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Beyond Local: Taste the Spirit of Montana at Lilac in Billings

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, beneath an expansive blue sky, diners can taste not just Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself. Expressed through food, the Montana identity values the land and landscape, direct communication and unpretentiousness, affordability and responsibility, and an ironclad sense of character—in ingredients, dishes, cooking technique, and people too.

Nestled in the Yellowstone River Valley beneath breathtaking sandstone cliffs, Billings is the largest city in the state, where I grew up, and home to Lilac, a restaurant that has earned local adoration and national accolades. Just a year after it opened in 2012, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Award for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

It’s not hard to see how Lilac, and its proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson, embody the best of what could be called “Montana cuisine.”


In an intimate space on historic Montana Avenue, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance, or exclusivity here. Rather, Engebretson describes Lilac’s food on the restaurant website with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Engebretson is a local himself, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, and knew since childhood he wanted to be a chef. He also knew that many restaurants fail not because of bad chefs, cooking, or food, but bad business skills. To fortify his future, Engebretson earned a degree in business with a focus on information systems and a minor in economics, while honing his culinary chops in restaurant kitchens.

Now in his early thirties, boyish looks veil a refreshing directness, a sardonic sense of humor, and an unflinching vision for good food.


Crafting Food and a Staff, from Scratch and with Soul

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index ranks Montana among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food. From late spring to mid fall, 90% of Lilac’s produce comes from within the state.

Engebretson describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.” It’s a point of view that brings together ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, cheese, and honey with wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. This year’s winter menu ranges from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip, and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli, and micro salad.

From-scratch cooking and “not cutting corners” are foundational for Engebretson. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” he says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams, and bake bread—all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.


These close quarters foster a team as comfortable in the back of the house as the front. Along with the kitchen crew, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry, and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house. Ask any server, chef, or cook at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared, or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it.

United by a craft-oriented perspective and cross-training experience, staff members at Lilac are deeply committed to good food, alongside other creative pursuits. Proud of the restaurant’s very low employee turnover, Engebretson boasts, “Our employees are dancers, painters, musicians, parents…and they work at a really great place.” In such ways, Engebretson’s definition of responsible food prioritizes issues of food labor. “I find it hypocritical,” he says, “when you are in an industry where the whole goal is to make someone happy, and you’re living a miserable life.”

Developing a Montana-Centric, Modern American Menu

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson declares, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand…I believe it should not be a privilege to eat something someone made for you from real ingredients. I very much wanted to serve people fantastic, interesting, ‘almost fancy’ food, and serve it at a price point that everyone could eat it.”

Concurrently, Engebretson says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies, and ideas that speak to us today.” The style can be expressed through hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking, and inventive flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques, and a heritage focus. Engebretson values heirloom ingredients and asserts a gastronomic inquisitiveness that extends deep into the past.

The sundry qualities of the restaurant’s culinary style manifest as rich variation on the menu, which is purposefully small, eclectic, and nimble.

The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. A complement to such an iconic and accessible mainstay, menu development is always buzzing at Lilac and growing increasingly collaborative, birthed from meetings of the entire staff. Engebretson describes these events with a ripe enthusiasm: “We have a bunch of us sitting around, tasting wine with the Internet open and a copy of The Flavor Bible and just talking about what we taste and it just goes from there.”

Development starts from untold points of inspiration, including staff travel and exploration, as well as ruminations like, “Green garlic is in season. We can get that for four weeks. Let’s make a dish out of that.” Or, “I read about how the yolk of a 63 degree egg is supposed to be sublime. Let’s make a dish focused on that.” Or, “This wine is really briny, reminds me of an olive or a tapenade. What’s a dish that would work well with this olive note?”


Above, smoked brisket from a special beer pairing menu, which Engebretson describes: “This was a straight up smoked then braised Montana brisket. We made the jus out of ALMOST burning carrots, then deglazing that with beef stock and the braising liquid from the brisket. The dumplings are a kind of pate au choux infused with cheddar, and the horseradish was just fresh grated horseradish right over the top. I remember making that jus really dark and caramel flavored, again ALMOST burned, and infused with garlic/bay traditional stuff. And then we clarified it.”

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac constantly and consistently aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness, and a strong sense of purpose.

In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. Engebretson cares deeply about quality ingredients, ethical and responsible sourcing, and from-scratch, craft cooking. He is also concerned for health and dedicated to art, soul, joy, and balance.

