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home : news : national news free May 26, 2018

5/12/2018 9:12:00 AM
Harvard prof uses 1910 menu to offer insight on food history
Jennifer Gardner

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — As America has changed, so has its dinner tables.

Harvard University Professor Joyce E. Chaplin centered a lecture, "Delicious! Setting the Table for a Food Exhibit," at the University of Charleston on American food around a surviving menu from a 1910 Harvard University dinner at the Parker House restaurant.

"The menu is interesting for showing how food and eating have changed — free cigarettes for students! — but haven't changed, as with the champagne, only for those who can pay for it," Chaplin said.

Chaplin is developing an exhibit around the menu, which includes seafood cocktail to start, a mushroom soup, fish course, roast beef, salad, dessert and cheese.

Her talk used the menu to discuss food history, including changes in the basic nature of food over time, dining rituals and implements, sequence of courses served, why certain ways of eating have vanished, food and social status and the renewed interest in local food sources that once was standard.

Notable developments included on the menu — but new at the time — are lots of fresh vegetables, which were not always desirable, or available, depending on the time and place.

"Also, the inclusion of Roquefort cheese and champagne shows the legacy of 19th century development of certain French products as prestige items — not true earlier, but we certainly have equivalents today, though the French now have competition, with New England cheeses, California sparkling wine, and so on," she said.

The menu is divided into formal courses, a sharp contrast from today, as family-style eating and smaller plates are more popular.

Chaplin found the menu while teaching a course on American food in global context. She used several Harvard menus and other materials for that class, which was one of the prompts for creating the exhibit.

"The exhibit will, we think, have a central table set for this meal, with guides pointing people toward cases along the walls that will give histories of the different kinds of foods from the menu," Chaplin said. "A small room off to the side will be about the history of food preparation, also explaining the historical distinctions between the folks who have done that work but never get to sit down and eat it."

The diners at this specific dinner would have been exclusively male. However, Chaplin notes, at the time this was the most diverse group of men in Harvard's history, which seemed to include tiny increases in men of color.

Chaplin, a professor of early American history, has a Ph.D. and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and bachelor's degree from Northwestern. She is a former Fulbright Scholar who has taught at five universities on two continents, an island and a maritime studies program on the Atlantic Ocean. Her reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal.

The Humanities Council partnered with the Harvard Club of West Virginia to bring Chaplin for this lecture.

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