Food History: When Research Paths Diverge

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Much research? Much caffeine.

Researching food history does not often land you on particularly well-worn paths.

For much of the history of historical inquiry, the topic of food was relegated to the category of daily existence and rarely considered as a valid or robust subject. However, we do often see that history records food as a commodity—as it was moved or traded—but those were usually records of the state. We are more likely to bring into focus the picture of private daily existence through archeological evidence.

So studying food can be a bit tricky. But it also has its advantages. One great advantage is that when you do pick up one golden thread of information, you are often able trace it to far bigger stories that surprise and often delight you. This is because at the core, food connects us all.

Also, the path is not completely un-trodden. There have been some great culinary historians before us. And most recently, there has been a great resurgence of interest in food aesthetically, culturally, politically, and historically, which further fuels our fire for this Heritage Food Project.

However, when I do find a well-trampled path, it does not always feel like a cause for celebration—the stories can feel like they come into focus too easily. I have gotten so used to knocking on the doors of libraries, archives, and inventing new ways to google terms, that when I see an already-crafted narrative, I hesitate on what to do with it.

Specifically in my case, that easy and well-trampled path involved wine. (The wine history of Santa Cruz County, to be exact.) The history encompassing the county and the Santa Cruz Mountain Appellation were already written in the early 1980s. In fact, they were written very well by historians Michael Holland and Ross Gibson, and also written in some cases by the winemaking operations or families, themselves. I am fortunate to have made fast friends with many local people involved in the trade in various ways: assistants, apprentices, sorcerers, and the like. These people have further guided my research and made the path feel even more comfortable while also making the journey more interesting.

The other type of path—the path where you have to climb over fallen logs and hope you don’t miss the branches of poison oak near your face—was what I experienced while researching the story of wheat and potatoes. These are two of the simplest crops, you may imagine, so how have they evaded me almost entirely? Well wheat has been the more elusive crop, and for potatoes, I have not had to scratch too deeply below the surface (do forgive that self-gratuitous pun), in order to find some fun historical bits. But I will keep working until I can have a harvest. The paths of the history of wheat in California have been explored by some very smart people, however, (such as Monica Spiller of the Whole Grain Connection), and it helps to know that I am not alone on this path.

What I have learned through these experiences is that you cannot expect to apply the same techniques when researching multiple topics/crops. But it is wonderful to have new challenges and opportunities to learn with each step along these divergent paths.

 

Finally, I will say that because the New Year seemed to be a great time to reflect on this question of paths in research, I will also offer the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” to close this post.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

— Liz Birnbaum

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