“At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

2515 Montana Avenue, Billings MT

All photos are courtesy of Louis Habeck, a Montana artist and the official photographer for Lilac.

Social Media Lessons for Aspiring Public Intellectuals

I attended several fascinating panels at the 2016 OAH Annual Meeting here in Providence this past weekend (check out #OAH2016 on Twitter), and also learned some very helpful lessons from “Navigating Social Media and Traditional Media,” organized and chaired by seasoned publicist Sarah Russo. (She also shared her social media knowledge at least year’s OAH on the panel, “Media Training for Historians,” which you can watch here).

Her three fellow panelists at this year’s conference were:

Here are the top five things I learned about how academics can be accessible public intellectuals on social media, which is increasingly becoming part and parcel of what we do:

I also chatted with Sarah after the panel, and she made the interesting point that we don’t necessarily need to talk about “Twitter for academics” as a separate subculture of social media with its own norms and strategies. It’s more about how we as people and professionals across various fields use social media to connect, communicate, and transform.

If you’d like to learn more about what was covered during this session, my live tweet feed is below. (Any errors of interpretation or transcription are my own.) And I’d love to hear, what are your tips and strategies for using social media?

Top Image Credit: Katherine Hysmith

Teaching Food Studies, Cookbooks & Writing

How do cookbooks speak? What stories do they tell—and whose? What do cookbooks reveal about power and how it operates? How do cookbooks communicate and construct gender?

These are some of the questions my students and I have pondered lately in our course “Food and Gender in U.S. Popular Culture” at Brown University. For our first assignment, students analyzed how cookbooks prescribe and transgress conventional gender roles. A uniquely interdisciplinary field, food studies scholarship often employs various methods, but the close reading of cookbooks is one method that approaches universality.

I’m working with a thoughtful and engaged group of 20 mostly first- and second-year students. While most had read and used cookbooks for cooking, few had previously considered them as elements of popular culture, as valuable historical evidence, as prescriptive literature that shape notions of gender, or as sources in which the so-often-silenced voices of women and people of color can be heard.

In an effort to fully scaffold and support our work with cookbooks, we first did some reading. While there are many incredible texts I could have assigned, we read from:

Then we had to learn how to read recipes, particularly how their formulas, language, instructions, meaning, and function have changed over time. A selection of apple pie recipes from the eighteenth century to the present (see slideshow below) helped us make sense of how changes in technology, cooking skill and embodied knowledge, and mass market consumption patterns influenced the way recipes were communicated and prepared.

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Armed with this new knowledge, we then set to work applying it further in a cookbook workshop. On a snowy Providence morning, I boarded the bus with about twenty-five cookbooks from my personal collection in tow. While I severely underestimated how much of an isometric bicep workout it would be to carry the books to and from the bus stop, it paid off to bring these topics to life in the classroom.

I brought in an eclectic mobile library of texts including James Beard’s sentimentally illustrated The Fireside Cook Book (1949), Julia Child’s beloved The French Chef Cookbook (1968), an autographed copy of Jean Nidetch’s Weight Watchers Program Cookbook (1973), a selection of convenience cookbooks from Betty Crocker and McCall’s, promotional cookbooks from General Foods and Ball, and even The Marlboro Cook Like a Man Cookbook, which comes laminated, born ready to take up a hot and greasy residency outdoors by the grill.

Food + Gender Class - Cookbook Workshop

Students in “Food and Gender in U.S. Popular Culture” at Brown University during a cookbook workshop. Photo by Emily Contois, posted with student permission. 

While I encouraged students to read their cookbooks cover-to-cover before writing their essays, we spent about 15 minutes perusing our texts during the workshop and pondered a set of questions, which we then discussed as a group, such as:

  • What type of cookbook is it? (e.g. community compilation, specialty e.g. “just desserts,” celebrity chef author, etc.)
  • Who is the author of this cookbook? What do we know about him/her?
  • When was this cookbook published? What about that time period might be relevant?
  • Who is the intended readership for this cookbook? (e.g. novice versus experienced cook) What do we know (and not know) about the cookbook’s readers?
  • What ingredients, forms of measurement, technology, utensils, and techniques are called for in the recipes? How do these relate to the historical context? What might they also tell us about the assumed cooking ability and class status of the cookbook’s readership?
  • What does this cookbook tell us about the identity of the author and of the reader? How are gender roles prescribed and transgressed within the text? What does this cookbook tell us about other categories of identity like race, ethnicity, class, religion, and/or region?

