Food for Thought: Cooking, Eating, and Drinking in Chicago
This interdisciplinary seminar will explore the history and impact of food in Chicago, from the city’s development as a center of agricultural commodity markets, through its role in the Great Migration and the culinary tradition of “soul food,” to the restaurant industry as a center of immigration activism in today’s Chicago.
Cities are shaped by people, and people are in turn shaped by the food they grow, process, cook, and consume. This course explores how Chicago’s development as a center of agricultural commodity markets left its mark on Chicago’s architecture and urban geography, how the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition introduced new foods and cuisines to eager American consumers, and how Upton Sinclair’s 1904 novel The Jungle brought the harrowing conditions in Chicago slaughterhouses to the attention of a horrified American public, leading to reforms in food safety (but not Sinclair’s hoped-for revolution in workers’ rights). Immigrants to Chicago continue to bring both their labor and their food cultures to the city, and we will consider the restaurant industry as a center of immigration activism in today’s Chicago. Chicago has also been shaped by the movement of people within the nation, and we will examine how the Great Migration of African Americans to Chicago from the rural south in the early to mid-twentieth century resulted in the culinary tradition of “soul food,” leaving a mark on the city’s restaurants and grocery stores and becoming a source of identity and debate for black activist movements. Finally, we will reflect on how food preparation intersects with gender and gender roles. Throughout the semester, we will attend to the way that ethnicity, race, class, and gender shape individuals’ relationships to food as well as the way that individual lives are remembered in archives.
The seminar will consist of two parts: a course with assigned readings, online responses, short presentations, and in-class discussions; and an individual project, with self-directed archival research that culminates in a major research paper (30-40 pages). During the first part, which will last 8 weeks, the seminar will blend archival work with experiential learning (visits to restaurants, neighborhoods, architectural landmarks, museums, and archeological sites). This first part will resemble a typical seminar at a liberal arts college, except that we will be learning about—and actively using—the library’s collections as we conduct our discussions. Our syllabus allows us to draw on the range and depth of the Newberry’s collections in a variety of areas – cookbooks, journals, World’s Fair ephemera, and the world-leading collections of records of Native American culture – while highlighting the experiences of diverse groups of people, including women, Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants to the US from Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
Throughout the seminar, through a series of scaffolded assignments, you will also begin to develop your own research projects that rely on the Newberry’s materials. The point of the seminar is to learn how to do original research, not only to navigate, but also to feel comfortable in, an archive. The second part of the course, which will last six weeks, will be fully devoted to immersion in and completion of your individual projects. Much of this period will consist of meetings with your professors and the Newberry librarians, though we will continue to meet as a group to share research findings, make presentations, receive feedback, hone interpretations, work on analytical writing, and drink up the emotional support of your comrades and instructors. This group ethos will be amplified, throughout the semester, by field trips, social occasions, and regular Newberry lectures. We are tremendously excited, and we hope that you are, too.
Associate Professor of English, Kenyon College
Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, Kenyon College