Friday, May 6, 2011

A Taste of History

As we approach Mother’s Day this weekend, I’m thinking of one thing: food. The most immediate reason is a practical one. I invited my mom over for brunch on Sunday, and I haven’t yet decided what to make. (If anyone out there has a recipe for a killer brunch item, please share.) But I’ve also been ruminating about the place of food in women’s history generally and in our family’s history in particular.

Food is a commodity that interests everybody on one level or another, but a chance encounter last week inspired me to look at it from a less personal and more global viewpoint. The encounter was with Professor Maria Trumpler, who teaches a course titled “Women, Food, and Culture” at Yale. The course is an interdisciplinary exploration of food production, preparation, and consumption, covering everything from the history of dieting in the United States, to home economics as a feminist pursuit, to the evolution of kitchen design. It’s just one sign that the field of food studies is booming as our current eating habits and food supply are subject to new scrutiny and concern. Food studies is a subject you can really sink your teeth into, pun regrettably intended. In the last year alone, academic books have been published on the development of the grocery store in the 20th century, African-American women who served as cooks in the South from 1865 to 1960, and how women today are helping to shape the sustainable food industry, among other topics. Later this year, Berg Publishers, which already publishes the journal, Food, Culture & Society, will come out with A Cultural History of Food, a six-volume compendium.

I love the idea of using food as the entry point for a study of social history, but I’m just beginning to explore how to do that. (I know that I usually write about sports, but food is, after all, the fuel that athletes use.) In the meantime, I’m getting some measure of inspiration from the memories of my own food history: the extraordinary banana cake, Toll House cookies, and mandel bread that my dad’s mother, Rose Macy (above), baked every Sunday morning, the only day she didn’t spend running her women’s clothing store; the unmistakable taste and smell of the yeasty babka that my mom’s mother, Adel Narotsky, made by hand, using the same long, thin wooden rolling pin that I have in my kitchen today; and the meals that my mom still makes: gefilte fish from scratch—a Passover staple, Southern fried chicken covered in corn flake and Rice Krispies crumbs (and actually baked, not fried), chicken fricassee, linzer tortes, and the best pies and brownies anywhere. How cool is it that my mother is both a great cook and a great baker? Now you know why I go to the gym.

Our memories of food are at the core of who we are. Familiar tastes and smells can be powerful reminders of a distant place or a time gone by and help us remember people who are no longer with us. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to bring my enthusiasm for the topic to the printed page. In the meantime, Happy Mother's Day to my mom and all the other moms out there. Bon appétit!


Fourth Musketeer said...

Loved your article! At the Friday night service before my son's bar mitzvah, I honored the relatives no longer with us (my son' four great-grandmothers and a beloved great-great aunt who was a real ballabusta) by preparing desserts that they loved to make. On the buffet table we displayed their photographs and some brief biographical information about them and something about each dessert. In this day of take-out and frozen food, I'm not sure my kids will have the same memories that we have of these women from earlier generations!

Marlene Sorofsky's Jewish holiday cookbook has a great recipe for a French toast/blintz souffle with blueberry sauce--it's one of those you make the night before and bake that morning. E-mail me at margo_tanenbaum(at)yahoo(dot)com if you'd like the recipe!

Vicki Cobb said...

Great post, Sue. I, of course, with my agenda to teach science have written two food-based books: Science Experiments You Can Eat and from the Where's the Science Here Series: Junk Food. Neither is gourment dining but plenty of food for thought (pun unregrettably intended.)

rglaser said...

Thanks for your insights! I think the history of food preparation (and grocery stores, my grandfather owned a grocery store in small ND) is really interesting--especially for kids who are so used to processed food and think macaroni & cheese only comes from a blue box. I just published a book for kids on this topic called Food 100 Years Ago, by Allison Lassieur, coming out this summer.