Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.

Art History Resources For Writers: Vintage Sewing Patterns (20th century)

Standard 1108; ©1899; Men’s and Boys’ Military Shirt.

If you’re writing about at people who lived in America (or at least, a parallel version of the United States with a similar fashion sense), in a generation or region different from your own, you might not have a clear vision of how your characters dressed. Vintage sewing patterns can tell you what the average person was wearing at the time. Different eras relied more or less on home-sewn clothes, but every generation has worn the styles depicted in sewing patterns, whether they bought off the rack or not.

Peerless 9590W; ca. 1920; Ladies’ & Misses’ Drawers.

Mass market clothing has always been inspired by the high fashion of a couple years prior, and that filters down into the everyday looks worn “today”. It used to be that finding old patterns meant scouring garage sales, or — if you’re lucky — diving deep into your local library’s collection of ephemera. Thanks to the internet, you can now find a lot of these rare pieces on the Vintage Sewing Pattern Wikia.

Hollywood 1090; ca. 1932; One-piece evening frock and short fitted jacket.

Like any other public wiki, this one is updated and maintained by a group of people who may or may not be historians, so double check whatever you glean from their archives, but with sewing patterns, it’s pretty easy to get information about the date and region right there on the package.

Butterick 4133; late 1940s; Misses’ Hostess Gown: Scalloped Midriff.

This site includes both patterns uploaded individually by folks who owned a copy, and some  Vintage Pattern Vendors who allowed their patterns to be used; the site’s About section warns against uploading copyright images.

McCall’s 3616; ©1956; Misses’ Bathing Suit and Beach Robe with or without Sleeves

Vogue 7497; ca. 1968/69; Misses Caftan.

Click on any of the images to see a larger version. All are currently available on the Vintage Sewing Pattern Wikia.

 

Art History Resources For Writers

I’ve occasionally talked about different aspects of art history here: semiotics, evolution of style, photo references, and so on. I don’t work as an art historian now, and I’m no longer pursuing a degree in that field (though I do have one and studied for another), so I’m always on the fence about how much time to devote to discussing it in this space. I think most people who read this blog are here for writing — my writing, or conversations about writing — and I’m not sure how much interest there ever was in me excitably sharing some obscure piece of history or culture that I read about this week.

But the truth is that I read non-fiction every week, in addition to fiction, and most of what I’m studying on my own is related to art history. I’ve always been a sociocultural art historian, which means I seek to understand art by  understanding the culture and context within which it was created, instead of trying to fit the art of another time and place into a framework I’m imposing. (I’m looking at you, Marxist aestheticists.) That’s part of why semiotics is an integral part of my art criticism; visual communication, including art, is an extension of linguistics, and like language, can’t be truly understood unless you know the context in which it’s spoken, and the culture of the people speaking it.

So, I think I’m going to incorporate more of that into this space. It’s a part of who I am, and that’s what you signed up for when you read my blog.

Before you go, check out these links to some previous posts that might interest you:

If you’d like me to talk about anything in particular, please leave me a comment below.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites that will explain further:

Foundational Work:

  • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
  • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
  • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
  • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.

Semiotics and Writing:

… and Advertising:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

  • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
  • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
  • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
  • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
  • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.
  • Performance Studies, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Film/Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

  • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
  • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
  • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.

bowron_renaissance_vaneyck340x247

Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)