History of American Food

Summer 2018 • HIST 300-002
info | readings


  • MTWTh 9:20 - 11:50 @ 234 DSH
  • Fred Gibbs (fwgibbs@unm.edu) @ 1077 Mesa Vista Hall
  • Office Hours: After class (or before if necessary)

Course Description

When you think of Mexican food, or Italian, or Chinese, a range of dishes and ingredients immediately spring to mind. But what about American food? Is there such a thing? How much does the history of American Food tell a very different story of US History than we typically hear? How are ideas of nationalism reflected in our foodways? What constitutes a “national” cuisine? Does this concept even make sense anymore?

The goal of this course is to see how much fun we can have exploring different perspectives on the concept of national cuisine and American food. Never shall we care about memorizing and regurgitating supposedly important historical “facts”.

Each class meeting is 2.5 hours, which is long. So we’ll break it up into various activities (with breaks), including mini-lectures, small and large group discussion of common readings (the books), and primary source analyses (mixes of newspapers, ads, menus, literature, trade journals), as well as student presentations on select short readings (of your choice) that dive deeper into topics touched on in the books.

Some questions we’ll tackle: What have Americans eaten over time? Why? How much have immigration and regionalization mattered? How have food production, technology, and marketing practices changed eating habits? How have dietary and nutritional advice altered perceptions of food and cuisine over the 20th century? How have recent global industrial conglomerates shaped the idea of what constitutes American food? What can the future of American food learn from its past?

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Learn about the history of American food
  • Appreciate the various drivers of change with respect to eating in America
  • Consider the intersection of food, culture, society, and nationalism
  • Understand how different historians construct very different histories of American food

Work Requirements and Grading

The main work/fun for this class is not in exams or essays or other stuff you might submit for a grade, but rather general engagement in our daily activities and conversation.

  • Thorough preparedness and engaged participation in every class meeting (50%)
  • Serious effort and on-time completion of the in-class presentations (30%)
  • Pop quizzes and other in-class miscellany (20%)
  • I heartily encouraged you to speak with me at any time about how I think you’re doing in the class and how it can be improved (if at all)
  • If life gets overwhelming during the course, it can be tempting to drift away from an elective course like this. Rather than disappear, please come talk with me about how we can accommodate your circumstances and thus avoid digging a huge hole from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape.

Course Readings

There’s a significant amount of reading for this course. DO NOT DESPAIR! The readings are meant for a broad (largely non-academic) audience and therefore are relatively quick and engaging reads. At the same time, they are smart, articulate, and give us plenty to talk about, especially as we put them in conversation with each other. I have tried to minimize assignments of dense and difficult academic prose (although it’s worth pushing ourselves from time to time). It’s summer, after all. You don’t need to read every word carefully to get a lot from these books. These various themes they explore (and how they do it) will provide us with thematic anchors for the course.

A significant component of the course is thinking about and discussing how we can tell very different stories about the history of American food, as exemplified by the course books.

  • Donna R. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans, Revised edition (Harvard University Press, 2000)
  • Roger Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)
  • Jonathan Kauffman, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat (William Morrow, 2018)
  • Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad, 2017)
  • Jennifer Jensen Wallach, How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014).

All readings that aren’t already online (and some that are) will be available through the class Zotero library. This will be discussed in class, but please note the instructions for connecting. The URL for the group library will be posted here eventually.