Food History: The Future of Public History?

Megan Elias published an article last year in The Public Historian discussing how the future of public history might be food history. Elias makes a good case and gives examples of how food can be used to provide insight into historical events/periods, particularly during times of economic hardship/crisis. Elias notes that “food helps to answer large questions about how cultures change over time and how people define their own cultures.” (page 14) Paying particular attention to the residents of 97 Orchard Street in New York City (currently the Tenement House Museum) Elias shows how the kinds of food that were prepared in the house has a lot to say about economic circumstances. She looks at the residents of the house during the two economic crises: the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Elias examines what food was consumed by these families before and during the crisis, introducing the term “food ghosts” in reference to the smells/dishes that were missing from 97 Orchard Street. She relates how the change in food would have been something inescapable for the residents, and that how changes in dishes would have been a sign of the residents’ economic hardships. Elias comments that dishes prepared before during economic times of prosperity would have “haunted” the residents memories.

Elias makes a compelling argument of the importance and insight food history can provide on issues such as class, race, and gender. She brings to light an interesting area for museums to expand  into. Historic Houses and museums would benefit greatly from the incorporation of food history into their existing programs, giving presentations on the types of foods prepared, the ingredients used, and how these changed due to economic and environmental hardships.

In fact it is my opinion that in the not so distant future food history museums might become entities of their own, set up around cultures/geographical regions. To entertain the hypothetical, what would a Canadian food history museum look like? You would undoubtedly showcase stereotypical Canadian staples, such as poutine, beavertails, and maple syrup, but you could also dedicate exhibits to themes such as the influence particular immigrants groups had/have on Canadian cuisine. Franca Iacovetta and Valeria J. Korinek do just this in their article “Jell-O Salads, One-stop Shopping, and Maria the Homemaker: The Gender Politics of Food.” Iacovetta and Korinek examine the ways in which Canadian campaigns following WWII attempted to “reshape the culinary and homemaking skills of female newcomers.” (page 73) However they also point out how Chatelaine, Canada’s leading women’s magazine during the time, recommended the adding of “ethnic” ingredients and food to spice up dinners. Furthermore increasingly during post-WWII new immigrant food such as Chinese and Italian became household favourites.

In closing, I think food history will (and should) take on an increased focus in public history due to the wealth of knowledge that can be gained from it. Bon Appetit!


Featured treasured recipes such as Banana Meatloaf and Tomato Soup Cake!

Featured treasured recipes such as Banana Meatloaf and Tomato Soup Cake!

Elias, Megan. Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History.” The Public Historian 34, no. 2 (2012): 13-29.

Iacovetta, Franca and Valeri J. Korinek.  “”Jell-O Salads, One-stop Shopping, and Maria the Homemaker: The Gender Politics of Food.” In Home, Work, & Play: Situating Canadian Social History. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2010. 72-87.



Time to Change Our Attitude: Appropriation of Aboriginal and First Nations imagery by sports teams

The original logo/team name for the proposed Ottawa NBL team.

The original logo/team name for the proposed Ottawa NBL team.

I recently read a great article written by Mike Commito for about the use of racist imagery/names by professional sports teams. Commito does an excellent job of examining arguments  on why teams such as the Washington Redskins should keep their logo and names, and does an even better job of providing evidence as to why these arguments are flawed.

At a dinner party this weekend the topic of sports came up and I mentioned the article, surprisingly receiving some resistance. I specifically made reference to Ottawa’s new basketball team, the SkyHawks, which was originally to be named the TomaHawks. Personally, the reasons why both First Nations and the public  may be offended and uncomfortable with the name was obvious. However when I provided this example to the other dinner party attendees, I was surprised by the number of people who argued that the First Nations community hadn’t been upset with the name (how they would know I am not sure as none were members/have contact with Ottawa’s First Nations community), and that after all it referred to a weapon not a racist name (They were actually mistaken–the team owner Gus Takkale said that rather than refer to a weapon the name was a reference to the style of basketball dunk.)

I’m curious to know what you think: Do you think that the Ottawa basketball team should have changed their name to the SkyHawks based on TomaHawks being offensive, or do you think they should have kept their original name?


Missing Plaque Project

I came across The Missing Plaque Project earlier this week in The Toronto Star. The article talked about how a Torontonian Time Groves was commemorating events in Toronto’s past through homemade posters. The Missing Plaque Project, now over 10 years old, is Groves’ brain child to share events from Toronto’s past that have been overlooked or omitted from the official historical narrative of the City. If you take a look at the Missing Plaque Project’s website you can see some of the posters already mounted by Groves throughout the city. They cover a wide range of important themes including anti-Semitism, racism, GLBTQ history and the Gay Pride Movement.

This public acknowledge and sharing of these moments is important. This creative and innovative project is an important reflective act for both historians and society. It also would appears that Groves’ mission to draw public attention to these overlooked moments in history has succeeded, not only through gaining the attention of The Toronto Star, but also by attracting the attention of Heritage Toronto who in 2008 mounted a plaque at Christie Pits park (the location of Groves’ first poster.)

