Our culinary habits help define who we are, and it’s complicated.

The food on our plates and the drinks in our cups have many stories to tell.

As an immigrant and a professor of food history, Gitanjali Shahani knows more than most people about the food on their plate.

Shahani came to the U.S. in 2000 from Mumbai, India, a city with a rich culinary history born of colonial regimes and migrant communities. Her first Thanksgiving dinner, served in Atlanta, Ga., was influenced by Southern cooking traditions. Today she lives and eats in San Francisco, where she is a professor at San Francisco State University.

Tuesday, Nov. 10, she’ll talk about what our food choices say about us in the online discussion “Recipes and Race: A Conversation on Food and History,” organized by the Washington State University Center for Arts and Humanities. In an email interview with Inland 360, she explained why personal taste preferences have little to do with it.

What led to your interest about the intersections between food and history?

Shahani: As an immigrant, I’ve always been interested in how people, ideas, stories and cuisines travel across borders in different time periods. My interest in food, specifically, was inspired by a food controversy I found in the archive (from the 16th and 17th centuries). It began in what feels like a different era. Instagram-style food porn did not exist, celebrity chefs were unheard of and the only food controversy raging in the Western media was about “freedom fries” versus french fries. I could not have then imagined the global food fads that have changed the way we eat, any more than I could have imagined the political controversies associated with #TacoTruckOnEveryCorner in the U.S. But the food controversies I started discovering were not unlike these.

They were about how to negotiate forms of culinary and cultural difference. Should women be trusted to use spices from faraway lands in the English kitchen? Would English men and women take on the racial character of those in foreign lands who had cultivated these spices? Would English children turn into racial hybrids through their consumption?

Long before the average English household encountered “an Indian,” it encountered nutmeg and pepper in pies and potions. It is in the writing about these tastes, in the culinary realm, that I saw an early conception of racial, cultural and religious difference being articulated.

Take me back through the centuries to the origins of this field of study. Is there a food it all begins with?

Shahani: One word: pepper. As Salman Rushdie once said, “From the beginning what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight clear. … They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart.”

It was for pepper that Vasco da Gama’s ships set sail from Lisbon to the Malabar Coast of the Indian subcontinent. Likewise, it was for pepper that the Dutch, the French and the English ventured east, following in the wake of the first-arrived Portuguese. They all came in pursuit of “the hot stuff,” and their appetites would irrevocably change the course of world history.

click to enlarge Gitanjali Shahani is a professor of English and food history at San Francisco State University.
Gitanjali Shahani is a professor of English and food history at San Francisco State University.

Sugar, spice, coffee and tea are major foods historians use to trace histories of race and colonialism. Is there something that all these foods have in common that can help people understand how they have shaped history?

Shahani: They are the addictions of empire! They sit innocuously on our kitchen shelves and punctuate our workday routines, as much as our celebratory rituals. But they contain violent stories of migration, enslavement and colonialism. Entire economies and ecologies have been shaped by coffee plantations and sugar plantations. They also mark some of the earliest encounters with racial and religious differences in the European imagination. Coffee as a drink, for instance, when it first made its way into English social life, was variously described as a “Moor,” a “Mahometan gruel,” a “Turkish enchantress” and a “Satanic Tipple.”

What foods do Americans consume today that are having a detrimental political, social or economic impact on other cultures or countries?

Shahani: Coffee, as Michael Pollan has pointed out, is a drug we consume every day, several times a day. Yet its tremendous economic and ecological impact doesn’t seem to alarm us to the extent that even a beef burger does.

Roughly 100 million people around the world cultivate coffee, with most receiving a paltry share in the profits associated with trading of a commodity that is almost as lucrative as oil. In addition to the poor living conditions for those who grow coffee, monocropping and sun cultivation have resulted in several millions of acres of forestland being cleared for growing the coffee bean. Think about that when you have your next cup of coffee.

The pandemic has underscored, in a more general way, how dependent our food systems are on the labor of migrant workers. As many writers have pointed out, it is an extreme and cruel irony that the people who were harvesting America’s food were deemed “essential” and “illegal,” all at once.

How does the past shape what Americans don’t eat today? For instance, many Americans highly value steak, but you won’t find organ meats like heart or liver in big box stores. What does what we don’t eat say about us?

Shahani: This is such an important question, since implicit and explicit food taboos tell us so much about a culture — what it counts as food, and what it marks as beyond the threshold of the edible.

Foods that are considered beyond the realm of the edible are often associated with the most abject of groups. Chitlins, the innards of swine that were the staple of enslaved people in the American South, are now part of soul food traditions being archived in work on the foodways of the African American community. This is true beyond the American context as well. A Dalit group in the Indian state of Bihar, the Musahars, are so called because their name means “rat eaters” in Bhojpuri. Their practice of harvesting vermin continues into the present, one of the few options they have during harvesting season as a community that remains one of the most impoverished in the country.

The histories of these foods are as important as the histories of the communities that partake of them. Equally interesting is the phenomenon by which seemingly “bizarre foods” are mainstreamed in culinary trends, like the use of offal in the nose-to-tail eating of (celebrity English chef) Fergus Henderson. The challenge of eating beyond the big box store and conquering the threshold of the seemingly inedible is what drives the recent trend for these foods.

In your work you examine how literary descriptions of food shed light on societal issues. In a recent interview you mention how this is something people can consider going into Thanksgiving. Could you talk about what descriptions of food can teach us?

Shahani: Every dish on the Thanksgiving table tells a story of the invention of an American holiday. In “This Land Is Their Land,” historian David. J Silverman has written about the fact that, until the 18th and 19th centuries, Thanksgiving was only a regional holiday celebrated in New England.

The provenance of potatoes and pies at the table is itself unclear. Pumpkin pie, as we now know, was not popularized in the Americas till the 1800s. Potatoes, an indigenous South American food, came into the global food system much later.

The all-American Thanksgiving that is the stuff of Williams Sonoma catalogs is itself a creation of 19th century women’s magazines and the celebration of domesticity popularized by writers like Sarah Josepha Hale. In the early 20th century, the idealized farmstead and its ties to the Thanksgiving dinner emerged in Norman Rockwell’s paintings.

These literary and artistic descriptions of foods teach us about the idealized and invented versions of American domesticity and plenitude that we aspire to, even though it has been far removed from the reality for many Americans across centuries.

WHAT: “Recipes and Race: A Conversation on Food and History.”

WHEN: 3-4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10.

WHERE: Online via Zoom.

OF NOTE: The event is part of the “Tasting Cultures” series organized by the Washington State University Center for Arts and Humanities and also features Professor Jennifer Park of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Find links to all discussions in the series at www.cah.wsu.edu/events-and-programing/.

“Calories & Culture” panel discussion

Noon to 1 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9

Food banks have become a valued way to support the wider community. Increasingly, however, providers are being challenged to move beyond standard fare and into food that recognizes and sustains diverse peoples. How can today’s food banks and distribution centers better identify and respond to the diverse communities in their midst? A question-and-answer session will follow the talk.

“Lost Apple Project: Histories & Social Contexts”

7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12

The so-called “apple detective,” Dave Benscoter of Chattaroy, Wash., will discuss his work on the Lost Apple Project and the cultural importance of more than 300 varieties of lost apples in the region. A question-and-answer session will follow.

“Half-Off Happy Hour”

6-7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13

Members of the Solstice Wind Quintet will present “Half-Off Happy Hour,” a short concert with art and food pairings for audiences participating from home.

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