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.



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