Beginnings: Why Food . . .

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for “Thinking Food.” We are very excited to create this space for creative and rigorous thinking around food. We hope this space becomes a community of interlocutors—people who can turn to each other to better understand the significance, and the meaning, of food in new ways. The goal is for everyone to leave having learned something they can use in their thinking, teaching, and their movements through the world.

I come to food studies out of my interest in power relations—structural and also ideological, in the past as well as the present. And so I thought I’d get us going here by sharing how teaching and research has persuaded me that food is a good vehicle for addressing power. “Why food?” I find myself asking? Is it just a vehicle for studying larger questions of authority? Is it an object worth attending to in and of itself?

Teaching, and my students, helped me think about these questions.

As I do every year, I asked students in my food history class to post observations from their Thanksgiving celebrations (or lack thereof). Their thoughts ran the gamut, as they do every year. Some talked about the food, others about cooking, and still others about the company in which they’d eaten.

But this year, perhaps because of the election, they worried particularly about what it meant to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving. Many used the language of tradition to describe the menu of turkey, stuffing, and potatoes (and some dishes that are untraditional outside of Minnesota, like lefse). Others explained their meal was “non-traditional” (pho? pumpkin soup?) and wondered if others had done likewise. Some asked if eating non-traditional foods threatened the “value” of Thanksgiving, and others wondered why their families worked so hard for traditions that, in many cases, were not their own. Several noted the particular responsibilities borne by their mothers and aunts for Thanksgiving dinner. And still others asked if new traditions would ever outpace current ones (eg, fried turkey? Men and women cooking together?)

The most moving post came from an older student who is also a new American, spending her first Thanksgiving in this country. She shared rich descriptions of her family’s (purchased) Thanksgiving foods (flaky pie crusts, the wonderful discovery of mashed potatoes, and the distinctive tastes–“sweet and salty together,” she said). She also included an addendum that explained everything she had learned about gratitude, and her plan to have these foods every year, together with her children, as they began their “fight for our American dream.”

There was a lot to digest. Their comments pointed to the tensions between the promise of immigration and the white supremacist understanding of “American” that is increasingly powerful in this country. They also confronted the gender and racial systems on which nations and nationalism are built. Many noted the centrality of gendered labor to the experience of daily life and the seeming intransigence of inequality.

Strikingly, all expressed anxiety about the future, and yet many also shared the persistence of hope. They imagined that they would celebrate other Thanksgivings and that they could find ways to make the holiday their own. They realized the ways that holidays are both prescribed but also sites of excess that cannot be fully controlled or governed—places where resistance can happen.

Together we spent the next few weeks working on these themes in discussions of the twentieth- and twenty-first century politics of hunger, the topic I’d planned to cover.

But thinking about their posts also addressed a topic that I hadn’t planned to cover: Is food important in and of itself?

In a material way, the answer is clearly “yes.” Food continues to loom large in people’s lives. There are painful material reasons for this. New threats emerge every day to already-precarious food security. My own campus is piloting a food shelf; many others have already opened these. I discovered at the end of the semester that some of my students were among those who struggled to get enough to eat every day. To be blunt, food matters because so many people in so many spaces struggle to get it.

But I also think that food matters also because so many people have thought and acted as if it mattered. Very few material objects have been the focus of so much political energy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Debates about interior decorating, or clothing, or cars or housing certainly occurred. But these objects and the debates simply didn’t range across institutions in the way that food did.

Food figured heavily in the regulatory state that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but also in foreign policy—in terms of the direct aid the US supplied as well as the advice that surrounded that aid—cohering under the “green revolution.” Food was a prominent feature of the racially charged confrontations: it was the object used violently at lunch-counter sit-ins, and the object seized during urban insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s. And of course food emerged as a compelling hobby: it was something object that people could learn to make endlessly and laboriously in their own homes. Julia Child’s recipes were not designed simply to help her readers cook better. They were designed to help open up the world to them. Food appeared in more and more places, the more I looked and the more I taught.

In the mid and late twentieth centuries, food suddenly seemed the answer to a range of questions. People working in very different venues and often not even in conversation with each other turned to food as the key tool. Many had capacious visions of change; They often didn’t think of themselves as working primarily on food. But I am struck by how they are.

These raise the same question with which I begin. How could such hard work be worth it? Why do we keep thinking food will fix so much? Why is it worth all this effort? Why do my students generate such prose about it? It is because, I want to say, of the particular historical moment in which we find ourselves. Food, in modern US history, emerged as a charged object. It became a particularly important vehicle for power.

This remains true in the present. In a world in which large systems seem increasingly to guide everyday events, food seems still under people’s control. And in important ways, it remains under their control. However broad or narrow the choices, however dire or hopeful the circumstances, food draws out the skills and emotions of its eaters and those who would control those eaters. Food festivals as a site to craft “tolerance, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, efforts to restrict school lunches or their standards—it’s no accident that these fights over racial power, economies, and health often focus on food. In talking about food in the past and in the present, we reveal the ways these systems gained power.

Movements around food often overpromise what food can accomplish. (For instance, eating another’s food clearly doesn’t make for better immigration policy.) But they also make clear that food has a lot of work to do in the world. So do we.

Tracey Deutsch is Associate Professor of History and Imagine Chair in Art, Design and Humanities at the University of Minnesota. This post draws loosely from an earlier entry on food and teaching done for the Organization of American Historians and visible here: