This is a time of year in which there is a lot of food. Everywhere. In holiday parties, as gifts, in family gatherings, and on solo adventures—the last two months of the year carve out a road that leads right through food. As academics we are thrust into this space (end-of-the-year potlucks are a particular hazard for those of us who are interdisciplinary and thus eat in multiple departments). And we are also very often painfully self-conscious about food. (What part of our enjoyment is neocolonial? Actually colonial? Which household member is making dinner during a busy finals week of grading? Is it okay to eat take-out one more night?) And I’m not even talking about the gluten-free/vegan/religious guidelines that suddenly loom large and seem particularly difficult to observe. It would be natural to ask if we all aren’t just fetishizing this food thing a little bit.
Questioning the role of food was particularly sharp in my food history class, where post-election shock made family holidays particularly charged for many of my students—and certainly also for me. But this semester students also buoyed my spirits. Let me explain.
As I do every fall, I asked students in my food history class to post observations from Thanksgiving. Their thoughts ran the gamut, as they do every year. Some students wrote about the food they ate, others about cooking techniques, and still others about the company in which they’d eaten. But this year, perhaps because of the election, they also worried particularly about what it meant to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving. Many used the language of tradition to describe the menu of turkey, potatoes, and some dishes that are untraditional outside of Minnesota, like lefse. Others explained their meal was nontraditional (pho? pumpkin soup?) and wondered if others had eaten likewise. Some asked if eating nontraditional foods threatened the “value” of Thanksgiving, and others wondered why their families worked so hard to observe 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 (e.g., 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 surprising 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 in my students’ words. Their comments pointed to the tensions between the promise of immigration and the increasingly racialized definition of “American,” the gender and racial systems on which nations and nationalism are built, the ways that holidays are both prescribed but also sites of excess that cannot be fully controlled, the centrality of gendered labor to the experience of daily life, the importance of the state and government, the intransigence of inequality, anxiety about the future, and the persistence of hope. Their questions reminded me that food was the object through which they worked out their emerging consciousness of what it meant to be an American. Together we spent the next few weeks working their ideas out in the context of twentieth- and twenty-first-century politics of hunger.
Thinking about the themes of these student posts raised another question for me: do I study food because it is a useful tool for talking about these other issues, or is food historically significant in and of itself? Nothing about the election makes me think that teaching, or research, or university life, is going to get easier. In this moment when the future of the nation, let alone my profession, seems so precarious, what does food history have to say that would help? That is, is there something about food that merits this attention?
Increasingly I think the answer is yes, there is, at least in terms of relatively recent U.S. history. Very few material objects have been the focus of so much political energy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Debates about interior decorating, drugs, clothing, or cars certainly occurred. But these objects and the debates simply didn’t permeate civic life across the range of 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 U.S. supplied as well as the advice that surrounded that aid—cohering under the “green revolution.” Food was a prominent feature of racially charged confrontations—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—the object that people could learn to make persistently and laboriously at home. The more I looked and the more I taught, the more places I found food.
Think about Julia Child. (I’m in the midst of a research project on her, so I do this a lot.) There is the obvious story: lots of people in the mid-twentieth-century United States cooked and were interested in cooking. But I’m struck by the people Child herself cooked for, the company Child kept. She consorted with policymakers, with Harvard intellectuals, with artists, and with her own sometimes quirky extended family. The recipes she developed were not designed simply to help her readers cook better—they were designed to help open up this world to them. She valued the exciting social circles of her adult life and she treasured conversations about art, about politics, about ideas, all in stark contrast to the world in which she had grown up. Child is famous as someone who encouraged her readers to overlook the constraints of time and cost, and to focus on taste. This was, I have come to believe, a very telling quality of her work. Child meant to encourage taste, in all senses of that powerful sense. She saw food as a vehicle for entering the pluralist, liberal, cosmopolitan Cold War world.
She thus reveals this modern world to us with special clarity. Food was the focus of a multiplicity of projects during the mid- and late-twentieth century, coming from people who worked in very different frameworks and who were often not even in conversation with each other. For instance, it’s unlikely that the photographers who captured images of food being spilled on the heads of lunch counter protestors knew the social scientists who saw food as the lever of change that would jumpstart modernization, the authors of what Nick Cullather has aptly called the “parable of seeds.” Certainly it’s unlikely that the authors in the burgeoning cookbook industry, of which Child was a part, were in conversation with Black Panthers who served free breakfast as a crucial aspect of their programs for anticolonial struggle and liberation. Some of the people who used food strained the edges—indeed they burst the boundaries—of Child’s vision of a liberal postwar society. Like my students they weren’t just thinking about food when they thought about food.
But I am struck by how they were, nonetheless, using food. Food was, increasingly, the object that seemed to fix so much else. What started for me as a research project about other things is now also a story about food itself.
As a feminist scholar I am leery of categories that seem transhistorical, and this includes food. What counts as food has varied enormously across time and place. So too have the amount of regulation applied to food and the debates around it. At the same time, like other categories I study (such as gender), food has loomed large precisely because of this instability. But because of my students and Julia Child, I have come to see food differently: as something worth the time and thinking that so many have put into it.
The conundrum that brought me here is the same one that my students raised: 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?
I think the answer is that there is something about food. Food, at least in modern U.S. history, has emerged as a particularly charged object. In a world in which large systems seemed increasingly to guide everyday events, food seemed still under people’s control. And in ways that matter very much to how they were judged and how they lived their lives, food was under their control. I would argue that it retains this status. However broad or narrow the choices, however dire or hopeful the circumstances, food draws out the skills and emotions and ambitions of its eaters.
Food emerges as an intellectual problem for me precisely because it is supposed to be worth all that effort. It is supposed to solve so many problems for us—familial, political, diplomatic, sexual, racial. Food has a lot of work to do. So do we.
Tracey Deutsch is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota and a coeditor of the journal Gender and History. She is the author of Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Government, and American Grocery Stores, 1919–1968 (2010), winner of the Association for the Study of Food and Society’s book prize. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
 Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).