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: One hour after class MTW (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 the broad contours of the history of American food
  • Appreciate the various drivers of change with respect to eating in America
  • Consider the intersection of food, culture, society
  • 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 (40%)
  • Pop quizzes and other in-class work that will be graded (20%)
  • 750-word book review of either Kauffman or Twitty (20%)
  • “Final” Research project and presentation on something vaguely related to food history (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.

Key to sanity

If you peek at the reading schedule page, you might think there is a lot of reading. You’re right! That’s one of the skills we’re practicing here—learning to read quickly and effectively. You don’t have to read every word carefully to absorb the key features of our reading list—namely how they approach the topic, what kind of argument they make, what kinds of sources they use, how interesting it is, how they differ from each other, etc. That’s what we’ll be talking about during our discussions.

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. 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 readings.

It’s summer

This course is a challenge, but I do recognize that it’s summer and it should be possible to learn a lot, learn in different ways, and have fun doing it. So there aren’t any exams, long papers, or any of that sort of thing. There isn’t much to do most days except do the preparatory reading, reflect on it, come to class, and participate in the conversation and activities. For the two major assignments (see below), we’ll practice doing them together before you do them on your own.

Book Reviews

The main goal of this class is to help us think more critically about food and food history, particularly how it gets represented in the continuous supply of food literature that appears in print (and Amazon search results). We are reading two recent books on the history of American Food (though not advertised in those terms), both of which have been highly critically acclaimed. They couldn’t be more different.

One of your assignments will be to provide a 750-word review that summarizes the book and analyzes it in context of the course. The books are long (but quick reads), but you don’t have to read every page (or even chapter!) to write a highly successful review (at least for our purposes). At least half of each book is required reading in the course, so you’ll read the other half on your own.

Research Presentations

The main goal of this class is to help us think more critically about food and food history, particularly how it appears online, in Google searches for instance, which is how we often find (mis)information quickly. Your research presentations will show you applying the analytical frameworks we learn in this class to a particular topic of your choice (anything vaguely related to food history, even if not American).

The default project is to pick a topic and report on the what you find on the first page of Google (or whatever) search results. Questions you’ll answer in your presentations:

  • What common information is repeated across the different sites?
  • Where do the sites diverge? Or contradict each other?
  • To what extent are the historical claims supported by archival sources? (as opposed to other websites or secondary sources?) Do they provide any historical evidence?
  • Do the sites give you any reason to take them seriously? Why are they talking about the topic?
  • What ways of thinking about food history are missing?

Everyone needs to do a presentation, but if you’re really excited about another kind of project that you can present to the class, and that can show you applying the class to writing about food, PLEASE talk to me about it. I’m very flexible provided that you can fulfill the same aims of the assignment (and share with classmates).

Course Readings

  • 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).