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Subject or Signifier?: Food and the History of Early North America


Correspondence: Department of History, Adelphi University, 1 South Ave., 200 Blodgett Hall, Garden City, NY 11530, USA. Email:


When food appears in the scholarly literature on early America, it is most often as part of a discussion of other subjects. Social historians and ethnohistorians have interpreted particular foods as a defining feature of African and Native American cultures, measuring their endurance and/or assimilation with European society by reference to those foods. Social historians of gender have found the roots of larger social relationships in the daily labor necessary to produce food. Other historians have seen in staple crops or characteristic recipes a means to trace either the regional variations in British America or the convergence of those cultures into an American national identity. A final group has focused on commodities, especially tea and sugar, as the driving force behind the development of 18th-century consumer culture and norms of gentility. Food is a common thread in each of these fields of study but not, as yet, a field of its own.

More recent studies of food in early America suggest that a new phase in the scholarship is emerging, with distinct advances over these earlier approaches. Where earlier accounts interpreted food as deriving its meaning from a single discourse or stable set of symbols (gender, status, race, ethnicity, or gentility, for example), food in this newer literature is multifaceted and polyvalent. At any given place, time, and occasion, food can be a subject in its own right, a signifier with multiple connotations, or both: food is at once a biological necessity, the focus of daily life and household labor, a marker of identity, and a measure of social inequality. Given this complexity, newer literature has called into question historians' understanding of how cultures and identities are transmitted from place to place or generation to generation and has articulated a more nuanced understanding of cultural exchange and encounter. These are arguably food's greatest potential contributions to the historiography of early America and vice versa.