“Food Stamps & Food Rights”

“Our modern system of food benefits emerged from public activism.  It required acceptance of women’s rights, and a move away from blaming women for their families’ hunger.”

Dr. Tracey Deutsch discusses with The Gender Policy Report the history of food rights and the longstanding attempts to dismantle those rights. Check out the full blog post here.

A Visit to Mary Arden’s Farm

Experience the sights, sounds and smells of a working Tudor farm on a fantastic family day out at Mary Arden’s Farm. Meet the Tudors who run the farm just as Shakespeare’s mother would have done, watch craft and falconry demonstrations and explore the farmyard, playground and historic buildings.

 —Mary Arden’s Farm Promotional Material

Before us were roughly a dozen heritage piglets. All tumbling over one another as they attempted to touch their snouts to my hand, which I placed before them. Perhaps they thought I had food. I didn’t. After petting the piglet, I walked back towards Mary Arden’s farmhouse. In the distance I could see a woman in Tudor style clothing on what looked to be a mound of wet hay. I approached the fence, leaned on it, and observed her. She was holding her dress up with both hands, all the while rhythmically stomping her feet on the mound. I asked, “What are you doing?” She responded, “I have to pack the compost down, master.”

Image of pigs at the farm

The scene that I described was an ethnographic moment on a visit that I made to Mary Arden’s Farm on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon during the summer of 2016. A heritage site that is owned and operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the farm is a reenactment site framed by the promotional statement to offer visitors an opportunity to “meet the Tudors who run the farm just as Shakespeare’s mother would have done.” However, upon meeting with the managing director and farm manager, the farm as a reenactment of the past becomes much more complicated by, and entangled within, present day determinations that establish what can be reasonably seen, said, and grown within this space. From a pedagogical perspective, the site aims to engage present-day students through reconstructed past in order to address the quandary of sustainable living in the future. And from the production perspective, the farm must negotiate the tensions that emerge when reenacting past ways of farming while still adhering to present day health and safety regulations.

Since its nascent years in the 1980s, performance studies included a wide array of embodied acts under its purview; including ritual, sports, politics, play, communication, festivals, and behavior (both human and animal). Included in this has been the performance of everyday life, emphasizing collective gatherings as sites for identity formation and making meaning. Following suit, performance historiographic methods have also taken to the town and city streets, to the reenactment fields and living history museums to address how the past is transmitted into the present. What this adds up to is a moment in which how the past is reenacted in the present, and by whom, carries a great deal of social, cultural, and political import. The act of reconstructing the past through embodied performance is not an innocent act, but one that has the potential to circulate an ideology about how collectives of people remember their past in the present to activate possible futures.

It is with this in mind that I consider Mary Arden’s Farm as a cultural site that not only intends to transmit a past to the present, but one that also wants to transmit knowledge of sustainable agriculture in order to consider future potentials. When thinking about Mary Arden’s Farm as a site that generates a collective memory, tensions and discontinuities emerge in the present day reenactment of Tudor life on the farm. For example, the farm manager is a present day anachronism.. Dressed in blue coveralls and work boots, the farm manager weaves in and out of the reenactment site to maintain the day-to-day operations at Mary Arden’s. While in the foreground one is witnessing the Tudor reenactment of managing the compost pile, in the background the farm manager is tending to the heritage pigs. The entrance of the farm manager into the field of vision disrupts the reconstructed past. In this anachronism, the circulation of present day regulations and consumer markets becomes visible.

Women prepping food

In her book Performing Remains, Rebecca Schneider makes the claim that history, much like performance, should not seek to recover a pure past. Instead, Schneider argues that the (historical or performance ) event should be understood as a continuous re-enactment that negotiates mistakes and misfires. It is through this engagement that Schneider blurs a distinction between liveness and archive, past and present, performer and spectator. For Schneider, the past seeps into the present via a continuous critical renegotiation of events through an embodied liveness, which allows space for the collective (rather than the individuated) generation of memory.

