Food: chances are you’ll be thinking about it at some point today, like almost everyone sharing the planet with you. Interacting with food may be as close as we’ll ever get to a universal human experience. But can we say that the public history of food is equally inclusive?
Food has certainly long been present in historical interpretation—often as an entry point. Thanks to our human wiring, food offers immediate appeal—to the mind and to the senses. Food traditions anchor communities, communicate continuity and belonging, and creatively infuse identities.
Yet people also draw sharp dividing lines using food. Ask a politically-committed vegan and a pasture-based husbandry advocate what kind of farming is best for the environment and you’ll get two very different answers. Food is also often subject to borderlines of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Ali Berlow, in her Food Activist Handbook, shares an anecdote titled “We See What We’re Willing to See.” Looking at the “bucolic” farms of her own town, Berlow sees
. . . a peaceable kingdom: fertile lands producing good food for all, equanimity, access, balance, and respect between people, animals, land and cultivation. But as my friend the author Alice Randall pointed out, we all see things through the lens of our personal histories. My great-grandparents were German immigrants who moved to the Midwest, bought land, then worked the land they owned. My relationship to the landscape that I’ve inherited is different from that of some of my African-American friends and colleagues like Alice. I think it’s safe to say that most of their ancestors did not own the land they worked. When Alice looks at those same cornfields, grand old trees, and pastures, she may not envision a peaceable kingdom but rather one of terror, violence, and oppression.[i]
Food history can quickly lead to big questions about identity, equity, and sustainability. Those questions dig to the root of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing us today. This double-edged nature makes food an outstanding starting point for public historians working toward an equitable and engaged practice.
Let’s take a quick tour of the problematic past and hopeful present of public interpretation of food history, and identify some skills and resources that public historians can bring to food-related projects.
The Roots of Food in Public History
In museums, historic sites, and public history projects, food has often been loaded with assumptions, habits, and traditions that get in the way of inclusion. The earliest generation of historic preservationists preferred to keep the messy work of food cultivation and preparation (and the people who did it) hidden behind kitchen doors, but during the Civil War and succeeding decades, nostalgic “colonial” kitchens became a popular draw at public fairs and appeared in some early historic house museums. These feel-good spaces served unchallenging ideas about the past with their cups of chowder and slices of pie, setting long-lived expectations that public food history would provide comforting, patriotic reinforcement of existing power structures.
These interpretive tropes persisted. They can still be found today in museum displays of groaning farmstead tables, frothing butter churns, and tokenized “multicultural” food presentations that erase or mask histories of struggle, disparity, and oppression. Food historian Ken Albala identifies this mode as “culinary history,” focused on ingredients, cooking equipment, methods, and the re-creation of cooking processes, as opposed to a wider “food history” that investigates the social, economic, ethical, and political dimensions of food production and consumption.
A Broader View of Food History
A wider “food history” point of view began informing public interpretations of food starting in the 1960s, when emerging social history and public history movements brought critical approaches to the past. It also gave rise to a new museum genre: the living historical farm. Its birthplace was Old Sturbridge Village, where in 1970 a group convened to envision a national network of agricultural museums, to be funded in part (they hoped) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though that scope was never realized, the living history farm began to dominate public history’s food and agriculture conversation by the 1970s. Key leaders organized ALHFAM (the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) to share research and skills and to promote the vision of a new age of agricultural museums. ALHFAM’s influence has been enormous. Its annual national and regional meetings, publications, and workshops have amassed and disseminated practical knowledge on the reconstruction and interpretation of food processes.
