Preservation: Food History for a People and for a Nation

The term ‘preservation’ itself implies the necessity of destruction. Whether intentional or not, if an item, story, or figure is not preserved in public memory, it dissolves under the forces of time. Essentially, preservation requires selection which can be either conscious or unconscious. Upheld by institutions of the rich and powerful, are preserved the rich and powerful.


Unite a Polarized Nation


In the U.S., the first methods to collect and exhibit history and culture converged under efforts to preserve and transmit American history. With preservation as a guiding tenet, museums and historical institutions sought to identify a cohesive national identity and heritage for public audiences. In her book, Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites, Michelle Moon (2015) examines efforts of historic preservation and cultural heritage spaces beginning in the nineteenth century. Spearheaded by elite women to maintain historic houses before the Civil War, preservation aimed to establish a cohesive historical narrative for a polarized nation (Moon, 10).


After the Civil War, preservation aimed to establish a cohesive historical narrative for a polarized nation


Patriotizing Historical Figures


Managed by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Mount Vernon became the nation’s first historic house and agricultural museum. This and subsequent sites defined patriotism as based on honoring figures central to the country’s origins. Preservation played the social function of identifying and illuminating the history that the rich and powerful of the nation wished to claim and 'founding' figures. Patriotism was not only inscribed into the valuing of these sites, but also the celebration of particular figures and interpretations of history.


This effort of preservation “equated patriotism and religion,” with the house as a “shrine” for honoring and worshipping the legacy of the U.S. (10). The nation became the subject of museums, rather than a private individual’s access to rare and unique ‘curiosities.’ The preservationist effort, then, was an instructive method of collection and exhibition. Preserved historic houses were intended to define for the public both American history and American identity.

Preserved historic houses were intended to define for the public both American history and American identity.

Historic houses boomed under the management of ancestral societies, like the Daughters of the American Revolution, in the late 1800s. Sites and their figures became symbols of ‘civic virtue’ in response to a country shifting in demographics with rising immigration, the Civil War, and expansion of working and middle classes with industrialization. Historical preservation was simultaneously an effort to preserve the nation’s status quo and a method of demonstrating self-reflexive civic virtue on the white affluent classes.



Food as Character


For the historic houses like Mount Vernon, food was only valuable insofar as it could be used in support of a figure’s character and position and, by extension, of the nation itself. Moon describes how “stories about food were only told if they illuminated an aspect of character, or illustrated wealth and status” (13).


"Stories about food were only told if they illuminated an aspect of character, or illustrated wealth and status"

Despite the historic houses and plantations situated as the organizing architecture for preservation, the management and interpretation of these spaces did not examine the food as profit or the foods of inhabitants. Food was not deemed important in preservationist efforts because it was not a matter that was of concern to the elite. Moon argues, “[t]he assumptions and intents, traditions and techniques of the earliest historic house interpreters profoundly shaped the way museums approached the topic of food: as a sidelight to the central story of great heroes, industrial successes, or bygone golden ages” (14).



Preserving Agrarianism


Food was an afterthought, an aspect perhaps of greatness, but not a topic worthy of its own examination.


Food was an afterthought, an aspect perhaps of greatness, but not a topic worthy of its own examination. Yet many of the notable figures included in the historic houses preservation efforts had a reputation and status in society associated with food, such as those who owned agricultural plantations. In this, though, the esteemed and virtuous agrarian figures featured were the owners of plantations and farmers rather than the individuals working the land. Food, and the people who produced it, were a means rather than an end toward the instructive purpose of historic houses.


Early preservation efforts did not recognize food and those who produced it as central to the development and transmission of American history and identity. Instead, preservation served the dual purpose of uniting an elite citizenry under a prescribed notion of patriotism and excluding marginalized groups from that same identity. Furthermore, caring for national identity was tied up in the politics of social status, shaping the intention, collection, and audience of historical spaces.


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Moon, M. (2015). Interpreting Food at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.