My aim with the workshop was twofold: to help students understand how cookbooks “speak” and to identify what within cookbooks makes for effective sources of evidence—from prescriptive narrative to individual ingredients, techniques, and equipment—considering all along the way how these texts construct gender.

Armed with our compelling evidence, we next set out to craft equally compelling arguments. Motivated by the writing conventions of professional food writing, we’re practicing the skill of “pitching” as an early step in our writing process. Taking the pitch guidelines from Render: Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly and Eater as points of inspiration, students crafted pitches using the guidelines below, which we then discussed in 15-minute one-on-one office hour appointments:

  • What is the title and author of the cookbook you’ll be writing about?
  • Why are you interested to write about this cookbook? What’s your angle? What perspective will you bring to this text?
  • How does gender come into play in your cookbook?
  • What is your draft thesis? What will you argue? What evidence will you use from your cookbook? What is your unique take on this cookbook?
  • What course readings do you anticipate using to contextualize, historicize, frame, complicate, and/or support your reading of the cookbook?

Whether due to this sequential scaffolding or the sheer brilliance of the students I’m fortunate to work with each week (or perhaps a combination of the two), I had the pleasure of reading twenty genuinely intriguing essays with well-crafted theses that examined topics like: how Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls (1957) not only prescribed gender roles, but sought to secure lifelong consumers of convenience food products; how Pierre Franey’s The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet (1979) established the figure of the gourmand on exclusionary terms along the lines of gender, race, and class; how Martha Stewart’s Entertaining (1982) reimagines and perpetuates a Victorian domestic ideology; and how Elizabeth E. Lea’s Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (1859) is predicated upon historically specific, essentialized notions of femininity that assume cooking skill and knowledge to be inherent to women. 

I quite literally can’t wait to read what these young food scholars write next.


CFP: Critical Nutrition Studies Panel at ASFS 2016

If you engage critical nutrition studies in your work, my colleague Stephanie Maroney (PhD Candidate, Cultural Studies, UC Davis) and I welcome your submissions to join our panel submission to the ASFS/AFHVS/CAFS conference to be held June 22-26, 2016 in Toronto.

The panel, “Interrogating Nutritionism and Dietary Science in Novel Food Products,” examines the discursive effects of the marketing for two novel food products: FairLife Milk (Emily) and the Human Food Bar (Stephanie). The panel explores the relationship between the cultural values that animate these advertising messages and the scientific research that supports these products.


Drawing from the field of Science and Technology Studies, critical studies of nutrition recognize and reveal the ways that scientific knowledge is not neutral, natural, or objective – rather, it is co-constituted alongside sociocultural values and beliefs. By looking at the history and politics of dietary advice, we can better explain and account for the assumptions that structure contemporary nutrition science and the marketing claims used to differentiate products in our health-centric culture.

We seek additional papers that critically examine the role of nutrition science in the production of knowledge and narratives. Papers that explore a specific food item and/or food marketing are especially welcomed, but not required. Charlotte Biltekoff, Associate Professor of American Studies and Food Science & Technology at UC Davis and author of Eating Right in America: the Cultural Politics of Food and Health, will provide commentary and moderate the session.

Email abstract (title + 250 words) and short bio (100 words) to Stephanie (srmaroney [at] and Emily (emily_contois [at] by Wednesday, January 27.

6 New Food Studies Books That I Can Stomach Reading

When I was preparing for my preliminary exams, I had a friend warn me that after reading 300-or-so texts, the thought of picking up another book would make me feel physically ill. While there were certainly moments when I literally couldn’t stand reading another word, I’m pleased to share that I not only passed my exams in November, but am still hungry for more.

I’ve been browsing the food studies titles that have come out recently, and here are six that I’m looking forward to reading:

1. Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston. Food and Femininity. New York: Bloomsbury Academic (September 2015).

2. Kima Cargill. The Psychology of Overeating: Food and the Culture of Consumerism. New York: Bloomsbury Academic (October 2015).

3. Deborah A. Harris and Patti Giuffre. Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press (May 2015).

4. Julie Parsons. Gender, Class, Food: Families, Bodies, Health. Palsgrave Macmillan. (September 2015).

5. Toni Tipton-Martin. The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. Austin: University of Texas Press. (October 2015).

6. Katharina Vester. A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities. Berkeley: UC Press. (October 2015).

What new food studies books are on your to-read list?

And if you’re looking for some inspiration, bookmark the Association for the Study of Food and Society’s “New Books in Food Studies” page, which lists books that have been submitted for review in Food, Culture & Society.



