Category: Food

Food Memories: Utopian Visions?

I missed June’s blog. I’m making up for it by referring here to a short blog that appeared elsewhere last month. I wrote “Koulourakia Cravings” for a website called  Historians Cooking the Past.  I, like most other contributors, wrote of a strong food memory. It simmers up at certain seasons. When the light, the weather, the smells–all the senses–send me back to another place and time. And then, I reconnect to that past place by recreating that food with my own hands. In this case, it was the Greek sweetbread, koulourakia, that I wrote about, after baking a batch this spring.

Since first writing about utopian foodways before Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias appeared, I’ve thought and taught about them often. But what I’ve not asked anyone is this:  how are food memories utopian? And how is nostalgia connected to utopianism?

Generally, utopia, or the perfect place that is no place, is in an imaginary elsewhere in time and space. Often, visions of utopia are futuristic. Utopians seek to make the world a better place. They are forward-looking rather than past-gazing, right?

Actually, no. It’s past experiences–memories of them–and the current conditions–often dystopian–that motivate dreamers to visualize utopia.

What was it that I was trying to recreate when I made koulourakia last spring? What was it that I was craving that went beyond butter and sugar?

As the blog explains, I associate those sweet treats with time abroad in Greece, younger days of marriage and motherhood in New Hampshire, and even my early career in Missouri. Certainly those days were not all utopian bliss. I was not living in a utopian world. But the conditions of the current moment–amidst the Covid pandemic, sheltering in place, and teaching online–pushed me to recreate cookies that I associated with moments of sheer pleasure. Consuming cookies, shared with friends, neighbors and family, speak to me of a perfect place. Nostalgia is more than longing for the past. In the best cases, and in the healthiest conditions, it can be a stepping stone for moving forward in community. In the worst, nostalgia can be holding on to something unhealthy that should only be remembered for what it can teach us about how we may move forward differently.



Food: a Utopian Studies Special Issue

Idealized food practices have changed, I explain in the introduction to a 2015 special issue (26.1) of the journal Utopian Studies. Since Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias appeared, utopian foodways have turned to production that is better for sustaining the earth.  In addition, food ideals are conveyed now through social media, a possibility that was in its infancy when Eating in Eden went to press. My introduction provides an overview to the collection, with specifics about the thirteen essays and book reviews within it.  Co-edited with Timothy Miller and Lyman Tower Sargent, who are also contributors, the special issue examines utopian food practices that give attention to consumption and clean up as well as social exchange and spirituality.

Savory Bites

“Savory Bites: Books on Eating in Early America,” appeared in Early American Literature 50.2 (2015).  On the hot topic of food and literature, it considers three books on American literature and culture from colonial exploration through Reconstruction:  Ann Chandonnet’s Colonial Food (Shire 2013); Michael A. LaCombe’s Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World (U Pennsylvania P 2012); and Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York UP 2012). The essay places these books within the context of American food studies and the teaching of American literature.

As the first two volumes discuss, for Native Americans and European colonial explorers and settlers, food exchanges were not only crucial to survival but also highly symbolic. Hospitality among strangers is key among food practices that identify cultures.  Tompkins’s book takes a more grim approach to cultural differences. Consuming the other appears figuratively and frequently in American literature and culture, from the post-Revolutionary era through the 19th century.  In sum, what we share indicates who we are, just as what we eat determines who we are.

Eliza Leslie: Fun & Food

Selections from Eliza Leslie collects stories, recipes and other works by the nineteenth-century cookbook author and humor writer from Philadelphia. In addition to providing a biographical sketch, my introduction to the volume describes Eliza Leslie’s early career and her prominence among American women writers at her death in 1858.

Leslie established her career through writing fiction for children and collecting recipes. Soon after, she launched herself into humorous magazine fiction with the award-winning “Mrs. Washington Potts.” This tale of what-not-to-do-when-entertaining appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book (1832), the most popular women’s magazine of the era. Leslie rose to an editorial position with Godey’s as her career progressed.

Equally important as the selections and introduction, the book provides the first bibliographical overview of Leslie’s voluminous writings. Approximately 30-pages, arranged both chronologically and alphabetically, provide titles of Leslie’s publications that appeared between 1803 and 1853.

Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias

Drawing from our interests in utopian communities and religious history, my co-editor Martha Finch and I highlight in Eating in Eden (U Nebraska 2006) American food practices that range from those of colonial English Puritans and Spanish Catholics to those of more recent groups of European Jews and Indian Hindus. Continue reading

Famous American Vegetarians

Vegetarianism is not a recent American trend, influenced by immigrant cultures and travel abroad. Waves of interest in meatless diets have surged and ebbed through the centuries. In fact, even 18th-century American “founding father” Benjamin Franklin abstained from meat as a young adult. According to his Autobiography, Franklin was motivated by desires for professional productivity and frugality rather than moral or spiritual beliefs.  In the 19th century, some American Transcendentalists, such as Bronson Alcott, and the “man of science” Henry David Thoreau, advocated vegetarianism for spiritual reasons. My essay in the Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism discusses these 19th-century advocates of doing without animal flesh.

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