Rachel Laudan

Getting Started in Food History

This is an updated version of a handout for a special meeting on food history sponsored by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. To my surprise, it has turned out to be useful to lots of people judging by comments on my blog, its use in many universities, and its presence on Wikipedia.

Many people want to write food history. And many ask if they have to get a Masters or Doctorate in history.

My answer is no.  Anyone who is interested should. Right now. This is the Dummies guide to getting started.

Perhaps you inherited your grandmother’s recipe file. Or you are proud of your culinary heritage. Or you have a hunch that cooking has had a greater effect on history than people realize. Or you adore chocolate and want to know more about it. Or, like me when I arrived in Hawaii, you are fascinated by an utterly foreign cuisine. You want to find out more. You want to write a history.

You’ve already got the best of all possible starts: a problem that intrigues, perhaps really bugs you.

It’s not necessary to have a formal historical training to get started. The skills you’d learn in such a program can be picked up. It’s worth remembering that even now most history is not written by people in history departments. Lawyers write the history of law, musicians write the history of music, scientists or former scientists write the history of science, anthropologists write the history of early man and geologists the history of the earth.

There’s a good reason why so much history is written outside history departments. It helps to know what you’re writing about. So if you’re a cook or if you have a keen interest in food, you already have an important head start on writing history.

On the other hand, you’d be mad not to avail yourself of some of the hard-won skills and assumptions of professional historians.

Historians do three things at the same time: researching the sources, thinking, and writing.

If you just do research without thinking, you’re wasting your time. History is not just a pile of facts. If you sit and think without checking your ideas by doing some research, you’re wasting your time. And there’s no better way to bring your research and your thinking together than getting out a pencil and tablet, or your laptop or your iPad and jotting down ideas for your story, questions you need to answer, sources to go to, and, of course, bits and pieces of the finished product.

NOTE. 03/23/2016.  It has just come to my notice that at least one on-line site is using this piece to suggest that it’s easy to put together a career as a food historian because you don’t need a further degree.  I cannot stress enough that a paid career as a food historian is extremely difficult to achieve.

So, some things to think about as you get started. I’ll begin with thinking.

1. Thinking about Your Food History Project

What is your problem or question?

That sounds simple.  I’ve already given a possible list of questions above.

Hang on a minute, though.  It turns out that formulating your question precisely and succinctly is perhaps the most difficult part of writing food history (or any other history). I find I start off with only the vaguest of questions such as “What in the world is this stuff they are eating in Hawaii?” Only when my research is nearly finished do I end up with something reasonably clear. “What happened when three utterly distinct culinary traditions were transplanted to tiny Pacific Islands? “What does this tell us about culinary change?”

Going from an ill-defined or ill-conceived question to a to well-defined and well-conceived question lies at the heart of your endeavor. Like me, you will end up going down all kinds of blind allies. As the question gets refined and redefined, you will have to go to different sources, or go back to old sources looking for different things.

You also need to ask yourself is: Why is my question important?  Is it important just for me and my family or friends?  Nothing wrong with that.

Or is the question important for a broader group of people?  Does it shed light on contemporary debates about food? I decided that the story of Hawaii’s food was important because Hawaii was a natural laboratory for the transplantation, modification, and fusion of cuisines.  Or put another way, the different peoples who had immigrated to Hawaii had brought different ways of cooking and eating, they’d changed them in their new circumstances, dropping some elements and adding others. Now lots of people, including nutritionists, food businesses, and governments are interested in when and why people change their eating habits. This was a question that had wide relevance.

If I don’t keep returning to “What is my question?” “Why is it important?” I just get quite lost happily trawling through dusty bookshelves or poking in markets and mom ‘n pop stores.

What kind of food history are you writing?

Not all food history is the same. Different people want to find out different things about food in the past. Here are some major approaches. (By the way, I have tried to choose examples that are readily available, not too pricey, and that show the range of backgrounds food historians come from).

