The sexual and culinary frustrations of summer widowers were a subject of curiosity and conversation in Finland in the first decades of the twentieth century. In stories published in Finnish newspapers and magazines, married men romanticized their days as bachelors in opposition to the constraints and responsibilities of married life. In lines such as “I wish I was still a bachelor…” these husbands expressed a longing for the days when they could still freely flirt with women. The summer widower was usually a middle-class businessman or civil servant who had to remain in the city working while his wife, children, and servants were spending the summer in the countryside. When their families fled to the countryside to avoid the stifling heat of the city, summer widowers might attempt to recapture the erotic possibility of their single days. More often, they found themselves longing for the comfort of their wives’ cooking.
Scandal erupted in a Philadelphia marketplace one Saturday morning in August 1839. Making his usual rounds to inspect the food for sale, the market clerk came upon a bench where all the butter weighed less than marked. With a flourish, he confiscated “lump after lump” before the crowds of shoppers. The butter vendor, or huckster, was an African American woman. She extended the public performance and “pounced upon the clerk like a wild cat.” After a brief tussle, she sat atop him and rubbed butter over his face, up his nose, and in his ears, inverting the familiar antebellum image of a white man pinning down a black woman to enact his carnal fantasies. Capping this reversal of racial and sexual authority, she grabbed a handful of her butter and taunted the clerk to “weigh my butter, if you can, puppy—and touch it, if you dare.” Lest the innuendo of an animalized black woman pinning down a white man obscure the moral, the Baltimore Sun newspaper columnist reporting on the event exhorted readers to watch out for swindlers.
The story almost certainly did not happen, at least not how the author told it. None of Philadelphia’s major papers carried it, but it circulated in newspapers of southern cities like Baltimore and Charleston. Hucksters—poor, often women, sometimes black—frequented streets and markets, buying unsold or second-rate food from farmers and selling it at a markup. For poorer consumers, hucksters offered a vital service. For the penny press’s middle-class audience, hucksters embodied three related threats: the transience of city life, food adulteration, and cross-class and interracial heterosociability. Connecting all three fears was promiscuity, a term that connoted not only sexual licentiousness, but also the indiscriminate and ungoverned mixing of people and things. In other words, middle-class critics viewed hucksters as crooks and sexualized threats, charges that undermined the legitimacy of huckster women and the cheap food they trafficked in.
My pedagogy has always been student-centered, participatory, and interactive. While I am excited about the possibilities of digital technology to enhance historical research and reach broader publics, I am also interested in the potential of digital media as a way to engage students. Currently, I teach at a private liberal arts university focused on undergraduate study. While I have long used in-class activities, group projects, and on-line discussion boards, last semester was the first time I considered social media as a method of classroom instruction and historical training.
Tumblr, a microblogging platform and social networking website, was my first choice and I used it to build a collective digital archive with students in my history course Gender, Race & Empire. The course was comprised of an interdisciplinary group of about 20 undergraduates from all class levels. Students learned how to grapple with empire and its effects on sexuality across historical contexts. We studied sources from the age of Orientalism, which produced images like Le charmeur de serpents, through the legacy of racism today. Tumblr allowed students to post shorter, but more frequent reflections on readings and in-class discussions. Because the site compiled posts all in one place, students could read, build on, and revisit each others’ ideas any time over the course of the semester. To ensure a constant flow of fresh material, I designed a strict posting schedule. Combined with posting guidelines, the site laid a foundation for students to begin learning how to think and work collaboratively.
Eating and reproduction are crucial biological processes that are fraught with emotional meanings, which is perhaps why the symbolic relationship between them is so significant. In The Savage Mind (1962), anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss highlights the importance of copulation and eating in the shaping of the structures through which the system of signification of a given culture is created. In Lévi-Strauss’s line of thinking, practices around food and sex do not only reflect some natural state, but they are also subject to the dominant belief system of a society.
In Mexico, food and sex have been closely tied since pre-Hispanic times, but has the logic guiding the allocation of meaning to this relationship always been the same? This essay will first look at how prior to the Spanish conquest, for Mesoamerican indigenous groups, the meanings were filled with legendary and allegorical connotations. Second, this piece will show that the Christian beliefs imposed by Spanish colonizers and the interlacing of indigenous ideas with those of the Europeans, changed those meanings for contemporary Mexican society. In sum, this case study will demonstrate that this connection between food and sex is not immutable, but rather changes its meaning over time according to the religious, political, and social context.
If any field of history provoked more dismissive reactions from the old guard at its emergence than the history of sexuality, it was the history of food. Food historians routinely begin historiographies by reviewing the insults they received from mentors and peers at the outset. Rebecca L. Spang, author of the multiple-prize-winning The Invention of the Restaurant, recalls that when she first expressed an interest in food history during her sophomore year of college, she was told “Miss Spang, this is Harvard. You can’t do Home Ec.”
1/2 To think that when I first expressed interest in food history, I was told, "Miss Spang, this is Harvard. You can't do Home Ec."
— Rebecca L. Spang (@RebeccaSpang) August 11, 2015
Times have changed. No less worthy an authority than the American Historical Association has recently sanctified the field by endorsing a Companion Guide on the theme of Food History (the coeditors of the volume are professors at Harvard, Yale, and University of the Pacific). As the reviewer for Choice Magazine put it, “Any remaining doubts about the legitimacy of food history are put to rest by this edited volume.”
Despite this new veneer of acceptance, expressing interest in both the history of food and the history of sexuality still has the power to raise eyebrows. If a historian wishes to work on the history of food, she should at least have the good taste to attach it to a more reputable field such as politics or class. A research project can barely hold up under association with two morally suspect fields. I almost feel the need to apologize when I tell people what I’m working on these days, which is why I’ve been so delighted to edit this series of essays on the history of food and sex for Notches. Several recent wonderful essays had sparked my sense that there is a community of interest in the intersections of the history of food and sexuality. I proposed the series as means to broaden this community of shared interests. The submissions expanded my sense of community far beyond what I could have expected.