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Approaches to Teaching Food in World History

Urmi Engineer


     The topic of food has great potential for teaching world history at the undergraduate level. Courses that approach world history from the perspective of food draw students from various majors and disciplines, including the nutritional and health sciences, agricultural sciences, and environmental studies. Since most students come to the classroom already interested in food, the topic serves as a way of enticing students to study world history. In the courses designed by Candice Goucher, Jonathan Reynolds, Richard Warner, and myself, it is apparent that focusing on food serves as a means of studying complex historical developments. Food functions as a springboard for discussing global patterns and processes, including content that students might find difficult or dry, such as the African slave trade or Industrial Revolution.

     As shown in the attached syllabi, there are many ways of approaching the topic of food in world history. However, three common themes emerge. First, teaching a world history class through food requires students to study transformations in the processes of production and consumption, as a way of historicizing the development of food cultures and social aspects of food. Second, food history must be approached from a global, ecological perspective, which includes an exploration of its darker side, addressing issues such as malnutrition, food scarcity, and environmental degradation. Third, a course on food is most successful if it utilizes food in the classroom. However, the logistics create numerous challenges, and require creative ways of utilizing resources to give students the experience of cooking and eating as a supplement to their typical workload of reading, writing, and discussions.

Timespan, core themes, and approach

     Studying the history of food lends itself to global narratives and long time frames. When tracing the history of an individual food item (such as wheat, corn, sugar, or coffee), it is logical to begin with the earliest known human cultivation of the crop, then to trace its spread throughout the globe, and to analyze the diverse ways in which peoples have prepared the food and adapted it to regional cuisines. Exploring the development and transformation of cuisines provides a gateway to studying transregional histories, as knowledge about cooking, along with edibles, traveled along trade routes, spread with world religions, and grew to represent cultural and national traditions.

     All three courses include studies of specific food products, in addition to cuisines and cultures. The syllabi prepared by Goucher, Warner, and myself address the role of food over the course of human history, maintaining a chronological course structure. Alternatively, Reynolds' course, entitled "World History in a Dozen Meals," highlights food cultures through a series of meals that serve as "case studies" for studying broader themes, including "human environmental modification and exchange, the role of trade and migration in human history, the powerful influence (and yet flexibility) of identity, and the powerful nature of gendered labor roles in food production and preparation." Focusing on these themes in various regional and national contexts enables students to identify global patterns in the development of food cultures, and to engage in comparative analyses of diverse settings. Goucher's syllabus focuses on the central theme of hunger versus feasting, alongside themes of food, identity, and community. The course is strong in its use of food-related themes as a method of studying broad global processes from the evolution of homo sapiens through the present, highlighting topics such as the agricultural revolutions, the Columbian Exchange, and globalization. The courses created by Richard Warner and myself explore similar themes, focusing on global patterns and processes throughout human history, focusing on the period after 1500. Warner's course stresses the role of food as a commodity and an object of cultural production, emphasizing issues of nationalism and identity. Alongside this overarching theme, the course includes topics such as "World Hunger," "Sugar and Slavery," and "Eating Sugar." My course also highlights the role of food in global processes, such as the rise of plantation agriculture, the transatlantic slave trade, and industrialization, and emphasizes issues of ecology, health, and food justice. Teaching histories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through food can give students a solid understanding of transformations brought about by industrialization and globalization. They are able to recognize the impacts of these global developments by considering their personal food consumption patterns, compared to other contemporary and historical practices. While similar in many themes, one of the major differences in the attached syllabi was the format of the course, particularly the use of food in the classroom.

Figure 1
  Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mississippi State Extension Service Nutrition Educator Liz Esterling leads a cooking demonstration.  

Food in the classroom

     One of the most exciting aspects of teaching food history is the potential to use food in the classroom. Cooking, eating, and the social aspects of communal meals all serve to enhance students' knowledge of foodstuffs and cuisines, in an ideal context for stimulating conversation. The courses designed by Jonathan Reynolds and Richard Warner are particularly strong in this regard, as cooking and eating are built into the structure of the class. Reynolds' course is organized into weekly dinner seminars, in which the students collaborate and complete chores as partners to prepare the week's meal, working together as a menu team, a shopping team, a cooking team, while the remaining students prepare presentations and lead discussion. In order to structure discussions towards world historical issues, Reynolds requires students to focus on specific aspects of the week's meal, including its historical and contemporary setting, ecological and economic aspects, and social components. Warner's course includes instructions in cooking, as he schedules labs in his home kitchen, in which students cook in order to "learn actively about the production of food." He notes that students appreciated this feature of the class, as they were able to "link the learning process with working with their hands." In addition to cooking meals, food history courses could be enhanced by including hands-on lessons in food cultivation and processing, by engaging in activities such as gardening, preparing flour, and making cheese.

     Of course, including food in the classroom invites numerous challenges, and raises several pedagogical and logistical questions. How do the acts of cooking and eating transform the classroom experience? How best can we utilize food in the classroom? How can we avoid alienating students with dietary restrictions and food allergies? How can educators deal with financial challenges, such as large classes and lack of access to kitchens or funding for "extracurricular" activities?