  • Culinary history. The word “culinary” comes from culina, the Latin word for kitchen. Culinary history focuses on what cooks knew how to prepare. It’s what people could have eaten at a particular time, had they had the resources. I suggest in my Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (2014) that cuisines—that is, styles of cooking—are a useful way of telling a culinary history.
  • Dietary history. This deals with what people actually ate in the past. It usually concentrates on the intake of calories and nutrients rather than on finished dishes. Social historian John Burnett’s Plenty and Want: A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present Day (1966) is a classic in this area. This kind of history requires a lot of digging in archives.
  • Nutritional history. This addresses how people’s diet affected their health and well-being. This is really tricky to do, usually depending on inferences from average heights and longevity, neither of those easy to determine. If this intrigues you, look at the early parts of  The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death (2004)  by Robert Fogel, Nobel Laureate in Economics.
  • History of dining and manners. Just what it says. How people consumed their food and the rules they followed. Feast: A History of Grand Eating (2003 ) is an example.
  • History of theories of diet. The evolution of what physicians have said about what we should eat.  See, for example, food historian Ken Albala’s Eating Right in the Renaissance (2002).
  • History of foodstuffs. This concentrates on a particular ingredient such as sugar, salt, ketchup, or cake. Often this is a commodity (that is, a good produced for the market that is pretty much the same everywhere, such as sugar, wheat, or hogs).  Then the history is part of commodity history. A deserved classic of commodity history is Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1986) by anthropologist Sidney Mintz, a leading anthropologist.

These are just the beginning. You also have histories of the language of food, national histories, histories of food and war, food and politics, of movements such as vegetarianism or home economics. There are lots of possibilities.

Deciding What Were the Important Turning Points

As you begin putting your history together, you may decide that you want to write a story or narrative. (Not all histories are narrative. You can do a study of a particular period).

If you write a story, you have to decide when to begin it, when to end it, and what are the important turning points along the way.  (By the way, the term historians use for this is the problem of periodization.)

It’s all to easy to assume that we should take the calendar–decades, centuries or other common historical divisions–as our framework. You see book with titles like “American food in the Nineteenth Century” or “European Food in the Middle Ages.” That’s OK.

But once you’ve decided what your problem is, you and your readers may find it more useful to divide up your story by events important to the story itself.  I struggled with this when I was writing a world history of cooking.  Nearly every work I consulted said that the transition to agriculture was one of the most important events in the history of food. Their authors divided their stories up into the food of hunters and gatherers and the food of farmers.  If you are talking about where food comes from, that’s fine.  I, however, was telling the story of cooking, of preparing not producing food.  It was evident that no one was going to farm if they did not know how to cook food.  So for my story the important turning point was when people discovered how to cook the foods that they later farmed, a point many thousands of years earlier.

Inference and Argument in Food History

If invention is one percent genius and ninety-nine percent sweat, history is one percent sources and ninety-nine percent the inferences you draw from them. Well, that’s not quite true of course, but it’s what distinguishes historians from antiquarians (see ways of approaching the past below).

Interpreting facts to put together a history is tricky.  If you read detective stories, watch police procedurals or courtroom movies, you already know this.

For an older but still relevant, cautionary tale of the traps that even the most experienced and distinguished historians have fallen into when going from facts to interpretation, see David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies (1970).


One of the best ways to criticize sources is to compare, compare and compare again.

An example. It is widely stated that the British working class diet was worse at the beginning of twentieth century than at any time in history. The source for this was a famous government report on the physical deterioration of the British people presented to Parliament in 1904. Many of the witnesses talked about a poor diet as the cause.

But since we don’t have any comparative evidence about the physical state of the British in earlier times, we don’t actually know whether or not the diet had deteriorated.

Which leads to. . .

Traps to avoid

  • Don’t assume that everyone in the past ate home cooked or restaurant food as we tend to do.  Many people ate in institutions (courts, monasteries, prisons, ships). Many people lived on street food.
  • Don’t assume that what tastes good to us would have tasted good to earlier peoples. Tastes are acquired.
  • Don’t assume that food tasted better in the past. Or that it tasted worse.
  • Don’t assume that food was necessarily healthier in the past. Or that it was necessarily less healthy.
  • Don’t assume that nations or regions are the best units for your study. Most nations have been created in the past two hundred years.  Most regions have been re-defined from time to time.
  • Don’t assume that you must start with farming. If you were writing a history of clothing, you would not necessarily have to start with sheep herding or silkworm cultivation.
  • Don’t ask when dishes were first invented.  When was red velvet cake first invented? Who was the first cook to make mayonnaise?   These seem such obvious problems to start with.  But beware the first question.  Asking who was first can lead you down the wrong path.

