here if you have a PhD or are employed in public history, and would like this added to your list of service).

[5] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 2.

[6] For relevant works of interest see Brian J. Payne, Fishing a Borderless Sea: Environmental Territorialism in the North Atlantic, 1818-1910 (East Lansing, MI, 2010); W. Jefferey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012); Lissa K. Wadewitz, The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012).

[7] Wadewitz, The Nature of Borders, 7, 55.

[8] Charlotte Coté, Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah & Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2010), 150.


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