     With the challenges of teaching a hybrid course, with online and face-to-face components, Candice Goucher found innovative ways to include food in the classroom, by having a chocolate tasting, a salt tasting, cooking less familiar foods for students, and having optional restaurant visits. One of the weaknesses in my syllabus was the lack of food in the classroom, as the course adhered to a somewhat conventional format of lectures and discussions. Adding food to the classroom experience, even in small ways, such as trips to farmers' markets and community gardens, or tasting simple foods in class, would certainly improve the course.

Texts and written assignments

     Since food can be related to any world historical topic or theme, there are countless readings and assignments that can help students to draw connections between food and historical change. The most innovative and engaging assignments are those that involve cooperative learning and active engagement, through cooking, eating, and discussion. Of course, these assignments are supplemented with individual intellectual work, through critical reading and writing assignments.

     Due to the growth of interest in food history in recent years, there is a wealth of scholarship that approaches the topic from various disciplinary perspectives. The interdisciplinary nature of food studies, as it connects to research on the environment, health, and disease, facilitates the use of anthropological and ecological accounts of food history. The four syllabi vary quite a bit when it comes to texts, but a few stand out as particularly common and valuable for teaching: Felipe Fernández Armesto's Near A Thousand Tables: A History of Food (The Free Press, 2002); Jeffrey Pilcher's Food in World History (Routledge, 2006); Kristen Germillion's Ancestral Appetites: Food in Prehistory (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Candice Goucher's Congotay! Congotay!; A Global History of Caribbean Food (Taylor & Francis, 2014). Additionally, seminal works by Sidney Mintz, Richard Wrangham, and Judith Carney are particularly useful supplements to global narratives. Popular academic authors such as Michael Pollan, Jared Diamond, and Marion Nestle provide engaging texts on controversial topics, likely to provoke interesting discussions. The growing scholarship on the history of cuisines offers new ways of integrating food into global narratives. For example, Rachel Laudan's Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (University of California Press, 2013) leads students to consider links between the development of cuisines with the expansion of empires. In addition to readings, numerous films address topics of food in the twentieth century, including We Feed the World (2005), Food, Inc. (2008), and The Botany of Desire (2009).

     The syllabi presented here include a good deal of written work, ranging from common writing assignments such as response papers, book reviews, and exams, in addition to more structured assignments that address global themes. For example, Reynolds' students are required to create a poster presentation on the "global history and impact of a particular food." In a similar writing assignment, my students trace the history of a particular food commodity, which serves as a window into studying world history by thinking about transformations in production and consumption patterns, along with the ecological impacts of these transformations. Framing foods as commodities, for example by tracing the histories of foodstuffs such as sugar, coffee, or chocolate, provides students with a concrete subject that serves to illustrate links between world regions, and illustrates the cultural impacts of historical processes such as migration patterns, changes in land use, and the material impacts of social and political revolutions. Warner assigns a research paper on food and nationalism, which students presented to the class. This assignment gives students a meaningful way to understand the personal and social experiences that enabled the rise of national cultures and political regimes. Goucher's course has students complete research projects on specific cuisines, with the aim of demonstrating change over time. This assignment was particularly successful in building connections between students and the local community. In 2013, some of Goucher's students partnered with the Clark County Historical Society, forming a "year-long collaboration that culminated in a museum exhibit on the region's local food history," entitled, Food for Thought: Clark County's Food History (2014–16)."

Combining Food and World History

     Using food to teach world history comes with many benefits, alongside some challenges. Overall, one can appreciate the diversity of approaches to teaching world history through the lens of food, which can emphasize topics ranging from cross-cultural exchange and the development of food cultures to the ecological and health impacts of the industrialization of the food system. Focusing on food offers students a tangible way of relating to the past. Food can be framed as a cultural artifact or global commodity. The relationship between humans and food forms the basis of understanding the complex relationship between humans and nature. Placing food at the center of a world history course offers a way of connecting cultural, social, and environmental history.

     In addition to the logistical challenges of cooking and eating in the classroom, focusing on food raises some pedagogical issues. Reynolds notes that since food history courses attract many non-majors without a solid foundation in the basic narratives and frameworks of world history, a thematically-driven course without a chronological context can leave students with a vague understanding of world historical developments. This structure leads "many students to finish the class with a jumble of facts, concepts and images that they know are related, but exactly how they came to be so and what they mean is all too often a bit on the murky side." Perhaps it is then necessary to supplement meals and discussions with lectures that provide students with the world historical context necessary to meaningfully discuss the history of food.

Urmi Engineer is an Assistant Professor of History at Murray State University. Since completing her doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she has held postdoctoral fellowships in comparative world history at Colby College and at the University of Pittsburgh's World History Center. She approaches histories of health, disease, and ecology from a global perspective. Her research focuses on disease and ecology in the Mississippi Valley, Gulf South, and Caribbean, and draws connections between the southern United States and colonial Atlantic and South Asia. She can be reached at


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