One of the truisms of the history of technology, a field I labored in for many years, was that asking who invented something, or when something first appeared was usually asking the wrong question.

Let me take a modern example from food. “Who invented the pineapple upside down cake?” It’s the kind of question food editors in newspapers get asked all the time.  The immediate response is to scurry around searching through magazines and cookbooks for the first pineapple upside down cake recipe and then anoint Mrs. X of Cakeville the inventor of the cake.

What have we learned?  Zilch.  Well, more likely we’ve learned that Mrs. X has staked her fame on a dubious priority claim to be the inventor of pineapple upside down cake.

Now suppose we ask different questions.  Why were people interested in cakes?  What were the preconditions for making these kinds of cakes? What problems did pineapple upside down cakes solve?

Now we can begin to talk.  Oversimplifying a bit, the preconditions for cakes are metal molds, enclosed ovens, chemical raising agents, fine white sugar, and fine white flour.  When did these become available?  At the tail end of the nineteenth century.

Why does anyone want to make cakes?  The housewife wants to look cool, modern and sophisticated, her family like the treat, the big millers in Minnesota want to sell more flour. Cake hits all those notes.  There’s a nice alliance of interests between the housewife and industry.

Just a little later, Jim Dole began an advertising blitz for a cool new ingredients, canned Hawaiian pineapple, which combined cosmopolitan sophistication and tropical exoticism. Bingo. Lots of people were going to simultaneously invent some kind of pineapple cake. And you’ve now given historical context for the appearance of cake.

How historians classify themselves

It helps to understand a little bit about academic history departments just so that if you want you can locate your work in that context.

People in history departments think of themselves in three ways (and divide their journals up in the same ways).

  1. Their geographical area. They might say “I’m an Asianist” or “I’m an Africanist” or (overwhelmingly likely if we’re talking about the US), “I’m an Americanist.” In most countries of the world, the national history swamps all others, reflecting the origins of modern academic history in nineteenth-century nationalism. Today in Mexico, for example, history means almost exclusively Mexican history.
  2. Their time period. The historian might say “Oh I do Ren and Ref (Renaissance and Reformation), or “I do the colonial period.”
  3. Their thematic interest. This might be diplomatic history, economic history, social history, or cultural history for example.

Academic history has its fashions like every other walk of life. In the last seventy-five years, these have been some of the major trends: from the thirties on, social and economic history; in the 1960s, economic and business history often of a quantitative sort; from then the late 1960s a new wave of social history, particularly of the poor and of women (“history from the bottom up”); more recently cultural history heavily influenced by cultural anthropology.  Overlying all this, in the last generation the question of identity (class, race and gender, particularly the latter two) has absorbed many historians.

So, if you are busy studying Chinese restaurants in California in the early twentieth century, you might say “I’m doing the economic and business history of migrant groups in twentieth-century America.”  Or if you are looking at how food figures in Shakespeare’s plays, you might say “I’m doing the cultural history of food in sixteenth-century England.” You get the picture.

Ways of approaching the past: chronology, memory, legend, antiquarianism, and history

History isn’t the only way of approaching the past.

Chronology.  You can think of chronology as the peg on which history hangs.  A chronology is just a list of events in the order in which they occurred.  In general, you won’t have any problem getting your chronology straight because you are likely to be working in periods with good calendars and established dates.  Once, though, chronology was a real intellectual challenge. Isaac Newton (yes, the Isaac Newton of the three laws of motion) was just one of the very smart people who spent a lot of time trying to reconcile Greek, Persian, and Egyptian calendars.

As an example, for the history of specific dishes, particularly American and those from other English-language countries. Lynne Oliver’s Food Timeline is very handy.Sadly this will not be updated as Lynne died in 2015.It lists foods chronologically and gives short extracts from reliable secondary sources about each one.

Legend. A story that supports the beliefs of lots of people. Every Thanksgiving countless publications and radio and television programs repeat a legendary version of the first Thanksgiving. And the women who voted Betty Crocker the second most popular woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt expressed how reassuring they found that smiling woman in the red suit. Toni Tipton Martin shows just how powerful these legends can be in her The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks (2015), which takes on the belief in a round, smiley, African-American Aunt Jemima.