Along with the farm manager, another anachronism that emerges at the reenactment of the past at Mary Arden’s Farm are the present day regulations administered by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom. This poses an interesting conundrum: since what is produced at Mary Arden’s Farm enters the consumer market, what is seeable and sayable at Mary Arden’s Farm reenactments are regulated and restricted by a governmental agency. Pushing this anachronism through Schneider’s theorizing of reenactments raises interesting questions about relationship between past, present, and future at these sites. Schneider, on anachronism, states,

“anachronism is at least a two-way street, with possibly more counter-directions than two. Because the manipulation of anachronism is the very stuff of the art or act of reenactment, it can never be entirely banished from the project at hand – a fact that reenactors know intimately” (53-4).

What needs to be considered further with reenactments are those moments when heritage sites spill into the present of everyday life, and, conversely, those moments when present day regulations spill into the heritage site. For example, in the case of Mary Arden’s Farm, the ideology of a more authentic and sustainable Tudor way of producing and consuming food actually materializes in the form of pork and dairy products that are produced and sold, spilling the past out into the present-day consumer market. This raises an intriguing question: how do we account for the added value of reenactment, anachronisms and all, on the food that we eat? It is through an engagement with performance studies that allows for such a question to emerge, indeed, even to be thought. To put it another way, it is performance studies that allows for a connection to be seen between reenactments and the production of food for paying consumers.

Since its nascent years in the 1980s, performance studies included a wide array of embodied acts under its purview; including ritual, sports, politics, play, communication, festivals, and behavior (both human and animal). Included in this has been the performance of everyday life, emphasizing collective gatherings as sites for identity formation and making meaning. Following suit, performance studies methods have also taken to the town and city streets, to the reenactment fields and living history museums to address how the past is transmitted into the present. What this adds up to is a moment in which how the past is reenacted in the present, and by whom, carries a great deal of social, cultural, and political import. The act of reconstructing the past through embodied performance is not an innocent act, but one that has the potential to circulate an ideology about how collectives of people remember their past in the present to activate possible futures.

My work at Mary Arden’s Farm shows how the move to examine historical reenactment through a performance historiographic lens provokes us to think through how the embodied performance of the past is embedded within a present day economic language of added-value. This requires scholars to consider how reenactment circulates beyond the confines of the heritage site and into a broader consumer market, enabling us to consider a very material by-product of reenactments. The question that emerges, and that I invite the reader to respond to, is: how do we account for the added value of reenactment, misfires and all, on the food that we eat?

WORKS CITED

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Beginnings: Why Food . . .

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for “Thinking Food.” We are very excited to create this space for creative and rigorous thinking around food. We hope this space becomes a community of interlocutors—people who can turn to each other to better understand the significance, and the meaning, of food in new ways. The goal is for everyone to leave having learned something they can use in their thinking, teaching, and their movements through the world.

I come to food studies out of my interest in power relations—structural and also ideological, in the past as well as the present. And so I thought I’d get us going here by sharing how teaching and research has persuaded me that food is a good vehicle for addressing power. “Why food?” I find myself asking? Is it just a vehicle for studying larger questions of authority? Is it an object worth attending to in and of itself?

Teaching, and my students, helped me think about these questions.

As I do every year, I asked students in my food history class to post observations from their Thanksgiving celebrations (or lack thereof). Their thoughts ran the gamut, as they do every year. Some talked about the food, others about cooking, and still others about the company in which they’d eaten.

But this year, perhaps because of the election, they worried particularly about what it meant to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving. Many used the language of tradition to describe the menu of turkey, stuffing, and potatoes (and some dishes that are untraditional outside of Minnesota, like lefse). Others explained their meal was “non-traditional” (pho? pumpkin soup?) and wondered if others had done likewise. Some asked if eating non-traditional foods threatened the “value” of Thanksgiving, and others wondered why their families worked so hard for traditions that, in many cases, were not their own. Several noted the particular responsibilities borne by their mothers and aunts for Thanksgiving dinner. And still others asked if new traditions would ever outpace current ones (eg, fried turkey? Men and women cooking together?)