Savoring Gotham in Edward Hopper Paintings + A Star Wars Rant

I’m thrilled to have written a few entries in the newly published Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City, edited by Andrew F. Smith. As I flip through this tome—brimming with stories about Gotham’s notable foods and beverages, restaurants and bars, historical sites and events, cuisines, personalities, and brands from throughout the city’s five boroughs—one of my favorite entries so far is on Edward Hopper’s paintings of New York City food life.

Depicting at times eerily quiet moments with minimal action between human figures, Hopper’s subject matter often drew from urban sites of quotidian America life, including food spaces—modest restaurants, automats, coffee shops, and chop suey joints—which Hopper frequented often with his wife. His paintings use these culinary locales, however, to express the common themes that mark his body of work: anonymity, anxiety, pensiveness, loneliness, and isolation.

Hopper’s work critiques the promises of an abundant, fast-paced, cosmopolitan life in the big city, showing how the easy availability of food and drink at all times of the day and night might not lead to contentment. Instead, it fosters dissatisfaction and unease. More isn’t better. More might, in fact, be less…and lonely.

While others have commented on the lack of food in Hopper’s food spaces, I wonder if one of the things we can take from his paintings in our present food moment is the darkness that ensues when food loses its abilities to foster commensality, community, and joy. Some will argue that knowing where your food comes from and making ethical purchases fosters human connection that ripples throughout the food chain. Others might assert that mindfully engaging in the rituals of eating can make even a solitary cup of coffee a rich and meaningful experience.

I’m not sure what Hopper would make of our alternative food movement, but his critique is most poignant in Nighthawks (1942), a painting that despite its largely pessimistic view of “America” has become an icon of American popular culture, frequently featured, adapted, and parodied. Some maintain Hopper’s tone of loneliness and elusive satiation, while others depart from it:

In the wake of the massively anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I am also intrigued by the many Star Wars parodies of Nighthawks, including this one:


Although fortifying themselves with beverages, our favorite characters sit alone, even when seated side-by-side. Looking straight ahead or with eyes cast downward, they stare off blankly. They are tired, perhaps remorseful, a bit defeated.

Here begins my rant.

This Hopper parody perfectly encapsulates what has happened to Star Wars in the tumultuous flood of promotion that has accompanied Episode VII. I’ll preface this by saying I’m a pretty liberal scholar of American consumer culture; I don’t find it wholly controlling, stagnating, base, or constraining. I find it possesses limitless potential for consumers to make their own meaning in ways that exceed false consciousness or the intentions of big business and advertising. I’ll also add that I’m no Star Wars aficionado or geek. I didn’t grow up with it. I didn’t even see any of the films until college. That said, even I am shocked and appalled by the overt and never-ending commodification of this installment of the franchise. In acts of sinister synergy, there are product tie-ins for everything from toys and novelty items (which at least make sense) to:

  • coffee creamer (Boba Fet’s flavor is Italian sweet crème. I’m not joking.)
  • sandwiches (Didn’t you know lightsabers and footlongs pair perfectly?)
  • ice cream (Yup, you can choose between the dark side and the light side flavors.)
  • batteries (Duracell’s tie-in is actually mentioned on the film’s website for positively promoting imagination.)
  • laptop (It allows you to “unleash your inner sith” with a red backlit keyboard.)
  • jewelry (Because every kiss begins with Darth.)
  • make up (Verbatim promo for Star Wars Limited Edition Super Sizer Mascara: “Dare to discover your dark side with 400% more corner-to-corner volume.)

This might actually be the dark side, people. Look at the painting! This sort of madness murders R2-D2 and C-3PO, leaving them askew in the snow, discarded scraps of metal. This over-commodification exhausts a mythology based a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that has come to be devastatingly meaningful to fans. Star Wars as a film empire may prove timeless and universal, but its marketing potential ought to exercise some reasonable limits. To be surrounded at every turn by movie tie-ins is not to pay tribute to a significant part of cinematic culture, but to be well and truly alone, numbly staring into our drinks à la Hopper. 


Announcing the Graduate Journal of Food Studies 2.2 & the End of Food Puns

Look no further for groundbreaking scholarship, throught-provking book reviews, and stirring art from emerging scholars. The third issue of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies (volume 2, no. 2) is now live online.