Memory. A tribute to something that we believe we have lost. Like legend this can be a way of creating group identity. So sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner helps unite Americans whatever their ethnic origins.

Both memory and legend can be very important. In the realm of food, they are everywhere. Watch out for them and don’t make the mistake of repeating them uncritically.

An old but entertaining look at these issues can be found in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition (1983).

Antiquarianism. A disinterested investigation of the past for its own sake.  Tends to be dry and not relate to readers’ interests.

Historians are busy debating how these different approaches to the past are related. I think most would agree that compared to legend and memory, history takes a more critical and comparative attitude to sources. Compared to antiquarianism, it is more concerned with interpretation and with linking past to present concerns. (There is a vast literature mainly under the heading of Whiggism about how to and how not to link past and present but no need to worry about that right now).


It’s not very useful to try to recreate the “authentic” foods of the past or the authentic foods of another society.  I have lots more to say about this, but my short, popular article Desperately Seeking Authenticity that I wrote for the Los Angeles Times will get you started.  My point there is that authenticity is not out there to be discovered but something we seek.

2. Researching Your Food History

The historian approaches all sources with a critical eye. Just like witnesses in the courtroom, people forget, slant, interpret or sometimes downright lie about the past. Objects can’t be trusted. Bones archaeologists dig up may have been moved by a flood, paintings in caves and graves may have been planned to help the dead in the next world, not to show us how people cooked, documents may be forged, and so on.

Wikipedia and other Internet References

No doubt about it, you are going to be turning to Wikipedia. I do all the time. But, as you are doubtless aware, you need to be careful.  I remember once looking up “food processing” because I was confused about what it was only to find that whoever had written the article had used my writings as their chief source. Whoops. That’s now been changed, but it certainly made me wary. Follow up those links at the bottom.

You should also use Google Books. Just enter Books in your search bar and Google Books will come up. You can then search for a word or words, “food processing” since we’re on the subject and you will find a huge list of books in English with those words. You can click on them and see how they are used or you can refine your search by date or other parameters.

Try searching “n-gram” and try this neat little tool for finding how, say, the frequency of the term “food processing” has varied in printed books over the years. This is not deep research but often offers information to ponder.

Google scholar and academia.edu are indispensable for finding academic articles but a bit arcane for this introduction.

Written sources

Historians usually distinguish primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are documents (such as diaries, letters, cookbooks, speeches, interviews) or objects (kitchens, gadgets, buildings, markets) that give direct evidence of the past. Secondary sources talk about primary sources. The distinction is not an absolute one.  Although professional historians are wedded to primary sources, both are useful.  And both (see below) can mislead.

Usually the first thing one thinks of in terms of written resources are cookbooks and recipes. For interesting discussions of how to interpret these, look at The Recipes Project (which includes recipes for medicines, spells, etc. as well).

Think beyond recipes, though, because for most of history most people cooked without recipes or cookbooks. Even now who uses a cookbook to make a sandwich?

Novels are a rich source of references to food, as are other forms of literature. Letters and diaries ditto. Proverbs and sayings. Words themselves. A little more esoteric for the beginner are legal documents, company archives, and patent records.

Ethnographic Studies and/or Kitchen Experience

Nothing beats an experimental batch of fish sauce under the kitchen sink, a meal prepared over an open fire, or an hour or so spent working with a woman hulling rice to throw a new perspective on past foods.

My own The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage  (1996) is based on walking the streets of Honolulu, supplemented with library research. For reconstructions of eighteenth-century high-end kitchen practice, see Ivan Day’s Historic Food.

Oral History

For many of us, oral history is an important part of our work. It is also very tricky.

All our instincts to the contrary, eyewitness accounts, stories straight from the horse’s mouth are no more reliable than any other source. It’s not that people deliberately lie, even though few of us want to stress our less glorious moments. It’s just that everyone forgets bits of the past, reinterprets others, thinks that yet others are too unimportant to mention even though they might be crucial bits of evidence.

