‘Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World, c. 1500-2000’

Words by Katrina Moseley (and Eleanor Barnett)


An array of embodied foodways were brought before us in our end of year interdisciplinary conference, ‘Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World’. Papers ranged in temporal scope from 1500 to 2000, weaving together the frameworks of anthropology, sociology, American studies, cultural studies, and history in an effort to unpick the connections between food and flesh from past to present.

Food and Ethnicity

Dr May Rosenthal Sloan of the Victoria and Albert Museum opened our morning panel on ethnicity with her paper entitled ‘Marketing, Mythologies and Icons of the “Ethnic Food” Aisle’. A case study of the ‘corporate co-option of ethnicity via food’, this presentation built on the work of mixed media artist, Nina Katchadourian, whose visual installation ‘The Geneaology of the Supermarket’ makes strange (and yet familiar) the use of mythological characters in food marketing. For Rosenthal Sloan, Katchadourian’s work offers entry into a complex world of ethnic stereotyping in marketing practices. The figure of Aunt Jemima, debuted on a Quaker Oats pancake mix in 1889, for instance, played dangerously on the stereotype of the ‘mammy-figure’ (Meldgaard Kjaer, 2016) long culturally associated with black womanhood. In an entertaining and thought-provoking discussion, Rosenthal Sloan took us out of the comforting world of pancake mixes and into the segregated American South to consider how the legend of Aunt Jemima both ‘reinforced and smoothed over ethnic divides’. Importantly, this product was both convenient by its very nature — and predicated on an image of the Black woman in service to the White family, thus enabling White housewives to perform domesticity without the attendant physical effort. Aunt Jemima’s body, argues Rosenthal Sloan, was simultaneously sexualised for the consumer, reinforcing the stereotype of the Black woman as ‘jezebel’ (Melgaard Kjaer, 2016) and offering visual and gustatory delight to a [White] male gaze.

Such intersections between food, race, and ethnicity were also considered by Dr Andrew Warnes in his paper on ‘Femininity, Race, and the Invention of the American Supermarket’ . Illustrating how the self-service supermarket was “designed into existence” in inter-war America, Warnes argued that this new material space masked unresolved tensions in the relationship between gender, race, and modernity. The supermarket remained a de facto white space — one of white (middle-class) privilege — throughout its early development. Meanwhile, its messages to white female consumers were contradictory. America’s first self-service grocery store, patented in Memphis in 1917, claimed to offer new freedoms to the female consumer, ‘empowering’ rather than compelling her do the work of food selection for herself. Yet, by the 1950s, the self-service store had developed into a complex field of texts and images, with food itself becoming ‘self-referential’ in its desire to capture the attention of female consumers. As epitomised by Thomas O’Halloran Jr.’s photo, “Shopping in Supermarket” (1957), the act of supermarket shopping presented housewives with new cognitive workloads, whilst subliminally reinforcing the ‘fetishisation of whiteness’ through food packaging.

Photo credit: amz1ng.wordpress.com

Food and Gender

The gender panel was made up of two quite disparate papers: Dr Julie Parsons presented on the findings of a contemporary study of food memories (2010-2011), whilst Dr Rachel Rich transported us back to the Victorian era to consider the so-far understudied recipe books of female cookery writer Georgiana Hill. Both papers mused on the gendered nature of food attitudes and feelings with Rich proceeding from the research question: ‘Is it possible to imagine women cooking or eating for pleasure in the nineteenth century?’ Rich went on to answer this question in the affirmative, arguing that Hill’s recipe books were unusual in their emphasis on the sensory pleasures of food, particularly when read against the better-known writings of Isabella Beeton. Hill’s decision to publish under the (male) pseudonym ‘the old epicure’ is particularly suggestive, and likely enabled her to adopt this different kind of authorial voice. Rich’s narrative of female pleasure was inserted into a wider story about assumed female anxieties around food. She highlighted the gendered nature of medical discourse in the nineteenth century — a time when female advice was concerned with the problem of underweight, and male advice with the problem of gout caused by excessive consumption.

In Parsons’ contemporary sociological study men were far less likely than women to take ownership for their food choices. One male respondent disavowed his healthy eating routine, while another claimed that he had only become a vegetarian due to pressure from his female partner. Food and drink stuffs too were highly gendered. While bread emerged as a particular focus of female discussion and anxiety, references to beer drinking enabled men to assert their hyper-masculinity; they were able to associate food and drink with notions of sex and risk-taking — what Parsons, drawing on M. Collinson (1996), defines as ‘edge work’. As scholars of the early modern and modern world, we must pay attention to the effects of gender on the development of food behaviours. Clearly, how individuals present their experiences of cooking or tasting food, how they make decisions about what and how much to eat, and how they conceptualise body shape and weight, is both a social and cultural terrain.

Food and Religion

In the next panel, religion emerged as an important factor influencing food and drink practices (the latter, Professor Beat Kümin argued, often artificially separated from the former). Dr Christopher Kissane demonstrated that food practices were ‘embodied religious practices’ in Early Modern Europe — ways of ‘bringing the sacred into everyday life’. His paper also revealed that religious identity boundaries were often defined by food: so powerful were religious foodways in the early modern [Christian] mind that Jews were often depicted as pigs, thus embodying the foodstuffs that they refused to eat. Importantly, pork was also understood to be stereotypically German in Luther’s time, adding another dimension to his anti-semitic critiques and drawing attention to the intersection between geographic and religious food identities.