The issue starts with editor-in-chief Carla Cevasco’s insightful letter, “I hate food puns,” which urges us all to refrain from foodie figurative language in an effort to bolster the intellectual foundations and popular perceptions of our field. Gone be the “food fights,” “seats at the table,” and, sigh, “food for thought.” I especially love her assertion that these phrases make food studies appear “fun” and approachable, but in the end, “Food studies should not be easy.” Our topics may be quotidian. That’s what makes them powerful and meaningful. Our conferences and events may consider eating and drinking primary. That’s experiential learning and intellectual embodiment, purposeful commensality and mindful consumption. Our work speaks to students and the public. That’s how our field will continue to expand and survive. Food studies is not a passing fad nor a field of inquiry with soft edges. As Carla argues so well, its acuity deserves accurate representation and rigorous contemplation.

This third issue of the journal answers this call, as it takes food seriously with articles addressing the 2013 EU meat scandal through analysis of the spectacular, the emergence of budget cookbooks in America, and Vermont’s alternative food systems. The issue also includes gorgeous meat landscape paintings by Eliza Murphy and ten book reviews, including mine (!) of A Cultural History of Food History in the Modern Age, edited by Amy Bentley with eleven essays from a truly all-star cast of contributors. It and this entire issue are worthy of a deep read, and we, the editorial team, hope you enjoy it.


CHAViC 2015: An Insane Asylum, on a Dinner Plate?

Five glorious days musing over fascinating eighteenth and nineteenth-century objects and texts, multiple delectable meals (including one cooked over the hearth at Old Sturbridge Village!), stimulating conversation, and umpteen new friendships and professional food studies connections. All this was the result of my incredible experience at the American Antiquarian Society in the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) seminar, “Culinary Culture: The Politics of American Foodways, 1765-1900,” which was organized and orchestrated by Nan Wolverton, CHAViC Director, and led by Nancy Siegel, Professor of Art History, Towson University.

The week’s lectures, material, and discussions were oriented around a case study assignment, in which each student chose one of seven artifacts/objects/ephemera (pictured below) to discuss in greater detail.

With such exciting options, we all agonized over which object to choose and spent the week working through questions grounded in the lives of the objects themselves, like:

  • Where did it come from?
  • Who held it, used it, or owned it?
  • Where did it live? Was it meant to be private or public?
  • Why was it made? What is its message?
  • What does it tell us about the time period in which it was produced?
  • Who would buy it?

After much flip-flopping, I finally settled my attentions on the Ridgway plate depicting the Insane Hospital, Boston, c. 1825. Drawn to the question: “Why does an image of a hospital for the mentally ill grace the bottom of this plate?”—I organized my thoughts around the plate’s production, consumption, and representation, an exercise that merged my interests in food studies, the history of medicine and public health, and everyday objects and popular culture.

John & William Ridgway, Insane Hospital, Boston, c1825, Staffordshire ceramic, 7

John & William Ridgway, Insane Hospital, Boston, c. 1825, Beauties of America series, Staffordshire ceramic, 7″ plate

To begin with the producers, John and William Ridgway were third-generation potters, who joined and later inherited their father’s business. They both visited the United States numerous times, including a trip in 1822 on which John Ridgway kept a diary of the sites he visited, many of which made their way onto Staffordshire ceramics as part of the Beauties of America series.

Items in the series would have been collectable as individual pieces that would form a culinarily rendered guidebook to notable American sites. The hospital on this plate was opened as the “Asylum for the Insane,” a division of the Massachusetts General Hospital, in October 1818, so it’s likely Ridgway saw it in person on his trip and decided to include it in the Beauties of America series. (See below several pieces from the American Antiquarian Society’s collection of the series. Make sure to check out their gorgeous online exhibition too!)

A businessman of means, Ridgway wrote of the impressive architectural achievements he toured, describing the buildings as “fine,” “large and handsome,” “beautiful,” “magnificent,” “elegant,” and “splendid,” comments indicative of his own class status and cultivated tastes. Such observations were also fitting for the Boston hospital featured on this plate. It began as Joseph Barrell’s home, which was heralded as:

The most outstanding private residence built in America during the last decade of the [eighteenth] century.

The building was also a technological and industrial feat for its heating and ventilation systems, attributes that Ridgway commented on at similar sites. Ventilation in particular was considered a central component of disease treatment and wellbeing, in part due to medical paradigms of the time and understandings of disease transmission before the acceptance of germ theory.