On the practical front, using a tape recorder can be useful for archives. Transcribing tapes, though, is excruciatingly slow and tedious. Taking quick notes like a journalist is very helpful.

If you google, how to do an oral history, you will find a wealth of advice. Pick what works for you.  I like Oral History Interviews by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Smithsonian Guide.

Visual materials

Drawings, paintings, all sorts of images of food are becoming much more readily available thanks to the internet. The NY Public Library and the Library of Congress both have excellent collections. If you want to use these in a blog or book, just be sure you read up on copyright.

Maps can really help readers appreciate the spatial dimension, how foodstuffs spread, where cuisines are centered, trade routes, etc. Mapping foodscapes by a senior researcher in the field, Peter Atkins, draws on historical maps of food to open all kinds of possibilities for representing food’s spatial relations.

The Perry-Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin has a huge collection of maps on line, including historical maps.  They also have a very useful page on on-line resources for making maps.

Physical Remains of Food

Archaeologists have always had interesting insights on food from funerary remains, paintings and so on. These can often correct or supplement information from literary sources.

A slew of new techniques including optical and scanning microscopy have opened new possibilities. Delwen Samuel has an excellent, accessible summary of these new techniques in archaeology.  You probably won’t be using them, but it will help you assess the mass of new results coming from archaeologists.

Miscellaneous Favorites

On line library catalogs. I love WorldCat which not only has the catalogs of 10,000 libraries but let’s you make lists and bibliographies.  Library Spot is another great site.

Food History Research Tips.  Invaluable.

The home page of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor, Martha Carlin who teaches history of medieval food. A wonderful source for links to food history bibliographies, universities, history journals, world-wide, reference tools and maps, archives, downloadable cookbooks and guides to how to footnote.

Lynne also has a terrific list of resources for researching foods

On-line historic cookbooks from the blog Kitchen Historic.

Napa Valley College Culinary Arts Web Resources

Foodlinks is a collection of websites, dealing with the history of food, organized in 15 categories (“Bibliographies”, “Museums”, “Reviews”, “Products”, “Blogs”, “Research Methods”, “by Country”, etc). Dozens of webpages, collected by postgraduates of EUROMASTER of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.  Excellent.

Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Extraordinarily useful site with guides to the profession, tools for the historian, bibliographies, links, and good guides to “unpacking evidence” such as travel narratives, objects, music, maps, etc.

Measuring Worth, an invaluable guide to the very tricky business of deciding what things (a loaf of bread, for example) in the past would be worth in today’s currency.  Their essay, Explaining Measures of Worth, is a good place to start and includes a discussion of bread in 1931 and today.

Any Land Grant University library. These universities with their agricultural schools and home economics departments have been collecting works on agriculture, nutrition, and related subjects for a hundred and fifty years. They are wonderful resources.  They tend to be much better for food history than some more prestigious private or state universities.

The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Published in 1911, it is one of the best reference works every produced as it is written by real experts. Not much use, I admit, for the last hundred years but a gem for everything up to then. Facts and figures on population, trade and agriculture, detailed accounts of everything from dairying to Vedic sacrifice.

Any books or articles in a foreign language. One of my favorite histories of Indian food is written by a Brazilian scholar. Although I can barely make out the text, just the references are invaluable.  Do not restrict yourself to English.

Older culinary histories. Food history goes back to the Greek writer Athenaeus who excerpted earlier writings on food, was very active in the Renaissance, and there are lots of nineteenth and early twentieth century works. To my sorrow my Latin is not up to the Renaissance texts. But the Histoire de l’Alimentation Végétale published by the Polish botanist Adam Maurizio in 1932, remains for example a wonderful source for plants, particularly wild plants, eaten in Europe.

Digital History

Three articles on how computers are changing the way historians do history: the first is on history blogs; the second is on on-line archives; and I’ll post the third when it appears.

3. Writing Your Food History

Taking notes

Our memories are sieves, or at least, mine is. It’s essential to take notes.  The old days of note taking on index cards are long gone.

I have never been able to use a computer for taking notes. I like to be able to use the flexibility of a pencil to comment, underline, put in exclamation points, etc.

So I simply use notepads with the title of the manuscript, article or book I am using at the top. Or if it’s an interview, details about the interview. Then I put page numbers in the left hand margin, quotes, summaries and comments opposite.

