Food, family, and colonial histories: introductory ruminations

It all started with an overabundance of plums from the farm next door.

Last weekend, I picked up my old copy of The Little House Cookbook, which I had re-discovered in the process of moving last month. I thought that I might find some good vegetable preserves, since we’re heading into peak canning season here. Instead of finding the perfect beet pickle or plum jam recipe, though, I ended up flipping through the recipes while musing on childhood, nostalgia, food, family, and the ways in which we teach/research/narrate histories of colonialism. With the eyes of an eager cook and an even-more eager eater, a colonial historian, and an adult who fondly remembers Garth Williams’ illustrations from my childhood, I pondered: What can food tell us about the colonial experience? What can making and eating that food tell us that textual archival sources don’t? What potential does food have for teaching, learning, researching, and re-thinking the colonial past?

As the week progressed, it seemed like these questions were coming at me from all directions. First I saw this call for papers on teaching and food. Then the Kitchn food blog pointed me to several posts about family recipes as a kind of personal archive/history-telling. (My favourite was the recipe tea-towel, but the posts also included this and this.) ,  And finally, my sister got married on Saturday, and I had a conversation with other wedding guests about family recipes—specifically about cheese sandwiches and alternative family strategies for making them. (One had to do with mayonnaise. Really!)

My sister and brother-in-law had a wedding “cake” made out of cheese. Delicious!

All of this, I think, is immensely valuable material for reflection. Or, to go with a food theme, rumination.  It strikes me that—as researchers, teachers, and family members—we have an opportunity to think differently about colonial family histories through food. Whether examining the history of the Christmas pudding in the British Empire or bachelor cooking in the backwoods of British Columbia (full disclosure: that’s me!) or the development of curry in India, we have the possibility to think about the ways in which colonial projects were shaped, maintained, or challenged through food practices and family relationships. But this requires attention to the context of colonial foods alongside the immediacy of cooking and eating particular dishes. There is an exciting accessibility of experience in historical recipes—not to mention the potential personal rewards of ‘real’ cooking in an age of processed food or memories of mothers (grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, etc.) making particular dishes. But the authenticity implied by a ‘historical’ dish (whether encountered in the archives or in a family recipe box) should, I think, be countered or complicated by—or at least considered alongside—the wider context in which it was produced, shared, preserved, archived, and made accessible to us. What can we learn about imperial networks in the availability of breadfruit in the Caribbean or tea in England? About power and protest in the cultivation and consumption of sugar? About family letters that describe curry powder in backwoods British Columbia (in the case of my research)?

I suppose that my introductory conclusions (if I can use that phrase!) are not necessarily ground-breaking: the combined power of food, in all of its sensory immediacy, and historical context, in all of its deep interpretive potential, might be a particularly fruitful two-pronged approach through which to teach and think about colonial history. By using historical dishes themselves as well as considering the wider contexts in which they were developed and consumed, the power of food-based nostalgia—both individual and collective—might be harnessed and re-directed towards a more critical and analytical, but also more personal and accessible, understanding of colonial pasts.

Do you have any thoughts on this? Does sensory experience (taste, smell, feel) offer a more accessible history of colonialism than our typical reliance on textual archives? Have you ever taught a class using food or recipes, or used eating/cooking in your own research? How do your family recipes or personal experiences with food shape the way that you understand colonial histories? Please share!

– Laura Ishiguro

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