But ALHFAM’s history reflects the tension between the narrower scope of “culinary history” and the more complicated questions raised by critical approaches to food. At its 2013 annual meeting, ALHFAM co-founder Darwin Kelsey challenged the group with a call to action, arguing that food interpreters (himself included) had been focused on the “what” of food history, at the expense of the “why.” It was past time, in his view, to engage with the present-day, global consequences of the histories they presented. AHLFAM’s creation, he noted,
. . . coincides almost precisely with the most radical change in the way humans feed themselves since homo sapiens began. We call this grand-scale experiment the industrial food system. For most Americans the industrial food system provides a food supply perceived to be abundant, cheap, and convenient. Yet in the last couple of decades it has become increasingly clear that this system has an inherent pattern of problems: Food of inferior taste and nutrition, fertilizer and herbicide pollution in streams and lakes, degradation and loss of farmland, depleted aquifers, farm worker abuse, inner city food deserts, intensive energy consumption, exacerbation of climate change, and narrow corporate control of the nation’s food supply . . . In 2013, it is clear that such problems make the current system unsustainable without radical change—fundamental culture change. Couldn’t—shouldn’t—playing an active, intentional role in that culture change become part of the why shaping the what of most living history farms?[ii]
Kelsey, who by 2013 was directing an innovative farm partnership within Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, was speaking as a participant in what is sometimes termed “the food movement.” Sometimes parodied and minimized as a collection of affluent white people obsessed with local, organic, humanely raised kale, in its full dimensions the food movement is notable for its depth and complexity, aptly described by food writer Michael Pollan as a “big lumpy tent.” People of varied backgrounds are drawn to food activism through multiple entry points: hunger and economic access; food sovereignty and food justice; nutrition and health; farm and food service labor and human rights; animal welfare; land conservation, rural redevelopment, and farmland preservation; gardening and urban farming; gastronomy and agritourism; environmentalism and climate change; and more. Like food history, these issues may begin with food, but expand outward to touch on the most pressing issues of our times.
Reshaping Food History
Many current practitioners are reshaping the role of history in addressing those issues. Critical perspectives, shared authority, community engagement, and collaborative decision-making and leadership are now being integrated into many sites that present histories of food production, processing, and consumption.
- The Museum of Ventura County (California) developed a three-part exhibition called At Table: The Business of Food and Community. Through art-inspired installations, programs, and historical interpretation, At Table built awareness and invited consideration of how ongoing immigration into the county has “influenced local recipes, menus and dining habits, as well as food-related businesses and restaurants.”
- San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora created a Chef-in-Residence program. In 2015, its first resident chef, culinary celebrity Bryant Terry, worked with the museum to curate a program including panels on “Black Women, Food and Power” and “Feeding the Resistance”; a historically-themed dinner; and an interactive talk on food justice and public health.
- The Queens County Farm Museum preserves New York City’s largest tract of undisturbed farmland. Its sustainable agriculture program interprets the history of organic farming in America and features a year-round growing program. Farm produce is featured in NYC’s Greenmarket, with any surplus donated to the recovery project City Harvest. The farm also provides eggs and hatchlings to the City Chicken program of the food justice group Just Food!, teaching city residents how to raise and keep egg-laying hens.
- The National Museum of the American Indian features food sovereignty in its online exhibit Native Knowledge 360, with a focus on the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project to recover the foodways of Salish-speaking people of the Pacific Northwest. Discussion questions, informative resources, definitions, and quotations allow users to engage more deeply with perspectives on food sovereignty.
- The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Food History project brings together contemporary and historical investigations of American food culture from diverse perspectives through programs, an annual symposium, and online collections.
A Toolkit for Inclusive Food Interpretation
Despite this work, older interpretive tropes die hard. Institutional engagements with food still often stop at simplistic representation. It’s not difficult to understand why: the issues food connects to—health, environment, identity, economy, energy—are dauntingly vast and highly politicized. Inclusive food interpretation work digs into logistical, political, and regulatory challenges—aligning goals and agendas with commercial partners, including those who struggle to survive in a competitive marketplace; confronting the deep-rooted whiteness that has historically characterized both public history and many sectors of the food movement; and negotiating the constraints of health regulations and zoning. Between logistical challenges, internal resistance, insufficient knowledge, and skeptical leadership, many organizations freeze at the contemplation stage, or assume they can’t take on such charged and complex topics.
