Looking for the Traces

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Once upon a time, people in China started eating peanuts. Peanuts had previously been a New World food, grown exclusively in South America, but we know that they were grown near Shanghai as early as the 1570s.[1] How did these peanuts get there? Who were the men and women who started adding them to Chinese food? Who were the merchants, sailors, cooks, and travelers who made peanuts part of Chinese cuisine?

These peanut ambassadors are unknown to us, and perhaps this isn’t surprising. Most people in the history of the world remain invisible to us. They didn’t leave many written records of their lives – probably because many of them were illiterate, but also because nobody thought that they were “important” enough to write about. Studying the history of food is a way to follow the trails of breadcrumbs and discover the experiences and lives of these invisible people: slaves, housemaids, merchants, sailors, small-scale traders, witches, artisans, and craftspeople.

Thinking about the history of food means looking at materials and asking questions about the people who used them. It means reading texts very closely, and understanding the logics of things that are not explicitly stated. And, above all, it means paying attention to different kinds of knowledge that exist in this world: knowledge of the palate, actions guided by muscle memory, and traditions that were so obvious that no one bothered to spell them out.

Following old recipes means that we deliberately suspend our own judgment and culinary knowledge and try to reach out to a world that we can no longer even imagine. Our instinct is to grab the electric mixer, cut some corners, use baking soda – but we try to follow the recipes as best as possible and trust the kind of knowledge they preserve. Even when it doesn’t seem tasty to us, it’s still worth trying, if only just to discover that a terrible paste was once a desirable dessert. We need to think about the different kinds of tools, tastes, and common knowledge that people shared in the past, respect a recipe for what it is, and try to learn from it on its own terms.

This blog documents our journey as we try to follow old recipes and understand what they meant, what they created, and what can they teach us today about the experiences of invisible people. They spark our imagination because they offer a glimpse into bygone eras, into worlds at once similar and different from our own.

In many ways, this is just like collecting historical sources in the archives and interpreting them, which is what we normally do when we write history. It’s research like any other research. Except in this experiment, we also get to eat.

Grab a fork and knife, we’re about to get going…

Alma and Jordan

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[1] Pamela H. Smith, “Knowledge in Motion: Following Itineraries of Matter in the Early Modern World,” in Daniel Rogers, Bhavani Raman, Helmut Reimitz, eds., Cultures in Motion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 109-33, p. 121.



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