But as a devout Methodist, Ridgway was also particularly interested in (and critical of) the institutions he visited that traded in Benevolence: churches, hospitals, asylums for the deaf and dumb, and as we see on this plate, asylums for “lunatics.” As such institutions combined or shifted their funding mechanisms from charity to fee-based services, Ridgway was unimpressed. For example, after touring the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, he remarked,

So far as I could see, the thing wants the inspection of regular Benevolence; the people here are too much alive to getting money and these public institutions are neglected.

And so I argue that perhaps this plate’s design, and ones like it, were selected not only to feed an American market need to gaze upon and collect itself, but also because it aligned with the values and worldview of the leadership involved in its production. As an architectural achievement and a benevolent institution, this Boston hospital for the insane was deemed socially, morally, and economically valuable by John Ridgway.

For consumers, on the other hand, this plate and its design produced value for other reasons. At the time, it wasn’t unusual for citizens to visit and tour institutions like asylums for entertainment, enlightenment, and community engagement. A consumer good, the acquisition of the plate itself also placed the buyer within the trans-Atlantic consumer culture. Forged in British clay and donned with an American scene, this plate and items like it were transnational objects, located in an identity narrative connected to the old country and to the building of a new national identity.

As such, its design might have evoked place-based pride at multiple levels. For starters, the aesthetic and moral achievement of the hospital was a decidedly American beauty, one inviting a celebration of the national. It also stands as a beacon of local and regional innovation, embraced within the context of increasing sectionalism. Notably, this hospital was the first in New England and only the fourth institution for the mentally ill in all of the United States. Furthermore, the architectural significance of the estate, designed and later greatly added to by Charles Bulfinch, also stands as a local and regional achievement.

Furthermore, in the early decades when institutions like asylums were first being constructed, removing the “insane” from prisons and placing them in more comfortable and kind surroundings might have been a socio-medical innovation that more generally symbolized generous and goodly values within broader structures of the family, the community, and the state.

The rise of institutions for the insane can also be painted with a darker hue, however. Plans for this hospital recommended patient payments rather than straightforward charity. In addition, removing the “insane” from prisons and placing them in asylums likely freed individuals from sites of discipline, but not from strict surveillance.

Close up

Note the fence in the foreground of “Insane Hospital, Boston,” c. 1825

To consider representation, the plate’s design depicts these interpretations of both benevolence and control. For example, the plate’s design features a fence running through the foreground, a physical boundary to keep patients contained. Indeed, viewed through a Foucauldian lens, the plate takes on a different character, one in which the “repetitive rose and leaf medallion border” can be considered not only an embellishment and the design most visible when the plate is filled with food, but also a circular cuff that restricts and retains the plate’s central image.

The plate’s aesthetics are meaningful in other ways as well, particularly as evidence of the multistage design process. The plate’s design is noticeably modified from the artist, Abel Bowen’s (1790-1850), original drawing and then line engraving, commissioned by Ridgway (see below). The original drawing includes two additional buildings, while the plate’s illustration features only the central house of the estate. The changes to the scene allow closer detail of the center building and make it stand more majestically in the frame, as the height and space of the flanking buildings would have somewhat diminished the central figure.

And while the plate’s design features only a fence running through the foreground, the drawing includes rich foliage, as well as the banks, flowing waters, and human activities of the Charles River.

Abel Bowen's drawing of The Asylum in 1825 as depicted in Caleb Snow's History of Boston, 1825

Abel Bowen’s drawing of The Asylum in 1825 as depicted in Caleb Snow’s History of Boston, 1825

And yet, the translation between drawing and plate design is not the only interrupted conversation, as Bowen’s drawing does not include details captured in the historical record. For example, the grounds’ terraced gardens, imported, rare, fruit trees, and ornamental fish pond, which could be viewed from the house when looking toward the Charles River, which cuts through the foreground, are not captured in Bowen’s account.

Such edits, additions, and cropping reveal the dynamics between reality and representation and the multiple moments of translation that occur as landscapes make their way from the viewer’s eye to the artist’s pen to the engraving plate for mass production to the transfer process, where the hands of female workers fixed the image to a plate in Staffordshire county that would then make its way back to the land where the image itself originated.

As immortalized on the plate in 1825, the “Boston Insane Hospital” stands as a transnational icon. Within the plate’s design, the estate’s central building is situated within a tranquil landscape believed to be restorative not only for the “insane,” but for all people. In this way, perhaps yet another reason that this plate was produced, purchased, cherished, and put to use at the dinner table was the therapeutic value it provided. When not being used to actually serve food, if the owner even desired to do so, this plate might have been prominently displayed as a colorful diversion and a daily dose of refined culture and natural restoration.

