Food Memories and Public History

The latest issue of The Public Historian, “Time’s Tables: Food in Public History” had a special focus on the interaction of food and public history.  Reading the issue made me hungry and intrigued by the complexity of intertwining food into conceptions of the past.

I particularly enjoyed Adam Steinberg’s article “What We Talk About When We Talk About Food: Using Food to Teach History at the Tenement Museum.” Steinberg focuses on how the Tenement Museum created a food walking tour and an accessible indoor version of the food walking tour.  What struck me most is that the Tenement acknowledged that it wasn’t practical to let guests eat in the actual museum, but still saw the value in delivering content that relates to food.  Food can be community defining, cultural specific,  and a powerful emotive tool.

Throughout Steinberg’s article and a number of the other contributors to this issue of TPH, the authors discussed the positive memories and connections that are often associated with food.  Food memories often deeply personal and can include connections to childhood, family gatherings, holidays, and other significant events.  Very few of the contributors mentioned the fact that food memories also have the potential to be negative or triggering.

Certain food memories may be associated with less than positive experiences — economic depression and food shortages, wartime rations, residential schools, agricultural drought or hardship, or death of a loved one.  Additionally, food trends can speak a lot to broader historical trends.  Lack of food, socially acceptable food, and prices of food can all provide information about cultural and social conditions.  These potentially negative situations are well worth discussion but like all sensitive topics should be broached with respect for the impacted audience.

Overall, this issue of TPH reminded me of the need for food to be contextualized like any other topic.  Having a living history site that includes a ‘summer kitchen’ where staff cook using items from their heirloom garden provides a good taste of the past, but it is also an education moment.  Staff can contextualize food by including details about how food was grown historically, how produce has changed/adapted, gender roles associated with cooking, cooking methods, and economic impact on food.  The ideal use of food in a public history setting is both tasty and educational.

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