Whether she’s sampling 200-year-old Portuguese wine, reenacting famous historical dinners, or teaching the popular Gen Ed, US World 19: American Food, A Global History, Professor Joyce E. Chaplin spends a lot of time thinking about food. FM relates. Below, we explore our shared passion.
FM: Is the United States unique in its attitude towards food?
JEC: It’s easy to see that European countries have national food cultures: There’s French food, there’s English food, there’s Scandinavian food, there’s Italian food…. The United States doesn’t have that…. The things that are distinctive about American food are, first of all, the abundance….
The other thing is variety. Travelers to the United States in the 19th century, the 20th century, even now, say “Oh my gosh, you can get everything to eat in New York City….” Other national food cultures don’t have that. So this is what we have in the United States: We’re supposed to have plenty of food, and we’re supposed to have an amazing range of selections. That’s our equivalent to having a national cuisine.
FM: How do recent trends towards locally-based, environmentally sustainable, and organic foods figure into the broader history of American cuisine?
JEC: I think there had been worries about the purity of American food and its healthfulness as early as the early 19th century—anxiety that milk delivered to cities was tainted, that some farm produce was better for you than other farm produce. There was even vegetarianism, and, for a very small group of people in the United States, even veganism…. So these have longer histories... they’re earlier versions of these common concerns.
FM: Has your research personally affected any of your eating habits?
JEC: I think because I’m interested in the history of a lot of different kinds of food, I try a lot of things that most people would not necessarily go out of their way to eat. I think that’s true of a lot of food historians. You’re just curious about stuff that you read descriptions of, and wonder “Well, how on earth did that taste?”
FM: Do you have any particularly vivid memories of trying something and being surprised?
JEC: I had a Madeira wine from 1790. That was amazing. The interesting thing is, it wouldn’t have tasted like that in 1790. It had been preserved for over 200 years. But the flavor was astonishing and just amazing. I had another old Madeira from 1802 that was almost as good. If I were to think of something that was just extraordinary that I’ve consumed, it would be that.
FM: If you had to choose a favorite American dish or culinary trend, which would you choose?
JEC: I am actually involved in recreating two historic dinners, one in New York and one here in Boston: one associated with Alexander Hamilton, and another with Thomas Jefferson….
Alexander Hamilton had… more simple and standard tastes and food. Hamilton was from the tiny island of Nevis in the West Indies and grew up very, very poor, and I wanted that represented in the menu. So I think the first dish is going to be deviled eggs, because cayenne pepper is from the West Indies, and deviled eggs would be a good thing to have. I am going to try and [adapt] a dessert for this dinner, île flottante, floating island…. You poach this very soft meringue, and you float it on a sea of custard, so it’s a little floating island. So I would like to make this big one in the shape of the island of Nevis, where he came from….
The dinner that I’m helping with about Jefferson is with the Massachusetts Historical Society, which has a big exhibit up about Jefferson now. Jefferson had really expensive taste in food and wine, so that will involve a lot of French dishes.
FM: Do your students get to taste test your assignments?
JEC: [Harvard is] paying for the food samples. That was very nice. They gave me a small budget. It just started to seem bizarre to keep talking about food and never [try it]. I can’t serve everything we talk about, but it gives us specificity at least once a week…. I’m talking and they can taste what that would mean. It’s fun.