Who gets a seat at the table? New entrées to historiography
This piece originally published at Religion in American History, March 6, 2017.
I’ve had occasion to read more broadly since defending my dissertation in December. I’ve also been grateful for the opportunity to reflect on my research interests and where they might fit into broader conversations moving forward.
In the roundtable on food history published in the December 2016 Journal of American History, Mark Padoongpatt’s observations on the pertinence of “the debate over whether food is valuable because it serves as an ‘entrée’ into more important themes in American history or if it is inherently valuable” intrigued me. The roundtable interested me not because of my own research but because of what I’ve previously thought to be an outside interest: what food means and what our eating of it means to us. Yet as I made my way though Padoongpatt’s generous article — his contribution to the roundtable is the most evenhanded in its evaluation of academics’ and more popular food writers’ contributions to the field — I realized that it would not be difficult to substitute “religion” for “food” throughout the series and still have a coherent, thought-provoking set of essays.
Consider these further sentences from Padoongpatt, this time with the substitution: “How is the story of [religion] and immigrant identity formation different from histories of immigrant identity formation through music or sports? Why does American history even need [religion] as a framework? Does it allow us to interpret and understand significant turning points and historical change in original ways? Are we merely covering old ground, only entering through a different door? Paying more attention to and integrating the intrinsic elements of [religion]…can expand historical narratives while highlighting the validity of [religion] as a way to interpret the American past.”
Debates — or even anxieties — over the role of religion in American history are nothing new, of course. But observing the ongoing development of a young field offers valuable lessons for historians of religion. This is a moment for us to learn from each other. Even if not all historians would acknowledge the centrality of religion to American history, most would agree that historians of religion have contributed enormously to the Americanist field by producing histories beginning from religion and radiating outward to touch on numerous other facets of American history. To move from thought experiment to explicit argument, like food religion does “allow us to interpret and understand significant turning points and historical change in original ways.” Yet the observational street is two-way: while food historians would benefit from tracing the re-entrance of religion to American historiography as a significant force, those of us concerned with religion would do well to note how food history is being integrated into broader conversations. What points of tension might be anticipated for food historians? How do those historians overcome them compared to our own developments? The evolution of food historiography will be all the more instructive, too, for the lighter emotional baggage of food. That is not to say food is “less serious” than religion, of course, but rather to observe that disputes over food itself, if not its historiographical implications, are frequently less emotionally fraught than those over religion.
There are several key differences between food and religion, to be sure. For one, everyone has to eat, while a great many neither profess religious belief nor feel that any such belief is necessary for a fulfilling life. Yet even such an intrinsic difference does little to lessen how deeply both food and religion can be and are to identity formation and maintenance, and both have exerted powerful influences over individuals and communities’ lives in every era of American history. Perhaps even more interesting than the influence of either food or religion is the confluence of the two: patterns of keeping kosher by American Jews, for example, or the communal meal following a burial in numerous traditions, or the social function of fish fries in Catholic parishes during the liturgical season of Lent. My own memories of the latter conjure tastes, smells, and textures so enticing that it’s impossible not to question whether deep-fried cod slathered in tartar sauce truly conveys the penitential spirit meant to be invoked by the Lenten Friday prohibition on meat — a commentary both on American foodways and on local expressions of theological-juridical requirements.
The future of food historiography is bright, so historians of religion will have ample opportunity to adapt lessons learned there within their own fields. Food was well-represented at the AHA Annual Meeting, with the word appearing almost fifty times in the Meeting’s online program. It is emerging as a field of great interest — or, perhaps, re-emerging. As the other essays in the JAH roundtable proved, more developed historiographies of labor, immigration, and gender have not-infrequently used food to explicate broader questions of space, authority, and identity. The challenge now confronting historians is to reorient themselves away from using food as an indicator of broader trends; or, to adapt Padoongpatt’s language, to move from food as historiographical condiment — enhancing certain notes of and conferring complexity on our histories — to food as the main course. Those of us devoted to the study of religion ought to consider whether we have successfully made the same transition and, if not, look to the future of food historiography for a fuller understanding of where we fit into the discipline. Bon appétit.
Michael Skaggs recently defended his dissertation, “Reform in the Queen City: Religion and Race in Cincinnati in the Era of Vatican II,” in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. He vastly prefers Glier’s goetta over Queen City and Skyline over Gold Star. He hopes you’ll reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @maskaggs.