However there are issues with Groves’ non-traditional plaques, primarily that the history conveyed on the posters is extremely politicized, with a “black or white” approach. In the description of the Missing Plaque Project Groves’ regrettably generalizes that people working in the promotion and preservation of Toronto’s history have purposefully excluded darker moments in Toronto’s history in order to promote tourism and increase property value. Groves’ furthermore infers that these individuals promote Toronto’s British upper class history because they belong to the descendants of these groups and therefore only care about “their” history. While examples can most likely be found to support Groves’ declarations, I believe this to be untrue. Historical scholarship is increasingly turning its focus towards the histories of previous overlooked groups.   An excellent example of this new focus is the work of Patrizia Gentile who has authored a number of works on GLBTQ history in Canada, with specific focus on GLBTQ space in Ottawa during the Cold War Years. Another example is the work of Sean Purdy, which focuses on Toronto’s first and largest housing project Regent Park and it’s failure. Additionally  Toronto Tourism has made specific steps towards attracting and including individuals identifying as GLBTQ to the City through events such as the Gay Pride Festival, and features a specific section of its website dedicated to the promotion of GLBTQ events, nightlife, and the Gay Village.

As someone who will one day be involved in the promotion and protection of history, I’d like to hope that academia has a brighter future than the repetition of British upper class history. I also find it regrettable that Groves’ insinuates that historians that do study Britain’s history in Canada are perpetuating oppression. I think it is fair to say that not all who work to promote and preserve history are the same. By painting all historians with the same brush Groves’ is regrettably coming close to imitating the class stereotyping and racism he deplores.

In closing, I applaud Groves’ work in creatively bringing overlooked Toronto history to the forefront, however caution him to be wary of constructing Toronto’s history as a story of “us” vs. “them.” Instead I encourage Groves’ to use his plaques to bring to empower and foster change.


A informal plaque erected by Tim Groves as part of the Missing Plaque Project

An informal plaque erected by Tim Groves as part of the Missing Plaque Project in 2002.

Plaque erected to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Christie Pits Riot by Heritage Toronto.

Proposed Scotland Yard Museum: ingenious exhibit or a tummy churner?

I came across an article in the Twitter-sphere today that made me pause a minute. Published on the site Express, run by the Daily and Sunday Express  in the UK, the article talked about how the London Metropolitan Police are being recommended to open a crime museum by the Greater London Authority (from my understanding the Canadian equivalent of City Hall/the Mayor’s office) in order to generate some revenue. Apparently the Metropolitan Police have a collection, seen only by an invited few, dating back 150 years that includes gruesome and extraordinary items. At first my history senses were tingling–how cool would this exhibit be?
And then I read how some of the grotesque items include “the pot and stove used by serial killer Dennis Nilsen to boil his 15 victims’ flesh.” My excitement (and appetite) quickly left the building. A quick  search reveals that Nilsen murdered 15 men in the later 70’s and early 80’s. He used his skills as a butcher to avoid detection, and is currently serving his life sentence at a maxiumum secutrity prison.
Entertaining the hypothetical, what would be the implications of displaying an artefact like this in a museum be? The exhibition of this specific material would be deeply disrespectful to Nilsen’s victims and most likely incite some public outrage. One of the other artefacts suggested for this exhibit are the letters that Jack the Ripper wrote to Scotland Yard in 1888. Contrasting with Nilsen’s pot and stove, the idea of Jack the Ripper’s letter (delivered with a human kidney) being on public display didn’t cause my appetite flee or seem disrespectful. Why?
I began to wonder whether or not it was because the letter, and the events surrounding it, are further in the past.  Does being futher away in time from these events make them more appropriate for public viewing, or does it more have to do with the actual object? If the weapons used to commit Jack the Ripper’s murders were on display would viewers be repulsed? In the same vein if Nilsen had committed his murders 100 years ago would it be more acceptable to display these objects? I’m inclined to think that it would be, however it raises an interesting issue for historians and museologists. Many artefacts on display currently in museums include weapons used to commit murders, therefore regardless of the time period all weapon-related artefacts should all be examined with sensitivity out of respect for their victims. This degree of sensitivity is (hopefully) employed in museums and exhibits world-wide and would be required in the creation of a museum such as the one suggested.
Something else that struck me when thinking more about the difference between artefacts was their physical form; is the pot and stove, synonymous with domestic life, that much more repulsive because it is “out of place?” (A concept that for me owes hommage to Prof. James Opp and Prof. John Walsh.) Both objects are frequently found in a kitchen, a space I personally associate with feelings of warmth, family, and love. Does removing the pot and stove from their “natural” landscape and interjecting them into a murderous one taint them?
All food for thought…..but maybe stay away from the stove for a while.