Theme Week: Foodscapes of Plenty and Want

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Food history is, in many ways, perfectly suited to the goals of the active historian. In part, this is because food touches nearly every aspect of our lives. We need it to survive and to maintain our health. Our identities are often profoundly wrapped up in what kinds of foods we eat – or, in the case of many major religious traditions, what we don’t eat. For most of us, food is also a key source of pleasure, pain, and anxiety. And, perhaps most importantly, it is often through food traditions that many of us connect with our family histories and ethnic identities.

Simply put, the history of how and why we eat what we eat has the capacity to speak to a surprisingly wide range of contemporary interests and concerns.


Just as importantly, though, food has the capacity to connect a wide range of historical interests and specializations that don’t always communicate well with each other. The history of a single food like – say, McCain Superfries – touches on the history of Canadian capitalism, identity, health, economics, politics, environments, culture, technology, and much more. In other words: we can  use these frozen, deep fried potatoes to have serious, important discussions about a whole range of issues.

It was with this in mind that Catherine Carstairs (University of Guelph), Kristin Burnett (Lakehead University), and myself (Ian Mosby, University of Guelph) organized the conference Foodscapes of Plenty and Want: Historical Perspectives on Food, Health and the Environment in Canada – Paysages d’abondance et de manque: Perspectives historiques sur la nourriture, la santé et l’environnement au Canada in the summer of 2013. Our original idea was to develop a direct line of communication between the history of health and medicine and the field of environmental history using food as a point of connection. But as it turned out, we managed to bring together historians (and even some non-historians) from an impressive range of specializations including rural history, economic history, English literature, and indigenous history – all of whom were able to speak to their common interest in the history of food, health, and the environment.

This week we are showcasing short summaries and podcasts of the talks presented at the Foodscapes of Plenty and Want workshop. The podcasts will cover a wide range of themes, including:

These talks offer something for both historians and non-historians. For the latter group, these individual 20 minute talks offer an accessible glimpse into the ongoing work of a range of different historians of food, health, and the environment that can be listened to on transit or in the car or going for a short walk in the snow. For historians, moreover, they offer a preview of some of the fantastic work that is being done in Canada right now and that will be featured in an upcoming special issue of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History / Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine. Our hope, though, is that these podcasts will provide both historians and the public with both some useful food for thought (sorry!) and some tools for thinking about interdisciplinary scholarship.

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