Beyond the Cookbook: A Call to Bring Community into Food Studies Archives

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Malia Guyer-Stevens

Just Food Conference Proceedings 2021

I spent a year and a half working in an archival collection dedicated to food studies in a university with one of the country’s largest and most well-known food studies departments. In that time, I could count on one hand the number of times researchers utilized this archive. As the academic field of food studies grows, the traditional archival practices and what an archive offers are falling far short of its potential for use. Addressing this disparity can affect not only the field of food studies itself but the very nature of what we understand to be an institutional archive. My own research in this area has attempted to prod into the vast field of archival studies and explore methods of archival practices that may benefit the process of situating food within our academic archives. One solution that I have found are community-built archives, which are more adaptable to the many modalities through which we understand food.

Over the past few decades, the rise in food studies departments has seen a parallel rise in institutional libraries and archives acquiring and defining archives dedicated to food. Roughly this same period has seen an increase in the field of critical archival studies, in which archivists, historians, and librarians have written extensively about the injustices and systemic erasures of historically marginalized peoples and stories. While the practice of collecting and preserving of these histories and voices in the archives has historically been used as a tool of oppression, there is a growing understanding and call for the ways that archives can be a tool of liberation as well.[i]

Along with this increasing criticism of archival practices tendency to uphold hierarchical systems, there has also been significant research done on methods that not only dismantle these systems but build new ones. Scholars have shown that practices that center community members to whom the archive pertains to, such as participatory and community-built archives, are essential for building archives to address issues of systemic oppression.[ii]

Today, most food studies archival collections consist primarily, if not exclusively, of written ephemera such as cookbooks and menus. While no shortage of research demonstrates the extent to which these documents can teach us about class, gender, ethnicity, and more, there is also a widespread acknowledgment of their limitations. They may make for easy archiving, but they often only scratch the surface of the historical and cultural breadth that food and foodways embody. The focus on collecting cookbooks tends to enforce structures of racial and gendered hierarchy that exist within archives. However, this criticism is rarely addressed in the physical spaces of archives. The funding and limitations of space and resources make the necessary changes challenging to implement in existing archival collections. The current development of food studies archives offers ample ground for these critiques to be put into practice. In this way, it will provide new ways of understanding archives and how food studies as a field can utilize them. 

While we never expect archives to hold everything we need for our research, the practice of archiving – in determining which histories are told and forgotten – grants a great deal of power to archivists in determining the reach and the limitations of our research overall. However, food scholars perhaps understand these limitations more than many. We often examine food history beyond the page. The many aspects of food that our field encompasses are understood through oral histories and narratives, enacted in unwritten recipes, and even embodied in seeds, ingredients, and the taste and texture of dishes. Archiving these can present many challenges, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to try.

Understanding archives and their power seems to align more closely with the direction that food studies research is going. Archives may act as repositories of knowledge, but what is done with that knowledge, how it is picked up, used, and shared, gives it power. Therefore, how that information is collected, stored, and accessed are all integral in the potential for its power. This is not a new concept. However, it must be taken up more actively by food scholars and archivists alike, specifically by archivists and food historians who play a role in creating the archives.

My preliminary research into the breadth and limitations of food studies archives, led me to create a panel held in April 2021. This panel consisted of community leaders and scholars who created community-based archives that center on food and food justice and invited them to delve into this topic.[iii] The speakers discussed their respective archives, their process of curating, and how their archives contributed to the broader food justice work they are each doing. These ranged from websites that hold digitized documents on land rights and food sovereignty, to video documentation of recipes and accompanying stories and oral history collections.

These historians, documentarians, activists, and lawyers were archiving different aspects of food, all going beyond the cookbook, and most importantly they were all centering their communities in their methods of preservation. Community-built archives are perhaps the most common solution offered by scholars to address varying degrees of oppression and inequality that exist in traditional archival practices, and I believe the model is best suited for food studies collections moving forward. This means ensuring community members are at the center of initiating, building, and utilizing archives. Community-based, or community-built, archives work to counter the historical omission of marginalized communities from archives directly, and often from history itself. Moreover, these community-based archives often integrate participatory practice in acquiring, curating, and maintaining collections, which lends itself to rectifying harm done by archival collections that silence or marginalize communities that the archives may pertain to or ignore altogether.

In the still evolving and growing field of food studies, academics and archivists alike are particularly well-positioned for making a radical change in our archives today; both as physical and intellectual spaces. This is a call to action for scholars in food studies and archivists of food studies collections to use this opportunity, as their archives are still being formed, to go far beyond the cookbook and written ephemera to create archives that can address the full breadth of what food has to offer us in our research. To meet the dynamic, living history that food embodies, food studies archives should also aim not to be stagnant and hidden in the shelves of institutions. Rather they should become “living archives” that can be actively returned to and reevaluated overtime, as well as sites of active engagement by the community.[iv]

Taking up this challenge could potentially transform how we work in academia and how knowledge is shared more broadly. There is also the potential for institutional archives to adapt the practices more readily found in community-based archives that can make them more equitable spaces. Through integrating more communal, participatory practices, their collections may expand physically, but also intellectually. Institutions should also work to decenter themselves as repositories of knowledge and support existing community archives. This can be done through financial support or through the expansion of public programming to bring awareness to the issues being addressed in communities that food scholars often are focused on. These are broad steps, but necessary ones to examine more closely in a local context. To make this work more actively community-based would already counter the habitual hierarchies and exclusionary practices that both academic research and archival practice have fallen into.

[i] See: Michelle Caswell, Ricardo Punzalan, and T.-Kay Sangwand. “Critical Archival Studies: An Introduction.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1, no. 2 (June 27, 2017).

[ii] Michelle Caswell argues specifically for independent community-based archives as a tool to address symbolic annihilation of marginalized groups in the following article: Michelle Caswell, “Seeing Yourself in History.” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 1, 2014): 26–37.

[iii]   Lisa Hillman, Tracy Lloyed McCurty, Obden Mondésir, and Kayla Sotomil, “Feeding the Archives: Building Community Archives Around Foodways.” Panel, New York University Special Collections & Archives, New York City, April 23, 2021.

[iv] Addressing food justice through community engagement in food history archives is addressed in: Alexandrina Buchanan and Michelle Bastian, “Activating the Archive: Rethinking the Role of Traditional Archives for Local Activist Projects.” Archival Science 15, no. 4 (December 2015): 429–51. The concept of a living archive is explored in: Eric Ketelaar, “A Living Archive, Shared by Communities of Records,” in Community Archives: The Shaping of Memory, eds. Jeannette A. Bastian and Ben Alexander, (Facet, 2009), 109–32. https://doi:10.29085/9781856049047.009.

Malia Guyer-Stevens has recently received a Master’s in Food Studies from New York University. Her research interests include food sovereignty, food history, and the social and political implications of defining food as cultural heritage. She currently works in nonprofit communications and is a freelance writer.