But computer note taking, which is searchable and taggable, is obviously the way of the future. I’ll let you figure that one out, though in self-defense I do find Evernote handy.

A digital camera is great for quick shots of manuscripts. Also for when you have limited time with a set of resources or for recording fragile documents.

Cameras are also great for recording kitchen experiments, contemporary history outings, etc.

Even so before you write you will need to process what you have recorded. Note-taking forces you to reflect.

 Footnotes and references

Footnotes and references are one of the things that sets history off from legend and memory. People can check where you got your information. Here is some advice about how to document your research by Dr. Martha Carlin of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. This is for an academic paper but you can adjust the recommendations to your own needs.

There are various styles of endnotes and footnotes, two of the better known being the MLA style and the Chicago Style. If you get to the stage of writing a book, it may be worth buying the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s incredibly useful on such arcana as the signs proof readers use, how to refer to every imaginable source, and how to do footnotes.

Zotero. If you get serious about looking at lots of books and articles about your topic, you might want to consider learning up a program called Zotero. This is one of several programs for managing references that have been developed in recent years. The nifty thing about Zotero is that it is free.  You can enter references manually but even better a little icon appears in your web browser. When you click that you can download the reference to a book, article, newspaper piece, all kinds of different documents.  Then once you have learned a few simple commands, you can instantly create bibliographies and footnotes. Hurrah.  But there is a learning curve, so if you are just beginning, make a mental note of this and come back to it when you are ready.


The options are far greater than they used to be, thanks to the internet.  Moreover they are changing extraordinarily rapidly, so I will only offer a few words here.

Blogs and web sites

Great fun, a massive amount of work, and a great way to try out ideas and meet people who kindly take the time to comment on your posts.  Free and relatively easy, thanks to Word Press. Wow. There is a mountain of on-line advice.


The big divisions are between self-publishing, academic publishing, and trade publishing.

Self-publishing is ideal if you have a niche audience–that is, if you want to produce a book for your extended family, for example, or sell or give away a book as a promotional item in your restaurant. It’s also easier to reach wider audiences than it used to be.  And if you have a specialized topic, it’s an excellent option.  Ammini Ramachandran’s Grains, Greens, and Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy (2007) about the foods of Kerala in southern India received enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times and Saveur, something even most trade book authors rarely get.

It’s a lot of work, even with the help of Lulu or Amazon.

Trade publishing means going with the big commercial presses and academic publishing with university presses. Ken Albala, has some useful guidelines for publishing food books.

If you are really ambitious and want to write a trade book (that is, a book published by a commercial non-university press), you will probably want to find an agent, write a query letter, and if that intrigues one or more presses, have a proposal ready to go.

Periodicals, Newspapers and Journals

Lots of people interested in food would like to see food pages and food periodicals move beyond the predictable mix of legends, memory and recipes. It’s especially important with the whole issue of food world-wide so politically charged. You can add perspective.

Write accessible food history for the community paper, the newsletter your business or school puts out. Or try to get a column going in the local paper. Or food or travel magazines. Or try one of the many on-line publications now available.  These are changing too rapidly to make useful recommendations.

If you want to go for the more academic publications, here are some to start with:

Petits Propos Culinaires. (Founded by the British food historian Alan Davidson on a lark, this long-running quirky journal takes a strongly international perspective and just about all the senior food historians have published in it.

Digest: A Journal of Foodways and Culture.  A folklore approach.

Gastronomica (Darra Goldstein’s pioneering editorial stance welcomed all kinds of food scholarship and more besides. Now edited by Lissa Caldwell who is taking it in a more academic direction).

Food, Culture and Society (the journal of the Association for the Study of Science in Society). Scholarly.

Food and History (excellent multi-lingual journal of the European Institute for the History and Culture of Food, unfortunately hard to find in US university libraries):

A more comprehensive list of journals (thanks Association for the Study of Food in Society).

4. Other Useful Points about Food History

Finding Other Food Historians

This is a great time to get to know people. With the internet, the fact that you are not in New York or Berkeley doesn’t matter one whit. In fact, it can be a huge advantage. You have a perspective that is out of the ordinary. You have access to materials that are unusual.

