As a lover of food, history and cultural traditions, I was excited when my friend LaManda Joy of the Peterson Garden Project recently recommended the book: A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances.
This meticulously researched and highly visual book was the recipient of a James Beard Foundation book award, and took the world by a storm when it was published in 2003. The pages are filled with tales of immigrant survival tactics, authentic recipes, historic photos and fascinating food facts.
I couldn’t wait to learn more from the author Laura Schenone. Here’s what she told me during a recent afternoon call:
Q) Why did you decide to write this book? What surprised you most during the process?
Laura Schenone: One of the triggers was a growing realization that ordinary women’s history didn’t exist. And I thought that by going in the kitchen window – and focusing on food – I could create a new avenue to resurrect voices and tell history.
For the book, I researched for five years, and I really couldn’t believe how continuously that idea held up.
When I looked at an advertisement from 1920, where Aunt Jemima is smiling and happy to serve pancakes to Confederate soldiers, that was just amazing to me.
The examples just kept coming up again and again.
Q) How was our nation’s food influenced by Native Americans?
Laura Schenone: Actually, I’d rather focus on other aspects of the experience.
We basically robbed native people of their food, and it was a violent action to destroy their cultures so we could take their lands.
Unfortunately, it’s a consistent theme throughout history. You can obviously say that their knowledge of corn and native plants was invaluable to the early settlers, particularly in Massachusetts.
But really it’s such a sad and horrifying story that I can’t really tell it that way. What amazes me most about Native Americans, however, is that they have endured and continued to be heard.
There was this idea in the 19th century that the native people were going to be wiped out. But this simply hasn’t happened.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about food sovereignty, storytelling and native foods, read this interview with Valerie Segrest of the Muckleshoot Tribe in Washington State.
Q) I found it fascinating that home economists played such an important role in establishing a national food culture in the United States. What are your thoughts?
Laura Schenone: With home economists, there is a paradox of empowerment and oppression, which is extremely prevalent in the story of domestic economy.
On the one hand, it helped women gain influence in the world, and gave them a reason to get an education, especially when home economists made cooking more scientific. They certainly spread important public health information to people who really needed it, such as about cleanliness and preventing diseases.
Home economists gave women jobs, so they could earn money. And in the rural communities, women came together around canning in a very powerful way.
On the other hand, home economists gradually began to promote commercial products with questionable health benefits. They also created a limited role for women in public schools.
I do think that home economists have worked hard in recent years to become relevant and important. And there are a lot of wonderful home economists providing important education in this country.
Unfortunately, there was also a dark side of creating a servant’s class for immigrants with curriculum in settlement houses and Indian schools. Plus, this system created really bad American food.
Q: There was a real focus on cultural assimilation in the kitchen, wasn’t there?
Laura Schenone: There was a very Northeastern and New England bent to their approach, as if they were going to clean up all the ‘bad’ eating habits of the world. These home economists wanted to create an American culture and that was a white, Protestant culture in a Christian nation, and they associated with a diet that was a New England diet.
They had rather crazy ideas about what was healthy, because they didn’t have any science then. But they did set out to reform and convert immigrants and natives to this all-American diet, with cookbooks and cooking measurements.
These home economists wanted food to be the centerpiece of a common American culture. So they had good intentions, but the efforts were often poorly done.
Some people resisted; the Italian-Americans are notorious for resisting this diet with their own foods. And with the Native Americans, they told them to stop eating their traditional foods and stop speaking their language. So, it was an attack on their culture.
But the story of home economists has its bright spots as well. It’s just a very big and complex story.
Q) In your book, you wrote quite a bit about immigrants and their nostalgia for their native foods. Tell us about that.
Laura Schenone: When immigrants come to this country, they are always balancing the concept of assimilation and preserving their identities. The challenge for immigrants is to leave behind family, and remember foods as best they can. This is just a powerful way of keeping their identity.
But families have used this food nostalgia to help their survival too, such as creating businesses that import foods. And it continues even today. Maybe it was the Italians in the 20th century. And in the late 20th century, it was the infusion of new culinary ideas from Asia and India.
So, it’s a constant global conversation that never stays still. Nostalgia has an emotional bond for immigrants, because there has been an erasure of culture. We want to still feel connected … it’s a human condition.
I wrote about this topic in my second book, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken. I went on the hunt for a long-lost family recipe for ravioli. Along the way, I traveled from the industrial wastelands of New Jersey to the dramatically beautiful coast of Liguria, Italy.
Q) What’s up next?
Laura Schenone: In August 2017, my new book, The Dogs of Avalon: The Race To Save Animals in Peril, will be published by W.W. Norton. Stay tuned for more.
Thanks so much for your time.
Who said Mexican food was unhealthy? Learn more about the Latino/a Immigrant Paradox from the authors of Decolonize Your Diet.