These are but some of the questions and potential answers one can explore when starting with the life of the object itself, a method I practiced at this CHAViC seminar and look forward to incorporating into my scholarship—to look more closely, deeply, and thoughtfully at my evidence, so that it can speak its own story.

In closing, I cannot more highly recommend my experience at the American Antiquarian  Society. I encourage scholars to visit their astonishingly beautiful space (see below), correspond with their knowledgable and approachable curators, to visit their gorgeous reading room and engage with their incredible collections, and to apply for their seminars and short and long term fellowships.


Eating for Muscle: What This Foodie Has Learned From Her Powerlifter Husband

I don’t usually identify myself as a foodie, but compared to my husband—who trains hard and subsists upon protein shakes and loads of lean meat—you might as well consider me one.

The diets of strength athletes, bodybuilders, powerlifters, and the like are a gustatory world away from what most people eat, what the USDA would recommend, or what any food enthusiast would sanction. In my most recent Zester post, I pondered the nearly twelve years I’ve spent cooking and eating alongside this man I love, as he’s worked toward his athletic goals, boiling it down to six food rules that muscle building folks follow:

    1. Protein is king.
    2. Food is fuel.
    3. Taste is secondary.
    4. Cheating is part of the plan.
    5. Bulk is good.
    6. Meal prep is not cooking.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this dearly dedicated, but distinctly anti-foodie subculture. And as a silly supplement, here are some shots of my husband’s weekly meal prep (and his lifting).


Photo credits: Emily Contois, 2015

#phdlife: On Adopting a Dog & How Instagram Makes Academic Life Easier

We adopted an adorable pit bull rescue on Valentine’s Day and it was only a matter of time before she somehow made her way onto the blog. And believe it or not, bringing her into our family has helped my academic life in myriad ways, from minimizing study-induced back pain and loneliness to off-time full of unlimited cuddles and kisses.

Adopting a pup also means I’ve discovered the world of pet-friendly Instagram (if you’re the sort that follows doggies, she’s @raven_puppie), which is one of the most supportive communities I have ever been part of and one that makes the copious use of emojis that I’ve been desiring from everyone in my normal life. (Seriously. Why aren’t you guys texting me multi-colored hearts and snoozy faces all the time?) These doggie mamas and papas are ever present to tell my girl that she’s cute and special and that she’s part of a caring community of dogs and owners committed to animal kindness for all breeds and types, especially hers, one so often maligned.

And so, as I’ve engaged for the first time with an online community of amazing strangers, I want to find (or create!) such a place for those of us flying and slogging, skipping and trudging through the day-to-day life that is getting a doctorate or other graduate degree. Call it a waste of time, but taking a pretty photo of the day’s reading for my field exams and sharing it on Instagram makes the effort a bit easier, a tad lighter, and a modicum more fun, especially when the going gets tough. (I have to make it through five books today? What??) It transforms this scholarly labor from the world of work to the land of aesthetics, amateur art, and gentle hobby-making. It curates the words, pages, and books that I consume on a daily basis. It creates an object of inspiration and commemoration of my own design. It makes my intellectual effort material, legible, translatable and worthy of a stranger’s gaze, if not their understanding. A mental trick? Decidedly millennial silliness? Perhaps. But if it works, why not go with it?

Below is some of what I’ve started. We’re talking #shelfie, #mydesk, #phdlife, and #gradlife with overwrought arrangements (usually with the delightfully lightening Valencia filter) of books, papers, pens, laptops, coffee, and tea—and in my case, one adorable pup.

Won’t you join me?

Don’t forget the emojis!

Photo credits: Emily Contois, 2015

Conference Save the Date: Graduate Association for Food Studies, October ’15

Mark those calendars people! The Future of Food Studies, the first conference of the Graduate Association for Food Studies, will be held 23-25 October 2015, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The conference will include a keynote talk by Fabio Parasecoli, food studies scholar and coordinator of the Food Studies program at the New School, as well as graduate student panels that you won’t want to miss.

The conference theme directly engages the complexity of food studies’ status as a “burgeoning” field, as so many characterize it. With roots in the late 1980s, food studies has consistently gathered steam—as well as a critical mass of articles, dedicated monographs, professional organizations, journals, and university programs—with more opportunities surfacing each year. The conference will engage these changes, actively pondering what the future of the discipline holds, conceptually, methodologically, and publicly.