The most moving post came from an older student who is also a new American, spending her first Thanksgiving in this country. She shared rich descriptions of her family’s (purchased) Thanksgiving foods (flaky pie crusts, the wonderful discovery of mashed potatoes, and the distinctive tastes–“sweet and salty together,” she said). She also included an addendum that explained everything she had learned about gratitude, and her plan to have these foods every year, together with her children, as they began their “fight for our American dream.”

There was a lot to digest. Their comments pointed to the tensions between the promise of immigration and the white supremacist understanding of “American” that is increasingly powerful in this country. They also confronted the gender and racial systems on which nations and nationalism are built. Many noted the centrality of gendered labor to the experience of daily life and the seeming intransigence of inequality.

Strikingly, all expressed anxiety about the future, and yet many also shared the persistence of hope. They imagined that they would celebrate other Thanksgivings and that they could find ways to make the holiday their own. They realized the ways that holidays are both prescribed but also sites of excess that cannot be fully controlled or governed—places where resistance can happen.

Together we spent the next few weeks working on these themes in discussions of the twentieth- and twenty-first century politics of hunger, the topic I’d planned to cover.

But thinking about their posts also addressed a topic that I hadn’t planned to cover: Is food important in and of itself?

In a material way, the answer is clearly “yes.” Food continues to loom large in people’s lives. There are painful material reasons for this. New threats emerge every day to already-precarious food security. My own campus is piloting a food shelf; many others have already opened these. I discovered at the end of the semester that some of my students were among those who struggled to get enough to eat every day. To be blunt, food matters because so many people in so many spaces struggle to get it.

But I also think that food matters also because so many people have thought and acted as if it mattered. Very few material objects have been the focus of so much political energy throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Debates about interior decorating, or clothing, or cars or housing certainly occurred. But these objects and the debates simply didn’t range across institutions in the way that food did.

Food figured heavily in the regulatory state that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but also in foreign policy—in terms of the direct aid the US supplied as well as the advice that surrounded that aid—cohering under the “green revolution.” Food was a prominent feature of the racially charged confrontations: it was the object used violently at lunch-counter sit-ins, and the object seized during urban insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s. And of course food emerged as a compelling hobby: it was something object that people could learn to make endlessly and laboriously in their own homes. Julia Child’s recipes were not designed simply to help her readers cook better. They were designed to help open up the world to them. Food appeared in more and more places, the more I looked and the more I taught.

In the mid and late twentieth centuries, food suddenly seemed the answer to a range of questions. People working in very different venues and often not even in conversation with each other turned to food as the key tool. Many had capacious visions of change; They often didn’t think of themselves as working primarily on food. But I am struck by how they are.

These raise the same question with which I begin. How could such hard work be worth it? Why do we keep thinking food will fix so much? Why is it worth all this effort? Why do my students generate such prose about it? It is because, I want to say, of the particular historical moment in which we find ourselves. Food, in modern US history, emerged as a charged object. It became a particularly important vehicle for power.

This remains true in the present. In a world in which large systems seem increasingly to guide everyday events, food seems still under people’s control. And in important ways, it remains under their control. However broad or narrow the choices, however dire or hopeful the circumstances, food draws out the skills and emotions of its eaters and those who would control those eaters. Food festivals as a site to craft “tolerance, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, efforts to restrict school lunches or their standards—it’s no accident that these fights over racial power, economies, and health often focus on food. In talking about food in the past and in the present, we reveal the ways these systems gained power.

Movements around food often overpromise what food can accomplish. (For instance, eating another’s food clearly doesn’t make for better immigration policy.) But they also make clear that food has a lot of work to do in the world. So do we.

Tracey Deutsch is Associate Professor of History and Imagine Chair in Art, Design and Humanities at the University of Minnesota. This post draws loosely from an earlier entry on food and teaching done for the Organization of American Historians and visible here:  http://www.processhistory.org/deutsch-taking-stock/