Historical food for thought: The way to the public’s heart is through their stomach

by Louise Quick   

People love food. It’s not a mind-blowing statement, I know. Eating is an enjoyable – and necessary! – part of human existence. Everyone eats. It’s one of the great common denominators throughout human history. Even Mahatma Ghandi, Jane Austen, Winston Churchill and Boudicca woke up wondering: ‘what’s for breakfast?’.

This is what makes food such an exciting tool for historians. It can help them communicate history to the public at a level that’s accessible and where everyone is welcome. It takes history out of its ivory tower and serves it to the masses at the communal dinner table. 

It’s strange then that food is still relatively fresh on the public history scene. Fortunately, it’s on the rise. This is thanks to the growing interest in social history in recent decades, as well as the demand for more hands-on activities and re-enactment in museums and heritage sites.

Charlotte Despard was a leading suffrage campaigner and dedicated vegetarian.

The Tenement Museum in New York, for example, is one big-name institution that appreciates the value food can bring to public history. Pre-lockdown, it ran a ‘Food of the Lower East Side’ tour, which took people on a “walking-and-tasting tour explor[ing] the neighbourhood through the culinary traditions of a community that called the Lower East Side home”. 

Plus, Adam Steinberg, who previously worked at the Tenement Museum, has explored the significance of multi-sensory experience in communicating history – AKA, how taste can “heighten the power of the story” being told.

Even in the digital world, where you can’t exactly pass round tasting samples, food is no less powerful. Just look at English Heritage’s YouTube series, The Victorian Way. A huge dedicated audience tunes in to watch the 19th-century cook, Mrs Avis Crocombe – or at least, an actress playing her – recreate real Victorian recipes.

With well over 65 million views, this series of charming cooking tutorials inadvertently educates its views on, yes, the history of Audley End House in Essex, but also on wider Victorian social history: what the different classes ate, how empire and trade affected people’s everyday lives, and how big events influenced their diets etc.

Plus, the videos’ comment sections are buzzing with viewers engaging with the history, as they debate topics and even ask ‘Mrs Crocombe’ questions. Clearly there’s an audience of people out there eager to learn history, as long as it’s served in a way that’s palatable, relatable, and ideally dished up with some home-made Victorian gingerbread.

A few years back, I dabbled with online cooking videos as part of my Public History MA. The project was all about the history of vegetarianism in the women’s suffrage movement – niche, I know! – and my favourite bit of feedback from someone who saw the videos was: “Suffragettes – they’re just like us! […] who knew people in the past even had a diet, let alone made conscious choices about being vegetarian”. 

It just shows that, as well as being a good vehicle for history, food can humanise history and those who inhabited it. By looking at what and how people in the past ate, it helps modern audiences see them for what they really were: normal human beings like you and me who woke up every morning wondering, ‘what’s for breakfast?’.

‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Food: Using Food to Teach History at the Tenement Museums’, by Adam Steinberg – (Read the article online)

‘The awakened instinct: vegetarianism and the women’s suffrage movement in Britain’, by Leah Leneman – (Read the article online)

About the Author:

Louise Quick is an experienced content producer and proud history nerd.

She completed her Public History MA from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2018. Her MA project featured a YouTube cookery series, recreating Edwardian vegetarian recipes in a bid to highlight the little-known fact that many of Britain’s Suffrage campaigners were vegetarians. The project was called ‘Suffrage Eats’, (a pun she is far too proud off).

Before her MA, Louise worked as a lifestyle journalist in Dubai, but returned to the UK to pursue her love of history. She has since written for The Guardian and All About History, and produced educational video series for Historic Royal Palaces and History Bombs.

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