Join a culinary historians’ group (thanks Boston Culinary Historians). Many have awards, videos of events, and other resources besides just talks and tastings. Or start one. Just a group of friends who like to get together and chat and eat.

On Facebook, join one or more the these groups: Oxford Symposium, Association for the Study of Food and Society, Food and Farm Discussion Lab (not history but sane list on food politics), The Rambling Epicure (more than history, but many historians on the list), Bread History and Practice.

On Twitter, #foodhistory.

Apart from Writing Articles or Books: What Food Historians Can Do

Encourage your family, your library or your business to keep records. Many librarians still think of cookbooks as ephemera to be thrown away as new ones appear. Many businesses do not know the value of their archives.

Help out at your local museum, school etc. Visitors, children, students respond really well to food history. It’s so immediate.

Contribute to Wikipedia.  Biographies of people, particularly women, important in the history of food are notably absent.  The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, the British Library, and a loose coalition of food history scholars are working to remedy this.  They need volunteers.  You do not need experience writing for Wikipedia so if you are interested in helping contact Carolin Young (young.carolin@gmail.com) who is spearheading all this.

Contribute to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Food words (like most technical words) are not very well served by the OED. If you are a word fan, then you might want to read up on how you can add words or add to the evidence of the history of words in the OED.

Help the New York Public Library transcribe historical restaurant menus.

Write book reviews.Writing a thoughtful review is a great responsibility and a great chance to come to terms with important works.  It’s a chance to begin putting a portfolio of your work together. And it is far more help to the authors and to others interested in food history than you can possibly imagine. You can publish it yourself on Amazon.com, GoodReads or other on-line sites. Or you can try your local or neighborhood paper, food history group sites and the like.  It’s quite an art so google “how to write a book review.”  I particularly like this piece on writing book reviews.

And let me know about missing links, other useful resources, etc. for Getting Started. I’d be really grateful.

If You Want to Go Further in Food History

It really depends on what you want to do.  If you are just interested in getting a little more formal instruction, then look out for occasional courses.  Journalist Molly O’Neilll’s organization for budding food writers Cook and Scribble, for example, offers courses by Sandra Oliver, an expert in early American food history.  If you are interested in cookbooks, Barbara Wheaton, a pioneer in food history and author of Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, gives a week-long course on reading historic cookbooks at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

You might also look out for the many museums, parks and individuals that specialize in historical cooking.

There are excellent conferences open to the public.  The Oxford Symposium for Food and Cookery is the oldest of these. In New York, Andy Smith regularly puts on interesting programs. If you have the funds, Amsterdam and Dublin are also possibilities.

If you are interested in food history in the context of food studies more generally, then the two major American options are Boston University master’s program in Gastronomy and New York University’s undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs in Food Studies.  The University of the Pacific is just starting a Master’s Program in San Francisco led by Ken Albala that promised to be a worthy alternative. The University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy is another option.  Here’s a full list of food studies programs (thanks ASFS). All of them will be fun, stimulating, and a great preparation for an assortment of careers, which you can learn about by checking out what their graduates have done.

If you want an academic career in history, American Studies or some other relevant department, then choose the very best and very toughest doctoral program you can in the knowledge that academic jobs are hard to find and only likely to get harder to find. Even so if you are serious about academic preparation this is the way to go.




52 thoughts on “Getting Started in Food History

  1. Charlotte DeVito

    Thank you so much for your informative article and the multitude of resources you list. I have been working on a food history project for almost a year now. The more I read, the more topics spring up. Then, being trained as an attorney and not a historian, I always come to the question: “where can I get more information about that?”, or “Can I site that source or do I need to get permission from the publisher or author?” I know that food history has become a popular topic and various universities in the U.S. now offer graduate programs on the subject, but are there non-academic sources interested in publishing our work? How large do you perceive our audience to be? Any response would be appreciated. Thanks again for providing your valuable resource.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Charlotte, one of the reasons why I wrote that small piece was to encourage people to go ahead and do food history without feeling they had to take formal university training. I think if you do it well there are lots of places interested. Since you need to prove yourself a bit, why not publish on the web? Or self publish? Depending on what you want to do of course.

