Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Students find history on a plate

In We Are What We Eat, history Associate Professor Carol Helstosky is teaching students the relevance of food to economics, national identity and culture. 

And rather than simply plowing through reading assignments and taking copious lecture notes, students are personally contributing to the historiography by digging into the archives and creating research projects based on cookbooks in the Margaret Husted Culinary Collection at Penrose Library. 

Helstosky says cookbooks are essentially “prescriptive literature” and serve as a rich source for analyzing the ways society functioned at any given point in time, revealing family life, gender roles and other cultural norms. 

The course has been of particular interest to hotel, restaurant, and tourism management majors, who make up half the class. “It’s not just interesting to them because food is interesting,” Helstosky says. 

“It’s interesting to them because it relates to their professional aspirations and goals.” Students’ ventures into the archives have yielded several interesting projects: 

• “Luau: It’s a Hawaiian Thing” traces the history of the luau back to 1939 and asks how it became representative of Hawaiian culture. 

• “Thanks for Thanksgiving” examines the origin of the traditional Thanksgiving feast to find how it has changed over time. 

• “Who Fondues?” traces the history of fondue from the 1960s through the present, asking who has primarily eaten the dish. 

• “Beef: Is it What’s for Dinner?” looks at the history of beef consumption in the U.S.  

This article originally appeared in The Source, November 2006.

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