Monday, November 22, 2010

Digging through the archives...

This post might be more appropriate for my other, now mostly-defunct, blog, but I was just re-reading my dissertation proposal from last year and was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed reading it, as a document for its own sake! I thought I'd share the first page here, in hopes of feedback or other ideas it might spur. Let me know what you think, eh? 

Few images are more evocative of rural places, of domesticity, and of a tranquil American past than that of the middle-aged white farm wife, with her hair in a bun and an apron around her waist, pouring fruit into glass jars, immersing the jars into kettles of hot water, and then, when the jars have cooled, lining them up on a cupboard shelf, neat and tidy and ready to nourish her family through the winter. 

With today’s increased interest in eating locally and in the do-it-yourself movement—exemplified by the popularity of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—this nostalgic image has re-emerged and taken on a new sheen. A New York Times article from May 2009 describes home canning in the twenty-first century as a “quasi-political act,” because many of its new practitioners see it as a way of opting out of the food industry, out of scientific modernity and technology. [1]

One of the characters depicted in this Times article, a woman who has published a canning cookbook, Eugenia Bone, exemplifies this new movement within home canning. Not only does she look very different from the housewives of yore—the article describes her as having “spent her youth in a plastic miniskirt, smoking and running between punk music shows on the Lower East Side”—but she also flouts the restrictions scientific and government regulations have placed upon home canning. She delights in a jar of tuna three years old, two years past the USDA recommendations: “The Feds wouldn’t like it…But it’s still going to make a great lunch.” This confidence Bone displays in the safety of foods processed in her own kitchen stands in stark contrast to the increasing suspicions American consumers harbor against industrially-processed foods.

These rising concerns about industrial food safety are one reason people are picking up on this renewed trend of home canning. Another reason is perhaps revealed in this rich statement Eugenia Bone makes about the meaning of her home-canned products: “The jars are like characters, with story lines that I remember…Seeing them brings back the farm where I bought that case of artichokes, or the day we picked all those cherries.” Industrially-processed foods, and especially commercial cans with their opaque containers and colorful labels, are characters without stories, without history. Or, rather, with concealed histories.  They enter our homes and our cupboards as anonymous members of enormous grocery stores displays. If they evoke memory, it is of a standard, prosaic shopping practice that almost all American consumers experience regularly. 

This project aims to uncover those concealed histories, to find the stories inside the opaque industrial can. Although some Americans may now be moving back to the practice of home canning and eating locally produced foods, it is important to understand what led Americans away from that model in the first place, over a hundred years ago. Commercially canned foods were among the earliest processed food products, and were, in many ways, a foreign way of eating for Americans. This is a story of how Americans came to view a metal can as an important element in their cupboards, how they learned to trust its unknown and unseen contents, and how an increasing reliance on processed foods affected their sense of connection to the environments around them.    

[1] Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (HarperCollins, 2007) follows the author and her family as they try to eat only locally grown foods for a full year; Julia Moskin, “Preserving Time in a Bottle (or a Jar),” The New York Times, May 27, 2009.


  1. ooh! I especially love the last paragraph. More, please. The bit about the story lines of home-canned products makes me think of this Rob Walker essay:

  2. GREAT dissertation proposal, Anna!!! Gee, I can't wait to read the whole dissertation! I'd love to read a chapter here or there if you'd ever like some comments.

  3. Thanks for advice and offers of help, friends! You'll be at the top of the list for sharing new work as it comes along...