But public history can have a profound and powerful role in these conversations. For our book Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient, we interviewed eight people who draw on history in their progressive work in fields as disparate as fisheries activism, indigenous food sovereignty, and public policy. As we spoke, common themes emerged. They point toward ways to apply—and extend—historians’ skills toward a more inclusive practice of interpreting food.
- Be reflexive.
As in all public history practice, the work of internal transformation comes first. We should interrogate our own professional past, asking what traditions we have inherited, who authored them, and whether they still serve our purposes. We also need to examine and acknowledge our own positionality—as individuals, as members of the public, and as representatives of our organizations. An excellent place to start this work is with the MASS Action Toolkit, a collection of articles and self-assessment tools created by a grassroots coalition of museum practitioners working to position museums as sites of positive action for social justice.
- Tell stories without endings.
The legacies of living history have encouraged a focus on the minutiae of culinary history—tools, ingredients, methods. Inclusive public historians shouldn’t stop at simply showing how people did it in the old days. Push toward those critical “why” questions: Why did most people stop using these techniques? Why are certain kinds of skills and labor—and the people associated with them—valued or devalued in our food system? Why is hand-processed food so much more expensive than industrially-produced food? If we can pose critical, contextualizing questions, we will be well on the way to telling what we call in Public History and the Food Movement “stories without endings”—stories that connect past to present and historicize unresolved contemporary questions about food culture, dealing directly with the most urgent social, economic, and environmental issues of today. Our existing interpretive and communicative tools are unique contributions to the work of rebuilding more just and inclusive food futures.
- Think like a community organizer.
The practitioners we interviewed were going beyond the “advisory group” consultation model, and instead using the toolbox of community organizing, defined by activist and educator Marshall Ganz as “practicing democracy by mobilizing people to combine their resources to act strategically on behalf of common interests.” This approach is grounded in ongoing relationships with community members and discussions about forms of activity that would be meaningful and useful to them. Is your organization involved in local and regional food organizations and coalitions? Do you know who works on food access locally? Have you had a presence at farmers’ markets, diabetes expos, or town hall meetings? Written op-eds? One entry point can be creating a Community Food Map to identify the players in your local or regional food system. Seeing the lay of the land can help you identify where public history work can be helpful.
An engaged, critical approach to the history of food asks for long-term commitment and a good deal of learning and reflection for public historians as well as their partners and audiences. Some resources to get you started are listed below.
[i] Ali Berlow, Food Activist Handbook (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015), 72.
[ii] Darwin Kelsey, “What is a Living History Farm? Introductory Comments,” Proceedings of the 2013 AHLFAM Conference, Vol. 36 (2013).
Berlow, Ali. The Food Activist’s Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2015.
Laudan, Rachel. “Getting Started in Food History.” www.RachelLaudan.com. https://www.rachellaudan.com/getting-started-in-food-history.
Moon, Michelle. Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.
Moon, Michelle, and Cathy Stanton. Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient. New York: Routledge, 2018. The book’s companion website can be found here: http://themissingingredient.net/.
Oliver, Sandra. “Interpreting Food History.” Technical Leaflet 197. American Association for State and Local History.
Reid, Debra A. Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017.
Organizations and Associations Doing Food History
Databases, Archives, and Link Lists
Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture (timelines from USDA)
~ Michelle Moon is Chief Programs Officer at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. She has also worked at the Peabody Essex Museum, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Mystic Seaport, and received her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Harvard University Extension School. In addition to co-authoring Public History and the Food Movement: Adding the Missing Ingredient (Routledge, 2018) with Cathy Stanton, she is the author of Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016).
~ Cathy Stanton teaches anthropology at Tufts University. Her book The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City won the 2007 NCPH Book Award. Her current scholarly and public work focuses on the uses of knowledge about the past of U.S. food and farming. She has collaborated and consulted with a number of community farms, national parks, land trusts, museums, and others working to present farm history in public.