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  3. Amber

    Thank you so much for this valuable information. I’ve been pouring over it in recent days and am thrilled with the depth and diversity of the resources. What a generous post!

  4. Britany Simmons

    I currently have my BA in Anthropology and French Language, and am working towards my MA in Public History. Clearly, I am more interested in Social and Cultural History. My thesis is going to be over Food History, and this just helped me so much! Thanks!!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Britany. I am so glad. It’s so helpful to get feedback. I am busy updating it and hope to have it up before long. Let me know how your research goes.

  5. Sherry

    This was a very interesting read and it’s nice to hear from someone who believes in diving in head first. Would you consider putting in some of the education requirements that most food historians have? I’m currently working on a 4 year undergrad in history, hoping to make it a masters but am unsure of what types of classes would be most beneficial.
    thanks for putting so much effort into this!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      My general answer is take the hardest, toughest classes you can. If you are a history undergrad, get the pivotal periods and issues under your belt. Learn at least one other language to a high degree of competency. Learn about food on the side.

  6. Abigail Rogers

    This is such wonderful information! I didn’t know that I was interested in food history until I started working on an eBook for college on the subject of English food. Now I’m hooked and want to do more!

  7. Gerard VIllanueva

    Hi, I’m so glad to have come across your blog! I’ve wonder many times why certain ingredients or preparations have caught on in Mexican or Texas/Mexican cooking and others have fallen to the wayside. For example, how did tamarind arrive on the scene? How and why have certain breads developed? I’m not a food historian, I don’t have the time and resources at hand to get in depth. These kinds of questions come about because my blog prompts them. It’s always a careful decision of what foods or ingredients to include. Though it is not strictly about traditional foods, I try to keep in the spirit of it. Your wonderful writing, research and information is very inspiring and thought-provoking.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Gerard, Delighted to know about your blog which is now ensconced in my RSS feeder. Looking forward to you bread experiments. And thanks for the kind words.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thank you, Annie. I add to it from time to time so think of it as an on-going resource. And I am enjoying your intelligent, off beat blog.

  8. Kitchen-Counter-Culture

    Thanks a lot, Rachel. That means a lot to me from you. I have a really really great idea for a food history project and am just trying to get my skills and writing a little more developed before I get stuck in. I will return to this piece for sure. :)

  9. Dylene Cymraes

    Rachel, I know this post has been up for a while, but it came to me today, just when I needed it. I have been nattering around with rough ideas about food history for quite some time…and this article gave me great guidance! I am bookmarking this, so I can begin to think about it more deeply. Thank you.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Dylene. I do revise it periodically and it’s due for another revision right now so it’s a good idea to come back to it.

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  13. Cecilia

    Wow, thanks so much Rachel, a godsend as I’m struggling with a monograph I’m working on. Will print out and read again and again for reassurance and guidance! Lots of cheers, Cecilia

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      If someone with as much historical background as you, Cecilia, finds this helpful, then I’m doubly delighted. Any suggestions for improvements or modifications most welcome.

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  16. tiggy

    Hello, this is very useful.I am interested in Indian food history. Which is the guide to Indian food written by a Brazillian writer?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Fernanda de Camargo-Moro, Arqueologias culinárias da Índia (Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2000). Perhaps a little dated now as a lot has appeared on the history of Indian cuisines since then.

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  19. T Wahed

    Thank you so much for writing this article and sharing your thoughts and tips on how to get started. You have no idea how much I needed to read this post at this moment. It’s a new year, and I’m hoping for a new beginning and to work on new and exciting projects!

  20. OT

    What awesome post on exactly what i needed. I looking for how to go about how food defines us culturally and i stumbled on this post. Very rich on detail. Thanks

  21. Michael van Baarle

    Rachel, I see I am a bit late to the party, but really enjoyed your précis. I saw your comments on the Breakthrough Institute whom I have been following for some time. What a great opportunity for collaboration you all have! Bit harder when you’re far away in Brisbane, Australia. BTW, I’m sure someone has already told you but there’s a typo in the first line of the third paragraph under the heading ‘Deciding What Were the Important Turning Points’ – a ‘to’ should be ‘too’ (hope you don’t mind!) Michael van Baarle

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Delighted to have corrections. You need a generous philanthropist to fund a similar discussion in Australia.

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