HL90 FM: Tasting Place: Food and Culture in America

It’s August! We’ve got lots of HL90 seminars this fall, with some returning favorites and some new exciting courses, including Rachel Kirby’s “Tasting Place: Food and Culture in America,” which meets Thursdays, 12:45-2:45.

Tell us about your class! What inspired you to teach it?

“Tasting Place” is an exploration of the relationship between, well, tastes and places. But it isn’t as straightforward as it may seem, since both words have multiple meanings. “Taste” can be a reference to a flavor, a verb for the process of eating, or a term used to signify class status (“they’ve got good taste”). “Place” can reference geographical locations, more abstract ideas of belonging (“home,” for example), or an arrangement of dishes and utensils on a table (a place setting). “Tasting Place,” then, can play in a variety of ways. 

Vocabulary lesson aside, this class will examine when, what, why, and importantly, where, people eat, and the various layers of history, society, and power that are intertwined with consumption. We will engage a range of theoretical, methodological, and primary sources to think expansively about foods that have shaped and been shaped by American culture and history. We will look at the local and the regional, the nation and empire, and food that has crossed national borders. Of course, in looking at food, we are also examining stories of people, communities, and their respective identities.

As for inspiration, this class is built upon my longstanding interest in the cultural capital of food. It’s also indebted to classes I took as an undergraduate. Course assignments about food helped me draw connections between scholarly concepts and my own daily life, making theory relevant on a personal level. Some of my current work is even rooted in my undergraduate explorations of food and community in my hometown (I’m looking at you, Mr. Peanut)! I’m excited to introduce students to the interdisciplinary world of food studies!  

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

I’m really looking forward to the range of objects we’re going to look at over the course of the semester. Food can be tricky to study – unless you’re researching a particular meal in real time, you usually can’t access the very thing you’re studying. Furthermore, we’re often trained to study what we can see or read, and we receive far fewer instructions on how to understand smells and tastes. Despite these seeming challenges, there are plenty of ways to study food, particularly as related to place. Once you start looking, the connections seem to show up everywhere! Together we’ll look at some of the more obvious food-related sources (cookbooks and culinary memoirs), and we’ll also discuss paintings, advertisements, and (my personal favorite) kitschy souvenirs! 

Are you doing any cool activities?

Yes! I am so pleased about the timing of this course, as it overlaps with a relevant exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology here on campus. They currently have on view an exhibit called “Resetting the Table: Food & Our Changing Tastes,” which we will visit as a class in September. Not only will this be a nice change to the classroom setting, the exhibit was also built around the menu from a freshman dinner served at Harvard in 1910, which will allow us a very local entrance into conversations about taste and place! I’m looking forward to applying the course concepts to Harvard itself – what does this place taste like?

Since you study food, you must be an amazing cook. Right?

I can see why you might think so, but I would not call myself an amazing cook. Perfectly adequate? Absolutely. Good? Sure – I usually enjoy what I make. But amazing? Only on the rarest of days. I enjoy cooking for special occasions and for other people, but I lack the time and patience required to become a particularly good day-to-day home cook. My cookbooks get more use in my office than in my kitchen.  

How can students learn more?

Please feel free to visit the class Canvas site or email me at rachelkirby@fas.harvard.edu. I would be happy to hear from you!  

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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