Food for Thought: Zara Anishanslin on “Food, Dress and the Politics of Everyday Colonialism”

A rich and varied diet of material culture fare leaves much to digest after this first day.

The morning panel Food, Dress, and the Politics of Everyday Colonialism, used two of the most basic of human material needs—food and clothing—to examine how people used such basic things to negotiate, assert, and contest power. Four junior women historians: Jenny Shaw, Rachel Hermann, Christina Snyder, and Christian Crouch, took the audience on a journey that ranged from seventeenth-century Barbados to nineteenth-century Kentucky, with stops in the war zones of eighteenth-century French Canada, Martinique, and revolutionary North America. Using food and dress, these four teased out tales of long-lost quotidian reality. Each crafted historical narratives about how soldiers, slaves, and Native Americans used such ordinary objects to broker authority, in extraordinary times of violence and war and mundane moments of cooking and eating alike. Together, these four riveting papers resurrected material experiences, providing an at times visceral—and sometimes painful—glimpse into the past. Listening to these papers, you could almost taste the deliciousness of the plantain drink painstakingly crafted by seventeenth-century Barbados slaves, and imagine the awfulness of the mutton that “somehow remained tough while still greasy” that inspired elite Choctaw students to throw “coffee riots”—and stones—at the enslaved wait staff of Choctaw Academy. These papers allowed for vivid mental images, as well; of, for example, American Rangers and French troops engaging in a moment of combative dancing, competing over who could best imitate Indians, and of an ex-slave, turned purveyor of food and information, beaten by soldiers til he was blind and lame. Food and dress provided vehicles for imagining the at times sordid (and always complicated) realities of life for both colonizer and colonized in the French, British, and American empires. In early America and the wider Atlantic World, food and dress were objects that simultaneously subverted and celebrated hierarchies. This panel raised a theoretical question: Is this true of all objects, or only of those made powerful by being the most basic to our human survival and sustenance?

Literary scholar Amanda Runyan presented a paper that also used clothing and its inversions to discuss how people used cloth to seize (or take away) power in the Atlantic World. Using Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, the Horrors of St. Domingo and Laura, Runyan read Madras handkerchiefs, worn as headscarves first by black and then by white creoles, as “autobiographics” in the literary text. Material signifiers of race, femininity, and revolution, these pieces of cloth from India stood in for social and sexual power, and possession (and dispossession) of space in a time of violent revolution on Saint Domingue. Historian Alisa Harrison opened her paper on learned femininity in early republican New York with another look at violence in revolution. Harrison moved from recounting one young woman’s poignant recollection of the violent, physical destruction of her family’s book collection by British soldiers to tracing how things like books, letters, bookcases, and desks were physical representations of women’s intellectual achievement.

Each of these papers raised the same general question: how do things change meaning when they change place? When they pass from possession or display by one person to another?

Objects can be used to take the cultural pulse of a society. A number of afternoon papers did just this, while also reminding us how deeply material culture studies is—and should be—an interdisciplinary endeavor. Liz Hutter’s look at early American life preservers as both “flawed technological ” and “cultural” artifact was a fascinating peek at how cultural anxiety can inspire design technology. Historians Daniel Kilbride and George Boudreau both looked at the material record created by colonial Americans on the Grand Tour, using this travel to revisit oft-discussed issues of Anglicization and refinement. Boudreau’s look at “Johnny Allen’s Blue Suit” raised intriguing questions of what it means when people show their knowledge of au courant fashion by embracing anachronistic objects like this Van Dyke ensemble. Historians of science and technology would no doubt love to discuss Hutter’s work on quirky designs, while both Kilbride and Boudreau traverse territory to which art historians, also, have long laid a claim.

The first day’s papers reassured me that Saturday’s material culture colloq is a good thing. There is, most basically, a lot of exciting work and evidence being presented at SEA this year, and not enough time to do it conversational justice in the panels. And all our scholarship will benefit from seizing this rare chance to engage in cross-disciplinary chewing over food for thought.

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