The Chinese Muslims discussed by Professor Maris Gillette, based on her anthropological work in the city of Xi’an in North West China, likewise avoided eating pork. In this study, the act of commensality — particularly at circumcision parties when a meat soup was served from a specially slaughtered sheep — reinforced local religious identity through ritual and conviviality. Gillette’s vegetarianism was key to this particular fieldwork experience in the mid-1990s. Her visceral reaction to being served meat soup (Gillette’s unanticipated revulsion was such that she blacked out) highlights the layering of embodied food experiences, from the individual (personal autobiography), to the particular (community-focused), to the general (broader cultural assumptions), to the universal (food as a universal human requirement). This paper was particularly rich on different ways of approaching the sensing body, though the question and answer session provoked discussion and debate over how historians might appropriately access embodiment in the past without ultimate recourse to text and discourse.

Completing this panel was Professor Beat Kümin’s paper on Early Modern identities and drink. Here, Catholics, Protestants, and the different sects within these wider terms, developed distinct notions of acceptable drinking behaviour based on religiously inspired discourse. At the same time as explicating the religious aspects of alcohol consumption, Kümin drew our attention to important ‘dividing lines’ not related to religion: a sexual double standard in drinking behaviour across early modern society; a European topography of drinking (northern and eastern regions were characterised by beer drinking, whilst southern and western regions were centres of wine consumption); and a symbolic divide between humanity and animality that was central to understandings of civilised consumption more widely.

The Judensau at Wittenburg

Food and Social Class

In an effort to move away from the Bourdieusian concept of taste as straightforwardly ‘symbolic’, Professor Ben Highmore’s paper explored the rise of the British shop Habitat through the lens of class-bound ‘taste formation’. Situating his analysis within the context of a wider shift in middle-class lifestyle practices in 1960s and 1970s Britain, Highmore argued that Habitat was an ‘agent in the production’ of a particular kind of metropolitan lifestyle — one sensorily embodied in a culinary shift from ‘cottage pies’ to mediterranean cooking. Yet importanty, this was not about middle-class consumption in a conspicuous sense. Habitat, Highmore argued, was one of the first shops of its kind to complicate middle-class consumption practices by retailing a feeling of classnessness to a gentrified consumer base that was anxious to consider itself such. There are similarities here with the work of cultural historian, Joe Moran, who likewise argues that the post-war gentrification of London generated anxiety and introspection among a new generation of left-leaning, middle-class professionals (Moran, 2007). What emerged in particular from Highmore’s discussion, however, was the notion that food itself was one of the key ‘material resources’ that enabled this new middle-class to ‘come into formation’. In other words, the new penchant for mediterranean cooking encouraged (and part-facilitated) by Habitat was an ‘agent’ in the movement of the social structure, and not merely a reflection of existing class distinctions.

Marking the end of the afternoon panel on social class, Professor Alan Warde followed with a presentation on ‘changing tastes’ in eating out England, which also brought the discussion up to date and into the twenty-first century. Drawing together findings from two co-authored surveys of Eating Out (1995 and 2015) Warde here revealed interesting continuities in English attitudes to non-domestic consumption. In 2015, respondents were more likely to feel that eating out was a routine practice (in fact, frequency remained more or less constant in the intervening period) and were also more inclined to think of food diversity and variety as normative rather than ‘adventurous’. These findings have relevance, Warde suggested, to our understandings of a cultural omnivorousness. A traditional distinction between high culture and low culture can be seen to have dissolved towards the end of the twentieth century, with more people than ever before consuming across culinary boundaries; seemingly in an effort to perform high social status.

Together, these wonderful papers allowed us to think more deeply about studying food through the lens of embodiment. Decisions about making or buying food — and about what, when, and how much to eat — are intimately connected to notions of bodily power. Sometimes these decisions are subconscious, based on deep-set ideals, expectations, or economic circumstances. But they can also act as conscious and even controversial expressions of identity that allow the consumer to assert their ownership of the body. The interdisciplinary nature of the conference made sense in light of the universal nature of food consumption, and helped us consider new ways of studying the past. In particular, as Gillette suggested, we must consider our own experiences of embodiment, using our bodies as tools when researching foodways.

With enormous thanks to all of our guest speakers, whose profiles are linked in the text above. Thanks also to those who chaired panels and to everyone who attended and added to the rich discussion on the day. We are grateful to the AHRC-DTP and the Faculty of History at Cambridge for their financial support.

Katrine Meldgaard Kjaer, ‘Just a happy housewife?: Michelle Obama, food activism and (African-) American womanhood’, in Jonatan Leer and Karen Kiltgaard Povlsen (eds.), Food and Media: Practices, distinctions and heterotopias (Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 62-77.
Joe Moran, ‘Early Cultures of Gentrification in London, 1955-1980’, Journal of Urban History, 31:1 (2007), pp. 101-121.
More information about Katchadourian’s project can be found here: http://www.ninakatchadourian.com/chartssystems/genealogy.php

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