Graduate students are encouraged to submit paper and panel proposals by the CFP deadline of 31 May 2015. And I welcome everyone interested in the future of food studies to mark your calendars and plan to join us at Harvard in October. Please share widely—including this snazzy save the date with art by Noel Bielaczyc that I had so much fun designing!

GAFS Conference Save the Date


Ann Seranne: America’s #1 Expert on Blender Cookery

In 1961, Ann Seranne and Eileen Gaden, both former Gourmet Magazine editors, published The Blender Cookbook to rave reviews. Not at all gimmicky, the cookbook was heralded by Craig Claiborne as an inspired, functional, and welcome resource, penned by “probably the world’s leading authorities on what a blender will and will not do.”

Not only the nation’s top blender cookery expert, Seranne wrote more than two dozen cookbooks, published mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. A woman with dual passions, she also bred champion Yorkshire terriers—who ate very well and loved garlic. Her name also buzzed among foodies a few years ago, when Amanda Hesser revived Seranne’s 1966 rib roast of beef recipe in a “recipe redux” in the New York Times.

Read more about this lesser known cookbook author in my most recent Zester piece, “How the Blender Was Elevated to a Kitchen Staple,” and enjoy this image gallery, an ode to the humble blender.


Nika Hazelton’s 1963 Rules for Judging Cookbooks

People buy cookbooks for a variety of reasons. They look pretty on the bookshelf. Even better on the coffee table, depending on the book, a topic of culinary conspicuous consumption I discussed in a round table at the 2013 Cookbook Conference. Cookbooks can be fun to collect. Cookbooks represent skills we hope to learn or wish to have, meals we desire to eat, people we aspire to be.

For well known cookbook author and writer Nika (Standen) Hazelton, however, there was only one reason to buy a cookbook: to cook from it, damn it. [I’m not sure if she would approve of such phrasing, but one of her cookbooks was titled, I Cook As I Please, so I might not be too far off.] The author of thirty cookbooks and innumerable articles for major food newspapers and magazines, Hazelton had little patience for those who purchased cookbooks as “escapist literature.” Instead, in a 1963 article in the New York Times, she laid out in black and white exactly how one ought to judge if a cookbook was up to snuff.

Check out my article on Hazelton’s cookbook advice on Zester Daily and browse the gallery below for a mere sampling of her many cookbooks.

Announcing the Graduate Journal of Food Studies 2.1

In case you haven’t heard, the second issue of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies came out last week online and will soon make its way to the mailboxes of subscribing members! I was thrilled to have my research on trophy kitchens included in the first issue and the second issue is just as thoughtful and beautifully designed, featuring four original research articles, multiple reviews on some of the most recent food studies publications, and stellar photography.

So with this news, what should you do next?

  1. Read the Graduate Journal of Food Studies winter 2015 issue (2.1).
  2. Join the Graduate Association for Food Studies, an organization that connects graduate students with an interest in food studies, promotes their work, and provides myriad resources for publishing, networking, presenting at conferences, and more. It’ll be the best $20 you ever spend.
  3. Submit a proposal for the first edition of the biennial Graduate Food Studies Conference to be held in Boston, 23-25 October 2015. The submission deadline is 31 May 2015.
  4. Submit an article, book review, or photography/art for consideration for the Journal’s third edition. The submission deadline is 31 March 2015.
  5. Follow the Graduate Association for Food Studies on social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The featured image above dons the cover of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies winter 2015 issue. Photo credit: Brett Culbert.

Post #100: Advice for Vegemite Virgins on Australia Day

My latest Zester piece encourages Americans to try Vegemite today, on Australia Day,  the country’s national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain arrived at Sydney Cove.

If you try it, you’ll be joining a venerated group of non-Aussies who have taken the challenge:

  • Oprah tried it during her shows in Sydney, on the steps of the Opera House, no less, and claimed to like it.
  • Brad Pitt also tried it, sticking his finger boldly into the jar and tasting it from his fingertip, with diplomatic consideration for its flavor.
  •  President Barack Obama confessed in 2011 to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers—including me.
  • Niall Horan of One Direction echoed this sentiment in 2012 when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, ”Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”
  • Ten American children tasted Vegemite for the first time in a popular video that circulated last year. Vegemite failed to gain a single follower: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval.
  • Thirteen people in this GIF roundup tried Vegemite, also yielding dismal results.

To learn more about this salty spread (it’s yummy, I swear!), check out my article.

And thank you for reading this post, my one hundredth! I’ve been blogging for two and a bit years and I continue to think (and think some more) that it is an important thing for academics to do.

Photo credit: Emily Contois, 2015